Give Us the Face, Keep the Change
Image from the Atlantic monthly article Renting a White Guy
Reports of “renting a white guy” is making its rounds in the US media. In these reports, Mr. Mitch Moxley shared his rather interesting experience as a fake businessman in China. Moxley claims to have no working experience, yet he was hired by a Canadian Chinese to be a quality control expert for an American company in China. Together with several other such fake quality control “experts”, he went to a place in Shandong, attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony, made speeches, shook hands, and took photos. For these, he was dined and wined in a good hotel, and got paid 1000 dollars and promised better work like this in the future. I wonder if somebody in America would like to rent a Chinese guy for half that money. Not very likely, and there is even an immigration law coming in Arizona, making non-residents’ lives even more difficult than they already are.
In most parts of the world, it is more difficult to be a foreigner. In America, I am a Chinese holding a work visa and I am labeled a “resident alien” , as if I drive a UFO to work. In many situations, I find that it is tough to be a foreigner.
Not in China, a “magic country” , where all things are possible.
I found the story from the blog of Dr. Allison Garrett, an expert on International Corporate Governance (a real expert, mind you). She thought this kind of acting might raise concerns of fraudulent practices, at least in a moral way. Also, this could risk the white guy who was there for hire. Acting as a pawn in a strange environment, and not speaking the language, might bring legal troubles later on. She linked to the original Atlantic monthly article which was recommended by over 9500 people on Facebook and commented by over 200 people. Some readers claim that this reflects an “inferiority complex” of the Chinese. When there is still a recession going on in the western world, while China seems to be doing pretty well, bizarre stories like this seemed to make some western readers feel rather good about themselves, I suppose?
As a Chinese, I of course find such stories disturbing. White westerners like Mr. Moxley should not have contributed to such cheating if they are brought up in a “You shall not bear false witness” tradition. Business people that hire him or other pawns like this are really selling their conscience for profit. The expatriate Chinese, together with their for-rent foreign accomplices, successfully set up a facade before truths about their businesses. My guess is that this is practiced more by “foreign enterprises” set up by Chinese who had emigrated, and then returned to China for a better business opportunity as China is still the biggest market in many areas. Once back in China to do business, they are unable to reconcile a Chinese face with a foreign enterprise label, hence the “rent a white guy” tactic which is probably a way of ironing out the seeming inconsistency between the matter and the manner.
The local governments may simply turn a blind eye, or would even encourage this kind of shady practices, as they may focus more on making an impression of being successful in attracting foreign investment. For that matter, a white face can help.
When things like this got exposed in international media, this really hurts Chinese businesses’ reputation (especially when quality control is involved). It also reinforces the impression that the Chinese have an inferiority complex issue.
The really bad news is that assumption about an inferiority complex is not all false. A China Daily article has an analysis that links the mentality to historical events:
“I could only attribute this aberrant way of thinking to the country’s modern history full of humiliations since the Opium War, when China was brought to her knees by the Western cannons and gun powder. After more than one and a half century, psychologically many people in this nation still have yet to get back on their feet.”
This mentality is obviously something that some expats can take advantage of. Moxley says that “being a fake executive has become a lucrative source of income for expats living in China.” There is obviously a hidden job market like this that Moxley brought to light.
When I submitted my article about this to the editor of Southern Metro Daily for review, he added that most Chinese were brought up taking Darwinism for granted, which makes it easy for people to accept Darwinism’s favorite cousin: social Darwinism. Many average Chinese do not have moral problems thinking that some races are superior and some inferior. Many were blatantly biased against the black people. The editor also suggested that it is the same thing within China. Chinese migrant farmer workers (“Nong min gong”), for instance, were often targets of discrimination by their very own countrymen. It bothers both of us to see such discrimination displayed often openly.
In the meantime, there is often a blind reverence towards the white. I hope these will change as interactions between countries increase. Other than historical reasons contributing to the national psychology, such prejudices may also be related to cognitive gaps. For many years, China had been a rather closed society with no access to foreigners. It is common for a foreigner to be stared at in a small Chinese city or town or village, where it is not often to see them. The lack of familiarity breeds blind romanticization. But I found this happen in other countries too. When I went to Ireland on a recent trip, I found, at dinner table sitting with many westerners who have no idea what China was like, also have many romanticized ideas about China while they were frustrated with their own economies or politics.
Those who know such perceptual gaps can take advantage of them. Many “foreign experts” in China are no more expert than an average Chinese, except perhaps their faces and languages. In the US, I found there are jokes about the most available job for an English major is to flip hamburgers at McDonald, as other jobs are difficult to find. If such an English major goes to China, he or she can easily become an English expert. Years ago, I went to teach in an undergraduate university, where as a general practice new teachers were assigned dorms to live in. At that time I at least have a Master’s degree which was not too bad since many other of my colleagues were just recent graduates from the same undergraduate program. You’d expect that they’d treat me a little better, but I was assigned a dorm in a building labeled as being dangerous for living. I almost got swallowed by spiders and bugs in such preposterous dormitory. In the meantime, I noticed that many international teachers were housed in a luxurious “foreign expert” building even though they may have less education, less or no experience. This may still be acceptable as I worked for the English language Department where there is indeed an advantage to be an authentic English speaker even though he has a bachelor’s degree in, say, economics, while I had an M.A. in English. I admitted that I never could speak English the way they do. However, having a fake “businessman is surreal and unacceptable, though I know it is not uncommon.
In the book Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, the protagonist Hans has a black friend called Chuck who does business in New York City. As a black immigrant from Trinidad, he found it hard to earn the trust of his customers. He therefore found a Jewish guy to be the head of his companies, offering a 25% commission. The Jewish guy just shows up and acts important and busy while Chuck does all the real business. I guess that it might be easier to do business as a Jew as the Jewish people seem to have a better reputation in business. Chuck did mostly renovation and other blue-color jobs facing individual customers who might harbor such prejudices. However, I notice that most businesses declare themselves to be EEO employers with no apparent prejudices against personal backgrounds.
An assumption in mind often can develop into discrimination in action. It is probably worse in China than it is in America, as anti-discrimination laws are not yet in place. In one of the universities I used to work for in the US, I had a friend who is a director of the International Office. He sometimes sent folks to China to recruit students and he found the least popular of his messengers are the Chinese Americans. When school administrators take photos with the visitors, they dislike taking a photo that does not apparently show an “American” because the Chinese American would look exactly like them. Their preferred choice would be a white American. I am wondering if the Canadian Chinese mentioned in the Atlantic Monthly article was renting a white guy just because of this? If so, then he is cheating his customers who in turn are cheating their customers. Who pay for all the cheating in the end? The consumers.
Renting a white guy as a “vase” – as these for-face people are sometimes called – is just paying a lot of money for a temporary worker. On the other hand, I found that many international friends who really want to help China are given a lot of unnecessary difficulties. Chinese government was said to have turned down the application of citizenship for a German volunteer teacher Eckart Loewe (卢安克) who was devoted to teaching Chinese children in a remote Chinese village, where he had worked for over ten years. Alexander Brenner （包立德）, a fluent speaker and writer of Chinese was another case in point. He has a column for Reuters’ Chinese edition offering unique, insightful and helpful perspectives that would really benefit China as the country grope for ways to make improvements. Mr. Brenner was also working on a book about middle-class Chinese. Unfortunately he had to leave China, with much dismay, as he was not able to get a work visa in China.
Maybe we just want their faces more than their hearts and minds. What a loss of opportunity to engage in deeper, more meaningful interactions in culture and thoughts, which would result in positive changes either way! It is like paying the price for the most expensive pearl to just get its casket.
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