Guanxi (China)

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Location: China
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Author: Prof. Mayfair Yang
Affiliation: University of California

Original Text: Prof. Mayfair Yang

The Chinese word “guanxi” (关系 pronounced “guan-shee”) literally means “relationship” or “connection.” It also refers to an important aspect of contemporary Chinese culture: the need to “use” guanxi, or call on personal or social connections to get things done, acquire a scarce commodity, or gain access to an opportunity. In this sense, guanxi is a dyadic social exchange relationship, in which one person helps the other, and in return, the other owes a social debt. Thus, guanxi in practice is like a gift-exchange between two persons, in which there is affect or good feelings (renqing), a mutual obligation to help the other, and reciprocity, or the expectation of repayment at a later date. Gifts, favors, and banquets are the objects of exchange, and the debt may sometimes be repaid after several years.

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When a person is socially adept in the deployment of guanxi, he or she is said to be skilled in guanxixue (关系学 pronounced guan-shee-shué), which means “the study of” or “the art of cultivating guanxi.” While relying on social connections is true of every society, most scholars would agree that this practice is more prevalent and more discursively elaborated in contemporary China than many other places in the world. Certainly, “the art of guanxi” is more important in China than “connections” in modern Western societies, where individualism and self-reliance are emphasized. For these reasons, “guanxi studies” have become a cottage industry in China Studies, generating many academic papers in the fields of anthropology, sociology, business management, political science, and history. While the study of informal relations tends to be peripheral in many other academic contexts, in English-language China Studies, guanxi is a recognizable theme, since non-Chinese scholars have seen guanxi as a prominent feature of contemporary Chinese culture.

In contemporary China, guanxi are deployed for a myriad of situations and needs: to get a job; to acquire a scarce commodity; to get a child into a good kindergarten or sought-after school; to get into a high-quality hospital; to get official approvals and permits to start up a business; to get a lighter sentence for crime; to avoid penalties for violating the birth control policy; to connect up to electricity, water, and gas for new buildings or residences; and so forth. Thus, guanxi are often used to skirt around the cumbersome bureaucracy, or to reach a government official, clerk, or person in charge of giving permission or making selections of the recipients of some desirable good or opportunity.


Guanxi practices grow out of the traditional Chinese cultural emphasis on social relationships and the interpersonal ethics of obligation and reciprocity. The Confucian classical texts are filled with discussions of the reciprocal duties and obligations of different social roles and relationships, and the ethics and etiquettes of gift-relations and host-guest relations at rituals and banquets. However, Taiwanese culture stems from the same traditional culture, but guanxi practices there are not as pervasive as in Mainland China. Prior to Taiwanese people re-establishing contacts with Mainland China in the 1990’s, the term guanxixue was not used in Taiwan. In my own work[1], I have suggested that guanxi in China was produced out of the political-economic structures of Maoist state socialist society, where the state took charge of all social organizations and human activities, and goods, jobs, housing, and life opportunities were all allocated by the state. Guanxi culture was thus born out of the need to get permission from so many gatekeepers, whether state officials or clerks, controlling all social paths and opportunities. It proliferated due to its assuming the burden of replacing the missing market mechanism in the Maoist state socialist order. It is not surprising that the societies of the former Soviet Bloc also came to rely on blat, a Russian term which refers to an informal exchange quite similar to guanxi.

In contemporary Chinese society, most people rely on the help of well-positioned friends, relatives, former classmates, persons from the same hometown, co-workers, and other connections to help them get through life. These are long-term relationships that already have built-in obligations for mutual help and reciprocity. If one needs the help of an influential person, but there is no prior relationship, then a new guanxi must be initiated and carefully cultivated. Often the help of guanxi intermediaries are necessary to introduce one to a targeted person who may grant a favor. Once the introduction is made, one needs to cultivate the relationship over some time, with friendly visits or conversation, and gift-giving or a banquet, before a request can be made with decorum. Culturally, there must be a crucial temporal delay in-between the gift offering and the request or repayment. The offering of the gift, favor, or banquet must be couched in terms of friendship, rather than naked instrumentalism, so that sociality, affect, and utility co-exist as key components of guanxi. Otherwise, without sociality or affect, the relationship would be considered a simple barter or bribery, which are culturally disparaged.

Guanxi, Bribery and Corruption

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Although there is a fine line between guanxi and bribery or corruption, most Chinese do distinguish guanxi from bribery. The native distinction is mainly in terms of whether the emphasis is on the personal relationship or on the exchanged favor or gift. If the relationship has been going on for a respectable length of time and the two people are on good terms, then it seems natural that one friend would want to help the other. However, if there is little or no prior relationship between the requestor and the granter of the favor, and cold hard cash or some costly material good is proffered in exchange for granting the favor, then it would be dubbed an act of bribery. If the gift recipient is currently holding office as an official, the monetary value of the gift is high, and the favor is granted in his or her capacity as a serving official, then this would be a case of official corruption.

Yunxiang Yan[2] has observed that existing scholarship places too much emphasis on instrumental guanxi, whereas the bulk of Chinese guanxi have more affective resonance and are guided less by instrumental motivations. This is the case in some rural village contexts where the traditional emphasis on harmonious and affective social relations can still be found. However, given that guanxi was made to serve many functions of the missing market economy during the Maoist era of state command economy, one can also say that guanxi has become more instrumentalized in China, especially in urban areas. In the post-Mao era, instrumentalism has further increased with the logic of profit, and many rural areas have been penetrated by new market and industrializing forces, and there is mobility of rural people into urban areas. Thus, even rural guanxi have been greatly instrumentalized. When guanxi is instrumentalized, first, the emphasis shifts from the cultivation of affective social bonds to the object of exchange, the gift or favor given or received. Second, the intervening time between the presenting of the gift and the expected repayment is also shortened. Thus, highly instrumentalized guanxi move closer to bribery, and this process has become more frequent in post-Mao commercial society, with a resultant increase in bribery and official corruption.

Recent Guanxi Developments in Post-Mao China

There have been debates about whether the introduction of a market economy and a legal system in the post-Mao era, have resulted in a decline in the use of guanxi in China[3][4]. Most scholars agree that there are no signs that guanxi has declined overall, and ironically, its practice may have actually increased in certain domains. Although guanxi is no longer needed to purchase most goods that are now readily available in the stores bulging with consumer products, a vast arena of new needs and desires has opened up that still create a dependence on one’s guanxi network. Yanjie Bian and others have collected quantitative data in eight Chinese cities to show that in finding employment, the dependence on guanxi has actually increased steadily in the post-Mao era. Before 1979, when over 77% of jobs were allocated by the state, to after 2002, when 63% of jobs were obtained through market forces, Bian’s survey found that during this transition from a command to a full market economy, the reliance on guanxi networks to find jobs actually increased from 24% in 1979, to 45% in 2002 and thereafter[5]. Evidently, the new market economy must still adapt itself to the existing political economic structures and culture of China.

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In the Maoist era, the most skillful guanxi practitioners were often the “supply agents” (caigouyuan) who worked for state or collective factories, and needed guanxi to acquire raw materials. While this occupation has declined with the development of private enterprises, today’s private entrepreneurs still need guanxi for success in business. They need guanxi with key officials to get business permits, purchase real estate or rent space, waive labor or environmental regulations, get connected to the electricity grid and water sources, arrange transport routes, get passports and exit permits to go abroad, etc. So long as the state in China continues to wield such influence and control in the economy and all domains of life, and state-owned enterprises continue to represent a significant portion of the Chinese economy, there will be a need for gift-giving and guanxi to soften up those officials and clerks so that they may grant favors and opportunities.

Yet economic prosperity and the increasing globalization of the Chinese economy have indeed brought changes to guanxi culture. The post-Mao increase in instrumentalized guanxi that blurs boundaries between guanxi and bribery has already been mentioned. The second change has been in the nature of the gifts given in return for expected favors. Whereas in the 1980s, it was enough to give cigarettes, alcohol, and banquets to officials, now there is gift inflation and the “sexualization of guanxi.” Male entrepreneurs trying to cultivate guanxi with officials will sometimes invite them to enjoy the women working in massage parlors, karaoke nightclubs, and brothels. Thus, a variety of women’s sexual services have become the new “gifts” of guanxixue. Tiantian Zheng[6] and John Osburg[7] have written about the cementing of masculine bonds between entrepreneurs and officials as they get together to talk business and enjoy women at these establishments. The third change can be found in the increasing transnational dimension of guanxi. Not only Chinese capital and businesses expand across the globe, but also Chinese educational and cultural networks extend overseas, thus enabling Chinese both inside and outside China to gain new opportunities abroad through transnational guanxi networks, which now may even include non-Chinese. Finally, with new social media technologies, personal guanxi networks have found a new medium to activate its members and expand their geographical and social reach. The technical properties of We-Chat (weixin), which uses mobile phones to send simultaneous messages to one’s personal contacts, is uniquely favorable to the personal network form of guanxi. Scholars have just started to study the confluence of guanxi and We-Chat networks, and how these have been increasingly significant for the local mobilization of public protests and street demonstrations in China.


  1. Yang, Mayfair. Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  2. Yan, Yunxiang. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  3. Gold, Thomas, Douglas Guthrie, and David Wank. Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  4. Yang, Mayfair. “The Resilience of Guanxi and its New Deployments: A Critique of Some New Guanxi Scholarship” in China Quarterly, 2002, no. 170, pp. 459-476.
  5. Bian, Yanjie, 边燕杰等著 .《社会学网络与地位获得》。Social Networks and Status Attainment. 北京:社会科学文献出版社 Beijing: Social Sciences Records Publishing Company, 2012.
  6. Zheng, Tiantian. Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  7. Osburg, John. Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.