The Poison of Guanxi
Image Credit: Kate Janis

The Poison of Guanxi


Despite some sensationalist claims to the contrary, Chinese society isn’t on the verge of collapse. Thanks to a largely well-fed and self-satisfied middle class, calls from various agitators for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ or ‘Arab Spring’ have gone largely unheeded in China – despite the curtailing of rights such as religious freedom, free expression on the internet and the right to assemble in protest.

Still, although Chinese society isn’t at a precipice, it has arrived at a crossroads in its development. A choice has to be made over the future direction for society as a whole: will the Chinese people stand up, and risk being put back down, or will they remain seated and risk falling foul of their own complacency?

Last year, many Chinese were outraged by the infamous ‘My Father is Li Gang’ incident. A privileged young college student killed a girl while driving drunk and then dared onlookers to sue him at their peril because his father was an important local official. The subsequent sentence – six years – caused an outcry. The perpetrator, Li Qiming, will be out of prison before his 30th birthday.

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Since then, China has tightened its rules on drink driving and cracked down hard on violators – one man received a life sentence in May for an accident that caused the death of a 35-year-old man and his daughter.

Yet while Li Qiming may have gotten off lightly, Li Tianyi the latest ‘princeling’ at the centre of a case of privilege vs. decency,  may get off without so much as a slap on the wrist.

Last Thursday, Li Tianyi, 15, and his friend, Su Nan, 18, allegedly severely beat a couple in a Buick that had been driving just ahead of them. During the attack, one of the boys was heard to shout: ‘Who dares to call 110?’ (110 being the Chinese police emergency line). It’s an almost perfect sound bite for the internet age.

What has been most disturbing for Chinese netizens, and most embarrassing for Li Tianyi’s father, renowned PLA singer Li Shuangjiang, is that his son was driving a heavily-customised BMW underage and without a licence. But because he is below the age of criminal responsibility, the boy reportedly won’t be charged for his part in the affair. Li Shuangjiang has promised the assaulted couple that there will be a ‘settlement’ following all this.

The question now is how much longer the majority of Chinese will allow the wealthy and privileged to use their influence to bend the law?

The answer isn’t clear, not least because society here is so heavily built around the concept of guanxi, or personal relationships. China can be a bureaucratic nightmare – ask any small or medium sized enterprise looking to source products or register their business in China. But a good network of friends and acquaintances can help turn any major obstacle into a minor setback with just a phone call.

Guanxi greases the wheels of society. But it is also the fuel for the fire that is corruption and arrogance. The unfortunate truth for many here is that they are less interested in overthrowing the ‘oppressors’ than in becoming one of them (an idea captured perfectly by George Orwell in 1984, when he noted ‘One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.’)

In a society as complex as China’s, guanxi is an essential tonic to many otherwise incurable ills. Unfortunately, it is also a poison.

Scott Hockley is a Shanghai-based writer.

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