Brown Envelopes: What is it a Gift or a Bribe?

Is it a gift or a bribe? Anthropologists have found that gifts create two kinds of relationships: those between equals and those that establish subordination.

The “poison in the gift,” is a term used when one accepts gifts at the cost of subordination.

If a politician lacks the means to reciprocate the gift as an equal how else can they  return the favour? Whether the expectation of a return ‘favour’ is ever articulated as a “quid pro quo” is beside the point. The gifts don’t have to be expensive.

Gifting the media:

Malcolm Moore, a Daily Telegraph journalist, tweeted out a media event in China held by  New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, which was trying to patch up a report of a botulism threat from dirty pipes. Fonterra was eager to calm fears so people in China would continue to buy their expensive milk, especially after the 2008 Sanlu poisoning disaster in which hundreds of babies in China drank toxic milk.

Moore tweeted that brown envelopes were given to Chinese journalists but apparently not to the Western reporters:

Fonterra handing out brown envelopes of cash to Chinese journalists, a “media allowance”. Common practice here, but…—    malcolmmoore (@MalcolmMoore) August 05, 2013

Fonterra PR says she wasn’t aware of the brown envelopes of cash, frowns and declines to comment.—    malcolmmoore (@MalcolmMoore) August 05, 2013

The amount of cash would not have been significant. It would have been enough to cover the cost of travel and maybe lunch. Shanghai Daily journalists disclosed that this is a common practice in China, particularly in covering business events and the inference of gift giving in such a context ensures favourable publicity.

Gift giving is a Chinese custom and, unlike in the West, cash is an acceptable gift.  In a business networking context, the line between giving gifts and bribery is a blurred one. Many foreign companies working in China have an official no cash gifts policy – either receiving or giving.

Gifts are given in all cultures, and to a remarkably similar effect. As every graduate student in anthropology learns, gifts by their nature create social ties and a sense of reciprocal obligation.

It is a given that politics in Canada is awash in gifts from donors who expect something in return. If that something were spelled out too clearly, it would invite a legal problem. It would also drain gifts of their magic, which lies in their ability to compel an expectation of return without specifying exactly how the return should be made.

Canadian journalists may not receive brown envelopes of cash, but that could be explained because corporations here own the media and therefore bigger packages are required.  The lack of specificity in the act of gifting allows politicians and media to say they are not being bribed, while the undeniable power of the gift enables the donor to buy loyalty.

In this grey area between the bribe and the gift, corruption runs rampant.

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