Are China Red Envelopes Ethical?

China red envelope

Been catching up on old emails this weekend and among those was one from a reader attaching a New York Times article, From China, With Pragmatism: Are the Chinese outdoing Americans at their own philosophical game? The article is by Stephen T. Asma a philosophy professor and it deals with how ethics in China are viewed from a different perspective han in the United States. Different, not worse. This is a very crude summary of the article and I urge everyone actually read it.

The reader who sent the email was dismissive of the article, saying only: “He [Professor Asma] should repel out of his Ivory Tower : ).”

I, on the other hand, loved how the article shows how different our two cultures view the same thing: giving a red envelope (with cash in it) to a doctor before the surgery of a child. I will let that portion of the article speak for itself:

Chinese people regularly give red envelopes, or hongbao, filled with money as gifts for weddings, births, New Year celebrations and so on. The red color is thought to be good luck. It is very common for a Chinese family to give hongbao to a surgeon who is about to perform a procedure on a family member. Everyone knows to do this, and everyone does it to the extent that they are able. The Americans in our group thought this practice was unethical bribery, because it sought to bias the doctor in one’s favor. The Chinese people at the table replied, “Of course it biases the doctor. That’s why we do it.” Not only were they mystified by the censure, but the Chinese were prompted to ask if the Americans had any children — for every parent surely uses any means necessary to protect loved ones.

When one embassy officer (working his best “hearts-and-minds diplomacy”) suggested that the Chinese switch the giving of hongbao to after the successful operation, rather than before, the Chinese were struck dumb with astonishment. Of course, you have to give the hongbao beforehand because it motivates the doctor. The gift tells the doctor: (a) to take special care with our child (b) we respect your surgical skills/education and “give face” accordingly (c) we are devoted to our child, will hold you responsible and have the means to do so. The fact that not everyone can afford to influence their doctor with hongbao is not grounds for withholding it, since we’re trying to protect my child here and now. The parent, according to the Chinese, should never weigh the child’s well-being against something so arcane as an abstract principle.

Wow.  Again, read the article.