Recently the whole world is talking about the COVID-19-related economic crises in goods and services markets, labour markets and financial markets as well as possible ways to help economies recover from them. What seems to be largely missing in these mainstream, economicist discussions is the crisis in “guānxì” (关系, social connections), or the market of “mianzi” (面子, face). This short piece therefore seeks to discuss the place of re-establishing social interaction rituals in economic recovery against the Chinese cultural backdrop.

China experts are probably only too familiar with guānxì and miànzi. From the perspective of economic anthropology, the functions of the frequent and large volumes of ‘transactions’ in the miànzi market are twofold. First, they are essential to maintaining long-term, affection-based guānxì. This informal structure consisting of parents and child(ren), relatives and friends that serves as “mutuality” is widely seen by the Chinese as their most valuable capital stock, as much it is in emotional as in financial terms. Second, the miànzi transactions are indispensable to contractual guānxì such as business partnership, for this kind of social connections are established among different social groups and thus require more careful maintenance through recurrent and punctual “rites of passage”, which, in the Chinese business culture, almost can only be realised through “acts of communion”, especially “communal meals” (typically with alcoholic drinks involved) in restaurants or in other convivial environments.

In the event of COVID-19, the mandatory social distancing has already shown some early negative effects on the first fold of guānxì functionality: By fear of spreading—and above all, getting—the virus, people had to find passable (but after all, awkward) euphemisms to express their willingness of avoiding each other. This has weakened the connections despite the use of video chat as an expedient. But fortunately, people are expected to understand and pardon each other rather easily afterwards, given the shared phycological experiences during the pandemic.

As for the second fold, the consequences and the fix do not seem to be as straightforward. To people in business, having missed the most celebrated holiday season (the Spring Festival in January) to do the habitual ‘face-work’ of exchanging gifts and enjoy communal meals means missing an important regular maintenance of guānxì, and perhaps opportunities to negotiate new contracts. Further, even though official statistics show that since mid-March people are officially back to work and cautiously to some of the pre-COVID-19 lifestyle such as restaurant-going, the systematic wearing of surgical face mask and the segmented table arrangement in restaurants render the acts of communion impossible. What this means to economic recovery could be that a way smaller number of business deals being sealed if this lack of face-to-face interaction rituals is to last in the foreseeable post-COVID-19 age.

The grand challenge of getting the economy back on track therefore, may not only involve finding safe and effective measures of getting employees back in the office and the factory, but bosses in the restaurant.

China, 2020, April 23