The outgoing leader of China, Hu Jintao, has made fighting corruption one of the centerpieces of his party’s agenda. Perhaps because of that, my corruption antennae were working overtime while I was in China.
In Beijing, it seemed like our tour guide was perhaps a little corrupt. For example, we attended an acrobatic show one night. Included in the tour package were regular tickets to the show. There were also two more expensive classes of tickets available, we were told, that would afford a better view. The difference in price was not that great – maybe an extra $10 per person for the best tickets, and $5 more for intermediate tickets. We gave the tour guide the extra $10 per person and told him to upgrade us to the most expensive tickets. Our seats were indeed not bad, roughly the twentieth row of a theater that had perhaps 60 rows. The back of chair was emblazoned with the letters “VIP.” But here is the thing: almost every seat in rows 16 to 20 was filled. Rows 3 to 15 were completely empty (as were rows 40-60…it was not a big crowd on hand). Rows 1 and 2 were completely full. The only logical conclusion I could draw was that within each price range, the theater filled seats from front to back, and that our tour guide had taken the extra $10 per person, pocketed half of it, and bought us tickets in the intermediate price range. Had the theater not been so empty, his scheme wouldn’t have been at all obvious – we would have thought it was just bad luck that we were in the back of the VIP section, but the empty rows gave him away.
We then headed to Shangrao city in Jiangxi province where my youngest daughter Sophie lived before we adopted her. We were given the warmest, most wonderful welcome imaginable at the orphanage where she had been. They gave us a tour of the facility, took us to meet the foster family she had lived with, fed us a lunch that was more delicious and plentiful than the fancy Beijing restaurant we had eaten at a few days earlier, gave us gifts, and showed us the documents in Sophie’s file. By the time I realized that I was probably supposed to make a side payment to the orphanage director, it was too late. I felt terrible.
I didn’t repeat that mistake at our next stop, which was the old-folks home where Sophie was found when she was three days old. She never spent any time there – she was handed over to the police and sent to the orphanage. Our plan was simply to make a quick stop there to take some pictures, but one of my daughters desperately needed to use a bathroom.
When our translator explained the situation to the people at the old-folks home, we were immediately welcomed in, lavished with gifts, and treated to a city tour and a ceremonial dinner. I figured this sort of treatment warranted a large financial gift in return. When I offered the money to director of the old-folks home, she just laughed and waved me away, completely unwilling to accept the money. I was shocked.
But remarkably, I got the exact same reaction two more times in China. I couldn’t get people to take my money – reasonably large amounts of money – even when it seemed to me they deserved it for entertaining us a large chunk of the day. Hu Jintao would be proud.