29.03.2011 - 29.03.2011
It’s the thing that runs all facets of Chinese life and, without it, you would be lost as just another nobody in the faceless mass of humanity that inhabits this extraordinary country.
In England, the saying ‘i's not what you know, it's who you know’ is seen by many as a negative yet omnipresent aspect of getting ahead. In China, ‘guanxi’ means the same; the attitude towards it, however, differs significantly.
‘Guanxi’ is a slightly intangible concept to explore; it can mean many things, though its central idea is fairly accessible. Essentially, it refers to your network of connections, your very own spider's web of contacts. In China, in order to get anything done or achieved, having good ‘guanxi’ is a necessity.
Whilst this system in Britain is perhaps regarded with suspicion, an old remnant of the ‘old boys club’ still polluting ‘the system’, in China, it is held in great reverence. People work tirelessly on developing their contacts and their ‘friends in high places’; a friend of a friend can help you do this; your friend at this office can help you do that; if you like, it is the grease that oils the cogs of society.
Nothing is more important in dictating the trajectory of your personal success than these contacts. Let me use a few examples to demonstrate what I mean:
1) A student of mine loves to travel and has the money to do so. Nothing out of the ordinary there. However, getting a visa as a Chinese national can be a pain in the backside, even getting the right permission to leave is hard. A friend of his father works in the right office and the paperwork, which takes most Chinese people a couple of months to sort out, takes him a couple of days. – Guanxi.
2) A doctor I tutor from the local hospital has recently set up a new unit at the hospital she works in. Despite taking a long time, the fact it was possible at all was due to having the right friends in the right places. – Guangxi.
3) A friend works in business and recently told me a story about trying to secure the right licences for his premises. Originally, he was told to expect a 3-month wait, after a few phone calls to friends in the right places it was sorted in 4 days. – Guangxi.
Although this sounds ominously like corruption, it is important to understand that it is a cultural, rather than monetary, phenomenon. In a country where you are as anonymous as it is possible to be, these connections, for many, represent a lifeline and a way to create social mobility.
This also relates into wider society in a more tangible way. When you arrive, it is incredibly hard to break down the barriers to become close to people. You feel as though people won’t go out of their way for you in the same way as people do in Britain; a simple example; asking for help with directions. Whereas most people in Britain would help if at all possible, many Chinese people wave you away. If you are not in someone’s circle of guanxi, then you don’t register on their radar in any way. Whilst there is a negative side to this, you quickly learn the benefits of the positive side too.
If you do find yourself inside somebody’s spider's web, then you are looked after and protected like a member of their immediate family; if you need any help or assistance it will be there without question. In many ways, this system is an intermediate step towards a social security system.
The social security system in China is very scarce, minimal in fact, so guanxi becomes increasingly crucial to your quality of life. With fewer children to support the family (as has previously happened in traditional Chinese culture), wider connections take on an increasingly strong significance in the support and success of a family. Guanxi, in many ways, is a cultural response to this gap and, although it has been present in China’s culture for hundreds of years, its current significance is hard to ignore.
For many, guanxi represents a tool for bettering yourself, be it getting into the right school, getting business done smoothly or even finding a English tutor for your kid. It is present in every part of life here and, although it would be wrong to pin the entire social fabric on this one aspect, it is impossible to ignore its importance.
Many people who come to China for the first time, or encounter Chinese people in their own culture, can often interpret them as cold and closed. This is understandable given the negative aspects of guanxi; yet Chinese people are some of the warmest and most protective people there are and if you are on the receiving end of any guanxi community then you will want for very little.
Long point short: if you are inside then you are part of one of the strongest communities around; if you are outside then don’t expect much support.
This is a basic intro to China's oil... guanxi.