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.

 

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Biking Home

Either our sour mood was getting to Gauss and he had bugged the Foreign Affairs Office until they caved, or Jiaotong University was feeling magnanimous—everyone enjoyed a week off for the national holiday—but for some reason, David Liu appeared one morning with our salaries. The university termed it an “advance” although we’d been working for over a month already.

Just as important, David presented Gauss with the documents that allowed us to buy items at the Friendship Store. If they happened to be in stock, I could finally buy bicycles!

Gauss had some work to do in the afternoon, so I was in charge of making the purchase. Toshio, a professor from Japan who had come for a short stay at Jiaotong University, was given use of the car for a day. He let me ride with him to the Friendship Store. Being in Xi’an for only a few weeks, Toshio often did little favors to make life more comfortable for those of us committed to spending the year.

I was ecstatic to discover that a new shipment of bikes had arrived that week. Toshio and I spun the pedals, admired the shiny fenders, and bounced on the seats before picking two identical black Flying Pigeon brand one-speeds. The bikes were chunky and utilitarian, designed for years of hard use. Heavy metal rods, not cables, connected the brake levers to the wheels. Unlike the lean, alloy wheels of American bikes, these had weighty steel rims designed to withstand the city’s rutted roads.

We spent at least half an hour waiting and shuffling around as the clerks checked my documents, counted and recounted the money, and wrote and rewrote sales slips. Everything had to be in triplicate, and the worn sheets of carbon paper left only faint marks that had to be retraced.

The bikes weren’t sold ready to ride. All the nuts and bolts needed to be tightened and there was no air in the tires. We took the bikes outside to the waiting car. A crowd gathered, chuckling and pointing as Toshio, the driver, and I attempted to put the bikes in the trunk.

Most families had only one creaky, beaten-up bicycle for four people, and they had to wait years to get the industrial-goods ration coupon needed to buy a new one. Two brand-new bikes represented wealth, but more importantly, enviable connections—guanxi— that allowed me to jump the queue. Witnessing this was an event, something the neighborhood people could gossip about for several days hence.

Toshio had another errand to run with the car, so I decided to walk back, guiding a bike with each hand. As I strode along with what felt like my freedom in each hand, curious people gaped at me from all directions. My conspicuousness pained me, but I kept telling myself to put up with it, keep my eyes ahead and keep walking—eventually I’d be home. To be this noticeable at in the U.S., I would have had to be driving a brand new red BMW at parade speed through a poor neighborhood. I longed to escape—but where would I go?

About a mile into my walk, a middle-aged gentleman rode up to me and asked, in very good English, “Did you just buy them?” Like everyone else, he wore a dark blue “Mao” jacket, baggy trousers, and black cotton shoes, but he had a worldly bearing. His confidence in approaching me and speaking was exceptional. He walked with me for a few minutes, making simple, pleasant conversation, (“Where do you work?” and “Xi’an is a very interesting city!”) until he had to turn off in another direction.

“Thank you for walking with me,” I said before he turned away, “It was nice talking with you.”

I was grateful to him for making me feel like a normal human being.

I resumed walking alone, resigned to the stares. My feelings of isolation were so profound that I failed to see the humor in the near-accidents as rubbernecking cyclists narrowly missed each other or sideswiped donkey carts and utility poles. Instead, my cheeks burned as I plodded forward. But then I heard a horn honk, and behind me was Toshio in the car.

The driver pulled to the side of the road and Toshio hopped out, offering to walk the remaining distance with me. What a relief to no longer be doing this alone! And a moment later, Oliver, one of my students, happened by on his bicycle. Oliver guided us to a sidewalk bike repairman who—for less than a yuan—pumped up the tires and tightened the hardware. The driver helped, and again a large crowd gathered, but it was different: this time I was with friends. The driver smiled as he pumped, and the bike repairman grinned. A Japanese man, an American woman, and new bikes fresh from the shop was a rare trifecta in Xi’an, more novelty than many people saw all year—and he was at the center of it. Once the bikes were road worthy, the driver took the car back to the university and the three of us, Toshio, Oliver and I, rode home. Accompanied by friends, it felt like home.

Give and Take

Mao Tai, China’s famous sorghum liquor or “bai jiu,” is a standard at banquets. It tastes like gasoline and I think its primary purpose is to get you as drunk as possible in the shortest period of time. Photo © 2012 Patti Isaacs.

One day, Lao Zhang delivered a note to our door inviting us to dinner the next evening at the home of Dr. Hu, a Jiaotong University professor who attended college in the States. Dr. Hu had returned to China to help rebuild it after the Communist revolution, an act of patriotism for which he was awarded no medals. In the small-town atmosphere of the campus, he knew that there were Americans living next door. He wanted to meet us.

Gauss and I were excited to be doing something different for dinner. Several times, we asked our students for restaurant recommendations, but they insisted that it just wasn’t worth it to eat out. While we got along with the other foreign teachers, after three meals a day together, we weren’t eager to pal around after hours. And while they participated enthusiastically in the lessons, our students seemed to avoid contact with us outside the classroom.

Lao Wang, a middle-aged man who taught in the English department, showed up to walk us to Dr. Hu’s apartment. Lao Wang had been educated at a missionary school in Shanghai before the revolution, and as a result, his English was excellent, better than any of the other Chinese. However, his childhood attendance at that church-run school was a black mark on his record, and kept him from being promoted. Others with appropriate political connections ran the department.

The Hus lived in the building next to ours. Their apartment was identical to ours in layout, although darker and more cluttered. We were astounded to see what Dr. Hu’s wife had prepared in her simple kitchen, although it appeared that she had help. His college-age daughter and elderly lady, whom we assumed to be an aunt or grandmother (no introductions were made), brought in some of the food. There were two other guests: an American physics professor and his wife here on a two-week visit. Counting Lao Wang, our host, Gauss and me, there were six people to eat the mountain of food that was offered.

We lost track of the number and variety of dishes—baked whole chicken, chicken with onions, deep-fried pork, eel, jellyfish, anchovies, beans and lotus root, steamed carp, steamed buns filled with walnuts and sugar, more steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste, won ton soup, shao my (little pasta cups filled with minced meat and vegetables), “Eight Treasure” rice pudding studded with candied fruits and nuts—to list perhaps a quarter of the offerings. Sweet grape wine and tiny cups of potent bai jiu accompanied the food.

At first I ate heartily, but I became more selective as dish after dish was brought to the table. After an hour or so I was painfully full, but it kept coming. Gauss and I slowed down to the point where we took only one bite of each new dish, then ground to a halt, physically unable to cram another ounce into ourselves. We heard our host in the kitchen explaining to his wife that we weren’t just being polite, we simply couldn’t eat more—and her insistence that she bring on more food (Gauss translated.) In the end, some of the dishes she prepared didn’t make it out to the table.

Beyond gut-busting amounts of food, hackneyed sentimentality and elaborate toasts seemed to be the way conviviality was done. As the eating wound down, Dr. Hu proposed toast after toast, downing swigs of bai jiu until he was sweating and losing his ability to speak English. He soldiered on, stumbling through tributes to the friendship between our two countries, the modernization of the Chinese economy, and the bright future of science. Each toast was cornier than the last, and I felt like we had traveled back to the set of a silly, lightweight Hollywood movie from the 1940s. I made a stab at joining in, but felt clumsy. Fortified with a little booze I bumbled lamely through a couple of my own, saying something about making new friends and establishing new ties between our countries. My older companions seemed to forgive my lack of experience—maybe they were as incapacitated as I was by the excessive amounts of food and drink.

Later we would understand that in treating us to this impressive feast, Dr. Hu was laying the groundwork for a relationship based on the exchange of favors that he hoped to have with us. Such mutually beneficial alliances were more than commonplace in China; people depended upon connections (guanxi) and mutual back scratching in order to work around chronic shortages and an impossible official bureaucracy. Long before we realized what was happening, Dr. Hu was seeing us as a lifeline for his daughter, a way that she might escape to the outside for the kind of opportunity that had passed him by.

Dr. Hu’s tone shambled into nostalgia about his days in the U.S., to the point where his eyes misted over, and he hinted at the opportunities he had missed—beaten, humiliated, and exiled to the countryside to shovel manure—as China went though years of political upheaval in the sixties and seventies. His voice was heavy with regret about the wasted years that he could never get back.

We waddled back to our apartment at the end of the evening, an undercurrent of sadness and loss simmering just beneath the surface of my tipsy giddiness. As I lay in bed, I thought about big issues like history and fate, and drifted off feeling small, lucky, and sad.

It was a holiday week in honor of the anniversary of the People’s Republic. With little to do and no bikes, time hung heavy on Gauss’s and my shoulders. At this point we hadn’t really gotten to know our students well, and in any event, they were spending the vacation week with their families. We had almost no visitors, except for Miss Hu from next door, now asking us for a letter of recommendation to send to American colleges. We had met her only once, at the spectacular dinner, but she had not spoken that evening.

I found it difficult to think of anything to say about her, so I politely typed a generic “To whom it may concern” letter that mentioned her enthusiasm for speaking English and studying abroad. As I put my signature to the letter, I told her to ask her father to photocopy it so we would not have to type it again, should she need to send additional copies. Xerox machines were tightly controlled and one could not simply pay a nickel to get another print, but as a full professor, he would likely have had the privileges to use one.

She was so steeped in the notion of guanxi that she thought we would be able to secure admission to the University of Minnesota for her.

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “Gauss and I do not have any position of authority within the university. And even if we did, we would not be able influence the admissions department. You will still need to follow the standard application procedure.”

I wrote the address of the admissions office on a piece of paper for her. Her eyes narrowed; I could tell she didn’t believe me.

“I can ask one of my father’s former classmates to do this,” she said. “He is a professor at University of Minnesota.”

“Of course you can talk to him,” I replied, “But things work differently in the U.S. He can give some advice or send another letter of recommendation, but he will not be able to guarantee that you are admitted.”

Her face clouded up and I could see her irritation before she caught herself. She pasted on smile, took the letter and left.