There are many quirks and cultural differences that expats will notice when working in China; your superiors reigns supreme, there’s no coffee, people smoke in the staircase and everyone takes a nap after lunch. But the perhaps biggest difference is the sometimes blatant display of nepotism in the Chinese workplace. Let’s take a closer look at how this might affect you and your career in China.
You’ve no doubt heard that nepotism is rampant in China, and you’re not exactly wrong, but nepotism is hardly unique to China or East Asia in general. It has always existed, and possibly always will.
The most fundamental reason for nepotism to exist is the fact that humans, being social beings, are prone to in-group preferences and tribalism as a way of securing their own survival. Save for an alien invasion, humans will always prefer those who look, talk, act and behave like themselves.
Nepotism is, according to your favourite free online encyclopedia, a system “based on favour granted to relatives in various fields, including business, politics, entertainment, sports, religion and other activities”.
Some would call that corruption, and depending on the laws and regulations of a country it might very well be. But from an historical standpoint, there are reasonable and logical reasons for nepotism to exist, even if it feels insulting and frustrating to be the victim of it.
Despite the anti-corruption campaign initiated by president Xi Jinping in 2013, nepotism still exists on almost every level of Chinese society in some shape or form. It’s not exactly 关系 (guānxì) per se, although the notion in itself is quite similar. Domestic Chinese business practices are rife with favouritism and nepotism, and the lines between them are often blurred.
Take for example the simple idea that as a representative for a small establishment, you would typically avoid doing business with someone you don’t know. The same can be assumed if you’re looking to hire a new employee. Why hire someone completely unknown when your nephew just graduated? He’s a good kid according to his father – your brother.
As far as private companies go, this is neither illegal, according to Chinese law, nor immoral, according to Chinese customs. It’s just normal and even expected.
However, this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in China’s state-run enterprises, and especially not in government institutions. China’s anti-corruption campaign has taken steps beyond your wildest dreams in this sector.
For example, a government-run newspaper in Beijing has for a long time been giving gifts to its employees as small tokens of appreciation. A basket of fruit here, a box of eggs there -- nothing particularly expensive. However, in the last couple of years, the gifts have dried up completely due to the anti-corruption campaign.
Instead, the newspaper employees have to work for their rewards – usually by partaking in events such as walking around a nearby park, which takes no more than 20 minutes. By having their employees to work for their gifts, the risk of being branded corrupt is mitigated.
If this is any indication of how seriously the anti-corruption campaign is taken in the public sector, you can rest assured that nepotism is hardly an issue.
The simple answer is that you can’t. Whether you’re working in a private company or a government institution, fighting injustice in the workplace – perceived or not — won’t do you or anyone else any good. You’ll just get branded a “difficult” employee and create a very awkward situation for everyone.
Being passed over for promotion because of nepotism is absolutely one of the worst things you can experience in the Chinese workplace. And sure enough, you could probably fight a decision like that in many other non-Asian cultures.
But when you’re in China, you’d better get used to it, swallow your indignant feelings and keep your head down. Do not, under any circumstance, consider uttering a sentence related to nepotism which starts with “Where I’m from…”. It’s social and professional suicide.
Keep doing your job and make sure you do it well. Perhaps set out to create some guanxi with the now-promoted son-in-law? Also make sure to never tell any of your co-workers about the boss’ blatant display of nepotism. Word will eventually get around that you’re unhappy with the boss’ decision to promote his son-in-law instead of you, and that won’t do you any good at all.
As mentioned earlier in this article, nepotism has always existed and probably always will, both inside and outside of China.
It’s fully reasonable to argue that nepotism and corruption are correlated with each other. According to Transparency International, China ranked 77 out of 180 countries in 2017, which is not too bad considering they ranked 80 in 2013, the year when Xi Jinping took office. Whether this is the effect of the anti-corruption campaign or the fact that other countries are doing worse as of late can be debated, but Xi’s cleanup efforts have clearly left their mark on the Chinese public sphere.
But although the anti-corruption campaign is moving forward fairly quickly, your promotion isn’t necessarily… unless you marry the boss’ daughter, that is.
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Keywords: Chinese Workplace
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