My Friend Ben Franklin Wants to Help

by Colin Berkshire

One of the more interesting aspects of my job of being a global-company executive is dealing with the realities of different countries and their governments in ways of doing business. Most Americans have very little perspective about how things work overseas. Things are vastly different – or the same depending on perspective.

I work in countries where bribery is the norm. I work in fascist countries, and I have worked in dictatorships.

The most surprising thing is that, at the level that most people live their daily lives, these systems are often difficult to distinguish from one another. The people life happy, loving lives with families and budgets and schedules. It’s just impossible to even guess the government-type in pretty much every country because in truth they all work pretty much the same.

In Asia you directly bribe people to get things done. You do it discretely, but the deal is simple: You want a visa issued quickly you slip a bribe. You want a telephone hookup done fast you slip a bribe.

Now, most Americans get appalled at this. They shouldn’t be.

In America when the installer comes out to you home have you ever slipped him a 10-spot to put something in a little differently or to fix something. Have you ever dropped off a case of beer at a supplier’s offices to say thank you for past service (and to imply you want good service next time)? Probably. We all have our networks of friends that can get things done through their network of friends.

The Chinese call this Guanxi. It is all about knowing the right person to make something happen. And, it is perhaps even more important in America than most other countries. It’s knowing the store manager, or an employee at the store that knows the manager. It’s donating to a politician. It’s living next door to a Judge, or going to the same church, or your daughter that babysits a policeman’s kids.

I find that the American system is every bit as corrupt as most Asian systems. There aren’t the little petty $5 bribes as much (although those are becoming more common), but certainly at the upper levels they are more common. The “revolving door” between government and private industry is the biggest version of American corruption.

We all have our Guanxi networks, and we routinely use them daily. We send thank you gifts and thank you notes, and occasionally cash or donations. We just don’t see that it is happening because it is just normal daily business. But it is prevalent.

It’s not a bad thing. The next time you go to your favorite restaurant and you get seated at your favorite table and the waiter asks “The usual?” Just think: You just exercised Guangxi.