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[HugChina] Guanxi: The Chinese Cultural Concept

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Bernd Chang

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Posted on Sat, Feb 4, 2012 05:46 AM 02220





Guanxi refers to the benefits gained from social connections. Guanxi most frequently refers to relationship to government officials. In certain extent, that Guanxi is an important term in modern China is abnormal phenomenon. It hints at corruption and nepotism.

Guanxi describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence, and is a central idea in Chinese culture. In Western media, the pinyin romanization of this Chinese word is becoming more widely used instead of the two common translations—"connections" and "relationships"—as neither of those terms sufficiently reflects the wide cultural implications that guanxi describes.

Closely related concepts include that of ganqing(??), a measure which reflects the depth of feeling within an interpersonal relationship, renqing(??), the moral obligation to maintain the relationship, and the idea of "face" known as mianzi (??), meaning social status, propriety, prestige, or more realistically a combination of all three.

At its most basic, guanxi (??) describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another. In addition, guanxi can describe a state of general understanding between two people: "he/she is aware of my wants/needs and will take them into account when deciding her/his course of future actions which concern or could concern me without any specific discussion or request".

Guanxi refers to the benefits gained from social connections and usually extends from extended family, school friends, workmates and members of common clubs or organizations. It is custom for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships, which may expand in a huge number of directions, and includes lifelong relationships. Staying in contact with members of your network is not necessary to bind reciprocal obligations. Reciprocal favors are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offense. The more you ask of someone the more you owe them. Guanxi can perpetuate a never ending cycle of favors.

The term is not generally used to describe relationships within a family, although guanxi obligations can sometimes be described in terms of an extended family. The term is also not generally used to describe relationships that fall within other well-defined societal norms (e.g. boss–worker, teacher–student, friendship). The relationships formed by guanxi are personal and not transferable.

When a guanxi network violates bureaucratic norms, it can lead to corruption, and guanxi can also form the basis of patron–client relations.

Guanxi, in Chinese modern term, most frequently refers to relationship to an official who controls the power to allow Chinese to do or not to do something.

For an ordinary Chinese, Guanxi always means saving money, time and trouble. For example, if a Chinese wants to give birth to a second baby, without Guanxi she may be abruptly refused or she may be required to prepare a pile of documents, and after the required documents are submited after a lot of twists and turns, she may be told the prepared documents are not enough or there are some errors and should be reprepared, and finally she has to wait patiently for the final permission. It usually takes a lot of time, money and anger especially when she works in a far away city from where her Hukou(registered residence) is located. But if she has Guanxi, the situation will be completely different. She can have the permission prepared and sent to her through only a telephone call to the person in charge or her/his superior! Or she can even first give birth to the child and then get the permission!

In government or government related organizations Guanxi also plays very important sometimes dominant role when it involves personel changes, promotion, laid-off, etc.

In certain extent, that Guanxi is an important term in modern China is abnormal phenomenon. It hints at corruption and nepotism. It is a result of rule of man instead of law.

Generally speaking, when it relates to business, Guanxi usually does not play dominant role. Especially in private business world, Guanxi plays a little role and will be even less in the future. In this situation Chinese term Guanxi is similar to the English term relationship, when quality, price and service of the products or service play dominant role in doing business. Sure personal capability of build the Guanxi, network or relationship is as well important.

But if you have Guanxi, doing business has surely advantage. Especially when government or government related organizations are involved. Someone may claim that I am doing also a good business without any Guanxi, but I would like to tell him: if you have Guanxi, you can do more business or it will take you less time to achieve the same!

Anyway, some critic points out that Guanxi is actually a tool for power-for-money exchange. And most Guanxi except some very close ones, such as relatives, old classmates, friends from the childhood, etc. can be bought and built by bribery. When you give the related person enough bribery, then you will build the Guanxi with him. The bribery is not necessarily money, it can be sex, travel chances, a special present, or even flattery. In this regard, Guanxi is most of the time not very reliable. And a longterm and close Guanxi requires continuous input (money or sex, etc.).


Some good news though. In the age of the Internet, justice sometimes prevails in China, even for those with big-time guanxi.

In October 2010, a famous hit-and run case occurred in northern China that exploded into an online scandal known the “Li Gang scandal”.

The case involved 23-year old Li Qiming(???), the rich, spoiled son of Li Gang(??), a powerful deputy police chief of the district in Baoding City of Hebei Province. Driving around Hebei University after some hard partying, the drunken Li crashed into two female students. One was seriously injured and the other died from her injuries the following day. After a crowd and security guards managed to stop him from fleeing the scene, Li shouted, “”Go ahead and sue me if you dare– my father is Li Gang!”

Before government tried to control the coverage, the story had gone viral online. There was so much public outrage that days later, the father and son were giving effusive apologies on CCTV, China’s state television network.

In addition to having to pay significant compensation, Li Qiming was sentenced to six years in prison.

The phrase, “My father is Li Gang” has become something of a bitter inside joke in China and a catchphrase for shirking any responsibility — washing the dishes, being faithful to a girlfriend — with impunity.

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