Experiencing ‘Guanxi’ in China

Hunan Agricultural University President Zhou Qingming (left) and President Baker (right) make their new student exchange agreement official.

I just returned from a 12-day visit to southern China with Dr. Thomas Peng. Several staff members have asked me what we do on these trips and what our purpose is in going. The first thing we do is strengthen our ties with our higher education partners and look to develop new partner institutions to diversify our student recruitment. Secondly, we connect with our current students and parents and deepen our ties with our emerging alumni.

What you can be sure of is that we are constantly moving, working and talking with people! Thomas wants to make sure that he uses my time wisely while I am traveling with him in China, so he uses almost every moment to engage someone in a conversation. For example, I left on Friday evening to travel to China, and after a 34-hour transit experience, I landed in Changsha at 4 p.m. Dr. Peng greeted me at the airport and welcomed me to China. He told me that we would get to the hotel and then he would give me an hour of rest time before we headed to a banquet hosted by one of our partner schools, Hunan Agricultural University, in honor of my visit to China! I did get a shower and was at least fairly presentable for the evenings events.

One of the Chinese concepts that I have come to respect and know is “guanxi,” which is, roughly translated, “relationship” or “connection.” Unlike many cultures where business can often be more transactional in nature, it is essential in China that business connections are rooted in relationships. I am not sure these “relationships” are always deep or personal, but they are intended to encourage and develop trust.

The banquets, or dinners, are intended to honor an invited guest and to begin the exploration of what we might do together (and the dinners often last for two to three hours). This process has always impressed me. Presidents and executive officers of substantial state universities set aside their schedules in order to spend time with me and other George Fox University leaders. Our visit this time was no exception. In spite of the fact that I was weary from travel, the conversations and the food were rich, and I appreciated the thoughtfulness of the staff of the Hunan Agricultural University.

The next day we were able to sign a new agreement with President Zhou Qingming and begin the relationship that will hopefully add strength to our global efforts. (There was one humorous thing that happened during the formal signing ceremony. The presidents always sit at a table with the documents with the flag of their country in front of the papers to sign. In this case, when I entered the room, I was greeted by the Union Jack on my side of the table! It was a very nice light-hearted moment).

President Baker revisits a tree he planted during his first visit to China’s Central South University.

In addition to developing new relationships we also renewed conversations with universities we have worked with. The most important was Central South University of Forestry and Technology. At Central South, they symbolize the bonding of relationships with the planting of a tree. Both Dr. David Brandt and I had planted a tree in previous visits to Central South University, and we revisited both trees to make sure they were thriving (see picture). Once again we were hosted well at dinners and in general conversations on campus, and we began to think of new ways we could deepen our relationship. Finally, we spent some time with Mr. Jiang at one of the finest international schools in central China. In addition to visiting with the president and talking about our programs, we also visited with two potential students.

We visited several other universities in our travels, and we were always met with graciousness and hospitality. Perhaps one of the most difficult things for me to get used to was the time at the “banquet” table. I come from the land of fast-food culture. Americans seem to be always moving, reading, texting – rarely taking time to settle during the day and just engage in conversations. When I am on campus at George Fox my days are often fully scheduled and we work to “squeeze” the most out of every day. The people work very hard in China as well but they retain an emphasis on time spent around the table. I can’t help but think that, in that respect, they are closer to the culture of Jesus than I am.

Ruth and I went to see an interesting movie this past week – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There was much that I did not like about the movie, but it did effectively convey the challenge of living in a culture very different from one’s own. In the first scenes of the movie, as the British visitors struggle to find some sense of normalcy in their new culture, Bill Nighy represents one of the only positive voices. He is asked why he can stand being in India. He noted that, “People here live as if life is a privilege, not a right.” There is much that is refreshing in that attitude. Nighy had served as a judge in Britain, and he found it revitalizing to be around a group of people that simply sought to get the best out of each day.

I found the same to be true of China. There is much wrong with the Chinese system, but it is refreshing to engage people who simply try to get the best out of each day. In that context, “guanxi” advances the best of the Chinese people and culture.

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One Response to Experiencing ‘Guanxi’ in China

  1. Debbie Voyles says:

    I have enjoyed your blogs about your China trips. I love the last paragraph in this blog. My daughter Krissy was blessed to go on the May serve China trip. We talk a lot about the different cultures, but the one thing that keeps coming into our conversations is that we will never consider China as just a country on a map. China is all the wonderful people Krissy was blessed to meet and spend time with.