Guanxi (关系), which means ‘relationships’ in Chinese (and is roughly the equivalent of ‘networking’ in the West) is a staple of Chinese life. In business, social and even friendship circles, guanxi is the oil that keeps the cogs of life whirring. All people need and rely on guanxi to a certain extent. But getting the right balance, and finding guanxi with the right people is a delicate art.
After living for some time in China, the whole phenomenon of guanxi becomes quite clear: ever wondered where those best seats at the opera house went, or why the soft-sleeper tickets ran out so fast, or how it was ok for those guys to walk straight into the private room in the restaurant without queuing? It’s all down to guanxi. Sometimes, guanxi can be as simple as offering a cigarette to a train attendant to see if he can upgrade your tickets (for the purposes of this example it’s a man, but guanxi is not limited to the male species). Once the ‘friendship’ has been established, he will enquire as to what you do (and how that will benefit him), contact details will be exchanged, and from then on you ‘owe him one’. This favour may be redeemed however and whenever he chooses, and so long as it’s roughly of equal value to the original favour.
Obviously one can prosper very nicely off the back of guanxi, and it’s especially easy as a foreigner to secure some water-tight guanxi. The trick is to strike up friendships with the right people. Making friends with high school and college students by teaching them English ain’t gonna do much for you in return, unless they are the children of corrupt government officials who have a penchant for all things foreign.
Once I was approached by a doctor in a mid-sized hospital in Xi’an. He needed some help translating a questionnaire into English, and seemed like a perfectly reasonable and affable chap so I agreed to help. The questionnaire turned out to be a 20 page behemoth which took me hours and hours of dedicated brain-racking (and dictionary consulting) to turn it into a professional-looking English medical questionnaire. Upon completion, I was thanked with heartfelt gratitude and a big meal. At that point in time I didn’t think that was quite worth the hours of blood, sweat and tears I’d poured into the project. However, I was unaware of the lasting legacy of guanxi. A few months later, a friend of mine broke her leg in a bike accident. It was a Sunday night, and quite late, so when we got to the hospital the staff at the orthopaedic clinic had all left. I called my doctor friend, and without hesitation he rushed over from home (on his day off, no less), plastered and bandaged her leg in a jiffy, and most surprising of all, he didn’t want us to pay a penny! I suddenly realized the power of guanxi. Obviously I didn’t want to go overboard, so shortly after when another friend had to go to hospital for stitches, I abstained from calling him again, knowing that we had reached a favour equilibrium of sorts.
From the above example, guanxi can be terrific help, and make life much easier in China, but it can also come back to bite you in the arse. A Chinese friend wanted to introduce me to a high-ranking policeman pal of his who was allegedly thinking of moving to Australia, and wanted to pick up some language, culture and lifestyle ‘tips’ before he moved. To facilitate this harmonious cultural exchange then, I was invited to a series of lunch and dinner banquets where endless baijiu toasts were the order of the day. I needed help renewing my visa, which was no hassle for the police official, who was chummy with the PSB. But after he fast-tracked my visa application, he started asking if I had any foreign female friends who wanted to ‘teach him English’. I’d noticed that a lot of his friends were the sort you wouldn’t dream of bringing home to tea, and judging by their selection of post prandial entertainment venues, definitely not the sort of people mother would approve of either. I managed to hold him off for a while, but before long he was pestering me day in day out for a 外国美女 (‘pretty foreign girl’). In the end I just had to ignore his calls until I left the country! But, according to the rules of guanxi, I did indeed owe him a favour after the visa assistance, so I was in the wrong.
Usually, guanxi-seekers approaching foreigners are looking for either expertise in, or assistance with language based issues, such as teaching or translating, or merely just the supposed ‘prestige’ of having a foreign friend. If you really want to play the guanxi game, then think about what they can offer you in terms of return favours, otherwise you might find yourself in a lifetime of favour debt.
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Keywords: guanxi in China how to network in China Chinese relationships with foreigners
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