Do you know what Guanxi is?

I was in Xi’an, China, near the Terra-Cotta Warriors.

A man called to me in front of a McDonald’s. “Wait, sir!”

I paused, and he ran up to me. “Which country are you from?” he asked.


“California? I have family there. Can you help me get a visa and a new passport?”

He sensed my confusion, and proceeded to tell me his story:  He had practiced English every night, after work, for over ten years. He wanted his English to be good enough so that he could get his family a visa, so they could come to the USA for a better life.

And that’s when he asked again about the visa. “Here’s my information.  Can you give it to the Embassy in San Francisco?”

I tried explaining that wasn’t how it worked in the USA. I had no power or influence at all, and definitely no immigration connections.

Nonetheless he kept pushing. “You take my information, okay?”

At the time, I wasn’t aware of the Chinese concept of guanxi, which very loosely translates as “connections” or “relationships.”

I had no idea that you can literally get anything if you know the right person. However, you are invisible until you know someone personally.

In China, it isn’t uncommon to hear of people who were waitlisted for a decade for an international visa… and then met the right person, or made a family connection.  Within a week, the entire family had the right papers to move abroad.

This is not only common in China, but in many developing nations. Personal connections are almost always the way to build trust and skip the line, even when it’s unfair or even illegal.

Understanding the culture in China truly can help you in your assignment. You will better understand not only the locals and their view of relationships, but how to do business in a country where regulations aren’t necessarily well enforced.  And it might help you understand why you get requests for promises that you can’t keep!

Written by Alexander Heyne, Project Manager, Living Abroad