Mar 27, 2016

An announcement in January from the Communist Party’s dreaded discipline body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), dashed the spirits of many a cadre hoping to boost their meager incomes through online moonlighting.

The anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in 2012 has made it more difficult for officials to supplement their income by taking bribes or kickbacks. In an effort to boost their incomes in other ways, some, like Yang, a 28-year-old government official, had started their own online businesses. January’s announcement put an end to that.

According to a statement that appeared in “Zhongguo Jijian Jiancha Bao,” the newspaper of the CCDI, it is forbidden for party leaders and government staff to “participate in such profit-making activities as running online outlets.” While the rules are not new — government and party regulations forbid such activities and have done so for over a decade — it had recently become increasingly clear that the government would no longer turn a blind eye.

“I’m on the edge of bankruptcy,” Yang told Sixth Tone. “My entire family is counting on my salary of 2,900 yuan (about $443) per month. Without a part-time job, how can I take care of my ill father, my unemployed mother, my elderly grandmother, and my mentally ill uncle?” The official asked to be identified by his surname only to avoid detection by his employer.

Prior to the clampdown, Yang could make nearly 20,000 yuan a month — enough for his family to maintain a fairly comfortable life in his hometown, a medium-sized city in Anhui province, a poor inland region in eastern China. As an entry-level civil servant at a government bureau, Yang could generate this amount of money through running an online shop selling rice. According to Yang, earning extra money to make up for declining income is pervasive among junior-level public servants, particularly via e-commerce websites.

I’m glad to see ‘big tigers’ being taken down. But the sharp reduction in my income means I can hardly focus on my work.”

According to Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Center for Anti-Corruption Studies at Peking University, the new move to enforce rules was meant to eradicate any possible sources of corruption. “There were no clear regulations on how to manage e-commerce within the existing rules that banned profit-making activities, which may open the door for people to seek bribes,” he said.   

According to Yang, the Anhui branch of the CCDI tightened its supervision of the “profit-making activities” of local party and government leaders and servants after the January directive, and this spelled disaster for Yang. When he shut down his online shop, he lost nearly 90 percent of his monthly income. Yang pays 12,000 yuan every month for medical treatments for his father and uncle. His family of five now has to subsist on his government salary alone.

Yang changed jobs in 2011, from a local commercial bank to the local government bureau, because he thought a government position would be better paid and more prestigious. But it turned out that Yang chose the wrong time to go job-hopping.

Students wait to take the civil service examination in a test center of Hefei University of Technology, Nov. 29, 2015.  Niu Zai/IC

In the past, few people in China would have thought a party or government official of any political level would have to make extra money on the side. China’s civil servant wages are made up of three parts: a basic salary, subsidies, and a bonus, and jobs in the public sector were long seen as among the best in China, mainly for their generous benefits and guaranteed vacation days. This was still true even after China’s policymakers began overhauling the salary system for bureaucrats, mainly by reducing bonuses and subsidies. The last round of reforms took place in 2015.

Even if their salaries were low compared to some in the private sector, many officials could turn to kickbacks and bribes to augment their income. But that was before the anti-graft campaign, which put an end to many of the financial perks of working for the government.

The issue of civil servant salaries is back on the agenda again this year. So far, six provinces have expressed their intention to adjust civil servants’ salaries, but without giving specific details. It remains to be seen when a national plan for civil servant salaries will be rolled out and how it will work.  

“I think Xi is right to launch the anti-corruption campaign, and I’m glad to see ‘big tigers’ being taken down,” said Yang, referring to high-profile politicians exposed by the campaign. “But the sharp reduction in my income means I can hardly focus on my work.”

Yang and some of his colleagues had sought out new ways to earn extra money. In Yang’s case, a distant relative provided him with high-quality rice from Heilongjiang province, thousands of kilometers away in the far northeast of China. Yang sold the rice to friends and acquaintances, earning 5 percent in commission from each deal. Thanks to the Internet, Yang could make deals 24/7 using his computer or mobile phone. He even did deals during office hours, when, like a stockbroker, his eyes were glued to his computer.

Earning extra money while working on government time didn’t seem to bother Yang. “I’m just an errand boy, not a decision maker,” he said, even claiming that he could complete his government duties in just two or three hours each day. Even though Yang is a low-level civil servant, his job entails great responsibility that involves large sums of money. “Sitting at my desk, I could become a millionaire within a week if I wanted to," said  Yang. "I turned down the chance to become one because I didn’t want to be corrupt — but I also refuse to be a punching bag.”

(Header image: Delegates arrive at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to attend annual political meetings on March 11, 2016.  VCG)