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.