Leaving Zhangjiajie early we returned to Changsha 长沙, 博哥’s hometown. The return home, however, did not bring an end to our awkward brushes with guanxi关系. Our second night there we arranged to have dinner with another group of classmates whom 博哥 discovered were spending the vacation in the area. We were informed at the last minute that we would also be joined by an older family friend of one of the other classmates. Our new 叔叔 turned out to be a faculty member at the nearby military defense academy. A gruff, brusque man, he showed up to the dinner in military uniform and smoked throughout. Our small-talk received curt, reluctant answers, while our host spending most of the meal paying attention only to the student he had previously known and to his closer friends. Nevertheless, he eagerly treated our whole party, about ten college students, to an extremely fancy meal, where the food’s theatrical presentation far outstripped it’s actual taste, in a lush private banquet room (though private dining rooms of this kind are common in Chinese restaurants and are often available at no extra charge). The following day he again treated the whole gang of students to lunch during our collective day trip to Shaoshan 韶山, the birthplace of Mao Zedong. We later confirmed that 博哥’s classmate was the son of one of our benefactor’s colleagues. Showing the son a good time while he was travelling in Hunan would allow our host to curry favor with the father. He got more than he bargained for when inviting the son out for dinner turned out to mean treating ten college students and two random foreigners to boot; however, our host seemed unperturbed by the sudden expansion of his hospitality, and 博哥 confided that it was likely that the defense academy itself was somehow paying for our lavish meals.
As mentioned above, it is well-known in the US that the rules for managing relationships and personal connections are different there from in China. The two incidents above certainly illustrate that. Indeed, my ability to secure a job as a visiting instructor at Beida this year illustrates that. But just how different are they? It is common among Americans discussing China to hear statements like “relationships govern everything” or “you can’t get anywhere in China without guanxi.” But I agree with an American acquaintance whom I recently discussed this with, that anyone who believes that this is fundamentally different from the US, that relationships and connections aren’t the surest way to professional advancement in the West, is kidding themselves.
Whatever the real degree of difference between the Chinese and American landscape is, it is clear that the stakes are high for Americans who come here and try to use the system incorrectly. This was more than abundantly clear to the whole Beijing foreigner community when the American owner of Kro’s Nest, one of the most popular pizza joints here, ran afoul of his Chinese business partner–and of the police they had been courting under the table to keep permission to stay open–and lost his entire stake in the business.
So how should an outsider view this system? As a Chinese acquaintance recently explained to me, foreigners tend to grossly misperceive guanxi in one of two ways. On one hand, many newcomers to China are much too moralistic in their understanding of the term, labeling it simply as corruption and refusing to dirty their hands with it. But as my friend explained, guanxi as the Chinese understand it is not meant to be so mean-spirited, and is not even necessarily meant to be competitive. For many Chinese there is a genuine desire, perhaps antithetical to the American attitude, to blur the lines between work and pleasure; that is, to make friends with colleagues and business partners and to conduct business in an environment that is much more personal. Thus, going on elaborate banquets and parties with colleagues—and getting hopelessly drunk off of baijiu 白酒 (Chinese grain-based booze, significantly stronger than vodka) in the process.
On the other hand, many foreigners are equally at fault for overestimating the power of guanxi. While viewed as a necessary part of professional life, guanxi is not all-powerful. Guanxi will usually allow you to bend rules—get a procedure completed in two days instead of two weeks, or gain admission for your child into the more prestigious high school despite living outside the official district boundary—but rarely to grossly violate the law. Guanxi can make your life significantly easier, but foreigners who overestimate its power may eventually find themselves so far outside the framework of the law that not even guanxi can save them.