In the West they sometimes say greed is good – can a Chinese variant of this principle be that guanxi is good? Guanxi, or the use of connections and favours to get ahead, is having a rough run at the moment, as President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign cracks down not just on big-time bribery, but even the little perks like bottles of bordeaux. It is a “broken windows” approach: stamping out borderline behaviour to prevent a slippery slope to more galling forms of illicit economic extraction, like shoeboxes of cash exchanged for land grabs. Interestingly, among the perks now on the chopping block are executive MBA programmes. According to an article in this paper last week, more than 3,000 mainland officials have been stopped from studying for MBAs and other expensive courses. Xi sees these MBAs as an extravagance, and a dangerous extravagance at that, rather than something that can legitimately be useful for sharpening the performance of government officials. In a way, he is spot on. Executive MBA programmes are hyped-up, expensive networking bubbles – an elaborate form of guanxi. The content may be good, but as one graduate of a top US MBA programme recently told me, he could have just bought some books and taught himself the same stuff. For him, the key lure was the status conferred on him by a higher degree, the motivational buzz of meeting movers and shakers, and the club membership that carries on ever afterwards through alumni networks. One thought I’ve been having is that the Xi Jinping crackdown may make the whole system more closed John Oxburg, author One could argue that there is something vaguely corrupt about this. After all, once you’ve gained access to the club, you can use it to open doors ahead of someone else. You might get a job because you methodically dialled everyone listed in the alumni directory and sweet-talked, you might get that deal, or that crucial meeting with a government regulator, because you were both in the same cohort at some fancy MBA programme. And this is exactly what the world’s MBA programmes are rather straightforwardly, shamelessly selling: a wholesale purchase of networks, with a side order of business knowledge. Yet at the same time, these programmes are also eminently democratic and egalitarian. They provide a tender system for the ambitious, and any candidate who can pass the course can join the club, no matter how humble his origins. When he arrives on campus - perhaps after saving for years or scrabbling together loans from family members - he will rub shoulders with the rich and established, but also with fellow strivers, with self-made entrepreneurs, with future or past government officials. He will exchange connections, but he will also exchange ideas. Economies are built on networks - the great economic hubs of the world, from Silicon Valley to “the City” in London to Guangzhou’s industrial clusters, thrive because like-minded individuals can swap ideas, feed off each other’s inspiration and pool their intellectual capital. On the mainland, apparently, the network aspect of the MBA programmes has earned a reputation as, to quote last week’s South China Morning Post article, “a breeding ground for power-for-money deals, blurring the line between business and politics”. And yes, that sounds very bad. And yes, sure it is risky to have government officials connecting with the hungry, ambitious and moneyed. But if an economic system becomes too rigidly clean, is it possible that this can close off avenues of upward mobility. Who is it, after all, that tries to buy a way into the system, but outsiders? “One thought I’ve been having is that the Xi Jinping crackdown may make the whole system more closed,” John Oxburg, the author of Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, said in a recent question and answer session on the Sinosphere blog. “It used to be that ordinary people could, in a sense, work their way up through bribes and cultivating connections … if this is closed off, then ordinary people won’t have a way into the system. It will become an exclusive domain of the established elite.” Still, the practice of handing over boxes of cash seems a bit un-evolved as a form of economic entry. It makes more sense to auction off guanxi rights through more formalised channels – which in a way is what an MBA programme is all about. There could be worse things than a cadre with an MBA. Some perks might be best tolerated.