Journal article Open Access

Performing Bribery in China: guanxi-practice, corruption with a human face

Li, Ling

This article intends to explicate the entangled relation between corruption and the so-called guanxi-practice, which is a form of reciprocal conduct that appears ubiquitous in the context of corruption in China. Unlike most current academic studies on corruption in China, focusing on the theme of how the political, economic and social environments have caused corruption at the macro-level, this paper takes a micro-view, concentrating on how corruption, notably bribery, takes place between a briber and the bribed. Moreover, it examines what role guanxi-practice plays in corrupt exchanges and, more importantly, why it constitutes a critical element. Through in-depth case-studies and extensive fieldwork, this paper comes to the conclusion that the micro-level operation of corruption in China is not an aggregation of sporadic acts but rather institutionalized acts which follow certain rules and codes of conduct. This paper demonstrates that guanxi-practice embodies such rules and codes of conduct, which constitute an informal institutional mechanism facilitating the contracting process of corrupt exchange. The mechanism not only helps to minimize the otherwise prohibitive transactional cost of corrupt exchange but also prepares the bribed to overcome the possibly also prohibitive moral cost by grafting a corrupt agreement to a social setting, in which corruption is redefined and venality is neutralized and rationalized. Therefore, this paper contends that the causality link between guanxi-practice and corruption is the inverse of the view held by many. It is not that the participants of corruption are compelled to corrupt conduct because of the existence of the guanxi-practice, but on the contrary, these participants adopt guanxi-practice as an enabling operating mechanism that facilitates corruption.

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