Everyone heard about Guanxi, that mysterious web of relations running through Chinese society, that weird tribal archaism, which stands in the way of making business in China. Having often said that China resembles Italy, I would like to try and understand it from my own Mediterranean background.

The main point of Guanxi is that it’s not about how qualified you are. It’s about who you know, and who will pick up your phone calls.

It sounds bad, but let’s have a think. On a professional level, is not the capacity to rely on existing networks of support a key to success in projects? At a more personal level, can you really trust a person with no friends? And at a more metaphysical level, is not our social inclusion fully part of our identity, not just a late addition to the core nugget of our pure being?

Of course, Guanxi can feed existing inequalities. Because it builds with time, and so depends on the family you come from, and the school you’ve been to. Interestingly, I found Chinese people particularly faithful to their high-school pengyous, who stand somewhere in between the family member and the chosen friend, as people we didn’t really choose, and people we’ve known forever.

But there is a democratic element in Guanxi. Sure, some Guanxis are more powerful than others. But the world has many levels, and multiple hierarchies. Here is a story: one of my Chinese friends suddenly fell sick, and needed to go to hospital. Beds are hard to get, especially when you’re not in critical condition. He got a space in a double room rightaway, through his parents’ Guanxi. I mocked him – ‘your parents have a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, they know all the right pepole.’ He corrected me, ‘actually, one of my parents’ very good friends drives the car of this hospital’s director – and it’s much better Guanxi than knowing a doctor here’. So Guanxi-power does not align immediately with social status. A cook, a driver, a cleaning lady, may be more powerful than a company director in a given situation, because they have direct connection to the key person in that context. Because life is complex, and you need all sorts of people for all sorts of situations. Therefore, you should nurture all of your relations, not only the powerful ones. That is the very democratic wisdom of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s about a world with many layers and hierarchies, a complex world – not unlike the one we live in. Guanxi might even be the principal counter-power in China. But Guanxi’s also about what we may wish to call ‘right wing virtues’: being true to your family, respecting people you know you can trust, and relationships that have been cemented with time.

In the end, I think I don’t mind Guanxi.


Everyone’s heard of it. There’s a paragraph about it in any China book. It’s essential in all business and personal dealings. It’s a key to understanding Chinese behaviour. Face.

Face is not just something you have. Face is something you can lose, or give. Win or deny. Face is about social interaction. Face is relational. Face is something money can buy. Face is what success brings you.

Make up can give you more face. So can expensive clothes, expensive cars, holidays abroad, any status item, really. The success of luxury brands in China is directly connected to face.

But face is not all about money. Making money can make you lose face. And face matters more than money. I was talking with Aaron one day about bad service in China – particularly North China. I was proposing what seemed a rational option, saying: service jobs are underpaid, so you can’t get able staff. What if businesses paid more for these jobs, so more competent and dynamic people would do them? That would improve the service, and improve the business. Aaron said ‘even if it paid better than my current job, I would never work in a restaurant. I would completely lose face if I did.’

He added a little story. When he finished high-school – a posh Tianjin high-school – two of his friends got a job in a restaurant. To mock them, he went there the following day, and started ordering lavishly. They served him; then quit the job. They were saving face.

Face is a form of collective property. Chinese parents would rather give their children money than have them work in face-losing jobs. Because if their children lose face, they lose face too. Your face is a common goods, that each of your relatives, friends and neighbours can enjoy, in proportion to their closeness. Any loss of face on your part will affect them, again, depending on how close they are. Then economic rationality plays out. Your relatives would rather give you 100 kuai than let you lose 150 kuai’s worth of face. And if you risk a huge loss of face – your whole network might go bankrupt on it – like a ‘face’ financial crisis. So they find a way; or all take a dive.

But what do you get from having face? To illustrate what face is, Aaron said: for instance, my grand-mother talks to the people in the Xiao Qu everyday. She likes to talk of her grandson making good studies and working for a multinational company. That gives her a lot of face. If I was working in a restaurant, she couldn’t talk about it. If others knew that, she would lose face. So she would just have to be silent, and let them speak.

Face is power. It is, precisely, the power to tell a story. The more face you have, the more you can face others; face them down if necessary. The more face you have, the more people will listen to you. Face has the same function as a mask in Greek and Roman theatre. Face amplifies your voice. It attracts attention to you.

But face is more than just a mask. One common form of mockery – read social control – is to tell people that they are ‘Mian Pi Hou’, literally, that they have ‘thick skin on their face’. That is what you hear when you brag too much, or don’t listen to others’ judgements on your actions. If your face is not affected by the community – then the community will re-assert its power by discarding it as a fake, or as low quality face. The worst scenario being: to not even have face. To pursue your own interest, without any care for what others will think. To build up your own little story, whether others accept it or not. Accepting facelessness.

This is how a shame culture builds itself. That is how social control operates.

(and for those who want further reading on face, there’s a great wikipedia article to read.)