Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Twist on “The Envelope Please”

Altering perceptions of an old Chinese Tradition

Hongbao, the ancient Chinese tradition of giving a red envelope containing money as a gift for birthdays, weddings, baptisms and other happy occasions, also applies to area that the Chinese government is looking to change. When Chinese families are faced with a major medical procedure, they give the doctor a red envelope with money prior to the procedure.  For the government, the preferred time for gifting the red envelope would be after treatment.

The rationale behind governmental distaste for the practice is understandable (receiving payment for better care seems to be encouraging unethical behavior on the part of the doctor), but for the Chinese people, the tradition is a good thing.  They believe giving the gift in advance of the procedure will ensure a good outcome.  Not giving the gift prior to the procedure would practically guarantee a bad outcome. Additionally, as most Chinese doctors are traditional, they wouldn’t think of refusing the gift , which would be perceived as an insult.

While fully understanding the tradition, Chinese officials are also aware that those who don’t know the custom could perceive the Chinese medical profession as corrupt.  With a goal to make Chinese society and the Chinese nation more mainstream as a super power, having a major part of their society appear to be disreputable could be a major black eye.  Understandably, the government is in a quandary between cultural reality, outsiders’ perceptions and what appears to be a sizeable gray area between the two.

The first option would be to simply let things stand as they are and address questions as they arise.  

However, with the power of the Internet and its reputation defense-minded world, this may not be a viable option.  Being proactive and explaining the hongbao tradition, as well as its underlying long-held good-intentions, could help.  In this scenario, a line or two explaining how this custom originated and came to be used in areas of life beyond celebrations, such as medical procedures, would be a good approach.

The worst case scenario would probably be outlawing or announcing a government-decreed end to the tradition. But, enforcing such a minor issue is always difficult. While it would not end it entirely — there are always those who will ignore laws that are difficult to enforce — those afraid of punishment would be torn between following the law or doing what’s necessary to ensure good the fortune stemming from the tradition.  The line between the red envelopes of hongbau and a black line potentially drawn in the sand by the government to end the practice is not just a gray area but possibly an unbridgeable divide.

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