Bribe or gift: Where to draw the line for Tết

January 17, 2019 - 10:00

Tết gifts are an age-old tradition in Việt Nam, affording people the chance to pay visits to their seniors to wish them (and themselves) all the best for the New Year.

By Hồng Minh

Looking out from my office window, the lunar year festive season is in the air. It can be felt from the drizzle, chill and crowded streets down below.

This is the time for offering Tết (Lunar New Year) gifts, which has junior staff worrying about what to buy their bosses in order to, for want of a better term, curry favour.

Tết gifts are an age-old tradition in Việt Nam, affording people the chance to pay visits to their seniors to wish them (and themselves) all the best for the New Year.

But when these gifts, especially those given to senior officials, hold ulterior motives, they becomes a fine line between a present and blatant bribery.  

During an online year-end meeting, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc reiterated the fact that junior government officials and local authorities should not offer gifts to their superiors or central Government authorities for Tết.

Following Phúc’s decree on the preparations for the upcoming Year of the Pig, officials have been ordered to focus on ensuring everyone enjoys a prosperous and cosy Tết.

“I’ve asked ministers and leaders of local people’s committees to make sure their staff are fully aware of the importance of caring for the people over Tết, instead of just giving gifts to their superiors,” Phúc said at the meeting.

The Government leader has issued similar instructions in the past, showing an indication of his resolve to eliminate ‘gifts’ to big bosses during the country’s biggest and most important festival.

Just yesterday, Hà Nội’s People’s Committee instructed all units to follow the PM’s instructions and put a stop to Tết gifts for bosses in any form.

Similar messages from the Government, the supreme Politburo and Party Committee Secretariat have been widely welcomed by the public, and why not? Thinking about it logically, where would the money for these so-called gifts come from anyway?

Enterprises would have to take it out of their own budgets, so would that be a genuine token of love and respect for officials? Or would it be worth a fortune traded for connections and favours?

In the case of localities giving gifts to central Government officials, surely that money comes straight out of the tax payers’ pockets. Is it really fair to be using money designated for basic infrastructure for such purposes?

Tết gifts of this kind should be labelled as what they really are – bribery and corruption. Neither the giver nor recipient wants to reveal what is actually wrapped inside. US Supreme Court Judge Noonan was once quoted as saying ‘a gift can be disclosed, a bribe needs to be concealed’.

It is clear to see that in order to prevent bribery and corruption, officials from central and local governments - the main recipients – need to set an example.

In October 2018, the Party Central Committee issued Regulation 08 which clearly stated: “Politburo members, Party Committee members and members of the Central Executive Committee must be strict with themselves and resolutely not ‘give gifts or receive gifts for self-interest’, and not ‘take advantage of enterprises or let businesses take advantage of them for their benefit’.”

More than anyone else, high-ranking officials should understand receiving Tết gifts is a form of bribery and should be dealt with as corruption.

Such violations should be dealt with under criminal liability for accepting bribes involving money, property or other material interests valued at VNĐ2 million or more.

In addition, measures should also be taken to supervise the under-the-table gift-giving season.

Reports from localities, ministries and sectors sent to the Government Inspectorate from 2016-18 claimed no such violations had been reported. However, last Tết, when the Anti-Corruption Bureau under the Government Inspectorate launched hotlines to receive reports about illegal Tết gifts, 50 calls were recorded.

Tết gifts are not bad things. But when they come with vaguely hidden intentions, they must be treated as bribes. Officials who ignore this fact should be the first to face the music. — VNS