Sunday, July 21, 2013

Those damned red envelopes with cash in them

A woman came to our wedding last year and gave  400 rmb (about $60) as her gift.

The Chinese generally give cash, rather than physical gifts, which makes a certain amount of economic sense. Gift-giving, at random, is a highly inefficient system. Think: "Oh, thank you for that tie with pictures of naked women on it. I'll wear it to work every day..." Giving cash or gift certificates makes more economic sense.

However, as the Chinese practice it this system is complex, overbearing, economically inefficient, and socially divisive.

To start with, at a wedding you don't give money to the couple directly. You give it to a representative of the couple who takes down your name in a big red-and-gold ledger book, like a grinning Scrooge. This book is looked over by the couple's friends and family, and it is committed to memory by the bride. This is how Ma Lei knew instantly how much this woman had given at our wedding, despite the fact that the red-and-gold ledger book is safely stored at her family's home.

A year after the wedding gift, the woman's child has decided to turn 18 and graduate from high school. And, as is the natural course of things, this entails his going to university. And, as is the natural course of things, this entails the mother's holding a dinner party for all her friends to come and give carefully-observed gifts of cash in red envelopes. In this case, it's unlikely that the family will create a ledger (though I may be wrong about that). Nevertheless, they will know and pay attention to how much was given, and they will mentally compare it to how much they gave us a year ago.

So now, when our coffers are a little bit low for various reasons, Ma Lei is going out to the Development Zone to give this woman back the 400 rmb we got last year. There are transactions costs involved, to the tune of 20%, borne by us of course. (The cost of going out to the Development Zone and back again, along with incidentals.)

There's no interest paid on what is for all practical purposes a loan, so the woman didn't really benefit. Economically speaking, she'd have done better to have put 400 rmb in the bank at 3.5% interest. Everyone else would have been better off. We'd have been better able to plan when to spend or not to spend those 400 rmb. The mutual looking-over-shoulders would be diminished (though perhaps that's the real point, after all). In utilitarian terms, the overall well-being of society would have benefited; but that wouldn't have fit with Chinese traditions.

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