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China's public servants face austere Lunar New Year

Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

China's public servants are in no mood to be festive this lunar new year. They dare not take bribes, but that is just the half of it.

Plenty of the more innocent perks of the season have also been taken away: no more taxpayer-funded office feasts or galas; no more lavish new year raffles.

(Read more: Don't beton China's luxury spenders: Goldman)

Even the most insignificant treats of the season – from fruit baskets to sunflower seeds, calendars to cooking oil – have been taken away in the name of the new leaner, cleaner, more abstemious China.

Lunar new year has been the high point of work life in China for decades. But last year, many government departments and state-owned enterprises cancelled their traditional year end office parties after a flurry of austerity edicts from Beijing. This year, they are taking frugality even further.

Wealthy Chinese cut back on spending

"We already moved our nianhui (new year office party) from a five-star hotel ballroom to our canteen, where the food is terrible. But what I hate the most is, they cancelled the prize-giving," says a disgruntled employee of state-owned China Mobile in Guangzhou, who would not give their name due to the sensitivity of the topic. "They kept the traditional lottery as a kind of game, but whoever wins it gets no gift!"

Some also complained of the cancellation of traditional year-end subsidies, sometimes in the form of grocery gift cards used to defray the expenses of celebrating the spring festival at home.

(Read more: China's luxury gift-giving slumps 25%)

"I understand that the higher levels of government worry that, once they loosen their grip, people under them will find a loophole. But to cancel such nianhuihurts department cohesiveness," says one junior civil servant in a Shanghai local government.

But sometimes it is the little things that really irk the staff: "We originally planned to have a tea party in our own canteen with sunflower seeds, candies, singing and games, but our superiors would not approve it," says an employee of a state oil company.

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An employee in a state-owned financial services company complains that an edict that bans the printing of calendars is what bothers him most. Another told the Beijing News that his state-owned company replaced the iPad that was traditionally given away as a new year raffle gift, with toothpaste.

But some public servants say that there is a silver lining. The employee whose planned canteen party was not approved says: "I was half wishing that they would not approve it, because it's not really fun. I actually felt relieved." Some say they are also relieved to avoid the heavy drinking of alcohol at government banquets.

(Read more: China has a word for its crass new rich)

The ministries of public security, civil affairs and culture have also been told that they have to live without their own televised new year galas on CCTV this year, according to Xinhua. Even spending public funds on firework displays, the most traditional of new year activities, has been banned.

Additional reporting by Zhang Yan in Shanghai and Gu Yu and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing