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Women walk past a Hugo Boss store at a shopping mall in Beijing March 17, 2010. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
Women walk past a Hugo Boss store at a shopping mall in Beijing March 17, 2010. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

'Window dressing'

Chinese firms seeking white employees Add to ...

If you're white, you're hired.

Companies in China are recruiting foreigners to join their staff, regardless of their experience, sometimes for as little as a day or a week at a time. The only qualification is that they're Caucasian.

The practice of hiring a trophy foreigner allows companies to create the illusion of prosperity and prestige, and gives the impression that they have important business relations with international companies.

Canadian journalist Mitch Moxley, who lives in Beijing, was hired as a supposed quality expert with a non-existent U.S. company that was presented as building a facility in the eastern city of Dongying. The project's Chinese "subcontractor" wanted him and other Westerners to pose, literally, as the face of the operation.

Under the terms of his no-experience-necessary job, "I'd be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined," Mr. Moxley writes in an article about his experience in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine.

In the end, he writes, he and his fellow foreign colleagues were put up in a dimly lit hotel with a junkyard view. They were asked to present a speech, have their pictures taken with Dongying's mayor, and were given a temporary office where they passed the time "swatting flies and reading magazines."

Zhang Haihua, author of Think Like Chinese, says the phenomenon is rooted in the Chinese concept of "face," which is the positive public expression of one's identity.

"Face, we say in China, is more important than life itself," Mr. Zhang told CNN. "So when they really want to impress someone, they may roll out a foreigner."

These "White Guy Window Dressing" jobs often go to underemployed Western expatriates, such as American actor Jonathan Zatkin, who told CNN he was paid roughly $300 to pretend to be the vice-president of an Italian jewellery company presented as the partner of a Chinese jewellery chain.

Mr. Zatkin was flown into a small city in central China and was asked to give a speech for the opening of the "partner" chain's store.

"I was up on stage with the mayor of the town, and I made a speech about how wonderful it was to work with the company for 10 years and how we were so proud of all of the work they had done for us in China," Mr. Zatkin said. "They put up a big bandstand and the whole town was there and some other local muckety-mucks."

Vancouver consultant Helen Yu, who helps Canadian companies conduct business in China, says foreigners have a certain cachet there.

"Caucasians are still really welcomed in China. People view them as ... a status symbol," she says. Although she has never dealt with companies that hire bogus foreign staff, she notes that locals often approach complete strangers on Chinese streets to take their photos, for no reason other than the fact they are Caucasian.

Chinese companies might feel that having a foreigner on staff makes them seem more international, she suggests.

But given the overwhelming number of Westerners now working in China, merely having a Caucasian face at one's company is hardly an effective strategy to impress partners and clients, Ms. Yu says.

Kenny Zhang, senior research analyst at the Vancouver-based think-tank Asia Pacific Foundation, agrees that the practice of hiring Westerners as hua ping, or ornaments (literally translated as flower vases), has its limits.

In certain sectors, such as ESL (English as a second language) services, a Caucasian person on staff is a valuable marketing tool, he says.

"You have to have a Caucasian face to indicate your English teachers are real English native speakers," he says, noting that even Western-born Chinese people, with the same English skills, have a tough time convincing clients in China of their English abilities.

But with other businesses, he doesn't see much of an advantage to hiring a foreigner who has no expertise. The rent-a-Caucasian phenomenon is likely only a passing trend, he says.

"China is moving from a closed society to a much [more]open, globalized country," he says, noting that at the beginning of its transition, contact with foreigners was exciting. But now, "maybe the foreigners live next door."

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