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Guanxi in the Daily Lives of Ordinary Chinese

Introduction

Background relationships and circles may be found in all spheres of people’s communication and cooperation. Sometimes, such relationships tend to have an unhealthy character since they lead to corruptive schemes. In other cases, support from close people can help governments and organizations to make significant positive changes for people. The notion of guanxi, or relations, is widely spread in China, where human connections are deeply cherished and rooted in cultural genes.

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This research paper will offer the analysis of guanxi in different spheres of Chinese relationships. The concept of guanxi will be investigated, and China’s business and political life will be discussed in relation to the guanxi philosophy. The paper will cover the most crucial issues of the lives of the Chinese people with regard to their interpersonal connections. It is argued that guanxi has both a positive and negative impact on the country’s inner and international politics.

General Definition of Relationships in the Chinese Society and Different Ways of Categorizing Them

Relationships constitute the most important element in any sphere of communication between Chinese people. A word used to denote personal connection in China is guanxi.1 This term is defined as the essential condition for successful collaboration between the Chinese. Guanxi has reached a good status in the Western literature due to its significance in many fields, including politics, management, and sociology.2

The concept of guanxi is dynamic and complex, which is why there is much research performed on this matter. Chen and Chen consider guanxi as the indigenous Chinese construct and characterize it as the informal “particularistic” personal connection between people that are related to each other by an “implicit psychological contract.”3 By this contract, individuals are required to follow the established social norms such as obligation, loyalty, mutual commitment, and sustaining a long-term relationship.

Whereas guanxi is considered as a vital element of communication, scholars note that the significance of this element varies from situation to situation. Su, Mitchell, and Sirgy define guanxi as a network of “resource coalition-based stakeholders” who have common resources for survival.4 According to the authors, guanxi occupies the major place in reaching business success in China. However,Su, Mitchell, and Sirgy also remark that not all guanxi relationships are essential, and out of the essential ones, not all are evenly significant.5 Still, scholars agree that relationships play a crucial role in the Chinese culture.

In business matters, guanxi is viewed as the “preferential treatment” given to partners that is reflected in offering them simplified access to resources and information control, as well as in protecting partners from external competitors.6 While Western scholars view guanxi as a network, it is not an entirely correct understanding of the concept. In Chinese people’s view, guanxi is a system of renqing (favors) that incorporates indebtedness without a repayment limit.7

The Chinese always do their best to return any renqing and assume that their partners will do the same. Thus, renqing is regarded as “the exchange currency” for guanxi.8 There is a variety of cultural and legal factors affecting guanxi‘s role in the modern Chinese society. Guan identifies the following issues:

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  • the correct understanding and implementation of guanxi is capable of transforming a person’s life;
  • it is possible to improve guanxi through individual attempts without the influential family support;
  • the most optimal way of developing guanxi is recognizing and satisfying one’s partner’s greatest desires and needs.9

The reason for such roles of relationships in China is that this country’s legal structure differs greatly from the Western structure. There is no strict structure of formal rules in China, and, as a result, there can be many interpretations of the same concept.10 Guanxi is the reflection of such personal perceptions since it is propagated as a coping mechanism in the situation when there is no reliable and unprejudiced government and an “established rule of law.”11 Moreover, as Guan mentions, the prevalent mentality of government corruption has promoted the evolvement of guanxi as the necessity.

Scholars suggest the following ways of categorizing guanxi:

  • according to the usage of the term (literal and figurative);
  • according to the Confucian theory;
  • according to the current perspectives.

Literal and Figurative Use of Guanxi

The literal meaning of guanxi as a noun is “the connection.” In the figurative meaning, it is employed to refer to barriers. Thus, the word means two notions: on the one hand, it refers to a barrier, and on the other hand, it means a conjunction connecting two different entities. The meaning of guanxi as a verb is “to close” or, in combination with other words, “to relate.” Together with xi, which serves as a linking verb, guan means “to tie up.”

In human relations, guanxi means “the state of two or more parties being connected” or “the connected parties” themselves.12 As a state of being connected, guanxi means “in existence or not,” “good or bad,” “close or distant,” “deep or shallow,” “in tension or in harmony.”13 In terms of interpersonal relationships, guanxi may be an individual, a company, a dyad, or a network. The word can be applied in different dimensions. Thus, there can exist friendship, family, business, and political guanxi.

Confucian Tradition and Guanxi and Categories of Interpersonal Relations

At different times, guanxi acquired various connotations in the Chinese society. However, at any given period, there is a possibility to trace the core meaning of guanxi back to ancient Chinese philosophers.14 In particular, Confucianism is regarded as a fundamental philosophy that had a significant impact on the formation of guanxi. In the works of the great philosopher, the word guanxi was not used. Instead, Confucius and his contemporaries employed the term lun, meaning “the paramount importance of human relationships.”15

Under this perspective, it is apparent that Confucius explained in his philosophy what has later become to be known as guanxi. Five core types of relationships were identified in the Confucian philosophy: “ruler-subject,” “father-son” “husband-wife,” “elder brother-younger brother,” and “friend-friend.”16 Thus, it is evident that even after the passing of many centuries, the core premise of the Chinese culture remained the orientation on relationships.

In relation to guanxi, Hwang offers to classify the Confucian ethics into two categories: ethics for ordinary people and ethics for the scholar.17 Out of these two types, the first one is considered to have a considerable effect on social actions if the daily life of the Chinese people. When analyzing the Confucian basis of guanxi, scholars remark that the theory of justice from Western psychology is the most suitable framework for such an investigation.18 Therefore, there is a strong connection between ancient philosophical views and the present-day understanding of relationships.

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Current Perspectives on Guanxi

In current scholarly literature, three different approaches to viewing guanxi are offered. The first one is concerned with categorical-dimensional concepts. In this relation, guanxi is divided into several categories: family ties, familial persons, and strangers.19 Depending on the kind of relationships, principles of communication and outcomes of such interaction are different. The second approach is viewing guanxi from a dyadic perspective or a group/network perspective.

The dyadic approach presupposes the involvement of two people in the relationship whereas the network approach allows more than two individuals in the relationship. The third current perspective on guanxi is related to the value judgment. Some individuals refer to guanxi as “the purely instrumental and particularistic dimension” of relationships, which is opposite to the established ideas of equality and friendliness pertaining to the analyzed concept.20

Relations in the US and China: Similarities and Differences

Both the US and China are considered as some of the most successful and prosperous countries. However, the approaches to building relationships in the two states are not always the same. This chapter suggests an overview of the similarities and differences in China’s and the US’s ways of building relationships. It is worth mentioning that divergent features are much numerous than common ones.

There is a similarity between the two countries’ attitudes towards relations in that the representatives of both states pay sufficient attention to finding positive emotions in the process of communication. However, China differs from the US in that its citizens tend to search a balance between positive and negative emotions while the Americans focus mainly on positive ones.21 According to research, the Chinese can feel bad during some good events, but the Americans can only feel positive on such occasions.

The second difference between the two nations’ perceptions of relationships is that the Americans are individualistic while the Chinese are more collectivistic. Due to this difference in approaches, it is no wonder that guanxi is the concept traditional in China and not in the US. Chinese people take care of others first of all and think about themselves last. Meanwhile, the Americans tend to settle their own interests first and only after that consider the needs and desires of others. Thus, the second major disparity between the two cultures is also associated with the level of emotions.

Another dissimilarity between China’s and America’s relationship patterns is in their political and military systems. China is more focused on its internal processes and does not attempts to enter the world military field with its forces. At the same time, the US is known for its somewhat imperialistic intentions, which is reflected in such events as the military actions in Iraq.22 Thus, the countries approach to relations is different in that China has more home-based intentions while the US attempts to set its power in other regions.

Finally, the representatives of the two countries have dissimilar emotional characteristics.23 This feature is related to the first identified difference. The emotional sphere, as well as the choice of feelings, is not the same in China and the US. The Americans seem themselves as independent from others and as separated from the influence of other people. Meanwhile, Chinese people are interdependent on and connected to others.24 For such individuals, it is crucial to belong to a group.

Thus, the principle of guanxi is much more relevant in China than in the US. The analysis of similarities and differences between relations in China and the US indicates that the two countries are quite dissimilar in this sphere. The only common feature is that both the Americans and Chinese tend to look for positive feelings during communication. Differences are more numerous, and they are mainly focused on the dissimilarities in the worldviews in the two countries.

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Reflections on Relations in China’s Modern Political Environment

The current political situation in China is characterized by corruption schemes due to the guanxi network formed by the high-level officials and governors.25 Being one of the greatest problems of the Chinese government, corruption has the detrimental effect on the country’s economic development. Corruption schemes lead to income inequality and continuous poverty. Apart from that, the negative impact on the country’s economy is reflected through the refusal of foreign investors to cooperate with China.

What is ironic about the situation is that guanxi has both a negative and positive impact on the political environment, on the one hand, coalitions existing between the high-level officials corrupt the system. On the other hand, the system of networks in the government helps to trace the origins of corruptive schemes and find ways of dealing with them. Thus, while the abuse of guanxi in the political sphere is a damaging issue, it can also be used to discover the illegal schemes used by politicians, which helps to find approaches to overcoming the corruptive strategies.

The attitude of the Western world towards China is greatly influenced by the reputation of the country that appeared due to the instances of corruption. This phenomenon, which is regarded as the abuse of power for personal advantage, undermines not only the government’s legitimacy but also the economy of the state.26 Although guanxi is a highly significant element of the Chinese political structure, it is noted at all levels that the abuse of relations in political affairs has a negative effect on the whole country. In order to eliminate the destructive impact of corruption on China’s political life, the practice of guanxi in the government should be revised, and limitations need to be set on the persons working in the government and important offices.

Reflections on Guanxi and Business Management

In the sphere of business management, guanxi is reflected in a rather effective way. In particular, it is argued that guanxi forms the basis of the cultural mechanism creating the ethics of cooperation prevailing in China.27 Also, the application of guanxi in business management helps to collect the resources needed for business performance and promotes the organizations’ survival. Therefore, guanxi management helps to identify and develop a network of “right people” who promote business in China.28 Su, Mitchell, and Sirgy have created a hierarchical stakeholder model of guanxi in which they suggest that not all guanxi are important for conducting business in China.29 An important issue to consider in this respect is that bribery is unacceptable under the philosophy of guanxi.

Being rooted in the collectivistic society, guanxi does not lose its legitimacy in arranging business connections in China markets. The role of guanxi in business management, in such case, is the enforcement of resources coalitions in which business partners share resources to increase the performance.30 In particular, there are three major characteristics of Chinese guanxi coalitions: long-term, network, and hierarchical. The first feature involves the long-term cooperative business connection. The Chinese people have a belief that there are two sides of everything. Thus, advantageous and disadvantageous occurrences change one another in the course of time.

Due to this fact, social interdependence is regarded as a “stock” that can be exploited in the times of difficulty and stored in the times of abundance. Guanxi is regarded as the most important component necessary for long-term success in the entrepreneurship performed in China.31 This is the reason why Western firms do not have the competitive advantage over Chinese organizations. Guanxi is a highly productive way of sharing scarce resources, which leads to a higher degree of understanding and support between the Chinese companies.

The second guanxi characteristic is its structure as a network that makes relations an extensive web of personal contacts.32 This network is dynamic, but it has accessible borders. Thus, it is possible to establish or discontinue guanxi. Chinese businessmen find it necessary to share the resources because only when the efforts are combined, the best result can be reached. When the question of entering guanxi appears, it is recommended to join a coalition not through bribery but through the intermediaries that have native connections in China.

The third feature of guanxi as a coalition is its hierarchical nature. The major rule in this respect is that “the humble” cannot assail “the noble,” and the distant cannot be more significant than a close person.33 The more a partner contributes in guanxi, the more important he or she will be considered. On the other hand, the less a partner contributes, the smaller his or her motivation to develop the business will be.

Guanxi is also known to promote the organizational commitment and loyalty to supervisor in Chinese companies.34 This kind of loyalty originates from Confucian philosophy, in which the individuals playing inferior roles had to obey to the superior persons. Thus, it is noted that guanxi promotes the willingness of employees to perform their duties and be dedicated to their supervisor. Also, Chinese employees are ready to utilize extra effort on behalf of their employers. Apart from that, there is a high level of attachment between the subordinates and their superiors.

Conclusion

The paper discusses guanxi as one of the most crucial constituents of the Chinese social life. Several definitions of the term are offered, but the core premise in each of them is that guanxi means close relations, on which many aspects of China’s life are dependent. In the world of business, guanxi means a coalition based on sharing resources. The notion of guanxi is categorized by the principles of literal and figurative use and from the perspective of Confucians philosophy. When comparing relations in China and the US, it has been revealed that the Americans are more oriented on positive emotions whereas the Chinese balance between the positive and negative feelings.

Also, the US citizens tend to be individualistic while the Chinese people have a collectivistic nature. The analysis of current perspectives of guanxi allows concluding that some officials abuse their connections for personal gain. Thus, it is recommended to find alternative approaches to analyzing the relations in the government and business to avoid corruption. Guanxi has the potential to promote the development of China, but it is necessary to eradicate corruption to gain the best cooperation opportunities.

Bibliography

Chen, Xiao-Ping, and Chao C. Chen. “On the Intricacies of the Chinese Guanxi: A Process Model of Guanxi Development.” Asia Pacific Journal of Management 21 (2004): 305-324.

Chen, Zhen Xiong, Anne S. Tsui, and Jiing-LihFarh. “Loyalty to Supervisor vs. Organizational Commitment: Relationships to EmployeePerformance in China.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 75 (2002): 339-356.

Guan, Jin. “Guanxi: The Key to Achieving Success in China.” Sino-Platonic Papers 217 (2011): 1-11.

Hwang, Kwang-Kuo. “Guanxi and Mientze: Conflict Resolution in Chinese Society.” Intercultural Communication Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 17-38.

Lim, Nangyeon. “Cultural Differences in Emotion: Differences in Emotional Arousal Level Between the East and the West.” Integrative Medicine research 5 (2016): 105-109.

Moore, Gregory F. “Less Beautiful, Still Somewhat Imperialist: Beijing Eyes Sino-US Relations.” In Handbook of China’s International Relations, edited by Shaun Breslin, 129-137. London: Routledge, 2010.

Parker, Clifton B. “European Americans Embrace Positive Feelings, While Chinese Prefer a Balance of Feelings, Stanford Research Shows.” Stanford, 2015. Web.

Su, Chenting, Ronald K. Mitchell, and M. Joseph Sirgy. “Enabling Guanxi Management in China: A Hierarchical Stakeholder Model of Effective Guanxi.” Journal of Business Ethics 71 (2007): 301-319.

Yin, Xiangru. “An Analysis of Corruption in China: The Guanxi Network of Chinese High Level Officials and Governors.” International Development, Community and Environment 140 (2017): n.p.

Footnotes

  1. Xiao-Ping Chen and Chao C. Chen, “On the Intricacies of the Chinese Guanxi: A Process Model of Guanxi Development,” Asia Pacific Journal of Management 21 (2004): 305.
  2. Chen and Chen, “On the Intricacies of the Chinese Guanxi,” 305.
  3. Ibid., 305.
  4. Chenting Su, Ronald K. Mitchell and M. Joseph Sirgy, “Enabling Guanxi Management in China: A Hierarchical Stakeholder Model of Effective Guanxi,” Journal of Business Ethics 71 (2007): 301.
  5. Su, Mitchell and Sirgy, “Enabling Guanxi Management in China: A Hierarchical Stakeholder Model of Effective Guanxi,” Journal of Business Ethics 71 (2007): 301.
  6. Jin Guan, “Guanxi: The Key to Achieving Success in China,” Sino-Platonic Papers 217 (2011): 1.
  7. Guan, “Guanxi: The Key to Achieving Success in China,” 1.
  8. Ibid., 1.
  9. Ibid., 1-2.
  10. Ibid., 2.
  11. Ibid., 2.
  12. Chen and Chen, “On the Intricacies of the Chinese Guanxi,” 307.
  13. Ibid., 307.
  14. Ibid., 307.
  15. Ibid., 307.
  16. Ibid., 307.
  17. Kwang-Kuo Hwang, “Guanxi and Mientze: Conflict Resolution in Chinese Society,” Intercultural Communication Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 18.
  18. Hwang, “Guanxi and Mientze: Conflict Resolution in Chinese Society,” 18.
  19. Chen and Chen, “On the Intricacies of the Chinese Guanxi,” 308.
  20. Ibid., 309.
  21. Clifton B. Parker, “European Americans Embrace Positive Feelings, While Chinese Prefer a Balance of Feelings, Stanford Research Shows,” Stanford, 2015. Web.
  22. Gregory F Moore, “Less Beautiful, Still Somewhat Imperialist: Beijing Eyes Sino-US Relations,” in Handbook of China’s International Relations, ed. Shaun Breslin, (London: Routledge, 2010), 129.
  23. Nangyeon Lim, “Cultural Differences in Emotion: Differences in Emotional Arousal Level Between the East and the West,” Integrative Medicine research 5 (2016): 105.
  24. Lim, “Cultural Differences in Emotion,” 106.
  25. Xiangru Yin, “An Analysis of Corruption in China: The Guanxi Network of Chinese High Level Officials and Governors,” International Development, Community and Environment 140 (2017): n.p.
  26. Yin, “An Analysis of Corruption in China,” n.p.
  27. Su, Mitchell and Sirgy, “Enabling Guanxi Management in China,” 302.
  28. Ibid., 302.
  29. Ibid., 302.
  30. Ibid., 304.
  31. Ibid., 304.
  32. Ibid., 304.
  33. Ibid., 304.
  34. Zhen Xiong Chen, Anne S. Tsui, and Jiing-Lih Farh, “Loyalty to Supervisor vs. Organizational Commitment: Relationships to employee Performance in China,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 75 (2002): 339.

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StudyCorgi. "Guanxi in the Daily Lives of Ordinary Chinese." May 6, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/guanxi-in-the-daily-lives-of-ordinary-chinese/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Guanxi in the Daily Lives of Ordinary Chinese'. 6 May.

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