I first heard of guanxi (關係) in a university class on Chinese culture. Guanxi is a set of interpersonal relationships that function as a web of influence. Guanxi is variously translated to English as relationships or connections. These translations fail to convey the complex social ties that come from this web of kinship, friendship, patronage/clientage, or “friendships” of convenience, based on perceived mutual benefit. The concept of guanxi developed naturally out of Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating hierarchically appropriate associations among society members. The implied reciprocal benefits, obligations, and trust required for a guanxi network were viewed as helpful in maintaining the socioeconomic order.
My professor described guanxi in glowing terms. I remember him explaining it is natural to do business where there’s an established connection. It creates a mutually beneficial synergy, enriching your acquaintance with your business, while receiving preferential service and pricing. He went on to explain that guanxi could exist between friends, family members, friends of friends, or a friend’s family. Guanxi can be extremely tenuous; my friend’s father’s youngest brother is friends with your step-sister, therefore we have a connection and I would like you to perform my vasectomy. It just feels safer having “someone I know” working down there. I found myself nodding along with the professor’s points. Yes, it’s logical to seek a sense of connection with business associates.
I still like the idea of guanxi, especially in a high-context country like Taiwan. High-context cultures are community-driven, connection-oriented, distrusting of outsiders (exclusionary), and emphasize building trust through shared experiences. Guanxi makes sense in the Chinese cultural milieu. In theory it’s a great way to do things.
However, nothing kills theory quite like experience. I got an inkling that guanxi might not be that great while still in Canada. One of my (white) friends was married to a Chinese girl, and had a ringside view of Saskatoon’s Chinese community. He told me guanxi was a license to fuck over friends and family. I was incensed. Obviously this white moron didn’t know what he was talking about, and might even have some racist tendencies. I didn’t believe him, and I should know, after all I knew Chinese culture. I was in a Chinese culture class after all.
His example was of a local Chinese run auto shop. He claimed that the owners abused members of the Chinese community. They would rip-off friends and family, while providing good service to outsiders. Guanxi was the problem, or so he said. That just didn’t jib with my book learnin’. His idea was that because of guanxi the shop owner felt free to abuse their Chinese customer base. Those customers would come back. They had to—they had guanxi. However with strangers the shop needed to provide decent service or those people would not return.
I didn’t really believe him. My professor and I were in agreement—guanxi’s great. I now recognize my friend’s observations to be stunningly astute, especially for a relative outsider to Chinese. His ideas mirrored Bo Yang’s (柏楊) observations on guanxi and Chinese culture in The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人).
It seems true. I was misinformed. Guanxi is a nightmare for Chinese people. I can give many examples from my own (semi-Chinese) life in Taiwan. The first example I’d like to offer is trifling, but it bugs me. My neighborhood is served by Taipei’s shittiest traditional breakfast shop. I love my doujiang (豆漿), shaobing youtiao (燒餅油條) with egg, dan bing (蛋餅), and their food is good, but they rarely bother opening. If they open one, maybe two, days a week I’m lucky. They never open on the days I’m jonesing for xiao long bao (小籠包). It really pisses me off. Finally a couple of years ago a competing Taiwanese style breakfast store opened right beside the crappy restaurant. I was ecstatic. Finally I would be able to have fantuan (飯糰) whenever I wanted. The luxury! The new shop was great. The food was good and they opened daily. I was in heaven. Naturally the old breakfast shop began opening every day to compete. They started to operate like a proper business. I wasn’t having it. I did not want to support them. I wanted to take my business to the new shop.
My wife understood my feelings, but every time we went for breakfast she insisted on going to the old shop. To go to the new shop would have required walking past the old shop and into the new shop. A statement I was willing to make. However, my wife couldn’t bring herself to do it. She’d bought breakfast there for years, she chatted with the owner every time—there’s a bond. They had guanxi. Apparently the other Taiwanese felt the same. As soon as the old shop began conducting business properly the new shop withered and died, no one wanted to snub the old shop’s owners and patronize the new shop. Within a month the new store was out of business, within a month and a day the old breakfast shop took a holiday, and we were back to the extremely intermittent daanbing availability—fucked by guanxi.
Another example comes up when dealing with health issues. Neither my wife nor I have any particular connection to healthcare providers. We don’t really know doctors. But, in guanxi culture it is necessary to have some guanxi. So, when either I or my wife need a doctor, I know that it’s going to be a shit show. My wife will start trying to find some connection to an appropriate specialist, exploring flimsiest connections seeking someone who knows someone, who knows someone that has a friend that knows a doctor. All so that she can say, “I’m acquainted with blah-blah” when she goes into the doctor’s office. Well, also she feels more secure if one of her social contacts vouches that this person is a good doctor. It’s meaningless, but reassuring. My approach when single was to randomly selected a doctor. I’m still alive. Now that I’m married I find myself playing the doctor guanxi game. Our connections are always at least seven degrees away from anyone the doctor cares about. Frankly it’s embarrassing trying to exploit such flimsy connections.
This outlines one pernicious aspects of guanxi. If you don’t have the connections you can be cut out.
Nothing I’ve said here is news to those living in a Chinese cultural environment. The Taiwanese know they are getting screwed by quanxi. It has been happening their whole lives. Awareness does not translate into ability to change. Guanxi is right at the core of Chinese culture, it is central to high-context culture. The very foundations of Chinese culture would have to change for people to stop getting bamboozled by guanxi.