The moral dilemma of the little red packets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2008, 12:00am

The revelation early this month that up to 28 reporters from 23 media outlets had received 'red packets', which mine managers handed to reporters to buy silence about a mine blast in Shanxi in July triggered national uproar.

But journalists on the mainland are all too familiar with the practice.

Typically, newsmakers put several hundred yuan in cash into each red envelope, and distribute them to those who attend press briefings.

A more subtle practice is to issue an electronic travel card that contains several hundred yuan, which pays for the journalists' travel expenses. The payment is justified as a transport subsidy. In reality, it is given to ensure attendance and coverage - positive coverage if possible.

Most mainland media outlets allow their reporters to pocket the money so that they do not have to foot the bill for their employees' transport.

The practice is so prevalent that the red packet sum has become part of the journalist's monthly income.

Hong Kong and overseas public relations people complain privately about this practice whenever they have to organise events on the mainland. But they still comply, worried that if they refuse, their events will fail to attract coverage. Journalists are not the only group of professionals who receive red packets. Teachers, who many believe hold the key to school enrolments, also frequently receive them. Patients and pharmaceutical company salespeople give red packets to doctors. Patients believe that by paying extra to the doctors, they will receive better treatment; and salespeople want the doctors to prescribe the medicine they sell.

Samson Cho Sum-sing, a Hongkonger who practises medicine in Shanghai, has been trapped in the moral dilemma of red packets.

'Actually, the money is not going to affect how we treat our patients. But rejecting them will result in making the patient uncomfortable, thinking we will not do our best to cure and save his life.'

Dr Cho said he was once loudly criticised by a patient for rejecting his red packet, accusing the doctor of looking down on him.

In the latest development, mainland judicial authorities said yesterday that doctors and teachers were subject to commercial bribery laws.

'It is good news if they are definite on its implementation,' Dr Cho said. 'Otherwise, I don't see how they are going to change the culture, so it is not going to change the fact that I have to reject red packets.'