Guanxi, Mianzi, and Business: The Impact of Culture on Corporate Governance in China

Key Facts

  • There are two key cultural and sociological issues of particular importance when evaluating Chinese companies: guanxi (relationships and networks) and mianzi (face).
  • When analyzing the potential of a Chinese company, it’s important to understand how guanzi and mianzi affect transactions, board composition and deliberations, and shareholder engagement, among other issues.
  • While relationships matter everywhere, Chinese (and on a broader note, Asian) business is driven to a much greater extent by relationships and connections than is business in other economies.
  • Given the close interpersonal relationships that are developed within China, business is often conducted between a set of individuals who share a very close bond or relationship.
  • Aberdeen believes that investing in China means possessing a deep understanding of the cultural and social issues that govern not only personal interactions but those in business.
  • It is unlikely that the influence of guanxi and mianzi will ever completely disappear even as China’s corporate governance institutions develop and strengthen.

While understanding the fundamental drivers of a business is important when investing, understanding the cultural elements that drive behavior are of equal importance to investors. Much has been said about the explosive growth of China; less has been expressed about the strong influence that Chinese culture has on the way a business operates, how it is governed and how businesses interact with each other. There are two key cultural and sociological issues of particular importance when evaluating Chinese companies: guanxi (relationships and networks) and mianzi (face). These issues, deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, have potential implications for investors. When analyzing the potential of a Chinese company, it’s important to understand how these issues affect transactions, board composition and deliberations, and shareholder engagement, among others.

Introduction

Many investors may be familiar with the Chinese meaning of guanxi and the place of relationships and networks in the conducting of business in China. The concept of mianzi—and the business implications of individuals’ saving, giving, or losing face is significantly less understood. Understanding both of these concepts, and their importance in Chinese business relationships is of manifest importance. It is possible, for example, to spend years developing a business relationship by applying a good understanding of guanxi, only to spectacularly fail because of a misunderstanding of mianzi. In a society where cultural institutions are intertwined with commonly held understandings of corporate governance, and where a lack of public disagreement is found alongside a culture of state ownership and related-party transactions, corporate governance implications for investors are significant.

Guanxi and relationship-based business

Often thought to be a Chinese version of networking, guanxi (meaning connections or relations) has more to do with the building and maintaining of deep, complex interpersonal relationships and bonds between individuals. What is important to understand about guanxi is that relationships are developed and nurtured over time, in many cases without a specific “need” or “use” for that relationship. Many businessmen new to China wait to develop relationships until they are faced with a problem; then they proceed to develop relationships to help with that particular problem. Or, if they recognize the importance of guanxi and establish relationships with appropriate individuals, they fail to maintain and cultivate those relationships. Both of those approaches miss the essence of guanxi: it must be cultivated over time.

In cultivating guanxi, both parties recognize that, as part of the developing relationship, a personal obligation is also developing. This obligation is reinforced when one party makes “use” of the relationship. By “using” the individual with whom one has guanxi, the moral code of reciprocity means that the user is likely to be called upon at a later, unspecified date to assist the other party. However, a moral code associated with guanxi does prevent an individual from exercising such obligations excessively.

While relationships matter everywhere, Chinese (and on a broader note, Asian) business is driven to a much greater extent by relationships and connections than is business in many other economies. This relationship-based approach to business has a number of ramifications for investors. For example, a lack of guanxi is a fundamental barrier to entry. Establishing the right guanxi with the right people can help an individual (and his or her business) tremendously—although having the right guanxi does not necessarily mean that success is a given.

Mianzi (face) and social norms

A related issue, mianzi, or face, is equally important within Chinese social settings and therefore of significant importance in a business context. Face is a sociological manifestation of a desire to retain social stability, hierarchy, and respect, a need to be respected by others and not be embarrassed in social interactions. 1 Although other cultures have similar sociological constructs, the importance of face in China is such that a misunderstanding can have serious consequences for an individual or business. Face is fundamentally about perception, respect, and appropriate deference. Significantly, face is of equal importance in relationships with people of greater seniority, of similar seniority (peers), and of a junior standing.

Giving face involves an act that communicates an appropriate level of respect. Examples might include accepting an invitation to the wedding of a business partner’s eldest son, stressing the accomplishments of a business partner in a social setting, avoiding direct conflict, and generally ensuring compliance with expected norms of etiquette.

The desire to save face is common in many business environments, yet it is of manifest importance in China. Situations in which an individual might lose face include open and public criticism by a peer or manager, or an open display of anger. One example of causing a counterparty to lose face illustrates the issue better than most: A friend recalled bringing his chief executive officer to China to discuss business with senior management of a large Chinese company. The chief executive officer thought the meeting had gone well but, on leaving the meeting, had left all the Chinese delegation’s name cards on the table in the meeting room—a move that had not gone unnoticed by the Chinese hosts. Treating name cards with respect is a central element of face—looking at the name card, commenting on the individual’s job, and treating the item with respect all give face to the individual. Leaving the name cards in the meeting room, however, does not.

What does this mean for corporate governance in China?

First, given the close interpersonal relationships that are developed within China, business is often conducted between a set of individuals who share a very close bond or relationship. These are relationships are sometimes formalized via equity stakes, or the formation of joint ventures. As a result of these formalized business relationships, many subsequent transactions with these individuals are by definition related-party transactions.

Second, as a result of (or in order to develop) strong guanxi, corporate money may not be put to best use in the shortterm, if the manager is focusing instead on the deepening of bonds with an eye on thelonger term. Over time, investors should not be surprised to see money from a listedentity used to support a supplier/partner in times of need, either through the extensionof a loan or through acquiring assets to provide financial assistance.

Third, dominant chief executive officers in China may tap into their network of relationships when selecting directors, meaning that debate and discussion are perhaps less robust than in other boardrooms. Individuals deemed independent by a company may not, in fact, be independent of a chief executive officer. While not unique to China, investors considering independence must undertake due diligence on individuals, and look not only at current directorships but also at historical ties, including former board interlinks and overlaps, school and university education, birthplace, and so on. Indeed, understanding of the concept of independence in China may differ from the understanding of it in other countries and cultures.

Finally, the overriding consideration given to face means that in many cases direct conflict is avoided in the boardroom. While skilled directors can put points across outside the boardroom, the desire to give face may mean that the inexperienced or unskilled director does not challenge bad decisions or behaviors.

Culture and shareholder engagement

Faced with the dual challenge of guanxi and mianzi, how might non-Chinese shareholders engage with Chinese companies? We believe that investors engaging with Chinese companies should focus on three strategies: First, engage early. In the context of guanxi, it is important to cultivate relationships early on and to maintain those relationships. Even where there are no immediate issues, shareholders, as owners, should seek to develop and cultivate relationships with management of Chinese companies.

Second, engagement should be constructive, not confrontational, and with respect for management. Many engagements in China take place in a room packed with company representatives. In our experience, two research analysts are often met by anywhere from four to 12 company representatives of varying seniority (with the most senior usually in the center of the table). The two senior individuals are usually most involved in the discussions, with the junior representatives more often taking copious notes. From time to time, others will be called into and out of the meeting as required, involving a cast of many.

Third, if engagement is not as productive as might be hoped, tapping into one’s guanxi may help uncover the answer. We have heard stories of people having seemingly constructive and useful discussions with mid-ranking individuals at a State-owned enterprise, then returning from these meetings and reporting that, although things seemed to be going well, not much was being achieved. The reason? The people they talked with were not sufficiently senior to make any useful comments or offer solutions; they could only listen to concerns, offer platitudes, and agree (under duress) to follow-up meetings.

Guanxi versus corruption

One important—and widely discussed—issue related to business conducted on the basis of close personal bonds, as seen in many markets, is that of corruption. As the Chinese economy grows in size and influence, not only in Asia but also worldwide, it becomes increasingly important that corruption, or perceptions thereof, be addressed effectively. In this context, it is helpful to give careful consideration to the element of guanxi.

And, corporate governance has a significant role in addressing this issue, not only for the benefit of the international community but also, perhaps more importantly, for the people of China. They, as well as investors from abroad, must feel comfortable bringing their capital to Chinese companies. Moreover, the Chinese government speaks of “social harmony,” an important component of which is an appropriate response to corruption—that is, adherence to good practices of corporate governance.

This issue is also important for Chinese companies that seek to raise capital in other markets: some Chinese companies listed on NASDAQ, for example, have been perceived as being corrupt or fraudulent, leading to their being de-listed. The business leadership of China, which, as we have seen, functions to an important extent on the basis of relationships, will need to carefully balance this tradition while keeping to practices that are free of the risks associated with corruption.

Final thoughts

Aberdeen believes that investing in China means possessing a deep understanding of the cultural and social issues that govern not only personal interactions but those in business. Over time, and as China’s corporate governance institutions develop and strengthen, guanxi and mianzi may decline in importance. It is unlikely, however, that the influence of personal relationships or the importance of giving face will ever completely disappear.

A version of this article first appeared as a Private Sector Opinion, published by the Global Corporate Governance Forum. The Global Corporate Governance Forum supports corporate governance reforms in emerging markets and developing countries. It is part of the Corporate Governance Group of the International Finance Corporation.

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FROM ABERDEEN ASSET MANAGEMENT’S WINTER 2013 BULLETIN MAGAZINE

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