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Blat and Guanxi: Informal Practices in Russia and China

  • Alena Ledeneva (a1)

This paper compares informal practices used to obtain goods and services in short supply and to circumvent formal procedures in Russia and China, and assesses their changes and continuities during the market reforms. I divide my presentation into four parts. The first tackles similarities between blat and guanxi under socialism: language games and idioms that referred to these practices; similar pressures of the shortage economy that forced individuals to satisfy their needs through informal exchanges; and the contradictory role of informal practices—they supported but also subverted the socialist systems. In the second part I shift my focus to the differences between blat and guanxi that stem from different cultural traditions in the two societies. These traditions determine the moral force of reciprocity, the degree of codification of informal practices, and their legitimacy. The third part illustrates differences in market reforms in China and in Russia. Finally, I compare blat and guanxi practices as responses to these reforms and discuss both intriguing similarities and significant differences in the new forms of guanxi and blat. Thus, the post-Soviet reforms have changed informal practices so much that blat has almost lost its relevance as a term that describes the corrupt use of personal networks in contemporary Russia. In contemporary Chinese society, by contrast, guanxi has deeper roots in kinship structures and traditions, and both the term and guanxi practices continue to be important.1 The partial nature of reforms in China and the persistence of communist rule may account for some of this difference, but we must also consider a range of historical and cultural factors that shape and help reproduce informal practices.

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