Ling Li. Lost in Translation: The Rule of guanxi, An Alternative to the Rule of Law. Interpretation of law in China — Roots and Perspectives


Although it still remains largely unsettled, the topic of “guanxi” seems to have slipped from the radar screens of sociologists, anthropologists as well as of China scholars in general. In sharp contrast and as a matter of real life experience, “guanxi” is alive and kicking as it were, i.e. a far from outdated phenomenon. The term of “guanxi” comes up with strikingly frequent regularity in every day social conversations, especially those suggesting corrupt behaviour. Therefore, it would seem imperative rather than meaningless or out-dated to re-examine existing “guanxi”- studies, especially the analytical approaches they have taken.

Originating from some linguistic confusion, the current stalemate of “guanxi”-analyses is, however, not surprising.  After all, the topic of “guanxi” seems unsettled not necessarily because the phenomenon itself is unclear or its contours blurred but because groups of scholars are very often arguing about different matters under the same rubric of “guanxi”. Unaware of this confusion, current studies strayed into an unproductive direction and became trapped in the distractive debate of “good guanxi” and “bad guanxi” by seeking to measure the proportionality of sentimental against instrumental interests pursued by participants involved in different “guanxi-practices”.

This paper contends that a clear semantic distinction should be made between the “guanxi” referring to a “social/personal relationship” from the “guanxi” denoting practitioners of a particular type of favour-exchange conducted in very specific circumstances. It is these special circumstances rather than the exchange behaviour itself that makes “guanxi-practice” different from other types of exchange, for instance, mutual-aid out of private resources. Based on this finding, this paper calls for a new direction of “guanxi-studies” focusing on the manners and conditions under which favour-exchange is utilized as an effective tool in privatizing delegated, especially, public power.


This article was published in the volume “Interpretation of law in China — Roots and Perspectives”, edited by Michal Tomasek and Guido Muhlemann, Charles University, Karolinum Press, 2011.

Ling Li is a senior research scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute.