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Guanxi- how to make it work for you

This is part two, make sure to read yesterdays post about “face”

The other term that every expat dreads is “guanxi.” Roughly translated it means “relationship,” or “connection,” but really it is so much more than that. Guanxi is often described in textbooks as a kind of privilege or as a thing that might help you get a job. One of my readers described guanxi as “endemic” and that’s really the only way to describe it.

Recent articles on People’s Daily relating to guanxi have included gov’t positions being given to family members before they are even half way through college, its an official’s son running a person over, and then daring the police to arrest him. Not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in other countries, but that this level of entitlement is pervasive at even the lowest level of government (or in schools).

It runs the other way too though. Sometimes it is only through guanxi that anything can be accomplished. I had a few foreigners visiting the hospital recently, and they ran into some visa problems. The local authorities said there was nothing they could do to help them. The man behind the desk sent them away three times. Finally a phone call from their university made everything possible in a matter of minutes.

So it’s important to remember that a “no” is not always a “no” for everyone, if it doesn’t work for you bring a better connected co-worker. I had a friend trying to send a package home, and they were told by the man at the post office that the CD was a “cultural relic” and would not allow it to be sent. Finally they brought a woman from the school who claimed that sending the CD abroad was something that the school leaders need her to do, and off it went, no more questions.

After a few weeks in China most foreigners are cringing at the notion of guanxi, because as foreigners we are treated well, we have privilege, but we can never have guanxi. so when you can, try to have a little connection to someone who has a pile of guanxi.


12 Comments

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Once, a few years ago I went through “Diplomatic Channels” at an International Chinese airport. I felt like our Queen – it was wonderful! Guanxi – yes! On the other hand, a young Chinese friend’s brother was stabbed to death in an argument over a taxi and the culprit appears to have used Guanxi to get off lightly.

  2. […] This is part two, make sure to read yesterdays post about “face” The other term that every expat dreads is “guanxi.” Roughly translated it means “relationship,” or “connection,” but really it is so much more than that. Guanxi is often … Continue reading → […]

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  4. Janice Stern says:

    Wait, I thought you were going to tell me how to make guanxi work for me?

    • Tom says:

      Like I said, there’s little chance that a foreigner can build up Guanxi with a large enough group to make it useful, so you should try your best to get a little connection to someone who has a larger network.

  5. Tim says:

    Another great reason to establish real, long-lasting friendships, you never know when they’ll come in handy. Good stuff Tom, after 3 1/2 years in China, I still struggle to fully grasp face and guanxi. Hopefully, my soon-to-be-wife (who’s Chinese), can make it clear to me over the years to come.

  6. zach chen says:

    Guanxi is like a web. knowing one person node with lots of guanxi “currency” is like knowing the entire web of people. Solely bringing money into China to invest will not ensure success. One must develope guanxi because guanxi is more important than capital some would argue.

  7. […] feeling started about 6 months ago with the story of Li Gang, and she was saddened by the fact that guanxi (relationships) had so much leverage in China. She went on to say that honestly she would rather […]

  8. […] a driver though, a person can gain incredible access to guanxi. These guanxi relationships build the connects that allow the drivers children to aim for a […]

  9. […] Her 150rmb dinner for four seems like an extravagant expense considering that she usually spends less than 10rmb on meals for herself. However, hosting meals may be one of the most important ways of building guanxi. […]

  10. […] opt out of them, but life will be much more enjoyable if you don’t. We’ve talked about the importance of Guanxi before, well, this is how you earn […]

  11. […] Guanxi is something we have discussed a number of times on this blog for two reasons, one is that it is a hugely important aspect of Chinese culture that defines social obligations and relationships, and two, guanxi can be incredibly difficult for foreigners to understand. […]

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