Though some Western companies and legal systems may be tempted to label its observance as corruption, guanxi is just a different set of business practices that grew out of China's distinct moral culture.
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The case of Candace Claiborne, a State Department employee recently arrested and charged with failing to disclose gifts from Chinese intelligence officers, provides many useful insights into the world of spying. In my April 6 column, I discussed her unusual motive for working with Chinese intelligence: to help pay for her son's education. Another item in the criminal complaint against Claiborne touches on a more commonplace, but equally striking, issue. The complaint mentions that Claiborne had sent her son a message discussing guanxi, the complex cultural system that governs personal relationships in China. Guanxi typically describes the moral obligations that arise from giving and receiving personal gifts or favors. The custom is generally considered a natural way of relating to people and conducting business in China. Many Western businesses, on the other hand, view guanxi as corruption.
Of course, Claiborne's relationship with Chinese intelligence went beyond the boundaries of guanxi, given...