For officials, the colour of money is too often grey

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am


The pocketing of 'grey' income has become a de-facto form of bribe-taking in China.

It happens at all levels of government, and it's often hard to identify as it is sometimes masked as 'overtime pay' or 'bonuses'.

That appears to be the case in a recent incident in Guangzhou that has officials fuming and even speaking to the media, albeit without using their real names, about how they felt slighted that they were asked to return the hefty sums paid to them.

Civil servants who had received money under the guise of overtime pay and bonuses during the past two years were recently asked to return the money, as Beijing's anti-graft watchdogs paid a visit to the southern city and examined pay records.

An angry officer with the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau who refused to be identified said the notice to return the money came on May 16, and it ordered that the money be repaid in cash to a designated bank account by May 23.

'I need to return 50,000 yuan (HK$60,500) and it can't be deducted from my pay cheque,' the officer said. The 50,000 yuan was given to the officer and others as overtime pay for working during the Asian Games in December.

Further explaining why they are so angry, the officer said this was the second time bonuses had been ordered returned. 'On April 28, I was told to return 38,000 yuan by May 4th. This was our bonus given out in December 2009,' he said. 'I'd already spent all of the 50,000 yuan during Lunar New Year. Where am I going to find extra money to cover this? I think I would be better off robbing a bank.'

Late last month, local media reported that the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had inspected subsidies paid to cadres in six of Guangzhou's government departments, including those responsible for public security, industry and commerce, education and public health. The reports cited officials as saying that their annual income had been reduced by 40,000 to 50,000 yuan since April.

Their confessions were quickly condemned, as the civil servants were complaining about having to return money to which they were not entitled in the first place. These off-the-books payments may look legitimate, and even have leaders' approval, but they are nothing but ways to embezzle public money. It is unacceptable for a public servant to be paid overtime equivalent to more than six months' pay.

In general, besides high salaries and generous perks which include housing and cars, officials have various ways to embezzle public money and take bribes. That's where grey income comes in, and it is doled out systematically across the mainland. Grey income covers a broad spectrum of income, from non-salary benefits to bribes.

For the officers in Guangzhou, it refers to money dished out to police for taking extra shifts during the Asian Games, as well as to annual bonuses paid the previous year.

Changes were made in 1993 to the way public servants are paid. The central government told district governments to provide subsidies to public servants subject to the financial position of each administration. But it never issued detailed guidelines as to how much should be dished out and under what circumstances. The fabrication of excuses for paying subsidies is common. By one local scholar's estimations, more than 300 different subsidies are paid out. They include 'organisation income' and a 'social security inspection award'.

To crack down on the corrupt practice, a new policy was implemented in 2006 to make the pay of public servants more transparent. But despite a clear undertaking to enforce the policy, the effort has fallen short, with the results of inspection that uncovered the payment of excessive subsidies rarely, if ever, made public.

At the end of last month, the central disciplinary committee and key government ministries released a notice on public servants' subsidies which required local administrations across the mainland to list in detail the subsidies dished out to officials.

Putting public servants' pay on the record is a good start, but the policy is nowhere near as good as it's made out to be. It is vital to cross-check how much money has been paid out as civil servant subsidies, but the scope for inspections remains limited. This is because the mainland lacks an independent inspectorate to carry out the unbiased and thorough checks required to keep things straight and to penalise wrong-doers.

Moreover, the subsidies public servants are due should be clearly defined. It should be set out whether a subsidy is capped at a certain amount or based on a recipient's seniority or working hours.

Last but not the least, pay records should be made available to the public by posting them online, since the public has a right to know how their hard-earned money is being doled out to civil servants.