Ruan, J. 2019. “Bribery with Chinese characteristics” and the use of guanxi to obtain admission to prestigious secondary schools in urban China, Critical Asian Studies, 51(1):120-130
Guanxi, the Chinese personal relationships, connections or networks, is a fundamental element of traditional Chinese social structure, which continues to be pervasive in contemporary China and often involves bribery and corruption. How can we distinguish proper guanxi from bribery?
Some argue that bribes are one-off but guanxi is premised on a long-term relationship. Other argue that guanxi is based on affection and esteem while bribery is based on coercion. Some argue that bribery is based on improper inducement while guanxi is not. However, evidence from this study supports a different point of view.
The author carried out ethnographic case studies in two Chinese cities where parents used guanxi to obtain school places in prestigious schools. Evidence has shown that a bribery relation in Chinese society can be a guanxi relation involving some degree of affection and esteem while simultaneously having a coercive intent. In addition, some bribery in China does not necessarily involve coercion, but instead relies on ethical force. Moreover, some affection or esteem in guanxi practice are not genuine but a performance to cover the bribery, which makes it difficult to distinguish proper guanxi from bribery.
Bribery cannot be distinguished from guanxi simply by judging whether it is a one-off deal or a part of a long-term relationship. Some bribery in China may involve long-term indebtedness and the return of favors after a long period of time, which looks like a proper guanxi but in fact bribery with long-term trust. Moreover, long term friendship in Chinese society also involves bribery from time to time.
Bribery in China is significantly influenced by the concept and ethics of renqing. Although guanxi and bribery acts can be distinguished theoretically by whether these carry an improper inducement, it is extremely difficult to distinguish them in practice since many people consider giving money to officials as following a traditional ethic (renqing) and is proper.
Dr Ji Ruan is currently an associate professor in sociology in Hanshan Normal University in China. He earned his PhD in sociology at the University of Kent, U.K. He is author of Guanxi, Social Capital and School Choice in China: The Rise of Ritual Capital (Palgrave). His research interests include guanxi, bribery, corruption, social stratification and exclusion, rural governance, Confucianism. he can be contacted via email@example.com.
Ruan Ji & Chen Feng (2020) The Role of Guanxi in Social Exclusion against the Background of Social Stratification: Case Studies of Two Chinese Villages, Journal of Contemporary China, 29:125, 698-713, DOI: 10.1080/10670564.2019.1705001
Ruan, J. 2019b, Motivations for Ritual Performance in Bribery: Ethnographic Case Studies of the Use of Guanxi to Gain School Places in China，Current Sociology，DOI: 10.1177/0011392119892676
Ruan, J.2019a. “Bribery with Chinese characteristics” and the use of guanxi to obtain admission to prestigious secondary schools in urban China, Critical Asian Studies, 51(1):120-130
Ruan, J. 2017c. ‘Interaction Rituals in Guanxi Practice and the Role of Instrumental Li’, Asian Studies Review 41(4): 664–678
Ruan, J. 2017b. ‘Ritual Capital: A Proposed Concept From a Case Study of School Selection in China’, Asian Journal of Social Science 45 (3): 316–339
Ruan, J. 2017a. Guanxi, Social Capital and School Choice in China: The Rise of Ritual Capital, London: Palgrave Macmillan.