June 18, 2007

China’s eBay-MySpace

In China, the concept of guanxi ranks right up there with air, water, food, love, and tea as an essential of life. Air and water are becoming compromised in China, but not guanxi. In its simplest translation, guanxi means connections or relationships. The concept is really far more complex than that, easily the stuff of dissertations. I found one blogger’s struggle to define the social capital of guanxi appealing. He said the important qualities are whom you know; whom the people you want to know know; whom the people you already know know. Or something like that.

As it was only a matter of time before Chinese internet entrepreneurs would try to monetize guanxi, along comes Zhike.com. The site, which has attracted a flurry of attention in the Chinese press lately, is described as a kind of eBay for guanxi. The idea is to provide a virtual meeting place for people who have guanxi to sell or guanxi they want to buy.

Here are a few of the most famous guanxi stories on Zhike.com. A newcomer to a big Chinese city offers to pay 1000 RMB (renminbi, or the People’s currency) or about $130 to use someone’s guanxi to get his child into a good school. Another person was seeking someone’s guanxi with a TV show celebrity, which he could buy to help get a picture taken with the star.

I spent some time looking around on Zhike.com, thanks to the magic of Google translator, which I have loaded on my laptop to provide me a basic, and sometimes very funny translation of Chinese web pages into English. Most of the items for barter looked more like the classifieds on Craigslist than they looked like straight-up guanxi barters. There were people looking for web designing, copy writing, tutoring, accounting services, Shanghai men looking for single women, real estate agents, etc. Everything, however, even the personals had a bidding price. The fees for a contact – the person with guanxi, who would open the door to opportunity – were frequently in the hundreds of RMB. The fees for actual work were often in the thousands.

Sometimes, it was very hard to tell quite what was going on, which I attribute partly to the quality of the translation and partly to the inscrutable culture of China. Here’s one, in its translated version that is up for 2000 RMB: “I need petrochemical plant material PP nose, whoever the road this regard please contact me, the success of gratuity can be discussed later.” My best guess is that someone wants some kind of chemicals (a smelly one?), and whoever can set him up with an opportunity to buy it will be rewarded, at a rate to be discussed later.