HSE University Anti-Corruption Portal
Fakelaki and Hongbao: How to Bribe in Different Languages

In the framework of its Global Informality Project UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies explores traditional/informal practices, including acts of corruption, existing in different countries.

The project, launched in 2014, is an online database of articles about informal practices and structures explored from a global perspective. A substantial part of the materials is focused on acts of corruption and the use of personal connections. The pieces published on the website and dedicated to these phenomena, their historical and cultural context are based on the comparative and ethnographic investigations carried out by the UCL that include entries from over 60 countries in 5 continents.

The entries can be searched by alphabet, theme or country.

For instance, the section dedicated to Russia contains articles either about broadly used terms “otkat” or kickback (the authors suggest, first of all, conducting interviews with entrepreneurs to better understand the extent and scale of this practice) or “blat” or pulling strings (that, according to the authors, exudes the warm solidarity of a community struggling through hard times together “unlike cold and impersonal exchanges embodied in “bribery” or “corruption”) or about rarely used, such as “deryban” (the process of distributing certain resources among a narrow circle of individuals) or “pripiski” (a form of accounting fraud under Communist rule that consisted in a false overstatement of performance by an official).

While searching for informal corrupt practices by theme, it is recommended to pay attention to such sections as “bribe”, “favour”, “gift”, “revolving doors”, “personal connections” and “getting things done”, from where you can learn that the practice of giving an envelope filled with money is called “hongbao” in China, “fakelaki” in Greece and “pujogŭm” in South Korea and that in Germany the term “Vitamin B” denotes the various benefits that flow from cooperation between individuals, including the phenomenon of favouritism.

It is also curious to learn the etymology of certain terms. For example, the practice of leaving a civil service position to obtain work in the private sector, which is determined as “revolving doors” in English, is called “pantouflage” in France (from the French pantoufle meaning “slipper”) or “amakudari” in Japan (literally translated as “descent from heaven”). As for the bribe, the term “aumento” is used in Lowland South America, which literally means “a little more” (from the Spanish aumentar meaning “to increase”),whilst it is called “mordida” in Mexico, which literally translates as “bite” (according to the authors, this word alludes to corrupt public officials, especially to police officers, being seen by the Mexicans as dogs on the lookout for an “innocent citizen to take a bite of him/her”).

As for Mexico, the scholars highlight, that here there are “specific rituals” that determine how the process of bribing is negotiated. The “signal” comes at the point where the public official has made it clear that the citizen’s “situation is serious” and involves the phrases such as “Is there no other way?” (¿no habrá otra manera?) or “How can we reach an agreement?” (¿cómo nos podemos arreglar?). In fact, these trigger phrases exist not only in Mexico. Suffice it to recall the guiding materials of the Russian Ministry of Labour, where the public officials are recommended to avoid using the phrases that can be interpreted by others as a solicitation of a bribe: “it is difficult, however, not impossible to settle this issue”, “your cannot spread “thank you” over your bread”, “more convincing arguments are needed”, “so, what shall we do?”, etc.

The UCL also published in 2018 two printed volumes that are centered on the boundaries between informality and corruption and allow the audience to “explore open secrets, unwritten rules and know-how practices”. It is planning to develop a third volume in the near future.

Civil society

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