It was a somewhat different book launch that I attended on Tuesday 12th November at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, and one that held surprising links for me. At first glance, Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment by Dr Barbara Wang might not seem an obvious book for Linda’s Book Bag to feature, but given that I’m touring China next year and my M.Ed is in Educational Leadership and Management, I found the concept of Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment, a new China West cross-culture leadership and business management book, intriguing. My thanks to Olivia Sandu at Ash Communications for inviting me the launch.
Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment is available for purchase here.
Guanxi in the Western Context:
Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment
Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the concept of guanxi has been widely researched from historical, cultural and political perspectives. As Chinese multinational corporations (MNCs) expand, expatriates are increasingly carrying guanxi with them to host countries, yet little has been written on how this indigenous construct is employed in the Western world.
This book takes a theoretical approach to the examination of this phenomenon and proposes a conceptual framework for the ‘guanxi capitalism structure,’ illustrating its fundamental role as the invisible hand in China.
Providing empirical analysis, the author demonstrates how guanxi affects intra-firm multicultural group dynamics involving Chinese expatriates and host-country natives in Chinese MNCs.
With insights for scholars researching Asian business and globalisation, and practitioners working in Chinese MNCs, this book argues that guanxi significantly alters an expatriate’s adjustment, and offers practical suggestions for cross-cultural management and the process of initiating, building, and utilising guanxi in a Western context.
Dr Barbara Wang says, “This book contributes more generally to shed light on cross-cultural management in terms of Chinese guanxi practice in the Western context. When I started my study I made assumptions that all Chinese executives practise guanxi. However, I discovered that Chinese expats don’t practise guanxi with local Chinese for complex reasons as they don’t believe they can reap the returns they need.
“The other assumption I made was that local Europeans don’t understand or practise guanxi. However, I learned that there is a desire to study Chinese culture and Westerners are motivated to practise guanxi even though it is not inherent to how they operate.
“I recommend that if Chinese companies want to improve their soft power they should take steps to study cross-cultural programmes and become ‘glocal’. They should do their homework and understand and adapt to the local culture and be open to including everyone in guanxi, which will enhance their global cultural influence. To sum up, guanxi is the code of China.”
Professor Davide Ravasi, director of the PhD Programme at UCL School of Management, comments, “From research in international business we know a lot about Western multinationals, but we know much less about the up and coming multinationals from China. Yet, many of these multinationals will likely dominate global markets in the years to come. Barbara Wang’s work illuminates for the first time how guanxi – a form of social interaction unique to the Chinese culture – shapes social relations in Western branches of these multinationals. It is an important reading for both Western managers who seek a deeper understanding of how their Chinese counterparts operate, and Chinese managers who want to increase their awareness of the culture they are immersed in.”
Professor John Yang, co-Dean of BiMBA at the National School of Development, Peking University, adds, “Barbara Wang’s new book on guanxi is full of insights and wisdom critical for both Western and Chinese expatriates as well as Chinese professionals overseas. The book not only contributes to making successful global business deals but also provides better cross-cultural perspectives to develop a healthier China versus world business relationship.”
Guanxi in the Western Context:
Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment
It was an early start to make sure I was at Euston station to be met by Ash Communications’ Lynda Heath at 9:20am and transported to the fabulous setting of Hult Ashridge for the launch of Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment. It was a glorious trip across Ashridge House Estate with the colours on the trees turning fiery colours for autumn.
Having been welcomed by Dina Dommett, Head of Faculty, Hult Ashridge, Peter Bishop, Deputy Chief Executive of London Chamber of Commerce then interviewed Dr Barbara Wang about Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment. (You will be able to find a review of the book in the next edition of London Business Matters through the website.)
The discussion was fascinating, not least because questions were asked in English and responded to in Mandarin with a translator providing detail so that all the audience could understand and this had the effect of transporting me back to the module I had studied for my Masters Degree on Language and Linguistics in Social Context. Dr Wang spoke so inspiringly that attending her book launch fired me with enthusiasm for an academic world I thought I had left behind.
I found Dr Wang’s desire to extend better understanding of culture in working practices to the benefit of all concerned an obvious, but sadly previously neglected concept, and applaud her actions in raising awareness of guanxi. Although she explained that her book is very much aimed at company managers, I have since had chance to read Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment and it is surprisingly accessible to a lay person like me. Indeed, as an example of research practice, I think it would be an invaluable exemplar of research methodology for anyone studying for a higher degree in any subject, not just business.
Immediately after the Q and A session I was privileged to have a brief discussion with Dr. Barbara Wang about culture and the extent to which she felt fiction might help cross cultural understanding as well as the concept of guanxi. She told me that she felt fiction was hugely important because it often has a wider reach and audience than academic books often have and that readers love to be entertained so that cultural messages can be embodied in fiction and absorbed more effectively. Sadly, Dr Wang had to leave to teach so I was unable discuss with her more at the time and she has kindly answered some of my questions since. You can read that interview below.
Attendees were then treated to a buffet-style banquet provided by the in-house award-winning chef and live music in the Lady Marianne Room. Given that the music was played on a conventional Western acoustic guitar and a traditional Chinese pipa, or lute, I thought this was the perfect concrete embodiment of the type of cross-cultural links and guanxi Dr Wang had spoken about. With my book blogger interests it amused me considerably that the muscular male marble statues either side of the fireplace where we ate were allegedly based on the gardeners who worked at Asridge House and might have inspired D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Before we departed to return to London, guests were treated to a wonderful guided tour of Ashridge House. Several elements have been used in the Harry Potter films so again my fiction reading interests were piqued alongside my interest in the history of the building.
We also came away with a robust and useful goody bag containing a jar of tasty honey made on the Ashridge Estate.
Having wondered whether the launch of an academic book Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment would really be of relevance and interest to me, the entire day was absorbing, entertaining and informative. The arrangements made by Ash Communications were exemplary and I found Hult Ashridge Executive Education inspiring. I’d like to extend my thanks to all involved in making it such an interesting day.
I an also heartily recommend exploring the concept of guanxi through Dr Barbara Wang’s informative and accessible book Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment, available here.
An Interview with Dr Barbara Wang
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions, Barbara. Tell me, if you had to distil the concept of guanxi into one sentence, what would you say?
Guanxi is the hierarchical human moral relationship derived from Confucian ethics for the purpose of long-term reciprocity, obligations, and mutual benefit grounded in the affection-based trust among all actors in the circle initiated by one person at a time.
Guanxi is based very clearly on a distinct Chinese culture and the guidance of Confucius. I often feel that we have no distinct cultural identity in the UK. What does your research tell you about the differences and similarities between the two cultures?
It needs another book to answer😊. To generalise, the similarities are: 1) social stratification 2) indirect communication, 3) pragmatism, 4)‘Birds of a feather flock together’. The differences are: 1)British have linear thinking, Chinese have holistic thinking; 2)British are individualistic, Chinese are particularistic; 3) British are rational, Chinese are emotional; 4) British focus on transaction, Chinese focus on relationship; 5) Britishmen know how to respect women (whether they can do is another question), Chinese men don’t know how to respect women (even if they want to) due to Confucian’ infamous quote: ‘only devious man and woman are difficult to deal with.’ 6) British rely on Teamwork, Chinese rely on a Leader; 7)British have democratic thinking, Chinese have hierarchical thinking.
Gosh. There’s plenty of food for thought and debate there!
Guanxi seems to echo the ‘old boy network’ that was once prevalent in public schools of Western society. How far is that a fair assessment?
Guanxi has been one of the most crucial elements of Chinese culture and remains relevant, although the “dark side” (corruption-related) of guanxi has been acknowledged, which definitely echoes the ‘old boy network’ to some degree.
Could you see the application of guanxi in the UK strengthening or weakening Dr Clotaire Rapaille’s definition of Class at the English ‘code’ for England?’
It is hard to say given the hierarchical and particularistic nature of guanxi, however, in a way, it might weaken the Class because guanxi is driven by individual influencing across all social classes which depends on specific people rather than a certain class. Therefore, it is quite common in Chinese history that peasants from low class overthrew aristocratic class through down-top guanxi building across classes.
That’s interesting as it somewhat echoes what has happened here in the past.
Your research interviews and ‘Degree of Adjustment’ findings suggest that Guanxi isn’t universally successful. How far have Chinese attempts to use guanxi in western contexts actually undermined Chinese identity rather than preserved it do you think?
I didn’t observe any case that Chinese undermined their identity, in contrary, the failure of guanxi practice attempts enforced their Chinese identity and increased their awareness of cultural difference.
From reading Guanxi in the Western Context it seems to me that guanxi could be likened to ocean tides, ebbing and flowing as tides do, depending on the perceived requirements of connections. How far would you define guanxi as a similarly organic concept (perhaps the rule of man) and how far as a mechanical one (the rule of law) depending on context?
Guanxi is affection-based, and the core of rule of man society, human touch or deep sharing of personal emotions between guanxi actors is fundamental. It might help increase deep communication among people in the society of rule of law, however, the nature of rule of law might defeat the purpose.
China is often seen as expending into Western markets in an unstoppable manner. To what extent would an understanding of the principles of guanxi help dispel any disquiet about that expansion in the Western world?
Guanxi development is time consuming, it would help in great deal if Chinese companies could do their ‘homework’ about western culture and customs before going abroad and take initiative to building guanxi in host country in a fashion of adapting to the ‘rule of law’ society.
I will be touring China for the first time next year, Barbara. What guanxi principles can I apply most readily to my interactions,as an ordinary person,with Chinese people I meet en route?
Be yourself, do some homework about Chinese culture and history, be open to personal emotions from Chinese, try not to say ‘No’ to any invitations unless it is too far from your comfort zone.Try to avoid any topics in relation to religion and politics.
I think that’s sound advice in any context!
And finally, Barbara, what would you like to see happen with guanxi in the western world and in China in future?
In addition to the efforts from Chinese, it would be great if westerners would be willing to understand China and Chinese. It requires efforts from both parties, i.e. Chinese should be more inclusive and open about guanxi building and westerners should be patient and relational for long-term business.
And I think you have just defined the perfect way to behave in so many areas of life. Many, many thanks for answering my questions Barbara and I wish you every success with Guanxi in the Western Context: Intra-Firm Group Dynamics and Expatriate Adjustment.
About Barbara Xiaoyu Wang
Dr Barbara Wang is the academic director – China of Hult Ashridge Executive Education and association dean of China initiatives.
Her interests lie in cross-cultural leadership/management, and Chinese leadership and executive coaching. She has extensive experience in management training and consulting and has designed and delivered leadership development programmes and coaching for multinational companies such as ABB, Volvo, Daimler, Continental, Sinopec, China Post, Bank of China and Air China. She also teaches on executive programmes for other British and Chinese universities.
Before her current roles, Barbara was a vice president for the Western Management Institute of Beijing. Her commercial experience extends to working for multinational companies in China where she was the retail operations director for CELINE of the Louis Vuitton group, and the global accounts manager in China for DHL.
Barbara holds a PhD from Cass Business School in the UK, where her research focused on cross-cultural leadership/management of Chinese multinational enterprises in Europe. She has qualified in many leadership psychometric tools.
Barbara is co-author of Chinese Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).