The art of guanxi

Or how to get a visa, Sichuan style – by Tom Sampson


I first set foot in Xichang, in southern Sichuan, to teach English in spring 2009. Xichang is the capital city of the Yi minority group, surrounded by rugged mountains and with blue skies all year round. I felt like a real explorer. There wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted to learn or take away from the place – but that was out of my hands. After my time there, I am now a highly qualified back scratcher, trained in the dark arts of creating and maintaining guanxi.

During one of my first classes at the school, my assistant told me to provide lots of attention and assistance to one child in particular. I recoiled at the suggestion.

“I’ll be basing how much time I spend with each student on how they perform once I’ve got to know them. Those who need more attention will receive it.”

My assistant obviously felt quite awkward.

“This is Xiao Yu, his dad is very important. You must treat him well.”

I sighed and nodded half-heartedly. Not for a second, though, was I going to treat this child any differently. I wondered who Xiao Yu’s dad could be but didn’t care too much.

A couple of days later, it was time to apply for a new visa. From day one, the school had seemed extremely blasé about the matter, which worried me. The day before my visa expired, they told me to bring my passport to school the next morning. The plan was to take me to the PSB and apply for a visa.

“Okay, but what about the other documents? Do you have them? What about the money? How long will the visa be valid for? Where is the application form?”

I was told not to worry about any of these things. After being introduced to the policeman who was in charge of putting visas in passports, I understood why.

“This is Lao Yu, Xiao Yu’s father. Give him your passport. Tomorrow we will come to pick it up.”

Aha! So this was why I was told to treat Xiao Yu better than the rest of the students. I still wondered what Lao Yu had to gain from providing teachers with visas no questions asked.

Jack (he went by his English name) was the boss of the school I worked at. A Chengdu native, young and relatively rich, he loved to party. It was normal for him to call me after work and invite me to dinner with other colleagues of mine, or friends and associates of his. More often than not, meals turned into drinkathons, which in turn became wild nights at KTV.

The same day I handed my passport to Lao Yu, I received a call from Jack.

“Hey Tom, let’s go to KTV! I’ll pick you up at 9pm.”

We had finished work at 5pm and I had time to go home, eat, shower and relax for a while. Jack pulled up outside my apartment at 9pm sharp. He looked immaculate, like the picture of a businessman pulled straight off a billboard and brought to life. He had the gadgets, the suit and the car. He loved the fact that he was young and loaded, and was over the top with his generosity. The perfect example of the Chinese nouveau riche – but loveable all the same.

After a few drinks at KTV, I felt the time was right to ask Jack a little more about how I got my visa. He paused, smiled, and said simply:

“The policeman is my friend.”

He could see that I still didn’t understand why that means a policeman would put his job on the line.

“He is a good man. He treats me well and I treat him well. Xiao Yu, his son, is in your class. He studies for free, whereas all the other students pay several thousand RMB per semester. Treat that child well.”

My eyebrows sat slightly higher than usual above my eyes. Jack poured an extra-large whisky for both of us and didn’t even add the customary ice tea. Our glasses chinked, the drink was gulped down and before I knew it I was being dragged to the microphone by Jack, who had queued up an English song for me to sing. To my horror, it was the Backstreet Boys. I belted out the lyrics like I meant it, took a bow and returned to my seat.

Jack had left the room but re-appeared five minutes later with Lao Yu, the policeman at the PSB. Lao Yu greeted me like an old friend, and was clearly already half-drunk. Moments later, six beautiful women entered the room.

As each woman took turns introducing themselves to Lao Yu, the other five sauntered around the room, much to the delight of our salivating posse of men. Lao Yu decided to call the third one back and they promptly disappeared through a door in our room that I hadn’t even noticed was there. Occasionally I would be spoken to in slurred Sichuanese, but people soon realised I didn’t understand a word and lost interest. I didn’t care – I was having a good time and a bunch of free drinks. There was enough eye candy to last, too.

I watched as Jack and his number two celebrated. Through the thick smoke that hung in the air and the unbearable screech of one of the men singing, it was impossible to know exactly what was being said. I was sufficiently intoxicated by this point to go and ask them what they were celebrating. They were in turn drunk enough to spill the beans.

“Lao Yu is in there with one of those girls, he’ll definitely be happy with us now. Cheers!”

We downed another glass together.

Lao Yu re-appeared and insisted that we all go to eat late night BBQ. It was clear that Jack didn’t want to go – we had to be at work in seven hours – but he was not going to risk Lao Yu losing face by turning down his offer. We walked to a BBQ stand and sat down. Lao Yu clearly felt he was now the one to do some back-scratching.

“We’ll have two cases of beer, 15 chicken legs, 50 beef sticks…”

Five beers and ten beef sticks would have been enough. Everybody knew that. But Jack had just spent over 1000 RMB in KTV, so Lao Yu felt he had to spend a lot, too. He didn’t see it as a few hundred RMB wasted, he saw it as making sure he saved tens of thousands of RMB on English tuition fees. Nobody wanted to drink, nobody wanted to eat – but we forced every last drop of beer and every last crumb of food down into our suffering stomachs. Only now was the back-scratching complete.

As everyone stumbled back to their cars or into the street to find taxis, I looked at my watch. I had class in five hours. Why couldn’t Jack and Lao Yu just settle this all over a cup of tea in the middle of the day? I shrugged my shoulders. It's not the Xichang way.


Tom Sampson is an English teacher currently based in Lijiang