Inside The “Rent-A-Foreigner” Industry In China

Namaste Ni Hao

Jan 28, 2018, 01:14 PM | Updated 01:14 PM IST

(Representational image) Local residents in a street mounted with billboards promoting the renovation of the Qian Men area in Beijing, China. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)
(Representational image) Local residents in a street mounted with billboards promoting the renovation of the Qian Men area in Beijing, China. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)
  • White men and women in China are hired frequently for marketing and promotional activities in various sectors.
  • Black and brown people are hired for such jobs as well, but for “low grade” opportunities and are paid considerably lesser than the white hires.
  • As this industry thrives quietly in the country’s underbelly, China needs to confront some of its leftover prejudices from an earlier time about race and skin colour.
  • My Malawian friend Limbani casually asked me one day if I wanted to earn some ‘extra cash’. Before I could roll my eyes or challenge him for his insinuation, Limbani clarified that an upcoming “business expo” would pay us up to 400 yuan (about Rs 4,000).

    A huge business expo was to be organised in Yiwu, one of the biggest manufacturing hubs of China, in Zhejiang province. Our role was to be “potential buyers”, tour around the expo, pretend as if we were international delegates coming from afar, look around for the best business deals, share some of our “visiting” cards with the manufacturers at the venue and collect some signatures from the expo organisers.

    Students dressed as businesspersons
    Students dressed as businesspersons

    Along with payment for this fancy dress act were freebies and enticements such as a one night’s stay at a four- or five-star hotel in the heart of the city, grand banquet food and a pick-up and drop service back to Shanghai. It all seemed great, except it was all “fake”. Overnight, students were asked to transform themselves into businesspersons from different countries around the world. We were given fake visiting cards and made managers and chief executive offers of non-existent companies back home. All we had to do was walk around the expo and act like we were interested in their screw drivers, drilling machines, laser machines, carpets and fake designer bags.

    At the Yiwu and Linyi expo
    At the Yiwu and Linyi expo
    Sumptuous dinner at a four-star hotel
    Sumptuous dinner at a four-star hotel

    I was fascinated by this curious event that repeated itself every five to six months each year. I visited Linyi in Shandong province on a similar “business” trip. While travelling to Linyi, I met Sunil (name changed), originally from Maharashtra, training to become a doctor at the Shanghai Jiaotong University. He doubled up as an agent responsible for bringing in students from different universities of Shanghai to such expos. Having stayed in Shanghai for around nine years, Sunil spoke Mandarin with native fluency and forged contacts with agencies scouting to recruit foreigners for a wide assortment of events.

    Sunil spilled the beans on the modus operandi of the job. Every six months, he gets a call from an agency that was contacted by the provincial government hosting the expo that year in their city. As one of the agents, he is tasked with recruiting foreigners in Shanghai. He sends out a WeChat message calling students from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and African countries to be part of this business expo. For each person he recruits, Sunil takes a cut from the payment he makes to the students masquerading as businesspersons. So, for every 400 yuan a student receives, he is assured 100-200 yuan per person as commission. This has become a lucrative side business for people like Sunil, who make use of their local language skills, contacts with agencies and a database of South Asian and African student groups across Shanghai.

    While free food, a luxury hotel stay and money enticed students, the expo venues, teeming with South Asians and African students, was conspicuous for the absence of Westerners or ‘white’ faces. Then, one day afternoon in sweltering 45 C heat, I saw my American classmate Marvin dressed up in a black tuxedo. “I’m doing this gig for a few hours”, he said and dashed away. The “gig” was to go and pretend to be an executive of an American company for a promotional event in Shanghai. He was to receive free drinks and 1500 yuan (Rs 15,000) for just standing there and posing for the shutterbugs.

    A WeChat message for a typical white-face job
    A WeChat message for a typical white-face job

    Rent a foreigner in China!

    Rent-a-laowai (laowai is “foreigner” in Chinese) refers to companies hiring foreigners to attend their events solely because of their “foreign” faces. Among them, these jobs are known alternatively as face jobs, monkey jobs, White Guy in a Tie and so on. While clients can select from a menu of skin colours and nationalities, whites are the most desirable and expensive. They are usually hired to act as doctors from international universities, as musicians who are world famous for their singing talents, as ‘international’ models who can strut in their underwear, as world-renowned athletes and diplomats of different countries.

    Having a white face is particularly advantageous in China, which is hooked to the “everything white is beautiful” bandwagon. A white, Caucasian male or female is a perfect mantelpiece in their events. Inherent traits like compassion, good behaviour, communication skills – none of these matter, except for a white face with a generous topping of good looks and height.

    In his documentary film Dream Empire, David Borenstein documented the practice of “rent-a-foreigner” through the experiences of a young rural migrant from China, Yana, who sets up a foreigner rental agency in Chongqing. Her job was to scout for foreigners to help her clients market their products and project an international image to the Chinese public. Borenstein, who acted in these jobs previously, described his role as a “kind of monkey in a zoo” with audiences watching white men and women for their skin colour and not for what they did. One particular industry where these foreigners continue to be hired frequently is real estate.

    Breathing life into empty ghost towns: Enter the white monkeys

    The economic reforms that began in the late 1970s covered roads, railways, infrastructure, multinational corporations and industrial clusters. While megacities like Shanghai and Beijing grew at a high speed, newer metropolises emerged, transforming sleepy towns and rural areas into engines of growth and development. The real estate sector took off in a big way in the 2000s, aping cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, and mega housing projects were undertaken on an unprecedented scale.

    Year 2010 was one when the Chinese real estate industry was booming in one of the most dramatic urban developments in the twenty-first century. Borenstein believes that the idea of “white monkeys” explored in his documentary was a powerful force in this urban boom. “In a city undergoing such rapid change, we the foreigners were interpreted as vivid symbols of life,” he remarked. The white face represented class and international status, and these “white monkeys” were employed to provide a facelift to these high-rises waiting to be bought.

    Over time, these ambitious housing projects that built new districts on its rural periphery faced the problem of overbuilding, spurring the growth of ghost towns: towering rows of luxury apartments sitting empty, especially in smaller cities in China’s hinterlands. So whites were used to turn these remote ghost towns into prime living localities. Giving these towns an “international” look with the help of whites also helped the industry navigate low purchases in areas that were remote and houses that were considered overvalued.

    The unspoken racism

    Foreigners of all skin colours and races are welcomed in China, offered generous scholarships to study there as students and given rent-free housing and attractive salary packages in jobs, but when it comes to the rent-a-foreigner industry, hidden racism seems to play out openly. During my “business” tours, I only saw South Asians and Africans and some Middle Eastern students, but never saw a white man or woman. Similarly, for high-profile project events or housing property shows, it was only the white men and women who were chosen.

    During the 2016 China-US tourism year, Suzhou municipality decided to host an event to commemorate this partnership. While there were white faces present, tour operators and agents were asked by the Suzhou municipal government to bring more numbers to the event. Under the guise of a trip to Suzhou just for 50 yuan, with enticements such as a free gala dinner and musical performances, many South Asians and Africans came in, but as fillers. It slowly came to dawn on me that black- and brown-skinned people can never becomes “stars” in China who can sell properties or model for events; they can be hired only to act as crowd “fillers” in expos and tourism events.

    2016 China-US Tourism Year programme
    2016 China-US Tourism Year programme

    In the documentary, Yana, the scouting agent, says they have high, middle and low grade varieties of actors for hire. While the first preference is always the white face, she says that the cost of hiring white people is high. So, in cases when the clients cannot afford a white person, she recommends using black people since they “are quite cheap”. Indians meanwhile are “about the same as blacks”, suggesting that both black people and Indians belong to the “low-grade” category of foreign hires.

    According to Zhang Rui, a marketing employee at Liaocheng Global United America Cultural Communications, an employment agency, the pay for black hires to appear at trade fairs and business meetings starts at about $75 a day. For whites, it begins at $150. He also said that “white people are very confident…they have more class. So white people are normally preferred for the culture or academic-related events. Black people are hired for bar openings, trade events and commodity promotions.”

    The ‘Chinese Dream’ of inferiority complex?

    While this practice can be brushed off as a harmless case of marketing and public relations in promoting white Caucasian males and females during events, beneath this exercise lie certain uncomfortable questions of race, racism and white supremacy, in contrast to the Chinese image projecting itself as confident and modern in its political path and economic development.

    China aims to stake a claim to what it perceives is its “legitimate” place on the global stage. President Xi Jinping in 2012 gave the clarion call for the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation that prides itself on economic progress, its people and ancient culture. However, the “rent-a-foreigner” industry and the underlying racism show that China still reels under an inferiority complex that began after the Opium Wars of the 1800s.

    The white-skin fetish on the one hand highlights that although China is emerging stronger on the world stage, it has not been able to reconcile the schism between money, growth, race and skin colour. The myth that white skin colour translates to class, sophistication, modernity and an “international” bent persists in the Chinese mind.

    On the other hand, reverse racial discrimination as seen in the way people of brown and black skin colour are looked down upon, begs the question of whether a growing power like China can afford to discriminate against people of colour and still be called a global player.

    Using foreigners for bolstering sales is just one of the underlying problems under the pile of economic challenges the Chinese government is sitting upon, including the impending housing bubble with the glut in homeowners buying property and remote cities turning into ghost towns.

    A resurgent China aiming to become a superpower needs to solve the rather complex issues left over by history, such as race and white superiority and a resulting inferiority complex, and reverse racial discrimination against brown and black people. For, a global power that cannot rest on universal values and be confident of its national strength will not appeal or gain respect of the globalised world order.

    A Sinologist by training, @NamasteNiHao’s research interests include, Sino-Indian relations, contemporary dynamics of the rise of China and India, and their domestic politics. She tweets at @NamasteNiHao

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