Is guanxi corruption or a benign cultural trait?

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Answered by: Andrew, An Expert in the China - History, Culture and Language Category
Imagine a young couple coming home from work one afternoon. As they were crossing a bridge they came across a group of police cars. The cops allowed most traffic past, but occasionally flagged down a car. This young couple was flagged down so that the cop could chat with them, with an outstretched empty hand. The woman behind the wheel asked what the problem was, and if they could continue. The cop commented on the nice weather with his hand still sticking through the window. The lady, unfazed, noted the cop's name, made a quick phone call and after a minute drove away without protest from the cop. If you were the passenger, how would you have interpreted that scene?

Most people would quickly recognize that the cop was soliciting a bribe. Why did he let the couple go without paying? Some might say it was corruption, but the young couple did nothing wrong. Others might use a less value laden term, influence. This is strictly correct, but is too narrow for what actually happened. I have lived in China and therefore have some endemic understanding to shed light on the situation. The lady has good ??(guanxì). She had the proper social contacts, that she has cultivated through interactions and gifts, who were able to call on their contacts and so on until the problem at hand was resolved. Influence is a one directional relationship, that is only available to those in power, while guanxi is an active part of life for everyone in China. Understanding this concept is essential to participating in Chinese culture, as an economic migrant, a business, or a long term traveler. Is guanxi corruption? There is no clear answer for this because we must first define guanxi.

English has no equivalent word to guanxi. It is most commonly translated as either relationship or connection, but both of those terms fail to capture its essence. A social web of contacts that are nurtured over a lifetime, which are mutually beneficial to both parties and allow a person to call on their connections to solve problems is guanxi. It is a helpful grease of business transactions and social events that allows an individual to solve their problems, with a little help from their friends. Guanxi can be earned through elaborate banquets or simple actions such as lighting a cigarette. In some cases being exceptional (foreign) and present is enough to acquire guanxi.

This gigantic web of interactions can be quite complex and confusing to an outsider. My first experience with guanxi was in attempting to install an internet line to my home. I called to make an appointment for a technician to come and do the work. He called me shortly before the agreed upon time and made transparent excuses. Ten minutes and a flurry of phone calls later I found out my girlfriend's cousin's classmate was a former coworker of the technician. Suddenly I had internet installed and a guanxi debt to repay. I was inept in Chinese culture and never could have negotiated this by myself but by relying on my girlfriend's guanxi I was able to solve my problem quickly and without any of the red tape or inefficiencies that are normal from a western style bureaucracy.

Now that we have defined, as best we can, guanxi, we can finally answer the question. Is guanxi corruption? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not. The range of behaviors that encompass guanxi do not directly overlap with what we consider corruption. When it is being used for illegal purposes or base financial gain then it a form of corruption. However, when it is being used as a grease for social or business interactions that benefit all parties involved then it is not. It depends on the specific use of guanxi. One can not generalize an answer to this.

Business and cultural ties between USA and China are increasing all the time. Guanxi takes the place of rule based interactions. For American individuals and companies that do business in China, or with Chinese people, the ability to negotiate guanxi networks is vital. It can be the difference between making the deal, and going bankrupt. Companies that try to operate in China without sufficient guanxi find resources hard to find, regulations kept confusing and promoting company products difficult. Guanxi has become more common in English mediums because of usefulness both in interaction with Chinese culture and to describe a specific type of relationship. Although it seems confusing at first, a little study can allow anyone interested to significantly deepen their understanding of, and immersion in China.

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