During a recent three-day visit to a local hospital, a Chinese biologist known as the "king of connections" managed to wrangle several impressive deals.
First, he got himself a bed in a private room normally reserved for high-ranking Communist Party officials. Then he managed to place a friend's son in a job at the hospital.
Finally, the "king" arranged to introduce a relative to one of the nurses. The couple got married shortly thereafter.
After the successful removal of his appendix, the king checked out of the hospital with a feeling of accomplishment.
The king's secret is a masterful use of guanxi , or personal connections.
His wheeling and dealing reflects what goes on at all levels in a communist system where, despite recent economic and legal reforms, scarcities persist and such connections count for more than institutions, laws or money.
The emphasis on personal relationships has always been part of the Chinese system, whether communist or non-communist. As China modernizes and decentralizes, some people argue that the use of guanxi is becoming more widespread.
The strongest personal relationships for the king of connections are in hospitals where his former students work. For friends, he acquires scarce medicines, doctors' appointments and hospital beds in exchange for alcohol, videotapes and tickets for air and rail travel, among other booty.
Fixers like the king are not usually willing to discuss their activities. He agreed to talk on the understanding that his identity not be disclosed.
Nothing the king has done is illegal and, in some cases, the use of guanxi is not that different from the use, or abuse, of relationships in Western nations, such as the old-boy networks of Britain or the United States.
But in China, as the demand for consumer goods increases and more products become available, the potential for corruption has grown. Sometimes the "commodities" in guanxi trade-offs are particularly valuable--a telephone, a passport, a driver's license, entrance to college or even release from arrest.
"Once you get power, you can have everything," said a Chinese journalist. "You don't need to have money."
A new class of middlemen has grown up using back-door channels to acquire for their clients everything from cigarettes and imported clothing to refrigerators, steel and timber.
The official China Daily newspaper recently argued that such professional fixers, whose numbers it said are on the rise, are "the corrosive elements" of society. "If they are allowed to prosper," it said, "they will surely downgrade the moral standards and slow down our economic reform and modernization program."
But many Chinese contend that using guanxi is the only way to get anything done in a society where the best bicycles are rationed and apartments often go to those with connections. Even a simple matter--trying to obtain a railroad ticket--can be excruciatingly difficult in China unless the buyer knows someone at the railway station.
Those who do not have much in the way of connections resent those who do. One often hears scathing comments from Chinese intellectuals about the sons and daughters of high-ranking officials who have reached high positions apparently as a result of guanxi.
'A Matter of Who You Know'
A Western businessman, who asked not to be identified, said Chinese officials in the provinces sometimes laugh when he refers to central government rules and regulations.
"It's become apparent that there are no laws or regulations out there," he said. "It's all just a matter of who you know."