Sat, Jan 26, 2008
The Straits Times
Chinese firms hire 'foreign talent' to show off

BEIJING - A DUTCH student's lack of business experience was no barrier to his dressing up as a rich foreign investor to provide 'face' for a Chinese company sending a team to visit a textile factory.

In return for lending his Caucasian looks to the delegation visiting Sishui in the eastern province of Shandong, 24-year-old Gerard was put up in a top hotel and treated to a tour of the local sites, he said in an interview on Thursday.

'We were never told why we were there,' said Gerard, who did not want to be identified by his full name, of his factory visit.

The charade went to the extent of him being introduced by Chinese go-betweens to other travelling 'investors', he said.

'The Chinese contact introduced me to the other foreigners (in the party) as a foreign investor. Everyone in the group knew that none of us was a foreign investor. There were students, diplomats and teachers in our group, but as far as I could see, no foreign investors,' Gerard said.

As China's economy charges ahead and local governments scramble to attract investments, the 'hiring' of expatriates has become a way for some Chinese companies to put up a supposed symbol of commercial legitimacy.

The hiring process is opaque, often arranged by mutual Chinese acquaintances and sometimes leaving the foreigner unaware of the assignment at hand.

Other foreigners are better informed of their roles, though the exchanges rarely go beyond the superficial, said Kuwaiti professor Hussein Mussallam from Qinghua University.

'Some people ask me to pretend to be something that I am not,' he said.

In one extreme case, a Caucasian American was asked to pose as a priest at a Chinese wedding.

According to Prof Hussein, hiring agencies keep a database of foreigners and are often paid for meeting quotas.

'If they bring in 20 foreigners, they get paid a certain amount. They don't care if you are a businessman or not,' he said.

'The Chinese need to invite someone for respect to a party or a company, and if you have foreigners present, it shows how important you are,' a sociology professor at Beijing's Renmin University said.

While non-Asian foreigners are sought after, Caucasians are the ones most in demand.

'White people are an expensive commodity in China. It is a glorious thing to show off that you have foreign friends,' said the sociology professor, who declined to be identified.

'You can brag about this.'

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