The Chinese Way: Cultivating Relationships and Building Trust

What makes China so different from the West? Why are relations between Westerners and Chinese so often characterized by disparate expectations and missed communications? And how can Israel avoid falling into the trap of thinking in narrow Western terms when dealing with Beijing?

One major difference between China and the West is that relationship networks play a far more intense and decisive role in the lives of Chinese than in the lives of Westerners. This is the case because the sense of an authentic inner self that stands on its own, independent of relationships and societal influences, is far stronger in Western culture than in Chinese culture. This might sound like a strange notion at first hearing, but it cuts to the heart of the distinctive ways in which Chinese and Westerners navigate their way through the world, including the willingness to trust those who come from outside of one’s established network of relationships.

In Israel’s case, understanding of the centrality of relationships in Chinese culture can help temper exaggerated expectations from relations with Beijing, even as it points to a more realistic and gradual path for building confidence with the Middle Kingdom.

Fei Xiaotong’s From the Soil: The Centrality of Relationship Networks in China

In order to better understand the centrality of relationship networks in Chinese society, a helpful place to begin is with Fei Xiaotong’s seminal study, From the Soil (1947). Fei’s basic claim was that in Chinese culture there isn’t a sense of self outside of relationships. What’s more, Fei argued that this fundamentally remains true, even as China modernizes. While the Chinese become more Westernized in their preferences, consumer habits, etc., the overwhelming centrality of network relationships in Chinese society generally stays the same.

The notion that there isn’t a sense of self outside of relationships can be very difficult for Westerners to viscerally comprehend, so in order to better understand the idea, it’s helpful to begin with what is immediately recognizable to Westerners. In the West, people live their lives by freely entering into, and leaving, various groups and organizations. Typically, as a young adult, a person in the West moves away from home and goes to college, then finishes college and applies for jobs, even as he or she hangs out with friends and, if so inclined, maybe joins a political party, etc. The main point is that the individual, making decisions according to his or her lights, determines the shape of his or her life. There is help along the way, and options are constrained by test scores, grades and financial considerations, but within those boundaries, the choices of where to study, where to settle down, where to work, etc., to a large extent depend on the individual.

The situation in China is very different. As Fei tells it, in Chinese society people are less “individuals” than “ego-centric” starting-points whose movement is constrained by the pre-determined relationships into which they can enter. It’s helpful to think of these relationships as paths. The way for Chinese to move out from a particular “ego-centric” starting point and to advance within Chinese society is by moving through one of these pre-established paths, each path being a binding relationship. But the situation is not mechanistic. A person’s thought and creativity manifest themselves in the networks of relationships that one cultivates over a lifetime. As a person rises, his networks of relationships become larger and denser. That said, thought and creativity are constrained by the need to cultivate relationships whose general parameters have been determined from the outset. It’s true that there are gradations within Chinse society regarding the centrality of relationship networks. For instance, Westernized Chinese entrepreneurs who split their time between Shanghai and Europe or America oftentimes will be more open and flexible in their relationships than the mainstream Chinese white-collar worker. But it’s precisely the mainstream white-collar worker who is our concern.

So note the difference: whereas the West assumes the autonomy of the individuals who freely associate, Chinese come together based upon networks of connections. These connections, or relationships, are what is known as guanxi (pronounced ‘guan-she’), a notoriously difficult Chinese term to translate that refers both to relationships and the obligations imposed by the specific ties in question. In China, the benefits and obligations conferred by relationships are known from the outset, and they need to be lived up to, or in other words, achieved. People uphold their end of the deal implied by a particular tie, and in so doing, they create networks of linkages that can be later leveraged and utilized. Friends then help friends, or differently stated, friends who are already bound by some relationship act as facilitators for forming additional connections.

One consequence of this societal pattern is that, contrary to the popular perception, Chinese society is not centered around groups. Chinese society is built on scores of “ego-centric” points who form multiple networks of linkages. And make no mistake, as Fei writes, “I often think that the Chinese would sacrifice their families for their own self-interests, their party for their families’ interests, and the whole world for their country’s interests.”

In a reflection of how deeply rooted these patterns are in Chinese history, Fei exemplifies his point by quoting a passage from The Great Learning, one of the Confucian classics that, since the 11th century, has been considered one of the four foundational books of Confucianism:

The ancients who wished to display illustrious virtue throughout the empire first put their own states in good order. Wishing to order their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own self. Their self being cultivated, their families were regulated; their families being regulated, their states were correctly governed; their states being well-governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and peaceful.

The Centrality of Relationship Networks and the Problem of Trust

One particularly salient aspect of Chinese society, the centrality of trust-building, can be better understood in light of the principles that Fei delineates. Consider, for instance, Francis Fukayama’s 1995 study of the connection between culture and economics, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity. In his book, Fukayama categorizes China as a low-trust society. He notes that Chinese businesses are usually either family-based or state-owned enterprises, with a distinct lack of medium-sized corporate enterprises whose operation is dependent upon professionally trained managers who come from outside the family. With Fei in hand, we can better understand why this would be the case: intimate familial relationships are predictable and trustworthy, because these relationships are the most easily controlled. Once Chinese families move out from this core into the larger economy, however, they leave the circle of familial relationships, and the strength of the bonds and the capacity to control the conduct of others accordingly decrease. How can such businesses successfully navigate the transformation from a family model to a corporate model? Oftentimes, because of the lack of trust in people with whom no established relationship exists, they simply can’t.

David De Cremer likewise treats the issue of trust in his 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review, “Understanding Trust, In China and the West.” Echoing Fei, De Cremer writes that:

China is not an individualistic culture, but neither is it – as claimed incorrectly by many people – a collectivistic culture. It is a relational culture. Guanxi is a Chinese concept referring to the tight social networks that shape Chinese society. Almost automatic trust exists between people in the same guanxi, but trust is never assumed outside of it. So distrust becomes a default — only if one is certain that a new relationship will not threaten, but rather preserve, the interest of one’s closest relationships, will trust then be given.

The key to De Cremer’s analysis is his insight that, in China, “distrust becomes a default.” It’s also helpful to remember that the tendency to withhold trust was exacerbated in the latter half of the twentieth century by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. De Cremer offers the following helpful distinction:

Generally speaking, in the West the default is “trust.” I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and consider you basically trustworthy until you do something that breaks our trust. In China, the default tilts more toward “distrust” – I only award you my trust after you’ve proven yourself worthy of it.

The Tempo of Trust-Building

This default position of distrust, and the time it takes to establish trust, influences how fast once can proceed when dealing with the Chinese. As De Cremer writes, “Taking time to develop the relationship is a must. Chinese… will invest considerable time in getting to know you.”

Consider what happens when Westerners and Chinese are engaged in moving forward a project, business or otherwise. While Westerners plow ahead with a sense of urgency and believe that some practical issue is being discussed, their Chinese interlocutors oftentimes aren’t really thinking about the practical matter-at-hand at all. Instead, as De Cremer writes, the Chinese, “may still be evaluating you.” Why? To see if you can be trusted. This procedure is a function of the centrality of relationships and the default position of distrust. Thus, it sometimes happens that Western business people find themselves at the finish line of a deal, on the verge of signing some agreement, only to be confronted with questions that they thought had been previously resolved. What happened? The Westerners assumed a level of trust that hadn’t existed for the Chinese. The tempo of the deal, to the Westerner’s chagrin, had been dictated by trust-building.

Investing Time and Building Confidence: Israel as a Source of Information and Analysis for Beijing

How does all of this affect Israel’s relationship with China? Skeptics regarding Israel’s engagement with the Middle Kingdom often wonder, for instance, what’s the use of investing in the relationship with China if, at the end of the day, Beijing still votes with Israel’s enemies in the U.N.? But it’s only “the end of the day” from a Western perspective. As in business, the tempo of relations between Jerusalem and Beijing depends on trust-building. Perhaps it’s preferable to speak of confidence-building instead of trust-building because, after all, states have interests, not friends. But whatever the case, the process of establishing diplomatic relations with China, like the process of doing business in China, takes time.

How can Israel engage in confidence-building with the Chinese? Israel is a small state while China is a behemoth. However, Israel is not the only small state in the world that deals with China. For instance, Singapore is also a small state that engages with the Chinese, and as the doyen of the Singaporean diplomatic corps, Bilahari Kausikan, frequently emphasizes, small states need to continually create their relevance.

In this context, Israel can learn something from Singapore’s experience. Singapore made itself relevant to the Chinese ̶ Singapore invested in its relationship with China ̶ by serving as a source of reliable information and intelligent analysis regarding Southeast Asia and the United States. Israel can likewise make itself relevant, above and beyond what it can presently offer in terms of hi-tech, by offering input to China about how to understand the Middle East. Israel can never hope to be the sole source of information, but it can be a source of information. Likewise, Israel can help the Chinese understand the issue of counter-terrorism and, in time, help them better understand political Islam. The aim, over time, is building confidence in Israel’s ability to understand a very complicated region.

Influencing how Beijing votes in the U.N. is undoubtedly a worthy aim, but at this stage of the relationship, it misses one of the main points in engaging with the Middle Kingdom. In cultivating its relations with China, Israel might want to start thinking in Chinese. In short, Israel and China only established diplomatic relations at the end of the 20th century, and, to use a Chinese term, Israel is short on guanxi with Beijing. Establishing guanxi, however, takes time.