Meet the new breed of migrant workers

Updated: 2014-07-07 07:09

By Xu Jingxi (China Daily)

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A city government in South China has started recruiting foreigners as a way of making a mark on the international stage, as Xu Jingxi reports from Foshan, Guangdong province.

People are always impressed when Nicolas Santo hands out his business cards at networking events. They can't hide their surprise that the young Uruguayan is an international investment promotion consultant at the Foshan government's Bureau of Commerce.

Although few Chinese are surprised to meet expats working for foreign businesses or as English teachers, it's still highly unusual to see a foreign face in the government.

The bureau in Foshan, a manufacturing base bordering Guangzhou in South China's Guangdong province, recently hired five foreigners on one-year contracts.

Santo was one of 50 or so professionals from more than 10 countries who applied for the job. He read a recruitment ad in China Daily and immediately decided to seek the "unique opportunity".

The 26-year-old Montevideo University law graduate gained a master's degree from Tsinghua University, where he researched China's "going global" strategy, and then spent a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard, researching Sino-Latin American economic relations.

"China is and will continue to be the major force transforming the global economy, and it's essential to understand how China's institutions work," Santo said. "Working with the Foshan government gives me unique insights into China's priorities in this new stage of development."

In 2013, Foshan generated GDP of 701 billion yuan ($113 billion), via its traditionally strong manufacturing industries, such as machinery equipment and home appliances, and emerging industries including autos and photoelectrics. The city's GDP was the third highest in Guangdong, one of the first two Chinese provinces to "open up".

However, Foshan is faced with the same challenge as other Chinese cities - to transform and upgrade its economy - and the key to success is "an open mind to foreign talent", according to Zhou Zhitong, the bureau's chief.

"In the past 35 years of opening-up, Foshan has focused on a two-way exchange: attracting foreign investors to build factories in the city, and then making products and selling them to the world," Zhou said.

"However, such investment-driven, export-oriented development is unsustainable. To break through the bottleneck, Foshan needs to take these international exchanges to a new level, and that is exchanges of talent."

As a department that interacts directly with foreign companies, Zhou's bureau has set an example by building an international team - two people from the United Kingdom, one from the United States, one from Mexico and Santos from Uruguay.

Practical help

"We didn't hire the foreign staff as a publicity stunt. Foshan is building an international business environment, and the foreign staff have brought much-needed help to our investment promotion," Zhou said.

An experienced website designer from the UK has redesigned the bureau's official website to "look like those of the BBC and CNN - professional and fashionable", Zhou said, adding that the employees, who all speak fluent English, are able to dig out potential investors from "the sea of English information online about foreign enterprises" more quickly than their Chinese colleagues.

With their language skills and a similar mindset to clients from overseas, the foreign members can help the team to avoid "Chinglish" in its promotions, a common failing of Chinese investment-promotion agencies.

However, that's just the tip of the iceberg regarding the advantages of having foreign players in an investment promotion team.

"We are heavily involved with the foreign business community in Guangdong, and have better contacts," Santo said. "So it can be a great advantage to have foreign players in the team during negotiations with a company at the site-selection stage of investment."

Yu Hongping, deputy head of the investment promotion agency under Foshan Bureau of Commerce, said he's impressed by the newcomers' social networking skills.

He said the foreign staff actively approach members of foreign chambers of commerce at networking events, and mingle effectively to exchange contact information. By contrast, Chinese employees are usually shyer and have difficulty coming up with small talk.

"When an interpreter is present, Chinese employees and foreign guests only engage in formal business talk. But the foreign employees chat with the guests in a relaxed way about a variety of topics such as sports and lifestyles, and thus become acquainted more quickly," Yu said.

Santo displayed a photo on his cell phone. The subject was Francisco Sanchez, a former undersecretary for International Trade at the US Commerce Department, whom Yu met at an investment promotion event in Foshan's Shunde district.

"Mr Sanchez has Latin roots and speaks Spanish. And coincidentally, he also visited Uruguay six months before visiting Shunde, while he was still in the US government," Santo said.

Yu believes that the lack of language barriers is one of the reasons the foreign employees can expand the bureau's expat network. "More importantly, they share similar cultures," he said.

'Open and efficient'

Two of the five foreign employees have been working for the investment promotion agency for six months, another started work in early June, and the other two will be in position by the end of the month.

The foreign employees have already brought the benefits that Zhou had expected, by connecting Foshan's Investment Promotion Agency with the rest of the world in terms of language, working mindset and culture.

"What I didn't expect was that the foreign staff would imperceptibly change the bureau's working environment, making it more open and efficient," he said.

Yu, the foreign staff's immediate superior, is now used to being called "Richard", rather than Yu Ke, or "section head Yu".

"The foreign employees pursue equality, efficiency and independent thinking. I adjusted my management style and gave them the freedom to adopt their own working methods and develop their interest in Foshan and in China," Yu said.

Santo said the cultural differences are "overrated" and that he "didn't find it difficult at all" to adapt to the new working environment, but he has discovered some cultural anomalies

"Hierarchies are much more clearly defined: whenever a Chinese colleague addresses somebody in a higher position, he or she will strictly refer to the position the official occupies," Santo said, using Yu Ke and Zhou Ju (bureau head) as examples.

"In the US, people refer to the position when they talk about high profile positions like President Obama, and maybe when making a public speech. But they definitely don't do that in private or mention the person's title all the time. They say Mr or Mrs," he added. Another difference is that the foreign staff hand in concise work reports, featuring lists of bullet points. By contrast, their Chinese counterparts produce long articles that contain carefully weighed words.

Zhou said the government's employment of foreigners is different from other Chinese city governments, because his bureau's foreign staff work in the same office as their Chinese colleagues and have blended in quickly.

According to Legal Weekly, at least five city governments in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong and Guangdong had started hiring foreigners in 2003. However, they all worked in investment promotion agencies, and each agency only hired one or two full-time foreign employees. Of those, only one, a Sino-Japanese woman who worked for the government of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, stayed in her post for more than a year.

"The foreigners in our bureau are not visitors, but members of the family," Zhou said.

"A visitor may be excited at first, but the novelty soon wears off. The Chinese and foreign staff are like a family living under the same roof. We get to know each other and bridge differences while handling the daily work together. In this way, foreigners can learn more about Chinese people's working style and Chinese culture."

Firsthand experience

The Foshan government's foreign staff voluntarily Zou Ji Ceng, or "go to the grassroots", something all civil servants in China are required to do. For example, Santo's colleague Abbey Heffer conducts opinion polls among Foshan residents.

"I think it's very important to meet Foshan residents so our department can gain a greater understanding of how they feel about foreign investment and the type of companies and industries that they would like us to bring here," the 22-year-old from London said, adding that the polls have helped her understand residents' concerns about pollution.

"For young families in particular, air quality is a huge factor in deciding which area to live in. Therefore, it's our duty as a local government to attract companies and industries that will conform to strict environmental protection and emissions rules," she said.

"China is the center of conversations around the world, with many news agencies, academic journals and economic periodicals asking big questions about China's future position in the world order.

"I came to China because I wanted to see things with my own eyes, and experience the rapid development of China's economy firsthand. In this way, I can answer the big questions without having to rely on secondhand material in the international media," she said.

Both Santo and Heffer plan to stay in China for the long haul, and have set their career paths on promoting economic cooperation between China and their home countries.

"I hope the foreign employees can stay in China for longer and gain a deeper understanding of the country," Yu said.

"In the long run, this initiative will cultivate foreign talent, people who know China well and are friendly to her. They will be important resources in terms of investment promotion for Foshan and for China even if they return to their own countries."

Cautious about change

According to Gu Jianqing, chairman of the Guangzhou Association of Social Science Societies, the employment of foreigners shows that local governments are promoting the modernization of their systems and governance capabilities.

"The Foshan case shows the spirit of modern governance - open, inclusive and progressive," he said.

For Zheng Chengzhi, an analyst at the Institute of Public Policy at the South China University of Technology, a shift of focus in investment programs is behind the employment of foreigners by local governments.

"The focus is shifting from domestic capital to overseas capital, and from the upstream industries to those downstream, including the business services industry and headquarters economy," he said.

Zheng predicted that the demand for international investment promotion consultants from overseas will grow, but said it's too early to promote the practice among other government departments.

"We should consider the potential challenges that hiring foreigners in the government may bring: the complicated recruitment procedures, financial pressures and the difficulty of integrating the international team because of cultural differences," he said.

"It is also worth asking if the foreign employees can be replaced by Chinese employees with competitive language skills and an education background or work experience overseas," he added.

Wang Xu, head of the Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs at the Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security in Zhuhai, Guangdong, expressed similar concerns.

"The government's investment promotion specialists need not only to communicate with foreign investors but also to coordinate the relevant departments and understand the procedures. It's difficult for foreigners to accomplish these tasks because they don't speak Chinese and are not familiar with the policies," Wang said.

"However, returnees have no such problems. And having studied or worked overseas, they are also strong in foreign languages and familiar with exotic cultures," he said, adding that a large number of returnees now work for the Zhuhai government.

Foshan's Yu said it could be difficult to employ foreigners at other levels of government.

"The work in provincial-level government departments involves a lot of confidentiality, which makes it impossible to allow foreigners to become involved," he said, adding that the foreign staff in his department have signed confidentiality agreements and have no access to confidential documents.

"However, the work at district-level units, the grassroots, requires people to know the community well to provide detailed services for local residents. Foreigners may not be up to doing this."

More 'opening up'

Despite the concerns, the Foshan government's initiative is a useful one, given that China is still opening up and has to import much-needed foreign talent, according to the administration of foreign experts affairs under the provincial department of human resources and social security.

"China's civil servant laws don't prohibit the government from hiring foreigners on a contractual basis," Zhou said.

"I respect people's opinions about our initiative, but we must not be so narrow-minded to think that a government post shouldn't be open to foreigners."

Zhou expects Foshan's initiative to prove successful, and hopes it will encourage more second- and third-tier cities to open up to foreign talent.

"How open a country is shouldn't be assessed by looking at several international metropolises like China's four first-tier cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. But it's difficult for a small city to replicate the success of the 'big four', because they enjoy preferential policies provided by the central government, and have long-established international reputations," he said

"However, Foshan is like any other ordinary city in the country - if it can attract foreign talent by having an open mind and using bold innovations, so can other cities."

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(China Daily 07/07/2014 page6)