The Double-Edged Sword: Guanxi and Science Ethics in Academic Physics in the People’s Republic of China

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Taylor & Francis


As China continues to open up to the transnational circulation of labor, ideas, technology and capital under globalization, we must wonder: will Chinese society’s more cosmopolitan and transnational groups continue to be guided by guanxi? The authors conducted 40 in-depth interviews with Chinese physicists at 11 research universities in three cities in order to examine the role of ethics, including guanxi, in the professional lives of one of China’s most cosmopolitan populations, the elite scientific community. Analysis reveals, counter-intuitively, that Chinese physicists very much think about guanxi in relation to their research grants and scientific collaboration, that the ethical connotation of guanxi is contextual, and that some see it as a double-edged sword. They realize that guanxi can empower the individual scientist and the scientific community even as it weakens them both.