关系 guanxi. First year Chinese students might stumble across this word and its definition “relation” without knowing why they’re learning such a complex word so early on. Yet along with verbs like, “eat”, “drink”, and “sleep”, the word guanxi is arguably equally important to survival in Chinese society. In our terms, it’s “networking”— the “in” that every young person needs to kick their feet up on a mahogany desk in San Francisco. Yet here, in the crux of everyday life, connections, relationships, or guanxi is the clean break that can transform one’s life from a hellish position at a Foxconn factory to some secretary job in the bank district of Shenzhen. It’s also the glue that must constantly be applied and reapplied to maintain long-term friendships. Indeed, the only relationships that generally remain free of the guanxi calculation exist within the immediate family.
So what is guanxi in the Chinese sense? It’s a little like the “good word” a friend might put in for you at his or her company, with the complexity of Chinese gift-giving thrown in the mix. In other words, it’s an extended edition of bank consultants’ infamous “networking” game, with a pile of chips on the table and a lifelong score board. Needless to say, this is no easy game to play— most Chinese take at least until their third decade of life before mastering the ropes well enough to benefit from the system.
To play the game, one must be in tune with the needs and condition of all other opponents. In fact, “participants” is probably a more appropriate word, because one is often playing with friends or extended family members— people they genuinely like. Now, let’s say you are in the midst of changing careers and are in need of the support of an old teacher or friend to help you through the process (teachers in China generally function as lifelong references). They may vouch for you and help you confront your current boss to explain your decision or meet with you to chat or seek out new opportunities for you in a different area of work. Regardless of how they help you, if it was you who first approached them with a personal problem, it is generally expected that you do something kind for them in return— if only as simple as buying them a pack of name-brand smokes. Of course, the price of your nice gesture should be in line with their socioeconomic status, not yours. Then, down the road, they can freely ask for your support or for favors if you do not proactively inquire about opportunities to help them out. The more you call them up for dinners or gift fruit baskets on the holidays, they more willing they will be to stick their neck out for you.
That’s the simple part. Now to add to the puzzle: You find a friend who’s willing to introduce you to the leader of a nationally-recognized dance troop to discuss working there in the future. While you are a regionally-recognized dancer with a strong resume, your previous job included social security and health care benefits that have recently stopped being offered to new members of this dance troop. (Currently, many Chinese units have stopped providing the same benefits they used to due to financial constraints… sound familiar, anyone?) You plan to meet with your friend and the troop leader to discuss the potential of receiving future benefits in line with those you are currently receiving, all the while recognizing the reluctance of the troop leader— your career path has been inconsistent and she worries you will quit this new position within the next five years. Arranging benefits for you will be an up-front hassle for the dance troop that will require years of consistent contributions on your part before the cost of hiring you will be worth it. So, how should you approach the situation from a guanxi point of view? Should you treat the two to dinner? What kind of gift should you bring, if any? Should you give one to both your friend and to the dance troop leader? How will you know what this leader likes— does she smoke or drink? (Giving packs of cigarettes is a common gesture here, think U.S. in the 1950’s.)
Again, it is best to consider the socioeconomic status and prestige of the one you are dealing with— a renowned dance troop leader requires close to a 2000 yuan gift— over $300 USD. It is certainly your responsibility to treat the two to dinner, and you should inquire as to what type of food they like best, while booking a private room to discuss the matter in silence. In essence, you must pay the equivalent of how much hassle the troop leader will go through to hire you plus the upfront cost of the benefits. Over time, the benefits will be a long-term gain for you, while your contribution to the dance troop will be a long-term gain for the leader. Thus, you two get off fair and square, more or less. After the dinner, you can take your friend out for drinks or gift his kids a “hong bao” or red envelope filled with money for the Chinese New Year.
This is just one example of how gift-giving intertwines with Chinese guanxi, or networking. To merely use a friend as an “in” is not nearly enough— one must work to form a new bond with the top executive. At the same time, one must work to maintain the casual friendships he or she has. Of course, once one reaches a certain level of trust and comfort with a friend, one can ease up on the formality of gift-giving and cease keeping score. Play the cards too selfishly though, and you’ll always be caught red handed.