There are several things you must learn about Chinese culture if you want to be successful, and one of them is called “Guanxi“ [关系].
So, what is Guanxi?
- Guanxi is what makes Chinese society run like a well-oiled machine.
- Guanxi is what gets that student with poor grades into a good university.
- Guanxi is what makes the difference between getting that $5 million contract or not.
Guanxi, when translated from Mandarin to English, literally means “relationships.”
So, how can you build your Guanxi network as a non-Chinese person and begin to enter Chinese society?
As someone who has been in China for 7 years, I must admit it really wasn’t until a year ago that I truly came to understand how Guanxi works, but since I started using it to my advantage, my life as completely changed, and it’s much better now!
I know most people don’t ever reach a level of Mandarin or cultural understanding that they’d like to, but I must urge you to try your best.
The thing is, even though a growing number of Chinese people are becoming deeply fluent and literate in English (sorry, it’s the most widely spoken non-Chinese language inside China), you can still only really access 1 or 2% of the Chinese population if you don’t have a command of their language.
So, if you ARE able to communicate with them in their language, first off you will get a lot of respect from them for learning and using it, and second, you immediately open yourself up to the remaining 98-99% of the population.
And trust me, the people you want to meet most likely don’t speak English.
The older someone is, the more well-connected (the more Guanxi) they will have, and let’s face it, when was the last time you met a 40+ year old Chinese person who spoke English well enough to truly establish a relationship with?
Don’t take my words the wrong way, there are many young people who are well-connected, but some of them don’t know how or haven’t begun to use their guanxi properly yet.
Also, Guanxi is not just about collecting people and using them.
People will not help you if they don’t know or trust you, so guanxi is actually about (from the point of view of Chinese people) making friends with people who might be able to help you further your ambitions at some point in the future, but not making them feel like you want to use them.
Guanxi is about mutually-beneficial relationships.
So, go out, make friends, make people like you and want to know you more.
Sometimes, you’ll “become someone’s friend,” simply because you are NOT Chinese (sometimes this can be bad for you because they only want to gain face by being seen with you, but if they can do something for you, you can use this to your advantage), but it’s best to not let yourself get caught up in a friendship with someone you can’t benefit from either (sorry, this is China, not your homeland where things are done differently).
Sometimes, you will be invited to dinner and KTV with this person, and they will show you off to their friends. You get a free meal, usually you are forced to get really drunk, but in the end, you make friends with all their friends that evening and expand your network.
Anyways, once you “make friends with someone,” you should do your best to truly become their friend, get to know them, learn about their hobbies, try to better understand their goals and how you can help them.
Chinese people are usually hesitant to share their network with strangers, and this is the same for doing business. If you want to become someone’s business partner, you must spend a lot of time with them, just like a marriage!
So, don’t expect them to help you immediately, and don’t waste their time with small requests for favors.
As for myself, as soon as I meet someone, I find out what they need, and immediately connect them to as many people in my network who might be helpful for their goals. This shows them A LOT of trust from my side, and if I ever need anything from them, they will be much more likely to help me because I’ve already done them a big favor even though they didn’t ask me.
Sharing is caring, and sharing your Guanxi network is a privilege, so you must earn it!
What are some small things you can do to strengthen your Guanxi bonds?
You can show your thanks by giving them small gifts.
You know that security guard who earns 2000RMB a month outside your apartment building?
Believe it or not, he keeps you safe at night. Give him a pack of cigarettes, some fruit, or a red packet at Spring Festival time.
What about the company director who rallied for you and convinced the big boss to sign that $5M USD contract with you?
Maybe you can throw him 50,000RMB as a thank you.
If anyone does anything to help you, even if they don’t ask for anything, you should spend some time/money to do something thoughtful for them, because you will probably need their help again at some point, and they will be more likely to help if they know you appreciate their efforts.
What are some examples of how Guanxi in action?
I used my guanxi for many things, and I calculated the risks before I did it.
I once used guanxi to get introduced to a company in Shenzhen, which is how I got my first job outside of teaching English and was able to move away from central China.
I used my guanxi to get introduced to the Shenzhen government so we could get the IdeaXchange supported by them.
I used my Guanxi to fix a passport/visa problem I had.
These might seem like very small things, but trust me, Guanxi is EVERYWHERE, and I KNOW I haven’t properly used my Guanxi to even further my goals in China. Once I figure out how to master Guanxi, I’ll be in an even better position than I am.
Here’s the best thing, you can do this too!
It just requires being culturally sensitive and aware, open-minded, patient, and having a desire to learn Mandarin.
Good luck on your journey towards success in China!
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