Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

No-one is illegal 3: Guanxi sells sea shells on the tiled floor

Bizarrely enough, this week of Herald stories rightly digging between the lines of the Taito Philip Field corruption inquiry (PDF) was kicked off by a Lincoln Tan Herald column apparently advocating that New Zealand businesspeople engage in corruption in China.

Dude, I’m so calling you on that.

The context of his column on how Kiwis have to get wise to guanxi, is the new Asia:NZ Foundation report (PDF) that I have taken to calling ‘Preparing for a Future with your Asian Overlords, Europlebs’. Says it all really. Charles Mabbett from Asia:NZ also recently handed me a similar article from the NBR on New Zealand entrepreneurs’ total uselessness when faced with the guanxi system in Chongqing. That article describes how New Zealanders are perceived by Chinese businesspeople as bad at relationship-building, impersonal, and therefore as untrustworthy and just out to make a quick buck.

I note that local and central Chinese government officials might also have said that New Zealanders are bad at bribing them, had NBR asked.

But it’s Lincoln that comes up with the money-quote from a Shanghai reporter that he reproduces approvingly:

Kiwi businessmen don't know how to buy people's hearts. In fact, they don't even know how to buy people a meal.

Nice one bro. 'Buy people's hearts'. Sounds really... legal. Meanwhile Americans, Lincoln reports, know exactly how to bribe and exploit public position for private gain. Sorry, develop guanxi. This makes sense – I mean, look at Tom Delay, Dick Cheney, and Jack Abramoff! No wonder Americans are doing well in China – their entrenched system of political corruption (‘lobbying’), the casual habit of politicians of handing massive contracts to… themselves… and their dynastic method of Presidential succession make Taito Philip Field and his Thai tilers, gib-stoppers and house-painters look like small fry. The condemnation of both is justified; we don’t want to be as corrupt as America or Samoa, which is engaging in its own political battles with the lafo tradition.

And yet it’s seemingly acceptable to encourage New Zealand businesspeople to engage in corruption in China?

If New Zealand businesspeople want to ‘get to know their future Asian overlords’ by engaging with guanxi networks, they need to know that:
1) Plenty of guanxi is not corrupt, and there are ways of cultivating guanxi that are less likely to lead to corruption
2) But given the explosion of corruption in China since the 1980s and its entrenched practise, there is simply no clear dividing line between non-corrupt guanxi practises and corrupt guanxi practises.

Let’s get this straight: guanxi is not just about buying people a meal, and is also far more than straight bribery. According to Lincoln and the Chongqing source in the NBR, Kiwi businesspeople have no idea how to deal with it, poor buggers. Lincoln’s right - not knowing how to qing someone is pretty lame. You know, you guys really could figure that out.

But it’s part of their charm that most New Zealanders don’t know how to ‘buy’ people’s loyalties, and would never expect to need to.

Now for the cultural relativist cottonwool. The comprehensive guanxi system perceives all of civil, political and economic society as being grounded in personal, individual relationships which reinforce the reciprocal value of social networks and hierarchies, and maintain social stability. Actions are personal and embedded, not unrestrainedly rapacious, ‘neutral’ or removed from social consequences. As a result, guanxi systems compete directly with modernist, state-centred ideologies of fairness, neutrality, and set administrative processes.

There are strong reasons for understanding and supporting a system like this, which is not even alien to the Western world anyway; but simply to the principles of a neutral administrative process in government, and to some extent (but not the same extent) in business transactions. Even in New Zealand, immigrants entering the job market – whether ‘Asian’ or English – often remark on how difficult it is to find a job with their lack of ‘connections’ here. And part of the reason Lincoln has written two Herald columns and myself an SST column and a blog about the Asia:NZ Foundation report at all, is because Charles Mabbett is constantly shouting us lunch and feeding us information. Of course, Lincoln and I are both actually Chinese and therefore both receptive to corruption by lunching naturally interested in writing about reports on 'Asians' and 'Asia'.

Guanxi, and yes, Samoan lafo are traditional and also even pomo ways of looking at the world, that challenge the dominant Western positivist paradigm. Yes, it’s important to be able to move in those kinds of worlds and see the value in them, in order to prepare for our future with our Asian overlords. But we – particularly ‘Asians’ – also need to acknowledge why such systems still exist and take precedence over more egalitarian systems, especially with regard to the state’s interactions with its citizens. In terms of China, it would be the fact that since the invention of the Chinese state there has never been anything close to equality before the law or justice for all. So there have been no other ways to protect yourself, attain justice, or accumulate social capital. Of possible pertinence for the Field case, corruption that arises out of traditional patron-client or guanxi systems doesn’t have to be venal; it can also be altruistic, bending rules for all the best reasons. But such acts destroy the system of equality before the law. These aren’t the kinds of societies we should be aspiring to; and there’s no reason for ‘Asians’ to be too smug about ‘our’ way of doing business or politics. Even though it’s sometimes funny to laugh at hapless whitey abroad.

I don’t like the idea of New Zealand businesspeople perpetuating and taking advantage of the inequitable and corrupt parts of the guanxi system in China. But ultimately, who really cares what businesspeople get up to – everyone assumes capitalists are will do anything to get what they want anyway, and if they mess up and get narced on to the corruption squad by disgruntled local business partners or officials after they’ve bloodied their hands in the guanxi pool, well they got what was coming.

But where the guanxi system is truly despicable, is how it impacts on ordinary people’s access to their basic social and political rights. In China, your ability to do things as simple as travel, get married, have children, or rent an apartment, let alone access information or seek redress from your government, are not dealt with fairly and equally by the state authorities. The public sphere and political life shouldn’t be run according to how many wheels you can afford to grease. Guanxi as it works in relationships with state institutions, even for foreigners in China with their almighty dollars – is to always need a patron, a go-between, or a charm-offensive for you to do something as simple as renew a visa or apply for a credit card without hassle. It’s demeaning.

Is this the Western liberal in me talking? Is it because, as Lincoln’s column would suggest, I don’t ‘think like an Asian’ even though in China I know exactly how to act like one? Maybe I just don’t think like a businessman. Indeed, I attribute my dislike of guanxi as well as my knowledge about it, to the values of the Mainland Chinese side of my family, who unlike much of the historical Chinese diaspora were not businesspeople or struggling farmers resigned to the indefatigability of guanxi and the law of the jungle. Rather, they were modernising republican nationalist and communist intellectuals, who eschewed ‘backwardness’ and feudalism, and wanted to take down the whole damn corrupt edifice of sclerotic Chinese society and start again. Okay, they were overly optimistic, and wildly mistaken on more than a few counts. But for that surviving tradition of Chinese modernism, guanxi is a shining example of the subjugation of the poor, the granting of license to the rich, and lack of guarantee of justice for the wronged. And so I have always hated what guanxi stands for politically. It’s one of the overlords we managed to escape.

Previously in the Tilegate series:
No-one is illegal 1: Quality Assurance Overload
No-one is illegal 2: My part in Philip Field’s downfall and his part in dividing the nation and saving my sanity