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Chinese New Year Gifts Get Creative Amid Corruption Crackdown

In the Year of the Monkey, cash-filled envelopes to officials have given way to cakes and fruit ­— some stuffed with gold or jewels.

Cities across China have gotten so congested recently that urban dwellers who usually drive are taking public transit or walking. It’s no wonder: Chinese New Year is here.

The Chinese people go on the move every year when this holiday comes around, and this year is no exception. For the Year of Monkey, which began on Sunday and ends Saturday, more than 200 million migrant workers will return to their home villages, while their bosses — business executives — will be busy giving gifts to their customers and political patrons. That tradition remains alive and well, albeit with a few twists.

Until recently, cars would pour into Beijing from the provinces with executives bearing cash to grease the palms of senior officials, whose control of licenses determines what business gets done. But since President Xi Jinping announced his anticorruption campaign in late 2012, cash presents have given way to the likes of candy and flower baskets.

“Gift giving is part of the Chinese New Year tradition,” says a businessman who asked not to be identified beyond his last name, Wang. “I use to give away red packets filled with wads of cash in the past, but in the past year or two, I just give fruit baskets.”

Since the anticorruption campaign got under way in earnest in 2013, tens of thousands of officials have faced punishment, and a few have even been executed for taking bribes. “Officials are so afraid of taking money from private sector friends that they’ve cut back almost all social activities that may present opportunities where money under the table can be arranged,” Wang continues.

They have good reason to be wary. Last year the government snared a number of so-called tigers — officials at the vice-ministerial level or above — as part of its crackdown. Zhou Yongkang, the country’s former security chief, was sentenced to life in prison last June, while Ling Jihua, a former top aide of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, is awaiting trial. The anticorruption campaign has depressed Chinese sales of luxury goods, common gift items in the past, and caused a dramatic decline in gambling revenue in Macau.

The pressures seems unlikely to abate any time soon, as Xi has called for 2016 to be a year when “nobody dares to be corrupt.”

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that corruption — though down dramatically — continues. Some gift basket shops are resorting to creative ways to help their customers please their friends in government, even as officials are more reluctant than ever to take bribes.

For example, there is talk that jewelers have teamed up with some cake shops to sell baked goods stuffed with gold ingots, and with fruit shops that jam gems into oranges.

“Officials may not openly take money any more, but they can’t refuse fruit baskets stuffed with gold,” says Wang, who added that although he did not give such expensive gifts, a few of his friends have done so. “China is a one-party state, and power is concentrated in the hands of officials,” he says. “The only way to win officials’ hearts is to put wealth into their pockets.”

If Wang and his friends are any indication of the gift-giving trend this Chinese New Year, it is clear that corruption continues to thrive in China — even as President Xi intensifies his crackdown.

Follow Allen Cheng on Twitter at @acheng87.

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