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Guanxi: A Fundamental Chinese Concept

Like it or not, guanxi is a fundamental aspect of Chinese society. But knowing this may help outsiders empathize with Chinese people and better understand their mentality.

Among thousands of traditional Chinese concepts, “guanxi”(关系)is at once one of the most pervasive and most obscure. Many foreigners are easily confused by the idea or, even if they know what it is, they may not understand why Chinese people put so much effort and resources into building and maintaining guanxi. We explain why it plays such a fundamental role in Chinese societies.

It is hard to find an exact equivalent term in English to translate the Chinese word, the closest being “relationship,” “connections” or “networks”. But of course, these are nothing new — westerners also have connections and networks which might help them get a decent job or a promotion, so what makes the Chinese idea of guanxi so special?

A popular saying may give you some ideas about how crucial “guanxi” could be in Chinese societies: “With guanxi, nothing matters; without guanxi, everything matters”. The saying is a play on the Chinese phrase “mei you guanxi” meaning “it doesn’t matter.” In Chinese societies, guanxi matter a great deal.

For example, it is reported that councilors who violate the traffic rules in Taiwan often “employ” or “exercise” their guanxi, requesting the police to cancel their traffic tickets. In China, a man without guanxi may serve a prison term that a man with guanxi can avoid. The better your guanxi, the better your chances in education, business and many areas of life — including the consequences of your actions.

Guanxi must be carefully nurtured and a request on the part of a “connection” is difficult to turn down. Chinese are raised to avoid public confrontation with others and obey authority. For those who have been “employed” or “exercised” by others and are unhappy with being asked to do something inappropriate or even illegal, they tend to contain themselves and bear the pressure on their own. If lucky, they can get something good in return and the guanxi will be further consolidated.

Some have criticized the guanxi system as an obstacle to the development of Chinese societies. While this is valid, it does not explain why guanxi still thrive in those societies and why most people, including those who lose out due to the influence of another’s guanxi, will strive to build their own guanxi if there is a chance.

The emphasis on guanxi stems from a sense of insecurity, a lack of faith in the fairness of the system. When people perceive their societies are not able to provide fairness and justice for them, they are more inclined to develop their personal connections and networks to help them survive. The traditional view is that in a country the size of China, with such a massive population, your own talent and efforts will only get you so far if you lack connections.

Even those who are already considered influential welcome the chance to build more guanxi. The guanxi system is powerful yet also vulnerable, especially in terms of business. It is vulnerable because people with guanxi constantly calculate what favors they have given to others and what they may expect to receive in return. If one fails to meet other’s expectation in returning favors, due to miscalculation or deliberately, the guanxi will be eroded.

The guanxi system, which emphasizes the strength of personal bonds, means it is next to impossible to separate business relationships from personal ones, as in the western view.

Robert Buderi, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, and Gregory T. Huang, features editor of New Scientist, said in their 2007 book entitled Guanxi that “In China, there’s no such thing as a purely business relationship. Instead, to be successful in business, you must blend formal relationships with personal ones.”

With personal connections, people feel more secure in doing business, though guanxi itself as stated above may be withdrawn at any time. However, with a personal relationship established it is much harder for one to turn another down directly.

This may be seen by examining another Chinese saying: “qing li fa”(情理法)meaning “sentiment, reason and law.” Sentiment takes priority, followed by reason with law the last. When two persons have established guanxi then sentiment overrides reason and law, giving them special privileges to work things out.

Only when sentiment can no longer sustain their reciprocal benefits, reason and law may then take their turn to sort matter out.



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