(South China Morning Post) – When Katie moved to Beijing from New Jersey three years ago, she soon found that her full-time job didn’t pay well enough to cover her costs.
That’s when an online job ad caught her eye: “Chinese-speaking foreigner wanted for part-time position.”
So Katie, a 25-year-old American who speaks fluent Putonghua, applied and got the job with the government-backed firm. Her business card says she is the assistant to the director of the firm. Her job involves accompanying the director to dinner with clients once a week.
“I don’t know much about this company and we never talk about business at dinners,” said Katie, who didn’t want to give her real name.
“There’s a lot of fun at the dinners and the pay – 1,000 yuan (US$145) each time – isn’t too bad for me.”
Katie said she had never asked why a foreigner was needed for the role, but she believed it had to do with creating an “international” image for the company, and her ability to add an “exotic” element to the dinner conversation.
Perception of success
It’s not uncommon for Chinese companies to hire foreigners, especially white Westerners, to represent them in public relations-type roles. Many Chinese equate Caucasian faces with business success and a global outlook.
For decades, products made in China but associated with foreign elements – such as a Western-sounding name or being endorsed by a Caucasian model – have been seen as superior.
That perception has made China a lucrative place for foreigners to pick up work on the basis of their appearance, regardless of their skills.
Companies hire foreigners to step into the role of musicians, athletes, architects, lawyers and many other professionals for their marketing activities – a common ruse to win more Chinese customers.
The business of “renting” a foreigner has been going on for well over a decade, and even as foreign faces become more commonplace – there were more than 900,000 foreigners working in China in 2016, up from just 10,000 in the 1980s, according to official data – it remains popular.
Last month, for example, a car repair firm in Nanling county, Anhui province posted an ad on a Shanghai WeChat group for foreign expatriates seeking “Western actors to perform as mechanics” at its opening ceremony on May 1.
The practice is explored in Dream Empire, a 73-minute documentary by Denmark-based American director David Borenstein. It follows a young rural migrant, Yana, who sets up a foreigner rental agency in Chongqing to help her clients market their products and project an international image that she says people believe is reality.
It premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam late in 2016 and won the Thessaloniki Golden Alexander award in Greece for best film in March, but has yet to be screened in China.
“Audiences are watching you for your skin colour, not for what you are doing. It’s kind of like being a monkey in a zoo,” Borenstein told the South China Morning Post. Foreigners in his film call themselves “white monkeys” because that’s how they felt in these roles, he said, adding that he had received considerable interest to distribute his film in China and the chances of it being released in the country were high.
Country music stars
Borenstein, a Miami native, directed the documentary largely based on his experience of living in Chengdu, Sichuan province in his 20s as a Fulbright scholar majoring in anthropology. He took dozens of jobs as a rented foreigner from 2011 to 2013.
The first job came when he was approached by an agent on the street and asked if he wanted to perform as a band member at the opening of a real estate project.
He was curious and when he turned up to the event the next day, he was part of a band whose members had never met. With background music blaring, the “band” mimed before a large crowd of potential homebuyers.
“Later, I found out that the keyboardist had been doing this for five years – pretending to play the keyboard,” Borenstein said, adding that the man did not even know how to play the instrument.
At a property forum being held in the next room, a “foreign architect” was introduced as a partner of the developer, but he turned out to be a fake as well, he said.
Borenstein recalls the “craziest” task, a gala show for a real estate project in rural Chengdu with a “countryside night” theme. He and several other foreigners were introduced to some 2,000 people, including local officials, as “America’s top country music band called Traveller”.
“I play the clarinet, but the event organiser didn’t even know that the clarinet doesn’t match country music,” he said. “The singer was a Spanish woman who didn’t know how to sing and couldn’t speak English.”
Five Africans dressed in traditional costume joined them on stage to dance.
“It was so crappy,” he said.
In his nearly three years with the agency, Borenstein took gigs in more than 50 cities. Most of the events were organised by property developers, which were seeing tremendous growth as the market flourished. “Foreigners were used to turn remote rural ghost towns into ‘globalised booming cities’ on days that outside investors and political leaders visited,” he said.
Who’s real and who’s fake?
For many Chinese, the international veneer is still desirable. Xie Fengyun, a Shanghai resident in her 50s, said she felt products that were promoted by foreign models and companies with foreign executives were more trustworthy.
“It means they are international,” Xie said, but noted she had never come across a foreigner performing at a marketing event.
But white-collar worker Lily Zeng, who lives in Guangzhou, didn’t see the appeal. She said she once saw a group of foreigners singing and dancing at the launch of a property project and their performance was “awful”. “These activities aren’t interesting at all. And for the audience, it doesn’t do anything to improve their impression of these projects,” she said.
It’s just advertising, according to American video game designer Mike Ren, who didn’t mind the idea as long as it didn’t affect the quality of the service.
“There can be a misconception that foreigners are rich, skilled or educated, but that’s not always the case,” Ren, who lives in Shanghai, said. “The more educated the customer, the easier it is to tell who’s real and who’s fake.”
But for expatriate professionals who have lived in China for many years, the phenomenon is not so harmless. Canadian John Lombard has been based in China for more than two decades. “For me, and most other expats who are serious businesspeople in China, these people are an annoying irritant,” Lombard wrote on knowledge-sharing platform Quora.
“They damage the reputation of expats in general, and make it harder for me to generate trust and credibility when I’m meeting potential clients and partners. It’s an industry built on a platform of dishonesty and deceit.”
It also reflects society’s general lack of confidence in the cultural identity, according to analyst Li Bochun, director of Beijing-based Chinese Culture Rejuvenation Research Institute.
Li said that using foreign faces to embellish the image of a company highlighted the prevailing “foreigner-worship” mindset.
He suggested the authorities improve the situation by educating Chinese about the importance and value of the country’s cultural history in modern society.
“For example, I’ve written a book called The Chinese Art of Business. I explored how ancient Chinese did business and I found that the wisdom of ancient Chinese is beyond what is taught at Harvard Business School,” he said.
Li agreed with Lombard’s view of the rent-a-foreigner business. “On many occasions, the practice is pure cheating.”
But for Katie, who is now an event organiser in Beijing and still attends dinners with the company director once a month, her role does not constitute cheating since she never discusses business with the clients. She said they only ever engaged in small talk over dinner.
“This rent-a-foreigner phenomenon is strange, obviously. But for a young foreigner here who needs the money and is confident of herself, it’s no problem.”
She added that the job had been an eye-opening opportunity that had helped her to better understand Chinese society.
“There’s no harm in it. I’ve never felt uncomfortable or nervous or unsafe in attending any of these dinners. It’s always worked out for me.”