In China, a “red envelope” containing a symbolic amount of money is a ubiquitous, traditional gift appropriate for weddings, New Year celebrations and almost any other festive occasion. The country’s minister of defense, four-star General Liang Guanglie, found out the hard way last week that giving a hong bao envelope, stuffed with a fair amount of money, to foreign nationals might raise eyebrows at home and abroad.
During a five-day visit to India last week, the 70-year-old general gave such hong bao to two Indian military pilots, thanking them for taking him and his delegation safely from Mumbai to New Delhi through stormy, monsoon-ridden skies. The two envelopes, which the pilots reportedly assumed to contain mementos, actually held 50,000 rupees each ($900), almost the equivalent of the average annual income of a Chinese farmer last year.
The unusual gift sparked a debate in India on the meaning behind Liang’s unusual gesture and on how to react to it. The following day, the general reportedly had to be dissuaded from repeating his state-funded generosity when thanking a military band at a banquet hosted in his honor by his Indian counterpart. Up for debate now is whether Liang didn’t know that Indian military officials aren’t allowed to accept gifts, or if he did it to cause a stir. After the two pilots reported the “gift” to their army superiors, it was decided to deposit it in the Indian treasury, so as not to possibly hurt diplomatic relations with China if they attempted to return it.
In China, the story went largely unreported. The fact that General Liang’s name is blocked on the popular micro-blog Sina Weibo, the country’s equivalent to Twitter, hasn’t kept Internet commenters from mocking Liang for “taking the vice of corruption abroad” and comparing the general’s generosity to the story of a school in Central China so poor that students had to bring their own chairs and tables.
Liang’s visit to the southern neighbor was the the first of a Chinese defense minister in eight years. The two countries fought a war in 1962 over a territorial dispute, though tensions over the disputed land persist to this day. Magnanimous General Liang is widely presumed to be in his last year in office.