Guanxi Prevails Over Banks

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Nowhere does this ring truer than in China, where guanxi reigns supreme.

Guanxi has been translated in a lot of ways, such as “relationships” or “social networking.” Since it’s so often sort of a shady business (especially in government), I prefer the more colloqiual translation “connections.” That way having my own guanxi makes me feel like I’m in the mob or something.

A while back I wrote about how I applied for a credit card here in Shanghai and was cruelly rejected for reasons not entirely clear to me. I didn’t care too much; I even broadcasted my rejection on the internet, sharing with the whole world my humiliation at the hands of my Chinese financial overlords.

My girlfriend, however, was not pleased. She seemd to take it personally. She really felt that I should have no trouble getting a credit card through China Merchants Bank (ÕÐÉÌÒøÐÐ), and didn’t want to accept my rejection.

It’s exactly five months later today, and two China Merchants Bank gold credit cards just arrived in the mail. I activated them already. One has a visa logo (take a peek), and the other has a MasterCard logo. They have different credit card numbers. I have a combined 15,000 rmb limit (a bit under $2000 US), and I can use my credit cards to buy in dollars as well as in RMB.

How did my girlfriend do it? Guanxi, of course. She met a guy who worked at China Merchants Bank and charmed him into personally overseeing the approval of my credit card application. The only difference was they wanted a copy of my “Foreign Expert Certificate” this time. It expired a year ago, but fortunately the expiration date wasn’t on the same page as the official seal. The guy said it wouldn’t matter. Apparently it didn’t. I still don’t know if my being rejected the first time was a mistake or not, but using guanxi to get the job done was the surest way to get approved.

Very cool of my girlfriend to handle that for me, although I can’t help but wonder if she could possibly have some ulterior motive….


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. John, you had a minor misspelling. “The guy said it wouldn’t matter. Apparently it didn’t.” Change the y in “guy” to anxi and it’d read better.

  2. So you’re able to buy things with USD and pay for them in RMB?! You lucky sonofabitch. 🙂

  3. John B,

    Ahhh, you have grasped one of the subtle underpinnings of my master plan…

    I need to read the fine print more carefully, but I think there’s a charge for dollar transactions.

  4. Congrats! Is there any annual fee?

    It’d be interesting to see if the two cards can be used to buy stuff outside China, say on Amazon, and what the final dollar-RMB exchange will be.

  5. Ill go and check out merchants bank on monday, I have a current account with them already. I’ll take my foreign experts license and see if they give me a CC without resorting to guanxi.

    Will report back.

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: October 17, 2004 at 1:01 am

    Guanxi sucks! If China ever hopes to join the top nations, it has to replace guanxi with a true meritocracy.

    But here’s the funny thing. The Chinese invented civil examinations, the original merits-based means of advancement. The West didn’t start using exams until the 1800s. So it’s sort of funny how the Chinese could be both the originators of merits-based advancement and also be completely fucking corrupt!

    America is far less corrupt than China is. Anyone who denies this is a leftist idiot. However, less corrupt is still not incorrupt. The face of America–i.e., the President–would NEVER have been president if his last name wasn’t Bush; his success is ALL about guanxi. So that’s sort of sad–though, that isn’t to say replacing him with a shameless gold digger is any better.

  7. greg pasden Says: October 17, 2004 at 7:20 am

    From the sound of your experience… is your girlfriend’s alias Guido? Is she related to the Gad F?ather

  8. Da Xiangchang, I’m getting a feeling for your favorite verb. Mostly, you use it as a gerundal adjective. Could you get with the higher tone of this website & save that favorite verb (& its various forms) of yours for more personal & private communications. There may be others besides me that would appreciate it.

  9. Spoken of corruption. USA aint that democratic as they suppose to be. The so-called land of freedom. I better spit on USA then North Korea.

    The Charms of Lady can do miracles 🙂 Tha hasnt much to do with guanxi. Just bribing a important guy 🙂 one of the way is guanxi 🙂 and other is just female charm…

  10. China is meritocratic. Get a university degree and you are automatically boosted. Now get a master’s degree or a PhD and up you go. Very high-no. Higher-yes. Just like the old days, you have to pass examinations. When trying to avoid/break rules you have to use connections. Criminals everywhere know this. Rewards based on merit in China are not as great as they are in some other places but they do exist. Many people don’t take the time to understand the rules here, expect greater rewards than the system offers, and thus try to use connections to avoid/break those rules. John expected greater rewards than the system was willing to give. He was denied a credit card. He got connections and then avoided/broke those rules. I find it amazing that John stated that he did that publicly. He put himself, his girlfriend and the person who helped in great jeopardy. If someone is unhappy with the rules set by those in control they should fucking leave (sorry Tim P.), revolt, or be willing to accept the consequences.

  11. greg pasden Says: October 18, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    i thought the usa is a republic with democratic society.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: October 18, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    Here’s an interesting list of most and least corrupt countries (scroll down to the list):

    The US is 18 (nothing special), and China is 66 (in the middle). Still, I wonder how they arrived at these numbers.

    However, I was very heartened by Singapore’s high rank. This will prove once and for all one thing:

    Chinese people can be incorrupt if they want to be! It’s not in the genes!

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: October 18, 2004 at 1:36 pm


    But so is North Korea. Its official name is, after all, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 😉 It’s just that for some weird reason, they keep on electing a big-haired midget with granny glasses for president.

  14. Tim H,

    I’m not sure any rules were broken. The facts are:

    1. I don’t know why I was rejected the first time. It might have been a reaction to someone in the approval system getting denied their American visa, for all I know. A lot of people tell me I should be able to get a credit card just by applying.

    2. The guy might have helped me out even without my girlfriend’s help. It’s his job after all, and all my girlfriend did was ask nicely, nothing more.

    3. Nothing in the application instructions say anything about a foreign experts certificate. I don’t know why he wanted that, but I gave him what he asked for.

    I think this is a case of guanxi oiling the wheels of the clunky bureaucratic system a little, not breaking any rules.

  15. “I think this is a case of guanxi oiling the wheels of the clunky bureaucratic system a little, not breaking any rules.”

    Agreed. The guanxi just pointed some right ways. And my guess is that the foreign expert certificate was not a prerequisite but a status booster, which you wouldn’t know without he.

    Often in non-coorupt cases, a guanxi merely points out for you a more efficient or correct route through the bureaucratic maze. This is seen more often in China than in the States, though I’m not too sure if it is improportionally more.

    On the other hand, Chinese culture is one in which “persons are bigger than rules” rather than the ideal “·¨´óÓÚÈË” which is way more evident in the US. In China if you know someone, or know a friend of a friend’s distant second cousin’s brother-in-law, the official situation, at least the attitude, suddenly becomes cozy.

  16. If you had applied in person and they saw how tall you were you probably could have gotten platinum card.

  17. Sorry about the grammatical errors. I’m drunk.

  18. So you finally got a CMB Credit Card!
    Just a few questions, because I’m too lazy to go down there or call them up.
    What are the annual fees like?
    How long does it take from applying to getting your card?
    Which location did you go to?

    I should probably get a CMB card this HSBC card is crap!

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