Getting Guānxi

“Those who exchange presents with one another
Remain friends the longest.” ~From the Hávamál(Mauss 1990[1950]:1)

The exchange of gifts or money for favors is commonplace in China. Both the national government (the CCP) and foreign observers tend to gloss this as bribery. However, more broadly in Chinese society, such exchanges are central to the production and maintenance of guānxi (关系) networks, a horizontal form of social organization rooted in reciprocity. Guānxi is based on fluid, person-centered networks, rather than fixed social institutions (Smart 1999:130), and emerges from a system of reciprocity in which social capital takes on a material value. Though China has a long-established gift economy, guānxi has proven critical to conducting business under the current system of market socialism with its ambiguous and often-changing bureaucratic rules.

One can think of many instances of guānxi-like exchanges in our own culture, or other cultures under study for that matter. This is in line with a current trend to incorporate the concept of guānxi into the analysis of Western practices, particularly in the business world. In fact, a search for “guanxi” on revealed 224 paperback books, most of which are geared toward either using guānxi to do business in China or to succeed in business in general. It should be noted that Kipnis (1997) is the first academic work to appear and is listed fifth on the list. However, the majority of the works have titles such as Guanxi for the Busy American or Guanxi and Business Strategy.

This is not to suggest that the academic works somehow give us a better understanding of guānxi and its real-world applications (though their methodologies may indeed be more rigorous). Certainly the business books often present the concept in much more digestible and easily-applicable terms. The point here is that guānxi has entered popular English jargon, and been accepted as a framework for conceptualizing interpersonal relationships that rings true beyond the Chinese context.

Of interest is that the business books recognize guānxi as a term originating in the social sciences, and frequently cite academic works in their definitions (e.g., Langenberg 2007:1). This is noteworthy, of course, because the term is originally an emic one. That is, it was used by normal Chinese people long before academics began employing it as a “gate-keeping concept” (Appadurai 1986:357) for the study of social organization in China. In this respect the business books are returning it to its original usage in the lives of everyday people.

The business books usually dedicate a relatively short section of the introduction to the definition of the term. Langenberg (2007) uses just over eight pages, and this is particularly long compared to similar works. In fact, the first book on the Amazon “guanxi” list defines the term in just one paragraph with not a single citation (Buderi and Huang 2006:6-7). Including that definition, “guanxi” only appears five times throughout the whole book, never adding more explanation and merely referencing Bill Gates (the central figure of the work) as having either good or bad guānxi (Buderi and Huang 2006:6,90,218,232,242).

In the end, the purpose of such books is not to explicate the term in all its manifestations, but merely to give the reader a working knowledge of what is certainly a vital part of doing business in China. This is encapsulated in the question: “How can guanxi be integrated into business strategy?” (Langenberg 2007:9). The answer to such a question, both in terms of general business practices and in the specific case of Microsoft’s move into China, serves as a utilitarian introduction to the use of guānxi in the Chinese context.

We can imagine a businessman, before embarking on his venture to China, picking up such a book. Even a skim through the introduction and some of the key chapters would at least make him aware of the use of guānxi in the Chinese context. He would of course make many missteps during his initial attempts at creating guānxi connections. Yet, the Chinese would probably chalk most of these up to his being a foreigner, and largely let him get away with them. As he went along, presumably learning from his mistakes, he would slowly begin to master the art of guānxi in a variety of contexts. We can also assume that eventually he would be far better at it than someone who had merely done a thorough review of the academic literature on the subject.

Thus, we see that even a rudimentary introduction to the concept of guānxi can have the effect of revealing the concealed mechanism behind interpersonal relations in China. The point is that one must experience guānxi in order to understand it, and more importantly, actually use it in real situations. In this way, the blending of guānxi into Western thought is a partial remedy to the long-standing problem with Orientalism of failing to see the Asian experience as a human one (Said 1994[1978]:328).

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