In many developed societies, the colour of one’s skin is (or should be) irrelevant when hiring at even the highest levels of a corporation or government. One need look no further than President Barack Obama, a black man who’s ancestors hail from Kenya; US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who’s ancestors hail from China; and the plethora of elected officials in the UK, Canada, Australia and the United States who come from the African continent, Middle East, Asia and more. In fact, the founder and long-time CEO of Yahoo! was Jerry Yang, from China, and Google was partly founded by a man from Russia (Sergey Brin).
This all begs the question: would China allow and/or tolerate a foreigner in such a position? This topic arose with an excellent post called “To Gweilo, or not to Gweilo” by David Wolf over at Silicon Hutong (a site I highly recommend), and it reminded me of a piece I wrote earlier on The Nanfang’s sister site, Zhongnanhai. Without further adieu, we re-post that blog entry here in its entirety.
Would China trust a laowai in a position of power?
Reuters is reporting today that President Barack Obama will appoint Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as his next Ambassador to China, replacing the outgoing (and possible Presidential candidate) John Huntsman.
I think the choice will generally be regarded as a good one: Locke is an experienced Chinese-American politician with an understanding of the country and its history. But rather than delve into what we can expect from a Locke ambassadorship, let’s take a look at another side to this story: America appointing an ethnic Chinese person to one of its most prestigious overseas postings. Not a big deal, I can hear you saying, and you’re right… non-white people have earned positions of power in the western world for quite some time. But as @niubi mentioned on Twitter: “When will the Chinese appoint an ambassador of ‘laowai’ descent, to any country?”
It was also mentioned on Twitter (by @shanghailaine) that besides not being appointed to foreign posts, laowai are often not even able to become a “full fledged member” of China. She just scratched the surface of a fascinating topic: no matter how long foreigners live in China, or no matter how well they speak Chinese, they will always be outsiders. I’ve quizzed people from time to time on whether foreigners can join the CPC, for instance, and get vague answers ranging from “I don’t think so” to “Yes, but it’s really really hard.” And if a foreigner wants to become a Chinese citizen, how could one do that? And even if a foreigner received Chinese citizenship and a passport, would he/she then be considered “Chinese”?
Admittedly, China is a very unique case, because to be “Chinese” signifies a nationality and/or an ethnicity. I am from Canada, a place that was originally built by immigrants largely from Anglo-Saxon countries, but today, from places like India, China, Vietnam, and Pakistan. Unlike China, Canada does not embody an ethnicity. If I saw an Indian face tell me he/she is Canadian, I would not question it. But I reckon if they told me they were Chinese, I would say “No you aren’t.” There is no doubt that Chinese feel a strong blood bond with each other on some other level which can never be shared by an outsider. But surely, eventually, outsiders should be able to “join” the country and receive exactly the same treatment and opportunities as born-and-raised Chinese, in the same way Pakistanis are treated as full-fledged Canadians?
I am not optimistic about this happening anytime soon. Throughout my time in Mainland China, I worked for several companies, both state-run and privately-owned. There was definitely always the feeling of a glass ceiling. Foreigners are welcome in China to share their expertise, but never to be trusted with actual power. As a young man in my mid-20s at the time, I didn’t quite care, as long as I could live in China, study the language, and have fun. But after a few years, I balked at this; I wanted to work in a place with the potential for upward mobility, more responsibility, and a higher pay package. Maybe on some level, I wanted to be taken more seriously, rather than be a token foreign face with English input here or there. Good, upwardly mobile positions exist in China in the private sector, largely with foreign-owned companies, but less so with Chinese enterprises (which are the obvious majority).
Not all of Greater China operates this way, however. While there are obviously reasons for the differences, let’s compare it with Hong Kong: The CEO of the territory’s flagship and internationally-renowned airline, Cathay Pacific, is currently Tony Tyler, who was born in Egypt and raised in Britain; the Chairman of the Securities & Futures Commission, a top government statutory body overseeing the financial markets, is Martin Wheatley, also from Britain; one of the most successful businessmen in the territory, the “Father of Lan Kwai Fong”, Alan Zeman is from Canada; Winfried Englebrecht-Bresges, from Germany, is the CEO of Hong Kong’s biggest money-maker, the Hong Kong Jockey Club; and I could go on. Today, foreigners in Hong Kong continue to have senior positions in Hong Kong companies, sit on many boards in Hong Kong, and even within the Hong Kong government. Late last year, a foreign resident won election to the South Island District Council, proving that foreigners can even earn the respect and trust of Chinese voters.
In fact, Cecilie Gamst Berg, who hosts a popular podcast on RTHK called Naked Cantonese, noted that foreigners who become Hong Kong residents are eligible for “home return permits”, which are the de facto long-term visas Hong Kongers use to enter Mainland China. And when foreigners with these permits do so, they are to be treated as Chinese citizens. In other words, hotels which are not approved for foreigners must accept a white face if he or she is carrying a permanent Hong Kong ID card and Hong Kong passport. Yep, they are real compatriots – bonafide Chinese – in nationality, at least.
Yes, Hong Kong has a very different history to the Mainland. But it is now part of China, and the refreshing thing about living here is there seems to be no deep-seated suspicion of foreigners and their intentions. Hong Kong people live and work alongside people from countries all over the world; sometimes the foreigner is a boss, sometimes an underling, but we all work together, and, for the most part, all have equal opportunity.
I don’t suspect China will embrace this model anytime soon. The suspicion of outsiders runs too deep. But this is to the country’ s own detriment: not only does it cut itself off from valuable differing views and perspectives, it fails to create a competitive environment that lures the best and brightest from other countries to live and work in China long term.