Guanxi. Not a word I know well. Nonetheless, a word, and a concept, one could not avoid hearing about during our Breakbulk China conference in Shanghai.

As I understand it, guanxi is the pinyin approximation of a Chinese word that refers to one’s relationships, one’s networks of influence. In traditional China, all happens through guanxi. And without guanxi, little happens indeed. What that means for outsiders who would like to do business in or with China is complicated. Western assumptions about the desirability of transparency, of clear and fair regulations, of the rule of law, of the same rules applying to everyone – well, my friend, these are not the same assumptions that underlie the concept of guanxi. 

Lion guarding the Bank of China

There was no subject we could discuss in our conference panels where we did not run up on the complications caused by this cultural difference. Do contracts signal the end of negotiations, or just the beginning? What matters most, the contract itself, or the person you are doing business with? How do westerners deeply concerned – and with good reason – about running afoul of the UK Bribery Act or the U.S.’s Department of Justice’s compliance laws deal with a culture in which gift-giving and using influence are the ancient norm? 

In our panels we heard tales of Chinese exporters to Australia who were stunned they could not use influence to avoid quarantine when they did not have proper import documentation. We heard tales of skullduggery on the Yangtze River. We also heard about forwarders’ subcontractors who absolutely will not sign a compliance agreement – but who will nonetheless bend over backwards, and go above and beyond the original contract requirements, to cope with an unexpected problem. We heard about young companies determined to adapt an ancient mindset, and making progress  doing just that.

I am always surprised and pleased at the way so many of our breakbulk industry executives are willing to speak frankly and openly about some of their most serious concerns during our panels. In China, some of these men and women were taking on political as well as business risk. But our industry experts want to share. They want, almost invariably, to teach. The best panels, to my mind, create an opportunity for our Breakbulk audience to listen to a group of ‘old hands’ (even though sometimes they are startlingly young!) speak their minds. This always happens, and China was no exception.

Every region has its own complicated set of business challenges, its own ‘guanxi,’ if you will. As we expand Breakbulk’s events, Breakbulk’s reach, we learn more about what matters where.


Pro: the commute, the dress code and the flexible hours.
Con: the occasional domestic interruption.

Jack's new hangout


Earlier this week, I interviewed a woman who runs a pioneering project forwarding business in China. We were talking about breakbulk and project cargo on the Yangtze river, and she mentioned that she occasionally sees a particular heavy-lift carrier’s vessels loading extremely heavy modules at the river’s fabrication yards. These modules, bound for capital projects in Australia and elsewhere, are the product of a trend we’ve tracked extensively in Breakbulk Magazine, that of building gigantic modules offsite and transporting them to remote locations for installation.

As it happens, I interviewed a US-based operations manager with that ocean carrier a year or so ago for a Breakbulk magazine cover story. I shot him an email, and he immediately said he’d be happy to put me in touch with the carrier’s Shanghai office. Next step: seeing if someone from that office is interested in being on our Yangtze River panel at Breakbulk China, our next major conference.

This is my seventh year writing about this business, and I am still fascinated by the web of economic relationships that make up the breakbulk world. It’s geographically boundless, but somehow still a small world. It’s a petri dish for the study of supply and demand, and a web of tough-minded, hard-working, fascinating people.

Oh, there’s lots of stuff to drop on New Year’s Eve. Apples, peaches, oranges, disco balls, pine cones. Pickles. Fleur-de-lis. Here in Mobile, Alabama, we drop a Moon Pie. Yeah, as in RC Cola. As in Chattanooga Bakery.

Moon Pies are important to us because they are important to Mardi Gras (of which Mobile had the FIRST in the U.S., thank you very much. That’s for any fleur-de-lis-droppers out there). Mardi Gras means parades, and parades mean throws, and throwing means parade-goers getting whacked in the head. This lead, years ago, to a shift from boxes of Cracker Jacks to Moon Pies. Moon Pies have no edges. Also they are discs, and thus handy for throwing.

Our giant New Year’s Eve Moon Pie has been fastened to the roof of the RSA bank building for a couple of years now. At midnight, when the Moon Pie drops, Three Dog Night will be playing and people will be partying in the blocked-off streets. Happy New Year!

Photo courtesy Chattanooga Bakery

Still on Christmas break, today I’m working not on shipping stuff but on a short story. It’s about a fortune teller, a palm reader.

I am not a believer. I think successful fortune tellers are psychologists, not psychics.

Once a stranger came up to a friend of mine and asked to look at her palm. My friend, Laura, complied. The stranger poured over her hand for a second and shook her head and said, “Oh, what a shame,” or words to that effect. Of course Laura asked what she meant. “Your friends don’t really like you,” the stranger said. “They are all talking about you behind your back.” Laura knew this wasn’t true. The stranger insisted that it was. In fact, she said, my friend was cursed. Fortunately, the curse could be removed quite easily – and for a very reasonable sum. Laura declined the offer, and the stranger cursed her and walked off.

But a lot of people are afraid that their friends are false and talk behind their backs. Hit that soft spot, or some other vulnerability, and you might convince a mark that you really do know something they don’t.

New Year’s Resolution #1: no more staying up till 2 a.m. watching old movies and drinking Cosmo slushies. Even when I just finished reading Wolf Hall and thus feel it’s very important to watch Anne of the Thousand Days as soon as possible. And even though I just discovered that House of Cards is on streaming Netflix. Centuries removed from the Tudor court, but it dovetails so very sweetly.

Why no more of this? Even though it makes such good sense? Because today I’m tired and have a headache, that’s why. And because there is always something to draw me into the small hours. This week it’s Anne Boleyn. Next week it’ll be Bette Davis. I’m never finished.

Hm, it’s been a long time since I watched All About Eve.