BEIJING (TheStreet) -- An expatriate in China who meets a local at a social function may be asked early in the conversation to divulge his or her salary.
And since "how much do you make?" is not a rude question in China, business reporters are not shy about occasionally crunching salary data from the nation's big banks to help gauge their financial strength.
Analyses of bank staff payrolls by two newspapers this week highlighted a wide gap in average salaries at 10, listed banks. They put Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (IDCBY) , the nation's biggest bank with about 400,000 workers, at the low end of the pay scale and China Merchants Bank (CIHKY) at the top.
Payrolls in general covering all bank executives, tellers and their colleagues declined in 2013 from the previous year in step with falling bank profits and China's slowing economy, according to the reports in the Beijing News and the Economic Herald.
Yet, some big banks pay well by Chinese standards while others appear downright stingy.
According to data from the 10 listed banks, which employ a combined 1.93 million people, the average annual take-home pay last year was 124,500 yuan, or about US$ 20,000.
The average salary for the 69,000 employees at China Merchants was much higher -- 391,000 yuan, or about US$ 63,000. The bank's total payroll last year was nearly 27 billion yuan.
In second place was China Minsheng Bank (CMAKY) , which paid its workers an average 360,000 yuan last year. The third most generous was China Citic Bank (CHCJY) , with an average salary of 218,000 yuan.
To put those salaries in perspective, consider that the legal minimum wage in China's richest city Shanghai was recently raised to 21,840 yuan per year. Beijing's basement wage was increased to 18,720 yuan. The central government wants minimum wages nationwide to rise about 13% annually through 2015.
ICBC, which last week reported a 10% year-on-year increase in net profit to $42 billion last year, paid an average annual salary of 52,200 yuan -- about half the average paycheck for the 10 banks analyzed.
While ICBC's average salary was far below others, the bank has actually gotten more generous. The bank's 2013 financial report said its salary and bonus expenses rose 7.8% last year from the 2012 level.
ICBC was one of four banks among the 10 that raised its salary average last year. Among the six that reported lower average salaries last year from 2012, the steepest reduction was a 19% cut by Bank of Communications (BCMXY) to 89,400 yuan. The regional Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, which is listed on the Shanghai exchange, slashed its payroll to 6.1 billion yuan last year from 7.1 billion in 2012.
Some payroll slippage was apparently tied to staff reductions. China's banks generally don't divulge layoffs.
But compensation and benefits also apparently fell for some top executives at state banks in step with an austerity campaign launched by the government last year. The campaign has pressured state companies to cut executive perks including bonuses, banquets and gifts.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.