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Guanxi: Connections Between Different Tensions

The Chinese use principles of hierarchy, reciprocity and sentiment to navigate social relationships (Osburg 2013: 56). In this context, the gift economy stems from China’s hierarchical social and political structure and inherent power relations, which creates and relies upon a certain internal logic of ethics and loyalty. In other words, it is the guanxi practice (personal networks or interpersonal connections) in China that produces the remnant between the public and the private. If the guanxi practice is possible, it is only because there is a power dynamic between the privileged and the ordinary. That is, although rampant corruption in China has been severely criticized by many people, it is not seen as un-Chinese.

Corruption, in many ways, can be seen as a matter of contending social forces: morality, sentiment, status and duty in a complex social field. In certain contexts, alternative moral and ethical systems can be more compelling to state agents than those enshrined in law or bureaucratic procedure (83). For example, the gift economy has close relations with the role defined by piety within the family or kinship. Thus, in a society with a long tradition of rule by man instead of rule by law having good guanxi with officials has always been vital, especially for businesspersons (Fan 2002: 376).

Thus, during the anti-corruption campaign, although many corrupt officials have confessed to their personal lack of belief, loss of faith, lack of cultivation and shortage of public oriented morality to account for their actions, they also defend their actions by appealing to notions of interpersonal morality, face and honour (Osburg 2013: 88).

Rather than seeing the shortcomings of the Party, the people are more inclined to ascribe their problems to unjust tendencies deeply rooted within Chinese culture, such as “nepotism, bureacratism[sic], preference for rule by man over rule of law, and feudal remnants” (Perry 2013: 29). As President Xi notes:

Corruption will affect social equity and justice. If we do not correct this situation, how will our society become the cradle of brilliant talents where everybody is allowed to display his talents fully? How will our society become dynamic? How will our Party and country vibrantly progress? We communists should not take the corruption road of “when a man gets to the top, all his friends and relations get there with him” as in feudal society. Otherwise, people will criticize us behind our backs. (22 January 2013)

The feudal remnant here refers to guanxi, a relational ethics that governs a contextual and expandable circle of social relationships and commitments. As Maoist political cosmology has lost its salience in people’s interpersonal relationships, notions of interpersonal morality and authority have increasingly served to legitimate everyday forms of power and ethics in China (Osburg 2013: 16). As one mid-level official from a financial department explains: “China society condones the acquaintance culture, through it we hope to enter into a collective.”

In this sense, what Wang et al. call neo-gaunxilism in contemporary China is in actual fact a hybridization of traditional guanxi embedded in Chinese culture and public relations arising from formal political institutions (2014: 501). Guanxi and neo-guanxilism create a grey area between the legal and illegal, formal and informal, individual agency and social structure (515). In other words, “marketization” in China is best understood as a process of embedding new economic structures and opportunities into existing and emergent social networks that straddle state and society (Osburg 2013: 28). As we will discuss in Chap. 5, this hybridization of private and public relations is seen as contaminating Party ecology. Thus, in this contaminated Party ecology, the shadow state in China is said to be in need of purification through the state of exception, by which a remnant is to be produced: one that neither belongs to the officials nor to the people.

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