Rent-a-white-guy for your Chinese business meeting

Chinese entrepreneurs are renting random white guys to pretend to be visiting businessmen, and to lend an aura of general Being Connected to the West to business meetings, conferences and receptions:
And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image--particularly, the image of connection--that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: "Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face..."

For the next few days, we sat in the office swatting flies and reading magazines, purportedly high-level employees of a U.S. company that, I later discovered, didn't really exist. We were so important, in fact, that two of the guys were hired to stay for eight months (to be fair, they actually then received quality-control training).

"Lots happening," Ken told me. "We need people for a week every month. It'll be better next time, too. We'll have new offices." He paused before adding: "Bring a computer. You can watch movies all day."

Rent a White Guy (via Kottke)

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  1. I’m sure this is wrong on a few levels. But I’d do it, although I’m not sure I project the white businessman vibe.

  2. If ANYONE knows how I can get a job like this, please post contact info on here…I was BORN for this job….plus I look great in a suit!!

  3. Having had Maggie Koerth-Baker’s posts on women/women of color in the sciences on my mind these past couple days, this article highlights white male privilege to a ridiculous degree. White guys can go live in another country, gain lucrative employment without necessarily knowing the native language or having any business acumen, just for what they “represent” by being white and male. Meanwhile Maggie is apologizing for not including women of color in her discussion (which I appreciate her making an effort to do, especially considering the photo that went along with her post featured women of color, which led me to believe that it was some of those individuals who were doing the talking.
    I think this story is just another example of unjust privilege manifest the world over.

    1. I think it’s more to lend a measure of (presumed) plausibility to someone’s claim of “connectedness” by being American/Canadian. And in that respect, it’s more something of a misrepresentational tokenism rather than unjust privilege.

    2. I think that reaction is a little knee-jerk. This does seem very strange to me, but all that’s really going on is that one company wants to project an image of being “with it” to another company, and “with it” happens to be “in touch with the West”, because that’s where the business opportunities are. I think if things had gone the way people had been predicting back in the 80’s, they’d have “Rent a Japanese guy” instead.

    3. Please note that this “unjust privilege” is being initiated and perpetuated by Chinese entrepreneurs.

      I suppose one could argue that these white fake businessmen are being exploited for their looks. (Although I myself would not make that argument.)

      1. “Please note that this “unjust privilege” is being initiated and perpetuated by Chinese entrepreneurs.”

        And? How is that not the case?

        It’d be like stating that a woman-owned and operated company who needed a male face to be taken seriously is proof against male privilege.

      2. Please note that this “unjust privilege” is being initiated and perpetuated by Chinese entrepreneurs.

        One of the big barriers to ending discrimination is the pervasive if inaccurate notion that it’s always members of the “privileged class” doing the discriminating.

        It would be easy to identify the problem if it was just a bunch of rich white christian guys keeping everybody else down, but often a big part of the problem is the expectations that other groups subconsciously set for themselves.

    4. Haha! I was just going to ask if they’ll pay the same to an actual American businesswoman in an effort to also replicate the flavor of western workplace diversity.

      Because it seems like a pretty cool way to pick up some extra $ on your vacation time to me.

    5. re: #4 @MamaCass – I think you ever so slightly overstate just how unfair this is – he *is* taking language lessons. (Doesn’t invalidate your point, though.)

      Personally, I wonder if there’s a premium for blue eyes over brown.

      Actually, the first thing that came to mind when I read the article was to wonder what the personal risk was if the employer went bust or pulled a scam. Perhaps it’s my prejudice, but I would think that some customers might want to take it out on the fake-white-businessman.

    6. “White guys can go live in another country, gain lucrative employment without necessarily knowing the native language or having any business acumen […]”
      You just described the majority of expats I’ve met in Tokyo.

  4. Ha ha! And once you go to work for them, you *are* a businessman … for “Prestige ‘R’ Us”.

  5. My white skin brings prestige to the booooaard,
    And their like ‘This job’s not haaaard’,
    And I, like, don’t need to be smaaart.

  6. My own level on the totem pole went up when I gave up my Indian passport and gained a US passport . I now get nice treatment, special foods, extra invites and more fuss from the bride and the groom’s sides even though age and gender wise I should be much lower. I don’t get paid for showing up though ;-)
    At weddings the white coworkers showing up as guests will add to the prestige, more so if they show up in inappropriate western clothes.
    From what I know in India the white folks are at the top of the prestige scale, the Chin/Korea somewhere in the middle .

  7. No different than pharma companies hiring pretty young girls who just graduated with a degree in “communications” to convince doctors to sell the latest drugs to their patients.

    No different than major American businesses hiring people who are “hip” and “with-it” to work on an astroturfing/viral marketing campaign.

    Its hardly a scandal, unless you really believe that hansom man on the television read does use ?

  8. My friend and I spent a semester in China in 2007. This is literally all we did. We accompanied partners to business meetings where we were seen but not heard. In return we got discounts of the product, we sold wine…apparently.

  9. This kind of gig can be dangerous. If the Chinese company is a shady, fly-by-night outfit, you’ve just met local officials and told them that you are the quality control guy. So, if whatever they are selling blows up and kills someone, you are the quality control guy as far as the Chinese authorities know.

  10. They put red in their egg yolks, lead in the paint to make it prettier, melamine in the food to falsely boost protein. I’m just saying, they are obsessed with faking things for appearances. Why not just add more protein or create real business connection?

    China, WTF?

    1. And US farmers feed chicken corn to ensure that egg yolks are yellow instead of the orange that other cultures expect. The US Legislative and Executive branches have recently put on grand kabuki shows passing “reform” laws (health care, currently finance) that mean nothing. Your point?

      1. I suspect US farmers feed their chickens corn because it’s cheap feedstock, but your point still stands.

      2. US Fish farmers feed salmon food that’s dyed pink to make the flesh of the salmon pink to mimic the colour obtained naturally in the wild by eating krill and shrimp. They choose the colour of pink they want from the food manufacturers colour chart. Farmers also up the vegetable protein (think corn, soy) in their diets even though salmon are carnivorous. Why? – because it’s cheap.

        If I had to guess, I’d say the US is just as concerned about appearances as China.

        1. While there are many issues with farmed salmon (PCBs, chemical pollutants, environmental destruction from fish farms), my understanding is that the “dye” that is added is the exact same chemical (astaxanthin) that gives wild salmon their color. It’s a carotenoid, closely related to beta carotene that makes carrots orange.

    2. “Why not just add more protein or create real business connection?”

      Because the Truly Free Market allows them to make a TON more money this way.

  11. This sort of thing, or a variant, was big in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe, as having a Western European, or better yet, an American gave groups of former Communist bureaucrats turned new capitalists clout.

  12. Jeez. I’ve only every rented a white guy so that he could lift my luggage.

  13. As a forty year who has scraped by his entire life, I would like to have my share of White Male entitlement now. Does anyone here have a phone number or email address for The Man? I think I was mistakenly left off his list.

    1. I would like to have my share of White Male entitlement now.

      Drive five miles over the speed limit in front of a cop car.

      1. Pfft! You don’t need to be White to not get pulled over. Do that in L.A. and unless your car’s on fire and you’re shooting a rocket-launcher out of a window they don’t care.

        Now, if you did that in Ohio where I grew up with out of state plates…Well..it won’t matter if you were a ted Kennedy they’ll stop you.

      2. Can I just say, Antinous, that your moderation is one of the best things about BoingBoing? Best. Mod. Ever.

    2. If you can’t tell the difference between “White Male Privilege” and “White Male Here’s Your $1,000,000 Trust Fund”, you should go do some educational reading.

  14. The Chinese are certainly not the only business culture heavily involved in lying.. they’re just really, really good at it.
    Or, maybe they’re really really BAD at it.

  15. This hits home because my wife (who is Asian) asked me if I wanted to do something like this for her company sometime last year when she went for a trip to China.

    I originally thought maybe she saw a really good salesman or communicator in me. I didn’t know that I wasn’t that special (sniff, heh) and it was prevalent for a bunch of companies.

    Funny!

  16. I was offered a job at a Chinese hotel in Xinjiang greeting people, just for being white. They wanted it to look like an “international” hotel. I told them that I would happily work at the front desk, since I knew Chinese as well, but that there was no way I was going to stand by the door for hours at a time during a Xinjiang winter, no matter how good the pay.

  17. I played the besuited white stooge many times in almost a decade in Beijing. What is not widely understood is that artifice is EVERYTHING in China. A thing doesn’t have to be factual – it just has to look the part. This is all pervasive and throughout the society. Positions can be bought or conferred and even a village idiot can hold a position of seniority if he has the right connections. Readers may think this a severe assessment. I would say to them that they have never lived there. Corruption is never far away.
    I was last engaged as part of a dozen Italian Stonemasons (should anyone ask)attending an International Economic Forum in Changchun – we where simply there so that the news cameras could show multiple white faces avidly lapping up the local propoganda. Nobody spoke a word of Italian. We where only in the hall for about an hour – although some of our party went on to meet the mayor. We also had an afternoon wandering around a Trade Fair. We had been flown 500 miles and put up for 2 nights in a comfortable 3 star hotel all for that little PR exercise. I think it paid 1000yuan. Not huge money but handy cash.
    BTW racism is alive and well and black people commonly face discrimination in employment. If they are accepted in teaching positions the pay is often not so good.

  18. This isn’t a cool temp job: it’s outright fraud. The white American males aren’t being hired to model or hawk a product. They’re being paid to *pretend* to be business owners/investors/managers of Chinese companies in order to fool real investors.

    1. Fraud? In a Chinese(PRC) business environment? You’re joking! ;)

      Finally! Whitesploitation comes of age! Quentin Tarentino – I hope you’re watching…

  19. Having spent a year studying in China I’m not in the least bit surprised. The year left me with competent enough basic Mandarin skills and a desire to never, ever under any circumstances do any kind of business with the PRC…

    Actually there isn’t such a thing as pure White Male Privilege accorded to all white males in China – there are shades of it. If you’re a tall, blonde haired, blue eyed white male with an American accent then that’s better than being dark of hair & brown eyed from the US, which is better than being British (blue eyes still better than brown though), with Australians and Kiwis a distant 3rd and South Africans scarcely get a look in. A woman would probably be OK if American or British… If you’re Hispanic or Black you aren’t really going to get a look in at all.

    The prejudice towards tall, pale, blue eyed and blonde means that if you happen to be, say, Dutch and speak passable non-native English and merely look the part you’re likely to get a better salary and position teaching English than a native born American or Brit with English as a native language but South Asian or African ancestry and features. The look and “face” is everything.

  20. In China, we have a term for these people, there is no direct translation, but a pretty close one would be “scapegoat”. If a building should fall apart because of shady work or people are poisoned because of illegal substance use. You are the one who will be arrested and executed. Oh? Didn’t you know? China still has the death penalty. Yeah, we learn quickly after the melamine poisoning and a few executive got arrested. Now, you guys make us feel safe to poison without worrying of any repercussions. I just want to say “Thanks”. Stick around for as long as you like.

  21. I think this isn’t really a considerable issue, or at least I hope not, that will never ever become a dominant trend. (If it does its shameful)

    Any respectable/viable/reputable company will just spend that supposed exorbitant amount on ACTUALLY hiring a Caucasian employee who actually does work and can serve on foreign business projects.

    There are plenty of them around who speak Chinese – to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

  22. It’s an old scam, but true. I live in Macau and I remember a friend telling me about this years ago.

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