Guanxi 101

I imagine that guanxi 关系 is one of the very few Chinese words that is well-known among English speakers who have not actively studied the language. Literally, “relationship,” the word also refers to the subtle art of leveraging personal connections to personal and professional benefit. I had been well-acquainted with the term before the first time I came to China, and I think most Americans at this point are aware that these relationships in China carry special weight. Only recently, though, did I acquire personal experience that demonstrates just how complicated this system is and how hard it is for an outsider to understand the rules.

Last month 博哥 invited me and another American friend back to his home province of Hunan for the May Day break. Before going back to his home city of Changsha, we had planned to spend a couple of days at Zhangjiajie 张家界, a gorgeous national park in the same province. A few days before leaving 博哥 informed us that his father had a relative who ran a hotel in the town outside the park, and that he should be able to hook us up with discounted rooms, or even a free couple of nights. What we found when we got there was much more than he had ever expected. This relative, a distant cousin who was not particularly close with 博哥’s father, turned out to be the administrator of a five-star hotel owned and operated by the state-owned corporation that also the Chinese prison system–a rather ironic coincidence not reflected in the incredibly posh accommodations. As 博哥 explained, this is actually quite common–many government branches, including the military, own and operate their own hotels. That way, when they entertain distinguished guests in various parts of the country they can put them up in style–for free, of course.

Despite the rather distant connection, the three of us soon found ourselves being given the same over-the-top treatment. Not only did we stay completely for free in the hotel, but our gracious host–whom we were instructed to refer to by the affectionate Chinese 叔叔-“uncle”– considered it unthinkable that we suffer the burden of feeding ourselves. We were treated to three meals a day, with nearly every lunch or dinner being turned into a lavish feast in which our hosts ordered at least two dishes for every person at the table. The night we got to Zhangjiajie we discovered that another group of 博哥’s classmates were in town as well–they were treated lavish feasts as well. Our 叔叔 even covered the extravagantly expensive tickets into the park for us and several of our new friends, and booked a tour guide to lead us around all day. As 博哥 explained, our 叔叔 was able to get the tickets for free, through his own private connections–officials in his position are frequently able to obtain an arrangemet where they get a certain number of free tickets to an attraction each year–again, so that they can entertain distinguished outside guests. The most surprising act of hospitality, though, was 叔叔’s offer to arrange a ride for us to a more remote entrance of the park–not by taxi, but again through professional contacts. The three of us found ourselves in the back of a municipal police van, eliciting not just a few stares from onlookers when we exited outside the park. My guess is that diverting police resources for private entertainment is, officially, as frowned upon in China as it is in the US.

While we were of course all pleasantly surprised at first, the longer this star treatment went on the more visibly uncomfortable 博哥 became. As I mentioned, our 叔叔’s relationship to 博哥 and his family was quite remote, and there was really nothing by Chinese standards that dictate that he spend so much money and resources on our behalf. 博哥 explained that a mix of different motivations were most likely at work. Certainly genuine desire to treat family members well and show them a good time is as common in China as it is in the US. But 博哥 suspected that some desire to curry brownie points with potential contacts, in the expectation that they will return the favor at some point in the future, could very well play a role as well. Not to mention, of course, the simple motivation of conspicuous consumption, and the desire to show off to relatives how successful he had become. Whether the excessive hospitality contained any ulterior motives or not, by the second day it had reached such a level that 博哥, following several uneasy phone conversations with his parents, decided we should leave a day earlier than originally planned.

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