Part II: Guanxi for Foreigners – 10 Caveats
After our last discussion of foreigners and relationships in China, you may be tempted to dismiss ‘guanxi‘ as another word for ‘corruption’ – or at least a quick road to disaster. Unfortunately, nothing involving international business in China is ever quite so black & white. While it is a bad idea for westerners to rely too much on guanxi, remember that your Chinese partner or counter-party may be a firm believer in it.
When the literature talks about ‘cultural barriers’ between China and the West, be aware that the key differences are not “fork & knife vs. chop sticks” superficialities – they are deep-seated core beliefs like guanxi vs. due diligence. When you tell your Chinese associate that guanxi is an archaic custom, it is like HIM telling YOU that checking references and analyzing financial reports are silly wastes of time.
If you plan on working with Chinese, the issue of guanxi is certainly going to come up.
Here are 10 rules for dealing with Chinese partners who believe in guanxi:
Caveat #1: Do not be overly dismissive.
Guanxi may or may not have real benefits – but what really matters is that the Chinese people you are speaking to genuinely believe in it. When I am doing business with Chinese counter-parties who are too quick to disregard my advice about performing due-diligence or market research, it sends me the wrong messages about their general competence and respect for American methods. Likewise, when you dismiss their advice about guanxi, you may be correct – but in the wrong way. You may mean, “I don’t want to engage in corruption or shortcuts” but they may hear “I don’t understand Chinese methods and don’t have much respect for your opinion”. The first conversation you have with a Chinese counter-party about guanxi is the perfect time to discuss the approval process of your deal or business. It is also an appropriate time to take the moral and ethical temperature of your counter-party, industry, and general practices in your new business.
Caveat #2: Chinese really believe, not only in guanxi, but also in its uniquely Chinese characteristics.
The only thing worse than saying ‘guanxi doesn’t exist’ is to say, ‘every business culture has some form of networking and relationship building’. Many Chinese – particularly those not experienced with international business – find this insulting. (A later post will deal with the issue of Face – not to be confused with western notions of pride, status or reputation). Westerners tend to look for common ground, but Chinese may consider it a swipe at the integrity of the Chinese culture.
Caveat #3: If your new partner’s only contribution is guanxi connections, you had best be on your guard.
Chinese consultants and counter-parties know that you have read that guanxi is vital to business in China. In other words, your counter-parties may believe that building guanxi is a short-term goal of yours. When I was in Beijing in the early 90s, it was a sure bet that every foreigner gathering or junket had at least one guy who offered to connect you with the right people. In those days, it was a real job because doing business in China was so opaque and convoluted. Nowadays the rules are much more straightforward – for good or ill. You should not need special connections to get most approvals – and if you do then you should take it as an indicator that your business plan has flaws. In 2010 China, most experienced Chinese managers should either have the necessary connections or know how to develop them as needed.
Caveat #4: Guanxi is a rental, not a purchase.
Guanxi does not transfer. When your guanxi guy goes, so does the relationship.
When your special relationship at the ministry, regulator, supplier or distributor moves on you have to start all over.
Caveat #5: Guanxi cuts both ways.
It places obligations upon you – and you do not always control how you will pay back a guanxi debt. Examples have included pressure to accept low quality production, delays, inferior materials, IP theft, material theft, corruption, nepotism, etc. Remember – guanxi is a series of favors, and you have to give to get. The problem is that you have only the most limited control over what you will be asked to do, and how it will be valued. That is the side of guanxi that people do not talk about with Westerners much, but Chinese understand well.
Caveat #6: It is not the same as corruption, but it can be close.
The regulatory standards are higher for Westerners in China – both among Mainland bureaucrats and those back home. Even the appearance of corruption can come back to haunt Western dealmakers – and it is definitely your responsibility to monitor and control the activities of your employees, partners and agents. ‘Business as usual’ for local Chinese is too weak a standard for foreigners. You need to have rule & procedures and prepare for different contingencies. If a Chinese businessperson appeared in a US court and said, “but someone I just met told me that everybody ignores that local zoning regulation”, he might appear dishonest, arrogant and/or clueless – but extremely liable. Well, you’ll come off the same in a Chinese court when your new guanxi connection goes awry.
Caveat #7: Foreigners cannot really build it up the same way that locals do.
Consider the difference between a business proposal from your high-school buddy or college roommate and a Chinese businessperson that you’ve had dinner with a few times. Both constitute a connection – but your relationship with your former roommate has completely different characteristics. You can be more honest with him about his ideas, make suggestions and possess a deeper understanding than you ever would with the Chinese counter-party. The danger isn’t necessarily that your Chinese associate will try to cheat you – he may kill you by being overly polite and sensitive to your feelings.
Caveat #8: Distinguish between everyday guanxi and ‘special relationships’.
If your counter-party’s guanxi is rooted in familiarity with ‘standard operating procedure’ at the ministries, regulators, supply chain and distribution channels -then the situation is fine. It is a normal business competence that weighs in his favor – but is more of a basic requirement than a game-changer. But take note of ‘special relationships’ – like a close relative of an official or executive at a customer or supplier. These are the entanglements that get messy quickly.
Caveat #9: China has laws now.
Chinese have a very high regard for bureaucracy, procedures and regulations. Guanxi is not as important as it once was, and low-level transactions and routine approvals should not require special connections. In fact, circumventing basic rules can cause BIG problems later on. Remember that it is much easier for foreigners to get money into China than getting it out. It is easy to find fixers who can speed your investment through – but getting the licenses and permissions to actually sell goods, repatriate profits and move money may be a different story.
Caveat #10: Guanxi may be able open some doors – but it can also close and lock them.
Strangers are not generally ripping off westerners who lose investment, IP and assets in China usually. 9 times out of 10, the very people assured them about the power of their guanxi connections that turn around and use them to lock out the westerner once the assets are transferred.
Now on Kindle: Guanxi for the Busy American. A BRIEF explanation of guanxi and relationship-building, written specifically for the overscheduled American professional. Guanxi for the Busy American