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Austerity bites into China’s new year perks

Chinese folk artists perform during the opening ceremony of the Spring Festival Temple Fair on Thursday in Beijing.
Getty Images
Chinese folk artists perform during the opening ceremony of the Spring Festival Temple Fair on Thursday in Beijing.

It is a little like getting a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. Office workers in China are receiving only the cheapest of perks for lunar new year this year, as employers replace the iPhones and iPads of yesteryear with everyday items from spring onions to sanitary towels.

For decades, China's "spring festival" holiday has been the high point of work life but the combination of Beijing's austerity campaign and the country's economic slowdown has once again left workers in no mood to be festive.

Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012 and unleashed an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, many government departments and state-owned enterprises have cancelled traditionally lavish, taxpayer-funded year-end office feasts and galas, replacing them with abstemious canteen meals and staff skits.

This year private sector office workers are suffering too, according to the results of a survey published on Monday by Zhaopin.com, a Chinese employment agency. The survey of 10,000 white-collar respondents found that many local bosses are using the economic slowdown to justify the elimination of cash bonuses, and downgrading presents normally offered to staff to help them celebrate with their families.

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In past years, many employees received grocery store gift cards or expensive foods as gifts. But 60 per cent of respondents in the Zhaopin survey say they will receive nothing from the boss this year, in cash or in kind. The other 40 per cent expect only the lowliest of presents, ranging from bacon to hotpot seasonings, to "a box of condoms and three tablets of Viagra".

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Complaints are also rife on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where one employee fumed about receiving only two bunches of spring onions — "the boss's favorite food" — for lunar new year, and another said she had received a year's supply of sanitary towels.

China's economy grew at its slowest pace in almost a quarter of a century last year, even as it overtook the US to become the world's largest in purchasing power terms. The annual expansion of 7.4 per cent in 2014 ​was the slowest since 1990, when the country faced international sanctions in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.