To express love or to be on to a good thing
Like other holiday seasons, Spring Festival, which ended on Monday, is one of the most expensive times of the year. It is also the time when people shower relatives and friends with gifts. This is not to say that our love affair with gifts is not evident during the rest of the year.
Beijing-based China Gift Industry Research Institute estimates that we spend 800 billion yuan ($127 billion) on gifts every year. It is a lot of money, more than the GDP of some countries, such as Myanmar and Somalia, according to the 2010 statistics of the World Bank.
Chinese people give gifts on many occasions, not all of which are special. Gifts can range from something as simple as fruits to very expensive products. But Chinese avoid gifting items that could embarrass or offend the recipient. For example, they avoid giving clocks because the root of the Chinese word for clock symbolizes death and funerals.
Like most Asian people, Chinese regard giving gifts as part of their culture. It helps develop or strengthen interpersonal relationships. Often, people are invited to dinner and given gifts to build critical relationships and associations.
On the business front, our love for gifts has literally saved many luxury brands. A recent study quotes Bruno Lannes, head of Bain & Company's consumer products and retail practice in Greater China, as saying: "In less than five years, Chinese consumers have transformed from a niche emerging market to a core target for global luxury brands."
But unlike their counterparts in Japan and South Korea, many Chinese buy luxury products to give as gifts. A study of the luxury market by Bain & Company shows that Chinese consumers purchased 212 billion yuan worth of high-end products in 2011. It also shows that more than 30 percent of the luxury goods bought in 2010 and 2011 were meant to be given as gifts.
It is an open secret that building a network of connections is critical to running a successful business. But building networks also requires people to host expensive dinners, entertain guests, and give costly gifts and, sometimes, cash even before starting a business in earnest. Gifts are an important way of earning trust and gaining respect.
Usually, successful people have a network of friends, acquaintances, relatives and associates that are helpful in more ways than one. For such people, giving and getting gifts becomes even more important, all of which leads to a question some companies are not quite sure how to answer: What do you call it then: gift, grease, graft or guanxi?
Businesspeople give high-end products as "business" gifts to show their taste and status. People who receive them feel honored and obliged. No wonder, businesspeople believe gifts are a good way of keeping the wheels moving.
People born in the 1950s and 1960s are the largest group receiving such gifts. They are courted because they occupy most of the important positions in government departments at all levels.
China needs a strict anti-graft and corruption law even though it has rules prohibiting public officials from accepting expensive gifts. And the total value of gifts an official can accept should defined clearly.
It is said that 78 of the 100 bribery cases heard by Beijing Dongcheng District People's Court, Beijing Haidian District People's Court and the Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court from 2005 to 2007 were against officials accused of having accepted bribes during the Lunar New Year period.
Moreover, a new type of business is taking shape around the large number of the high-end gifts that officials dispose of for money. In Wuhan, Hubei province, for instance, some stores buy bottles of Moutai, a famous brand of Chinese liquor, for 800 yuan each and resell them for 1,200 yuan. This, by any yardstick, is a very profitable business.
Given that expensive gifts have the potential to influence officials' decisions, the government should ban them from accepting any kind of gift. If you want to express your appreciation and gratitude, a nice card will do, as long as there's nothing inside it but a note.
The author is a senior writer with China Daily.