Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Politics: Guanxi and Sponsorship

I visited Washington DC for the first time end of December. I toured the Capitol, visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and of course had a look at the White House. I toured the national Air & Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of National History.

Visiting Washington DC was quite an eye opener. Such a city, such importance, such political and state history (albeit a short history). The White House is actually quite smaller than expected - I guess the name and the office are so great, one would expect the White House to be some kind of grand palace, it is no more than a very big mansion.

So, politics. Trying to fit American and Chinese politics in so many words on this blog. I am quite sure I don't grasp everything, especially about American politics, but some things are not so different as they seem. In the US it is very expensive to run for a government position (senator, governor, congress, president) and maybe just as expensive to stay in office. You need many funds to run campaigns and to inform your voters and the public on your efforts to represent them in Washington or in the respective State Capital. Also, through sponsoring organizations or companies can be part of a campaign or political development. As far as I can see there are very few limitations to sponsoring campaign, representatives or political parties, although there are some, especially with regard to foreign funds. (See this article about an Indonesian Sponsor to the Clinton Presidency in today's Washington Post).

In China many important decisions from local to national level are also influenced by many actors and stakeholders, often referred to as guanxi (关系). Chinese politics and lobbying can be far more subtle than the American capitalist approach, especially because as soon as funds are exchanged one talks about corruption, which is in many cases a capital offense. The problem of corruption is big and real (in both the US and China) and the thin line between influence, endorsements and extortion, corruption is not easily defined.

Then, what really is this guanxi? Many Chinese, researchers and other experts have tried to explain this before. I like to give my contribution as well:

Guanxi: Linguistically in modern Chinese one can translated it as "relation(s)". The word consists of two compounds guan and xi, which I would describe to you meaning "close; inside" and "ties, bindings". It binds two people to what was discussed behind closed doors or it ties a group of people to each other as if the belong to the same 'house'. In modern China most of the results of guanxi that you see are polite exchanges: if you do something for me (i.e. pay for my dinner), I will do something for you next time (i.e. pay for your lunch). My opinion is that Chinese have a very strong sense of obligation towards people (friends, family, strangers) that have supported them in any way or have promised support for a future moment. If you have a good relationship with a Chinese counterpart, it is good to know that they always keep their word and will go out of their way to help you if you have provided support in the past (or promised your support in the future). This can make dealings with China somewhat complicated - you should really keep track of your guanxi. It can help you, but misused it can work against you!

Now, on a larger political level, the inner chambers of Chinese politics are also governed by guanxi, combined with any relationships that your family members or other friends have. A lobby through guanxi offering an important status or success can be just as valuable as outright corruption. Of course, paying somebody off or extorting somebody also establishes guanxi.

I am looking forward to learning more of the American guanxi system over the next years or so!

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