Guanxi in public relations and communications in China

Guanxi: The goal is the relationship itself, not what you get out of it.

by Bob Page on 28 November 2010

Three researchers at the University of Maryland came to an evolved view of the Chinese concept of guanxi in a 2009 article for Public Relations Review. Their conclusions say as much about healthy relationships anywhere as they do about PR practices in China.

The piece, “Culture and Chinese Public Relations: A multi-method ‘inside-out’ approach,” examines current views of public relations within China. To research the article, Ai Zhang, Hongmei Shen and Hua Jiang interviewed 17 communications professionals from multinational companies operating in China and analyzed the web sites of 15 Chinese public agencies. Their analysis is pointed out by China strategist Richard Burger, who writes extensively about guanxi.

From the Maryland article: “The ongoing process of guanxi entails: (1) identification of connections or group of people you have worked to network with; (2) realization of the delicate process of maintaining these connections; (3) treating your connections as ‘ends’ rather than ‘means to ends,’ such as through a one-on-one bonding.” In short, they say guanxi goes beyond gift-giving and banquet invitations.

The researchers also point to an explication of the Chinese characters of guan and xi by Alex Koi, then president of the High Team agency. Koi left High Team in 2007 to become general manager of Cooper Tires’ China operations.

Koi on guanxi

Koi “decomposed the character guan into two parts. Guan, or big, at the bottom means ‘the infinite number of people on earth’ and the top part of guan denotes ‘to maintain your networks.’ In other words, one must be clear about who his or her connections are – ‘a group of people you have worked to network with’ who in turn can provide help and services.

“Similarly, Koi broke down the character xi this way:

“The top part means ‘silk’ in Chinese, while the bottom signifies ‘smallness.’ Silk – ‘a tightly woven but delicate fabric,’ is a metaphor for ‘the way the Chinese view their networks of connections.’ One must cultivate and maintain his or her connections in a delicate fashion. He emphasized that ‘If more than one year passes without contact, that connection is considered dead in the water.’ Furthermore, ‘smallness’ suggests that one needs to ensure that their connections feel a ‘sense of exclusiveness.’”

The Maryland researchers selected the 15 Chinese national agencies from a 2005 ranking by the China International Public Relations Association and a 2004 survey by Marketing China. In addition to High Team, the other agencies were China Global PR, Eastwei, WinWin Communications, Linkus Communication Group, BlueFocus Consulting, Zhi Lan Jing Wei Public Relations, D&S Consulting, Genedigi Consulting, eVision Consulting, Broadcom Communication Group, Marketing Resource Group, Shunya Communications network, Zenith Integrated Marketing Communications and Pegasus Communications.

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