Whenever the subject of doing business in China is mentioned, so are bribes. There is no denying that “bribes” are still a part of daily life in many aspects of doing business in China. It is so common that it is rarely even thought of as being wrong. Paying bribes is common sense in today’s China, and trying to do things “the right way” is often just seen as going against common sense and displaying your ignorance of how things get done when you are trying to get something done. It might be better to think of the bribes more as just “the expense of doing business” or a “fee” to get something done.

These bribes can be divided into two main categories: “good bribes” and “bad bribes”. Let me talk a little about that first.

● Good bribes

A good bribe is when you pay somebody to do something they should be doing anyway. It is a little grease to speed things up, which may take much longer than necessary without it. For example, when applying for a visa renewal, the person at the desk can make the process much more complicated and painful than it really needs to be. They can ask for documents that aren’t listed as being required in the regulations, they can interpret the regulations to mean that you have written something incorrectly and need to rewrite the entire document; these “corrections” can go on forever. However, without that persons stamp on your application you can’t proceed to the next stage of the process. Even though you are just trying to do the right thing the right way, for some reason it always seems to take far more time and energy that it is supposed to. In times like this, and there are many of them, giving the person at the desk a small “gift” can suddenly speed things up and make all those small problems go away. The result is just that your application proceeds according to the rules, you save a lot of time, and nobody has broken any laws. That gift (bribe) means that your application goes much quicker and smoother. This is so common at city halls, banks, police stations, hospitals, that it is no more than common sense.

In some cases, instead of giving a gift, you can just have “a friend” make a telephone call for you. This too can make all the problems go away and bring your application to the top of the pile. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that having somebody make that phone call will end up being any less expensive than the gift would have been. It’s much more complicated than that. (More about that another time . . .)

Bad bribes

On the other hand, a bad bribe is where you pay somebody to do something they shouldn’t do. For example, you might want somebody to overlook a small infraction of rule, or you might want somebody to break a rule for you. These kinds of bribe are less common than the good bribes, but are usually more expensive and much more dangerous.

You should never be the one to suggest such a bad bribe. If you bring up the idea, you could get arrested and that would just lead to more bribes! If the other person brings up the possibility of something getting done if you were to do something for them or give them a gift, you should think carefully about it. Whenever possible, consult a local friend before even agreeing to the idea, as there have been many cases where people have found themselves in a lot of trouble trying to bribe the wrong person.

How to know if it is a “good” or “bad” bribe

This is quite simple. For example, if you are trying to get something through customs, but are running into lots of paperwork and questions, and then you are told that all can be fixed for a certain price. All you need to do is ask yourself whether or not those goods should be allowed through customs.

If there is no real reason for the customs officer to be delaying your shipment, and you are just being made to go through lots of extra time-consuming hoops, then the chances are that it is a good bribe that is being proposed. On the other hand, if you know that the goods really shouldn’t get through customs, but you can get them through for a price, then there is little doubt that this is a bad bribe.

How to pay a bribe

There are many ways that these gifts are given in China. Though it may seem obvious, it is important to remember that nobody is going to give you a receipt for a bribe and, even if they did, you couldn’t use it as a company expense. Also, if you are seen giving, or the official is seen receiving cash, things can get ugly and complicated very quickly.

So, instead of giving cash, it is now very common to give prepaid cards to charge mobile phones, or gift certificates that can be used in local department stores. Everybody has a mobile phone and these prepaid cards can be used to charge any phone. The department store gift certificates, especially those for Japanese stores, have a certain social status attached to them. In addition to avoiding handling cash, there is another advantage of using these two items as gifts: when you purchase them, you are issued with an official receipt so the purchase can be written off as a company expense.

However, before you start criticizing these practices in today’s China, think back to how things were in Japan and other countries soon after the Second World War. In Japan, the same character used to write bribe was often read in another way and was used to mean a “gift given to show appreciation”. Vouchers that could be used to buy rice were a very common gift in the years after the war in Japan. I don’t think anybody would try and claim that bribes are no longer given in any society; it is just that the form of the bribes and the ways they are paid have changed with the times.

When in China, do as the Chinese do!