This book is about the social logic of how China works. The focus of analysis is on guanxi, the Chinese expression of personalized social relations. Personal and social relations are important in every culture and society because people live and work in the contexts of these relations. In Western countries, for example, it is common for people to have close personal relations while keeping social relations at a certain distance. In China, however, social relations may not matter much unless and until they are personalized to become part of a focal individual’s guanxi network.
In this book, I use case studies as well as large-scale surveys to show the prevalence and the increasing significance of guanxi favoritism in reform-era China. You get a good job through your guanxi contacts. You start a new business with the money borrowed from and the business contract extended by your guanxi contacts. You manage an organization and sustain it through your guanxi networks of diverse ties. You are both ambitious and competent, and you are a big achiever in the job you do. But you may not get promoted to positions of higher rank or elected into prestigious societies of national honor without mobilizing your guanxi ties to help. Even filing a lawsuit or doing a legal job cannot be free of the underlying social logic of guanxi favoritism.
Guanxi in its most basic form is a dyadic tie linking two individuals. In this sense, guanxi and network building are an interpersonal phenomenon in the private sphere. However, as individuals socialize with one another in broader social structures beyond personal worlds, guanxi’s internal logics of sharing and affections, indebtedness and reciprocity, face and favor, as well as trust and loyalty go across the private–public boundary to affect social actions and interactions in economic, political, and legal spheres. In China, past and present, the following external conditions have created and sustained the propensities for persistent guanxi influence in the public sphere: (1) the cultural repertoire of relational beliefs and values, (2) the disjunction between formal norms and actual behavior, (3) the discretional power of strategic players, and (4) the institutional space created and recreated for informal norms to rule.
By all accounts, China today is still a guanxi society. The reason is, I argue, that any larger society consisting of interest-oriented, rational strangers is ruled through personally networked communities of governing elites in various domains of Chinese society and at different levels of the government hierarchy. The “canvassing net” phenomenon described in chapter 6 of the book is a perfect example for illustration. A local official wanting to win a promotion competition forms a canvassing net consisting of his or her deputies, superiors, relatives, close subordinates, and equal-ranking colleagues to work for him or her. This canvassing net is also the personally networked community through which any central and local official performs his or her governing job every day. In fact, governing a society of citizens or managing a sizable organization of employees is always done through the personally networked communities of governing elites, whether the society or organization in question is a public entity or a private venture. In sum, guanxi ties and guanxi networks are of contemporary significance in every corner of Chinese society today. So is the scholarly significance of this book.
Yanjie Bian is Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota and Xi’an Jiaotong University. His new book, Guanxi: How China Works, is now available from Polity.