The Geography of Guanxi

Guanxi is a Chinese word meaning something like “connectedness” or “relationship.” The concept of guanxi is present in almost all societies (think “Blood is thicker than water” or “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”) but the intensity of the connection and the size of the inner circle varies.

Chinese bureaucracy is authoritarian, top-down, and Byzantine. Navigating it could eat up your entire life. How to get around it? Guanxi—making connections in order to smooth the way a bit. Chinese life and business run on these relationships and connections. In its most negative form, guanxi is blatant corruption: bribing an official to look the other way while you play fast and loose with the law. But before China’s modern economic miracle, I witnessed how it allowed ordinary people to get a winter jacket made before the temperature dropped, or to see a doctor before a cold deepened into pneumonia.

China has always been a populous country. Guanxi limits key interactions to those with whom you have a relationship. It trims the field to manageable size, and trust has already been established.

Americans would have difficulty imagining the strength of ties that Chinese people have with their inner circle. A Chinese friend of mine, who I’ll call “John,” came to the U.S. for a year as a visiting scholar, a program paid for by the central government. To prevent a brain drain, the Chinese government made John promise to pay a $60,000 fine if he didn’t return. Well, not actually. I put it in those terms to allow my American audience a peek into the concept. What he really had to do was get a friend/colleague to sign that promise for him. A family member was not allowed to take the risk. If John failed to return, his friend would be on the hook for 60 large.

“I asked two of my colleagues,” John told me, “and they both said ‘Sure, no problem.’

“Which of your friends would do this?” he asked me.

“None of them, I couldn’t ask even my closest friend to take a $60,000 gamble on me,” I replied. “And besides, our laws do not permit a person to be liable for someone else’s wrongdoing.”

Chinese people routinely take on these risks for their inner circle of family and friends. They are exceedingly generous and loyal—for that inner circle. Furthermore, they consider it a show of caring and affection to offer advice, hovering to a point that Americans would deem meddlesome, annoying, or patronizing.

That connection drops off rapidly when more peripheral figures enter the picture, however. John was surprised at how polite we were to the general public here in America, thanking store clerks or greeting bus drivers. He marveled that we gave to toy drives or food shelves for people we would never meet, or that we would yield to another car even if no policeman was present.

The Chinese with whom I became friends thirty years ago remain friends to this day, and we still call upon each other to help. I like this. It’s a warm counterpoint to my fiercely independent American upbringing.

I still wouldn’t ask my best friend to bet the equivalent of a luxury car on me, nor would I pester my children to pick a mate or hurry up and give me grandchildren, as a traditional Chinese mother might. But living among the Chinese showed me another way to socialize and gave me the courage to insinuate myself a little more closely into my childrens’ lives, to ask a few more questions, to establish connections with people I might not otherwise have approached.