Trust and Risk Between the Gift Receiver and Gift Giver

Guanxi networks that are sustained through the gift economy have become dangerous in the context of the anti-corruption campaign, and to continue to engage in these illegal relationships implies a degree of trust. However, trust between the giver and receiver cannot be achieved by money (or capital) alone (Osburg 2013: 119). As noted above, guanxi connections are composed of a mixture of interests, affect and morality, a mixture that distinguishes them from other types of relationships (23). For example, in the relationship between gift giver and gift receiver, the gift giver is expected not only to be generous but also trustworthy (Li 2011: 13). The gift giver must choose an appropriate gift, as the gift receiver could reject inexpensive gifts and the gift should not be too expensive as this would raise the gift giver’s risk of economic loss. Thus, the gift should be proportional (7-8).

Having chosen the appropriate gift, the gift giver must adopt strategies to neutralize the venality projected by the gift in order to deliver it. The gift giver can provide the receiver with alternative reasons for acceptance. As in some cases, the gift receiver can appear to be actually doing the gift giver a favour by accepting the gift. The gift giver often chooses to deliver the gift at traditional holidays or other ritual occasions (11-13). Thus gift-giving is understood by its participants as an attempt to inject forms of value that are resistant to commodification into these relationships, thus transforming the relationship from one based on cold calculation into particularistic relationships embedded in the moral economies of sentiment (Osburg 2013: 43). As Osburg observes:

To appear to be overly calculating and greedy and focused on a short-term transition was to risk being accused of having a “poor peasant mentality.” Such behaviour was viewed as a sign of both desperation and untrustworthiness and likely to raise the suspicions of business partners and official patterns. Thus, the discourse of generosity was at the core of this relationship. (2013: 44)

The giving and receiving of a gift are fraught with risks for both parties, for example: first there is the risk of external exchange safety, which refers to detection and punishment; second there is the risk of internal exchange safety, which rises when one of the exchange parties behaves opportunistically; third there is cognitive dissonance or moral costs between the two parties (Li 2011: 15).

Thus, as soon as the gift receiver accepts a gift from the gift giver, the process of overcoming risks and cognitive dissonance is completed and a trustworthy relationship between them is thus completed. But the power relationship between the two parties is asymmetrical: first the gift receiver could face a more severe sanction than the gift giver (briber) based on the state law; second moral scrutiny is stronger for the gift receiver than the gift giver, especially if the gift giver is an official, as officials are assumed to possess moral superiority. The gift giver could be perceived as the victim of the predatory conduct of officialdom in this context; third the gift receiver would face strong cognitive dissonance; fourth there are more potential gift givers than gift receivers (16-17).

In order to minimize the risks of gift-giving for themselves, many corrupt officials abuse their power through their mistresses/lovers. Mistresses often act as the representatives for officials in secret business dealings and often accept bribes on their behalf. Thus, the mistress can enable officials to do business and engage in the work of corruption. Mistresses and lovers are not simply passive beneficiaries of ill-gotten wealth but are often active agents in the informal networks of officials (Osburg 2013: 176). The relationship between the official and the mistress/lover and the relationship between the mistress/lover and bribe giver can become triangular. Thus, officials who take their mistresses out in public are increasingly viewed as being corrupt. As one low-level official from an education department notes:

I think it will leave the largest effect on the people. To our society, some Party leaders enjoy some relatively high social status. He gives directions most of the time, and is the hard core of his group. Given his pursuit is seeking sexual pleasures, oriented to personal interests, lots of people will become more indifferent to morality and become greedier. Mentioning their mistress, they can even be shown publicly in the media to which they think it not a big deal. Why, because their moral values are in decay.

There is a common theme in officials’ explanations for corruption: it persists with the blessing and encouragement of higher levels (Smith 2009: 55). Their corrupt activities are perceived as symptoms of the moral decay of society. Thus, the moral problems of gift economies and love affairs have become connected with the legal problems of corruption. This then lays the ground for the Party to use political means to tackle moral problems in the name of corruption prevention, for example, the permeation of anticorruption initiatives in ordinary families. This connection between moral problems and legal problems also permits the Party to use legal methods to deal with supposedly moral issues, such as the Party’s discipline of extramarital affairs. We will discuss this in greater detail in Chap. 5. As a consequence, the private and public affairs of officials are grouped together in the name of corruption prevention. Everything private is politicized, while the political seeps into the private sphere, including family life.

The discourses surrounding mistresses and government officials also reveal the problematic place of sexuality in the domain of corruption (Osburg 2013: 176). There is tension between the domestic realm of responsibility and the outside world of romance and pleasure, from which official wives are mostly excluded (68). Mistresses are purported to understand the pressures faced by an official because they were part of the outside world of social relationships and deal making, unlike wives, who allegedly only understand domestic affairs (70). In this sense, mistresses sit in-between the outside and the inside domestic world of officials.

Thus, the immorality associated with mistresses, the excesses of corrupt officials and the dishonesty of entrepreneurs are increasingly viewed as symptomatic of a more general “loss of belief" in Chinese society (182). This triangular relationship is problematized, not because of the existence of these types of relationship as such but also because the private life and public role of officials become corrupted through guanxi practice. Thus, the lines between “work” and “play” can become blurred (39). Moreover, as a mistress’s knowledge of her patron’s dealings is often broader and more accurate than that of other members of his network, mistresses are also seen as “great servants in anti-corruption” (175) as potential witnesses and informants.

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