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Meet the new breed of migrant workers

2014-07-07 08:11 China Daily Web Editor: Qin Dexing
Members of the Foshan Bureau of Commerce visit the city's exhibition center to learn about local traditions. Provided to China Daily

Members of the Foshan Bureau of Commerce visit the city's exhibition center to learn about local traditions. Provided to China Daily

A city government in South China has started recruiting foreigners as a way of making a mark on the international stage

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.

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