Guanxi, Evils Of China's Traditional *Social Networks*

What "guanxi" do you have?
What "guanxi" do you have?
Leung Man Tao

BEIJING — A friend of mine recently made an appointment for his heart problem at the cardiac unit of a very well-reputed hospital. When he finally managed to see the chief physician, the doctor’s first question wasn’t “What's the matter with you?” or “How long have you been feeling unwell?” but instead, “What guanxi have you got?”

And even before my friend had time to answer, the doctor added, again using the Chinese word for “personal connection,” “Unless you have a direct guanxi, I’m not seeing you.”

This is the most Chinese of expressions. All early Chinese literary classics tell us that China has a society based on “human relations.” In this networked ethos, spanning the arc from close to distant, guanxi is the backbone that defines a person’s position and identity.

If you want to know somebody, you can find more than half of your answer just by figuring out how that person is situated by considering his personal network. You can even apply this test to yourself.

In such a society, a person is somebody’s offspring, somebody’s parents, somebody’s spouse, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s student, somebody’s superior, somebody’s friend, and so on. Without all these relationships, one is virtually nobody. How we treat a person in Chinese society is also determined by the relative position we have with that person on the relation network.

This is a very normal and universal matter all over the world. But the difference is that in China we also place the guanxi at the heart of the most basic institutions of society.

When a doctor asks “What guanxi do you have?” and says he is not receiving the patient unless he is connected to him, this is accepted within Chinese society. But it is also very wrong.

Why? Because we should expect that a doctor has a professional duty, and everyone is equal before the question of health and life itself. A doctor shouldn’t judge whether he is going to treat a patient on the basis of his relation, close or distant, with that person. This should be especially true for a public hospital supported by taxpayers like the one my friend visited.

A public institution that exists in the name of the people and the nation shouldn’t vary its policies from person to person. Everyone is equal before the law, and a bus cannot stop you getting on because you are not the driver’s father.

Under this modern Western concept, relationship should not be important. Or at least the relationship should not be a central part of the system.

Reality matters

Those with anti-Western instincts should not ask whether this was imposed on us by others, but whether it has been commonly accepted by our own society, and whether it is thus regarded by our own people as common sense.

I bet that most people in China today agree that public institutions should treat every individual equally, and that identity and connection should not interfere. We should remember that China’s founding philosophy is socialism, and the most emphasized idea of this political ideology, also from the West, is equality.

Zhou Wenju's "A Literary Garden" — Source: National Palace Museum

I often say that China’s biggest problem today is not that people lack common sense, but that the common sense is filled with contradictions. Moreover, it is not that we lack values, but a fracture exists between the concept of values and the social reality.

My friend’s hospital experience is but another example that proves this. Chinese institutional design isn’t really in line with its stated philosophy. To put it even more plainly, our society advocates equality but protects the personal network of people with influencial status.

Right from the Yan’an period, just before the Chinese Communist Party took over China in 1949, the rationing system was based on the ranking of each party member. Today’s China operates with a comprehensive identity system. We judge whose son one is, whose father one is, whose colleague one is, and on top of that which “rank” people belong to. If someone doesn’t have a “ranking,” we consider the ranking of their father, son or colleague.

What that doctor meant by “guanxi” and “direct guanxi” is whether my friend had a “direct relationship” with someone of high rank.

But even as the doctor seems to violate the people’s basic belief about equality, he also conforms to people’s common sense that is the sum of their real experiences.

It is undeniable that China’s public hospitals do indeed differentiate according to patient status, and in particular on the material level. Last year a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences stated that “80% of China’s health care resources are spent on members of the party and government.” Though the government has denied that this is true, it is somehow incapable of telling people just what the “truth” is.

A year ago the press disclosed photos of the premium hospital wards reserved for senior party and government employees. They are as extravagant as executive-level hotel suites. It is a bitter irony that these luxury accomodations are in Jiling city’s public-run Bethune International Peace Hospital, named after Henry Norman Bethune, the Canadian socialist for whom patient discrimination was anathema.

What could explain today’s China better than this?

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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