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Trust, Reciprocity, and Guanxi in China: An Experimental Investigation

  • Fei Song (a1), C. Bram Cadsby (a2) and Yunyun Bi (a3)


We examine the influence of social distance on levels of trust and reciprocity in China. Social distance, reflected in the indigenous concept of guanxi, is of central importance to Chinese culture. In Study 1, some participants participated in two financially salient trust games to measure behaviour, one with an anonymous classmate and the other with an anonymous, demographically identical non-classmate. Other participants, drawn from the same population, completed hypothetical surveys to gauge both hypothetical behaviour and expectations of others. Social distance effects on actual and hypothetical behaviour were statistically consistent. The results together corroborated the hypothesized negative relationship between trust and social distance. However, reciprocity was not responsive to social distance. Study 2 found that affect-based trust, but not cognition-based trust, played a mediating role in the relationship between social distance and interpersonal trust in a hypothetical scenario. We conclude that close guanxi ties in China engender affect-based trust, which is extended to shouren classmates. This is true despite the fact that no more cognition-based trust is placed nor reciprocity received or expected from classmates compared to demographically identical shengren non-classmates.

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