The rainy day guanxi fund – Understanding social obligations in China

Yesterday we explored why there is no such thing as instant guanxi, and were reminded that favors are often repaid in ways that we might not expect but have to accept. Today we’ll be looking at why your Chinese friends might feel uneasy pulling strings for you, and why foreign teachers are so wary of dinners with co-workers and bosses.

As an employee of a hospital, I occupy a prime spot in the guanxi hierarchy in that I know a few doctors in several departments. Even though my connections are very limited in number, the connections I do have can be incredibly handy when friends are sick. Yet, as they have come to see, if it can be avoided I don’t use my guanxi. It isn’t out of selfishness, but as my co-worker in an even better position pointed out, “Every time I use my connections for someone else, it costs me something.”

If I spend my favors today on someone I don’t know, I might not have any guanxi when a close friend needs special care. You can think of this as something like a rainy day guanxi fund.

I learned this through trial and error. Not so long ago a friend of a friend requested additional attention and I did my best to make use of my limited connections. To my dismay, the friend of a friend complained daily about her treatment and argued with hospital staff about her bill at the end. The bridge with that department had been burned.

While this doesn’t mean that no one would use their connections on your behalf, it does mean that you will have to try and compensate them for the social capital they spend on your behalf (the preferred method of payment seems to be tea). It’s no secret that foreigners come and go quite regularly in China, and so your friend might think twice about spending favors on a person who may not be around long enough to repay them.

This brings me to my second point – favors can be called on immediately. That is why it can be incredibly difficult to build up guanxi, your contacts won’t let it accumulate. This may seem to contradict yesterday’s point, that there is no such thing as instant guanxi, however that point refers largely to asking for favors beyond what you have put in to the relationship.

Take a very typical example, a friend invites you to a fancy dinner, only to announce at the end that they would like you to help with X. X in this case very often has something to do with English teaching or being a token foreigner at some event. Of course you can refuse the offer, but it means that you will need to find some other way to repay the social debt of the dinner they just paid for. Giving an extra lesson or attending school events are also relatively easy ways of adding to your own guanxi balance. Furthermore, the school is usually asking you to do something that your contract encourages anyway.

This has probably happened to me and my wife at least a dozen times over the past few years, and happens so often it was explicitly discussed during our China orientation program.

While it might make you uneasy accepting such invitations, keep in mind that you can use this to your advantage as well. As we saw yesterday, favors are often returned in an unexpected way, if you ask for a specific favor at the time of agreeing to another one your request will often be fulfilled.

Finally it should be remembered that in virtually every case, it takes years to build solid relationships in China because of ideas about social responsibilities. Even after 2 years at the hospital, the amount of “special attention” I can ask for is little more than setting up an appointment with a specific doctor.

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