Bribery and corruption


The past year has been a significant one in the legal fight against bribery and corruption, particularly in terms of the strengthening of laws prohibiting the payment of bribes to foreign public officials. With effect from 1 May, the PRC Criminal Law was amended to prohibit PRC nationals and PRC companies from paying bribes to foreign public officials. On 1 July, the new Bribery Act in the United Kingdom came into effect. In each jurisdiction, the relevant legislation imposes heavy penalties for committing the offence of bribing a foreign public official.

As I noted in the October issue of Lexicon (Alternative dispute resolution: mediation or conciliation?), the derivation, or etymology, of legal words often provides interesting insights into the underlying concepts that the words represent and also the associated cultural norms and perceptions. Sometimes it also reveals striking similarities between the words used in different languages. The similarities between the words in Chinese and English for “bribery” and “corruption” are an example in point.

Let’s start by looking at the Chinese character hui, meaning “bribe”. (Traditionally it was also used to refer to wealth.) This contains two elements: the character for cowry shell (bei) and the character meaning “to possess” or “to have” (you). Incidentally, if the traditional form of the character for cowry shells is turned upside down, it is possible to see a cowry shell hanging from a string.

Cowry shells began to be used as money in China as early as the Shang dynasty, which commenced around 1600 BC. The cowry shell element now appears in around 400 Chinese characters, many of which refer to wealth or an item of value.

The word hui appears in several compounds, including shouhui, meaning “to receive a bribe”, and huilu, meaning a “bribe” or “bribery”. The character lu also contains a cowry shell and means “to send a gift” or “to bribe”.

In Chinese, the close connection between a “gift” and a “bribe” is reflected in the use of the word hongbao, which means “red envelope” and refers to the customary gift of money at special events such as Chinese new year and weddings. The term is sometimes used informally to refer to a bribe or a corrupt payment.

The derivation of the English word “bribe” also highlights the connection between a “gift” and a “bribe” and the corresponding difficulties in drawing a line between the two. The word, whose origins derive from old French, originally referred to a morsel of bread that was given to a beggar and later came to be used to refer to a gift that was made to exert corrupt influence.

Another Chinese word that is often used in connection with corruption is fubai, meaning “to spoil or decay”. The second character in the compound – namely, bai – is interesting in that it means “to corrupt” or “to ruin” and originally depicted a right hand holding a stick and striking a cowry shell. This is similar to the derivation of the English word “corruption”, which came from the Latin word corruptus, meaning “broken into pieces”.

Finally, it is interesting to note the Chinese word tanwu, meaning graft or corruption, particularly in a political or moral context. The character tan also contains a cowry shell.

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andrew goodwin
Andrew Godwin

A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at www.vantageasia