Tea Leaf Nation

Party Foul

Being a Chinese bureaucrat isn't as fun as it used to be.

On Jan. 31, China will celebrate the first day of the year of the horse. Perhaps it should also be the year of the skinflint.

The results of a survey by respected liberal newspaper Beijing News, released Jan. 9, suggest that an ongoing crackdown on official corruption has fundamentally altered the lives of Chinese bureaucrats, who are generally resented for enjoying what the populace still reckons to be a perk-packed, graft-laden, booze-and-shark-fin-soup-filled existence. The clampdown, which began in January of last year, has been ambitious: Directives released by the ruling Communist Party have included prohibitions on using public funds to purchase fireworks or print greeting cards, while a December 2013 rule even orders officials not to smoke in public. Somewhat surprisingly, they've been effective: Of the 100 public servants surveyed by the newspaper, a group hailing from different geographic areas and different stations in the Communist hierarchy, 96 percent said they felt the strictures were "truly serious." 

The new rules appear to have hit cadres' pocketbooks the hardest. Among those surveyed, 92 percent said their "income from outside of work" fell over the past year. Some of this income likely includes cigarettes, alcohol, and store cards -- 79 percent of respondents said they had received gifts in years past, but took nothing in 2013. Life's no easier for those on the giving side, who used to lean on a grey economy of nonperishable goods in lieu of cash to grease the proverbial skids. An anonymous "public relations" employee at a Beijing commercial bank told the paper that before 2013, she would visit the homes of state-owned company managers and hand them 2,000 RMB (roughly $330) gift cards "every time," totaling over $1,600 per person per year. But in 2013, the paper writes, she found herself routinely turned away. "I used to think we had long-running friendships ... but I've discovered that wasn't the case."

It's likely, of course, that respondents wary of exposure didn't share their true feelings, even in an anonymous survey with a reputable outlet. But some cadres did not flinch from depicting past excesses, sounding almost relieved to be free of the demands they entailed. One anonymous official, whom the Beijing News called Xu, said it was "getting worse and worse" to be a bureaucrat, with regulation "increasingly tight." Xu described how a given week used to include about four nights of alcohol-soaked banqueting, enough to make mincemeat of Xu's liver. Now that Xu often goes home after work to be with family, that organ, he says, "is slowly recovering."

Another pseudonymous government worker, Chen, described co-workers as deeply fearful of even the appearance of anything that could land them in party disciplinarians' crosshairs. That includes Chen, who now abjures the once-ubiquitous gift card and finds life "simpler" now. But "simple is fine," Chen continued; "at least I feel at ease."

Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Blame It on the Booze

In China, some lawyers and police still think drunkenness -- even condom-wearing -- excuses rape.

A 19-year-old woman in Shangli, a small county in southeastern China's Jiangxi province, died on Jan. 2 after being gang raped by five men. While the suspects were quickly apprehended and later confessed to the crime, the purported cause of death has unleashed a storm of debate online: According to the local police department, the woman died of alcohol intoxication

Though the investigation is ongoing, the initial police statement circulated widely online the morning of Jan. 8, with many web users casting doubt on the police's claim. "She was living just fine and then died right after being raped. Coincidence?" asked one user on Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like microblog. "Could she have really just died from alcohol?" 

The incident has underscored a continuing debate over sexual assault in China, where rape goes widely underreported, and money and connections are often used to escape legal penalties for sexual crimes.

One seeming exception proved the unfortunate rule: In late December, human rights lawyers celebrated when Li Tianyi, the 17-year-old son of a famous Chinese military general, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of gang raping a woman in Beijing. Though three of Li's accomplices confessed in exchange for reduced sentences, Li maintained his innocence throughout the trial, with his lawyers repeatedly bringing up the fact that the victim was a "bar girl," a Chinese term for a woman employed by bars or nightclubs to consort with male patrons. 

At the time, well-known law professor Yi Yanyou of Tsinghua University, one of China's most renowned universities, caused an uproar on Sina Weibo when he implied that the victim's status as a woman of the night made Li's crime less pernicious, writing, "Raping a chaste woman is more harmful than raping a bar girl, a dancing girl, an escort or a prostitute." Professor Yi later apologized for his remarks, but he retains his position at Tsinghua University, where he is director of the school's research center on evidence law. 

In 2011, an incident in southern Guizhou province garnered further attention to the debate over rape and attitudes towards women. After a teacher in Ashi village levied accusations of rape against the local land-bureau chief, the police commander reportedly told her, "If he wears a condom, it isn't considered rape." Only two months later, after the victim wrote a poignant appeal for help and a Chinese newpaper picked it up, did the local police take action and arrest the culprit. 

In a country of roughly 1.4 billion, fewer than 32,000 cases of rape were reported in China in 2007, the latest year for which such statistics were released. The actual figure likely considerably higher: In a September 2013 report jointly conducted by four U.N. organizations and programs, 22.2 percent of 998 Chinese male respondents said that they had raped a woman, including a partner, while 2.2 percent admitted to having taken part in gang rape. 

AFP/Getty Images