The best way to strengthen a guanxi network is to stay connected.
Send small gifts or ask for small favors to keep a relationship active.
Host an occasional get-together.
Remember the major Chinese holidays and send greetings.
Get to know your colleagues’ outside interests and find ways to support them, like getting tickets to a sporting event or concert.
I love watching the TV show, No Reservations. The show involves Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential fame) touring a country and sampling its restaurants and foods. Despite constant (at the beginning and at every commercial) warnings of adult content (there is usually massive swearing, drinking, and smoking), I always watch it with my ten-year-old daughter because I know of no better or more interesting way for her to learn about foreign cultures. Every show leads her to ask a torrent of questions, with none on swearing, drinking or smoking.
Bourdain defines bon vivant (see the eating, swearing, drinking and smoking above). This is a person who clearly loves to travel, loves meeting people of other cultures, and loves eating exotic foods. I have always divided Americans into those who think going to London constitutes stretching themselves and those who want to go somewhere where almost nothing is at all familiar. Bourdain neatly fits into the second category. Most importantly, he is a likable guy whose likability and bon vivantness (I was a French major so I know I am making up this word) crosses cultural divides.
His recent episode in Laos was amazing and led me to proclaim that one can learn more about how to act in China (or anywhere else) from a one-hour No Reservations episode than from anything else. Watch it!
The key takeaway from Bourdain is that if you truly seek to enjoy and respect the people (and food) around you, truly want to learn more, truly seek to participate in the culture and food and customs of a people, and do so with spirit, you will be fine. The word truly is important because people everywhere appreciate sincerity and effort and can instinctively sense phoniness.
So watch No Reservations and the next time you find yourself in a lesson on Chinese etiquette/culture designed to make you acceptable to “the Chinese,” ask yourself who you think most likely to have a real network (note how I did NOT use the word guanxi here) in China, your instructor or Bourdain.
Update: Got to see Bourdain live and he was great. If he comes to your town, don’t miss it.