I recently left Britain to try my luck in China, knowing that my homeland will only benefit from having one unemployed graduate fewer. Three weeks ago, I came to Jinan, a city of 5million about 200 miles south of Beijing, to begin a teaching job. Before moving here, I was told by one expat that, “You cannot describe the Chinese way of doing business. You can only experience it.” It has certainly been an experience.
We Need Most of You
I work at a privately-owned chain of language schools, all run by a single manager. Companies here are very hierarchical: there are strict divisions between the staff and the management, and between the Chinese and foreign employees. Good manners are considered hugely important. There are days when I feel physically drained by the effort of being polite to so many people. My boss is very friendly, but there is no doubt that the business is his own personal fiefdom. At the first meeting of the semester, he gave a short speech about the code of conduct, ending with a rather downbeat pep talk for the teachers: ‘I hope you will be very happy here, because we need all of you…well, most of you’.
The Head of the Table
It was probably an empty threat, but in theory he has the power to withdraw all our work permits and force us out of the country. However, he seems quite fond of me, and refers to me as ‘beautiful Alice’ when introducing me to colleagues. He doesn’t mean anything inappropriate by it, but it makes me feel as if I have failed some sort of feminist initiative test. At work dinners, which are common and quite formal, I am summoned (not invited) to sit near him at the head of the table – a sort of decorative prop, as the youngest white woman on the team. I believe it is considered an honour.
The success of a Chinese business depends on the owner’s guanxi (pronounced gwan-see), a term which could be loosely translated as ‘connections’. It’s perhaps best described as a mild form of corruption: backscratching rather than bribery. It’s about having friends in high places, and treating them to expensive meals until they owe you a favour: my boss seems to have quite a talent for it. Guanxi is the mysterious voodoo by which the entire Chinese bureaucracy is powered. Foreigners in China know it exists, but we can’t accurately judge its strength. The guanxi is exercised on our behalf by our employers, and so the exact workings of it remain a mystery. If a visa application comes through unusually quickly, we believe it is thanks to the guanxi of our new boss; if an application is delayed, it may be due to a hex laid by a disgruntled former employer. The most useful thing I have learned during my three-week crash course in in local labour relations: the guanxi can be thanked or blamed for anything which happens.
by Alice Bell