BEIJING — Chinese talk about ancient China as an "acquaintance" society, structured with a unique pattern of human associations. Such a pattern is also referred to as "difference in intimacy of relationship" and means that each person deals with their own social relations — close or distant, without regard for the people's status — provided that they follow this ritual set of guidelines.
In traditional society, Chinese people's trust circle was usually turned towards their relatives. This is the reason why today in modern China, many companies are family businesses. It is however quite difficult for these companies to grow because, though family members have a mutual trust between each other, they have a hard time taking on non-relatives and accepting them, so much so that it tends to hinder business expansion. In such a case, people's close interactions often depend on whether or not they can develop an intimate bond despite so-called "social distance," thus resulting in an eagerness of employees to become friends with each other, even on formal occasions.
This is undeniably still playing an important role in the way Chinese social life works. Many people are making great efforts to engage in informal relationships with their superiors, their peers or their associates (or even distant relatives, people from the same city, classmates, etc).
Sociologist Zhou Xuegang thinks that "we can say that the particularity of the differential mode of association in social relations is reflected inside organizations." It increases mutual harmonious relationships and it alleviates the pressure brought on by the formal system. To put it simply, the formal system used to rely more on the "system" than on the "people", while the informal relation is driven more by people than system.
Many people are making great efforts to engage in informal relationships with their superiors.
Since the formal and the informal systems follow a different logic, they remain a paradox of society. In fact, this is a problem that even traditional Chinese Confucian political thought has never been able to solve. It is indeed an inherent contradiction that is also reflected in history.
Hou Xudong proposed a new perspective to understand traditional Confucian politics in his book "Patronage: A model of trust relationship with the monarchy and the history of its implementation in the Western Han Dynasty." By focusing on the logic of the ‘patronage" approach, he came to understand the various political actions of the emperor in the Western Han Dynasty. According to him, patronage is a structural phenomenon that has always existed in traditional politics and is also a key point in understanding Chinese history, as it is what originally constituted Chinese society.
When the Western Han Dynasty inherited the Qin Dynasty's system from its fall, the most important thing was to "bring order out of chaos' and follow the Confucian ideal of including everyone as a stability component in the social etiquette. Under this hierarchical order during the reconstruction of the empire, people's behaviors and affairs were deeply embedded in their own identity rules, and these rules couldn't be transgressed. This imposed a strong social pressure, forcing them to comply with the requirements of the hierarchical order. As a result, and just as Israeli-born Chinese scholar Yuri Pines points out in his book Envisioning Eternal Empire, this led to what could be called a "conditional loyalty" between monarchs and scholars.
Lucky men or puppets?
During that period, imperial politics were conforming to the efficiency requirements of a bureaucratic system. Imperial politics also enhanced the emperor's power, something that actually created a hindrance to the further implementation of bureaucracy. Scholars and other high-ranking employees would do anything to gain the emperor's trust and be among his favorites.
And yet, in a pure and rational bureaucracy system, people's feelings should not be considered. But in China, there's still a strong sense of humanity to be found, meaning that someone's ‘individuality" cannot be fully put aside and vanish. According to organizational sociology, all organizations are embedded in a specific social relationship pattern, which can be infiltrated and influenced by its surroundings. The evolution of this kind of organizational structure is always in a dynamic and repetitive motion, but the discourses towards this evolution can be different. For example, while Confucian scholars would call the emperor's favorites "lucky little men," others would use the term "puppets."
With his book, Hou Xudong argues that formal institutions and informal interactions (which he calls respectively "business process' and "relationship process') have over time been superimposed, interwoven and embedded. In his view, this kind of political interaction cannot play a revolutionary role as this structural pattern is repetitive and thus cannot bring much change to the organization.