“Bribery with Chinese characteristics” and the use of guanxi to obtain admission to prestigious secondary schools in urban China

Research Highlighted:

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

Dr Ji RUAN, Hanshan Normal University, China

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.

中文摘要

一些学者试图区分某种行为是人情关系还是贿赂,但在中国,有些行为是很难断定它是人情还是贿赂的,这与一些中国传统观念和做法有关。首先,传统上人们更看重人情伦理而非法律,这使得人们很难判断拉关系行为是否存在“不当引诱”; 第二,贿赂中使用的一些互动仪式其实是一种表演,企图证明其不道德行为的正当性,有意混淆人情关系与贿赂;第三,贿赂中所表现出的一些“感情”和“尊敬”有时只是一种逢场作戏,而并非真正的感情和尊敬;第四,有些人试图将他们的贿赂关系表演成一种长期的亲友关系,而不是一次性的交易,这也加大了局外观察者区分人情关系和贿赂的难度。由于“道德化”的文化习俗把人情关系和贿赂混为一谈,使得观察者很难通过判断一项行为是否是纯粹基于尊敬还是被胁迫、是基于长期关系或一次性交易、是基于“不当引诱”还是正当合法行为。

Author Bio

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 200807689@qq.com.

Recent publications:

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.

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