China: Is It All About Who You Know?

Last week I wrote a post recommending a book about guanxi. Everybody talks about guanxi and there is a good reason for it:

Guanxi is one of many important China business skills and concepts. Mastering guanxi does not guarantee success, but if you cannot build relationships, you will fail in China.

Excerpt from “Guanxi for the Busy American” by Andrew Hupert


Today I will not be sharing a “business case study” but a personal story written by a reader. Ella Reynders is Lecturer Intercultural Communication – IBC at Karel de Grote Hogeschool. I would like to thank Ella Reynders for her contribution and taking the time to write her story.

When I first  read her email I felt what she was telling me goes beyond the personal level and is a constant feature in business relationships: who you know and how you behave is crucial.  So, I thought I should share it in this blog.

This is Ms Ella Reynders personal guanxi experience and the lesson she learnt:

“In China it is more about who you know and how you behave than about what you know”

The beginning of her story: the perfect resumé.
“I graduated from the University of Ghent in the late eighties. My academic knowledge was vast. I had majored in modern and classical Chinese, had learned over 10000 characters, could easily read Buddhist texts and knew all the important facts there are about Chinese and Asian history. Feeling that I still needed to perfect the language – I could not speak it or understand anything Chinese people said – I packed my bags and went off to Taiwan.

Although I could have gotten a scholarship to continue studying in the People’s Republic, I decided Taiwan was the better option. In the PRC contact between Chinese and foreigners was ‘discouraged’ so I did not see the sense in going there.
In Taiwan I quickly got myself set up: found a job teaching English, a school to study Chinese and a nice apartment. After a year of having taught English I felt ready to enter the job market for a more serious job related to my diploma.
My boyfriend, on the other hand, had come to Taiwan without any prior knowledge of the language, did not really study a lot of Chinese and lived like a bohemian. “

Reality hits: it´s all about who you know
Although my qualifications were a lot better than his, he turned out to be the one who landed a job with a trading company. All my efforts failed. Nobody wanted me. I just continued teaching English and also did some work as a model. I felt very frustrated not being able to put my brain and knowledge to good use and kept on trying to find a job. I went to foreign companies such as Philips, several airlines, smaller businesses, etc. Nothing worked out.
They were so polite as to grant me an interview during which they told me how impressed they were with my Chinese and my diploma’s. Every time I returned home feeling that this time I would get a job. Alas they did not get back to me. I called after a few weeks but the contact person was never available. I was told they would pass him the message.
I learned the hard way.
Why did my boyfriend, the hippie, get a good job and I did not?

He had an aunt with a company there and she had many connections (guanxi) and I did not.

How can you make things worse?: Acting aggressively does not help. Not in a Chinese culture environment
Another year went by and I was still teaching English and modeling. My frustration grew and I found it very impolite they had never contacted me again. So I gathered all my numbers and started making angry phone calls telling them they should let me know why they had not gotten back to me, why some people with less qualifications got the jobs I was clearly the better choice for. I thought this would get them into gear. Little did I know this really killed all my chances. One of the many things they had never taught me at university.

The “Epiphany”: the importance of succesful intercultural communication
I started to read up on Chinese social culture and learned how people deal with and relate to each other. It was a revelation. I re-evaluated the things I had done and not done and came to the conclusion I had done everything against the Chinese etiquette and no matter how suitable I may have been for the jobs, I had behaved as a rude foreigner and therefore had lost the opportunity to get a job.
Back in Europe I started teaching Chinese and worked for several companies and universities as a cross-cultural trainer. I still do this until this day and I like it very much. I do inform people about the do’s and don’ts and have seen a lot of successes sprouting from this. It is a very rewarding job.

In China it is more about who you know, how you behave than about what you know.

Note from Foreign Entrepreneurs in China: Ella´s experience goes back to the early nineties. Things have been changing in since the mid 2000s, with better regulation and a more professional approach to business. But the truth is that, in China, who you know really matters.

What do you think?


  1. Ok, I think we can all learn from this and I think this should be a valuable lesson to a lot of people, I wonder why at school we are not taught more practical things like how to behave like a polite human being, how to interact with people in the real world! We’re given a bunch of textbooks that don’t really gear us for life outside school… Eish!!!

  2. Not that I doubt the influence of guanxi in Chinese hiring practices, but I think the article is ignoring too many outside influences:

    First, I wonder if a factor in this case could be that Ella is a woman? You write China has changed since the early nineties–women were probably not as welcome in the board room as they are today. A pretty and intelligent Western woman like the one described might have been even less desirable.

    Second, I believe people like myself that have opted to teach for a year while polishing our Chinese skills have made an error career-wise. The most recent employer I now have is English School X, which is indistinguishable from too many others. “Living like a bohemian” might be more attractive on a resume.