China Briefing

Raising civil servant pay will help reduce corruption

With basic salaries as low as 2,000 yuan a month, many government workers turn to corrupt practices to earn extra cash

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 4:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

As President Xi Jinping's unprecedented anti-graft crackdown goes wider and deeper, hardly a day goes by without revelations of the behaviour of corrupt officials who have found themselves in the crosshairs of investigators.

The latest example is the detention Wei Pengyuan, the deputy head of the coal bureau at the National Energy Administration.

He was found to have kept more than 100 million yuan (HK$126 million) in cash at home and police needed 16 money-counting machines from a Beijing bank to count the stash.

Four of the machines broke down during the process, presumably because of the intensity of the workload.

As mainlanders applaud the iron-fisted clampdown on rampant corruption among officials, one unfortunate side effect is that all civil servants have been tarred with the same brush.

Indeed, there is a long-standing saying among cynical mainlanders that if 10 officials were chosen at random and arrested on corruption charges, an investigation would most likely find that one or two at most were innocent.

In the eyes of many, officials have become public enemies for supposedly doing nothing but take bribes and gain benefits for themselves.

Even so, despite acquiring such a bad name, government jobs are still the most sought after by university graduates. During the annual recruitment process, it is not uncommon for 2,000 or 3,000 applicants to compete for one job. This is particularly the case if the post is related to any government department that has ample regulatory power over lucrative industries such as energy, banking or finance.

But the fact remains that while the public focuses its attention and wrath on the scale of corruption among high-ranking officials, millions of grass-roots civil servants, particularly in the poor and less developed regions, are suffering from low pay and long working hours.

There is already anecdotal evidence suggesting many local authorities have found it increasingly difficult to recruit capable people to fill crucial but less glamorous jobs which keep the government running efficiently and provide adequate public services. Many new recruits resign not long after toiling through the bureaucracy.

Mainland civil servants are grossly underpaid. Their basic pay scales are set very low under the Communist Party's lofty principle of serving the people.

Civil servants have been forced to be creative to supplement their meagre salaries, which partly explains why local authorities often openly breach central government regulations by imposing illegal levies and fines on businesses and the movements of people and goods. Many abuse their positions for their own benefit, including using government vehicles for personal reasons or turning to other forms of corruption.

In the 1990s, the mainland leadership briefly toyed with the idea of learning from Hong Kong and Singapore by greatly increasing the salaries of civil servants to reduce graft, but it was discarded after the realisation that the government could not afford it.

One simple fact is that civil servants were not given any pay rise during the decade when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were in power. This was the period when the problem of official corruption seriously worsened. Since Xi came to power in late 2012, he has staked his leadership on fighting corruption and has achieved significant progress. The forceful and effective campaign has threatened to shut down most of the avenues which civil servants use to supplement their salaries.

Earlier this year, salary slips of civil servants in Lengshuijiang in Hunan province were leaked on the internet. Basic monthly salaries ranged from 2,000 yuan to 4,000 yuan, lower than the average pay of migrant workers.

As the government tightens the screws to crush corruption among top officials, it is time for it to consider raising salaries for low-level civil servants.