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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 Amazon.com 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).

Sources of Chinese Conduct: Pissing on the Street

China has experienced unprecedented changes over the past two generations. Its economy has grown to be the second largest in the world (the first largest by some measures). Hundreds of millions of its citizens enjoy a standard of living unimaginable just forty years ago. Its elder leaders and teachers grew up in a largely rural society. They experienced some of the worst famines and societal upheavals in history. And yet, in 2018, roughly 60% of China’s enormous population lives in urban areas, a number projected to increase significantly in the next twenty years.

Nowhere are the effects of this urbanization more evident than in Shenzhen. The city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province was little more than a series of fishing villages before it was declared the first special economic zone (SEZ) in 1980. This thriving metropolis has since become one the country’s main hubs of trade, finance, and innovation.

The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted in 2014, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow alleys, wet markets and vibrant street vendors season this border area with the spice of raw, human commerce.

Moving west along the main arc of the city, we come to Futian and Coco Park, Windows of the World, and swooping south, finally arrive at Shekou. These areas, in varying degrees, are sharp departures from the street-level petty capitalism of Dongmen. The shimmering windows of high-rise office buildings tower above broad, clean boulevards. There are numerous high-end malls, and both the shopping and eating are priced for the business elite, Chinese and expat alike. Yet, one thing unites the decidedly distinct eastern and western parts of the city: the sight of parents letting their children piss on the street.

I’ve seen it at 9:00 on a Friday night on the busiest pedestrian road in Dongmen, and I’ve seen it at noon on a Monday in one of the ritziest malls in southern China at Coco Park. A toddler with crotchless sweatpants squats by the curb, while his father checks text messages. A mother holds her daughter over a trashcan, with a public restroom no more than 20-feet across the hall. Interestingly, a nationwide poll revealed that only 11% of Chinese people think it’s not okay for parents to let their children piss in public.

anti-spitting_poster

Public expulsion of bodily fluids, hopefully limited to urine and saliva, are both common and relatively harmless in villages of 200, 300, or even a thousand households. Let’s not forget that no more than thirty years ago, the majority of China still lived in such places, and that these people are today’s parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders. But, in cities of ten, twenty, even thirty million people, with some of the highest population densities on earth, these rural norms quickly become public health hazards. In fact, the Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive campaign to end public spitting during the SARS epidemic. I hope it won’t take another major outbreak for them to take action on public urination.

MH 370: Beyond Tragedy

As the search for debris enters its fourth week, the surreal circumstances of Malaysian Air Flight 370’s disappearance persist. However, as the possibility of finding survivors has evaporated, the tragedy has become indelibly real. The loss of MH 370 (March 8) and the Kunming Massacre (March 1) together violently took 182 Chinese lives in a single week. We, Americans, can certainly relate to China’s frustrations in its search for answers. Yet, it is the types of questions they are asking that may lead to greater cooperation and in fact fraternity between our two nations. As Malcolm Moore (March 4) asked, “Has the global Jihad reached China?” Furthermore, if the disappearance of MH 370 was a terrorist plot, are there links to Kunming? These questions alone seem to align China’s interests with the US War on Terror. The answers will determine the strength of our common interests, but the questions themselves begin to define US-China relations for the coming decades.