一个朋友一条路: Who can you trust in Shenzhen?

Friendship is an important topic of conversation in Shenzhen, where people want friends (many) because friends help one do things that can’t be done alone. Yesterday, I heard two stories about making friends, both from young women who are laboring (打工) in Shenzhen. Significantly, both stories were about what work had taught them about how to make friends.

The first came from A Han, who is 18 and working in Xiao Chen’s teashop. At first, A Han didn’t like the teashop because it was boring (闷). Her job was brewing tea and chatting with people while they tasted the tea. Moreover, because people who drank tea tended to be old (not even “older”, just “old”!), they weren’t interested in fashionable topics. In contrast, A Meng described herself as lively, out-going, and up-to-date. Nevertheless, as she has learned to brew well so that the qualities of each tea can be tasted and to make conversations interesting, she has made many friends. And all these friendships are the real benefit of selling tea.

“In order to sell tea,” she explained, “you have to quiet your heart (静心) and take your time with people. We don’t force people to buy any tea, but help them satisfy their taste. In the process, we become friends.”

The second story came from A Meng, 21-year old woman who had been on her own since graduating from middle school at age 14.

When I asked her why she had left home so young, A Meng explained, “I knew I was ready to be independent. So I went to Tianjin with a relative.”

A Meng sketched the seven year sojourn that had taught her about independence. When she was fourteen, her relative brought her to Tianjin and then vanished (人不见了 – as inconclusive in Mandarin as English vanishing acts). She found a job in a factory that included room and board. After a year in the  factory, she went home for Chinese New Year and then headed out again, this time to Wuhan, where she studied to give facials and massages in a salon(作美容). After she finished her course in Wuhan, she came to Shenzhen and has been working in mid-level salons. I met her in the salon owned by the wife of the second son of a village head.

A Meng deeply valued independence and her conversation kept returning to it – independence and responsibility. She compared her level of independence to her cousin (one month younger), who has never left home and therefore even at 21 can’t make a decision without her mother’s help. Moreover, A Meng went on to say, only people who are independent can take responsibility for family and friends. Indeed, the more independent she has become, the more capable she has shown herself to be and this, in turn, has helped her make many friends.

I have been mulling the question of why friendship matters in Shenzhen. Why, in other words, do stories about work end up being lessons about how to make friends? I am beginning to think that friendship matters in Shenzhen because Chinese society in general, but business more specifically because there is a low tolerance for collaborative relations with strangers. Instead, people work to transform relations with strangers into person realtions.

Florencia Torche Garcia has a wonderful article that usefully models reciprocity and trust. Reciprocity is a key component of personal relations, which are defined through co-presence, the exchange of gifts, and shared memories. According to Torche Garcia,

A paradigmatic model of personal relations can be found in the family – the social structure characterized by continuous presence of their members, by continuous exchange of goods and services, and by common memories, more than by projects. Family links are experienced by individuals as present or given before and beyond any conscious and deliberate individual act.

Importantly, community is an extension of personal relations beyond the scope of the family.  On the one hand, Chinese people draw neighbors and aquaintances into networks of fictive kin. Indeed, as my good friend Terry Woronov has pointed out, one of the first social lessons Chinese children learn is how to call a person [叫人], which is in fact naming the relationship – aunt, uncle, older/younger sibling. And both A Han and A Meng call me “older sister”. On the other hand, among classmates and colleagues, they expend great effort to make friends. And more often than not, help with homework or finishing a task is understood within an exchange of friendly intentions. Friends call each other by their names. (In a hierchically structured kinship relationship, the superior calls the inferior’s name.)

In contrast to personal relationships with families and community are relationships with strangers, which are defined through non-continuous presence, the absense of a reciprocal bond, and no shared memories. On Torche Garcia’s analysis, trust is the cultural orientation that allows strangers to collaborate and work together in order to achieve common goals.

We suggest that trust is a cultural orientation that includes a passive and an active component. The passive component is the expectiation that the stranger will not cause damage, i.e. that unless the opposite is demonstrated the stranger can be trusted. Thus, when it exists, the trustful expectation works as the null hypothesis. The active component of trust is an ethic of personal responsibility based on the rigorous fulfillment of the word given, and on the strict respect of agreements established with strangers.

Here’s the rub: trust is not simply a character trait, but a disposition cultivated and maintained within and through formal rules and social organizations. Unlike personal relationships, which are simply given at birth, institutionally-based relationships are intentionally established and maintained to guide the interactions between strangers toward desire ends – no more fake food, for example or an honest bureaucracy.

It is useful to think Shenzhen discussions about the need for law (法律) and a stable and reliable system (体制) as debates about to organize relationships between strangers – a pressing issue in a city of 14 million (give or take another million). Moreover, unlike other cities throughout China, Shenzhen’s population came from elsewhere (except for roughly 300,000 villagers). This has meant that for the past 30 years, Shenzhen residents have been actively experimenting with building institutions for people who are inclined to distrust them. Indeed, many Old Shenzheners remember the “good old days” as being precisely the days when there weren’t that many regulations and few means for inforcing them. In their estimation, “plans can’t keep up with change (计划跟不上变化)” was a good thing.

It is also important to keep in mind that what A Han and A Meng have learned is the importance of making and keeping friends. Although many tell me that individuals may more easily navigate Shenzhen than cities in the interior -if only because Shenzhen officials to what they say they will for the bribes they take, nevertheless it still helps to have friends. After all, 一个朋友一条路, which quite literally translates as “a friend a road” and forces one to add all sorts of verbs to complete the thought: a friend [is, provides, offers, establishes, points to] a road. And this is the ideal friendship to which Shenzheners aspire: one of infinate possibility that takes us where we want to go.

5 thoughts on “一个朋友一条路: Who can you trust in Shenzhen?

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » China: Reciprocity and trust

  2. yes, we call “Guan Xi” Guan xi is very important, if you have guanxi, you will have more chance to be successful in life, but I think it’s no good,Guan Xi lead the society unhealthy

    • hi maxy,

      i’m curious: what about guanxi is unhealthy? do guanxi make it more or less difficult to trust strangers? are guanxi inappropriate patterns for interacting with strangers? thus, making personal relations of reciprocity more important? looking forward to your response.

  3. I know the questions are for maxy, but I can’t help the urge to chime in…

    A lot of people hate guanxi because it often involves getting in through the backdoor (走後門). When you see so many people around you rise up through the ranks not by merit but guanxi you lose trust in the system and others. I suspect such perception and cynicism is where the guanxi network gets its staying power in the chinese society: people just assume that others are invoking guanxi to get special treatment so why should they play by the rules and leave it to chances? It puts honest people in a difficult situation, and I think the prevalence of this phenomenon over time wears one down…

    • hi carol,

      thank you for chiming in.

      you make two important points. first: what people assume is happening is as important as what may or may not be happening in terms of how decisions are made. second: going through the back door places chinese people in a rock/hard place decision. either they must play by the rules (or law or trust strangers) and risk failing to achieve their goals (because the system does work through reciprocity) or invoke personal relations (guanxi) and achieve their goals even though their actions reproduce the conditions that make it difficult to trust system to begin with. you conclude that this situation wears down honest people.

      what ways do you suggest to (1) change the situation to one of trust and (2) to help people not be worn down by the situation?

      i understand your use of “wear down” to mean “start using guanxi and stop trying to be honest”. it seems to me that these questions beat at the heart of all social interactions – does the effort to live by our moral codes invigorate/ sustain/ nurish us as individuals and the worlds which we inhabit?

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