There’s no such thing as instant guanxi

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.

In my office we deal mostly with foreign companies, universities, and patients. In essence, we manage the guanxi of the hospital. This has greatly improved my understanding of how these connections are viewed through Chinese eyes because it is a frequent topic of discussion.

Perhaps guanxi is best thought of as a bank account, with each new contact being like the bank’s manager. You make deposits to begin the relationship and can then retrieve the funds at a later time. The most important part though, is that initially your guanxi account accrues 0% interest, you have no right to take out more than you have put in. Over time though, as you perform more and more transactions, the bank begins to see you as a valued customer, and you gain access to guanxi loans (asking for favors before you have made an equal deposit) and a little guanxi interest (receiving favors larger than what you deposited).

An example of this would be when a new foreign teacher shows up at a university. While the expat might be thinking a certain relationship exists between themselves and the foreign affairs staff, this in reality is a brand new account. My wife and I have lived in a total of 6 different apartments during our time in China, and even though they tend to be in disrepair on arrival, we make a point to wait to ask for any repairs until after we have started teaching classes, attended a banquet and/or a performance/speech competition. This is because once we have made the first sign of good will toward the department, we know they will be much more willing to help us solve the problems in our apartment.

The second rule of guanxi that many foreigners miss, is that when your acts are repaid, you have little say in the form of repayment. A common example of this is when a foreign teacher is asked to judge a speech competition, and is repaid with a banquet that is far less appetizing than the host realizes. Even though the last thing most expats want to do is attend an evening long banquet with school leaders that don’t actually include them in the conversation, the debt has nevertheless been repaid in the eyes of the school.

With our apartment, the same rule applies. Even though there were specific projects we had in mind for our accumulated guanxi, repayment often came in other forms. Things like gas leaks and rats crawling in through the drains emptied our guanxi account before we had a chance to get windows that would keep the mosquitoes out or a shower curtain installed.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two more aspects of guanxi and answer the question “Why won’t my Chinese friends help me?” and explain the connection between dinner parties and English lessons.

6 responses to “There’s no such thing as instant guanxi”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Thanks Tom. Would be interesting to know how anyone keeps up with how much exactly is in the bank account. Also, it would be interesting to get everyone’s thoughts on this related article, which questions the value of even trying: Sourcing Expert: Don’t Waste Time Building Guanxi in China :

    • Tom says:

      I think it’s a great post, and I agree that for businesses guanxi can be a rather risky way of doing business. With the last political shake ups, we should be reminded that connections only matter if they are lasting.

  2. Kev says:

    Guanxi in china is difficult for foreigners to obtain particularly because Chinese people think that foreigners are idiots who cannot accomplish the most simple task without assistance. Before you readers think this is untrue, just think about how many Chinese think it is so special that you can say “Ni Hao”. The truth is they think that anything they do, no matter how simple or idiotic it may appear to be is equivalent of helping a retarded child write his name.

  3. Kev says:

    Sorry, was interrupted. Guanxi, as a currency, is just like shopping in the market. You can be cheated just as easily and, as a foreigner, expect to be cheated frequently. Expect that anything you do as a “favor” will be repaid at less than a quarter of it’s value and you will be rarely disappointed. These days I ask for repayment up front. Often the person is surprised but Chinese people can be quite resilient and if the price is too high will often retract their request. I have learned not to deal with the intangible. When my GF’s father was sick, I gave an influential doctor’s daughter some English lessons. When the requirement passed, so did the lessons. My advice is to negotiate your repayment before you commit otherwise Chinese people will consider street directions as adequate repayment for anything you do for them.

  4. Bob Hale says:

    Generally I’ve had the opposite problem. I have Chinese friends both among the teachers at my school and families in the area where I live who are incredibly generous and unbelievably helpful. I never get the impression that they are helping me because I am a foreigner who needs his hand held (though I am) but rather that they are helping me because they are really nice people who want to help.
    Now maybe this is because I’ve made a deliberate effort to throw myself into the life of the school – I told them from the start that I didn’t want to be a foreign teacher who turns up five minutes before the lesson, teaches and goes home five minutes after. I hang around the office after class. I talk to the other teachers about the lessons. I help them with the grammar if they want to know something about the books (usually what is the correct answer to some ridiculous question on a test that has either no right or no wrong answers in the choices).
    I make myself available to the students.

    But all of these are things I’d do anyway. I don’t feel I’m doing anything out of the ordinary and I certainly don’t feel as if I’m earning any guanxi to repay the kindnesses and help that they show me.
    My problem is that I can never think of a way to give back. I can’t find anything that they need help with or anything that I can do for them.

    I do get the impression with my non-teaching friends that just being a foreigner so that they are the family in the apartment block who regularly have foreign friends to dinner, is, in their eyes, repayment enough.

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