Friday, May 28, 2010

Who do you think I am?

One of my former students was pestering me last week to accept a Token White Guy gig, going off to Shenyang for the weekend to masquerade as a senior executive of some company I've never heard of.

It is a fairly standard sort of happening in China. Some friend of a friend of a friend of hers - that guanxi thing again - was organising some trade junket or other, and felt he needed one or two more foreign faces to add glamour or credibility (or whatever the hell it is that we're supposed to bring to these events).

Of course, I said NO. Well, there wasn't even a fee on offer - just the chance of a few days away in sunny Shenyang and the nebulous promise of some 'expenses'. If there had been cash on the table (rather than just the prospect of being shafted with unreimbursed outlays of my own money), my ethical principles might at least have been put to the test a little. But this was a complete no-brainer. Do you want to go away to a shitty little second-tier city for three days, and be at our beck-and-call throughout, and trust us to pay you back for your flights and meals and hotel bills? NO.

I would like to think, though, that even if a substantial fee had been on offer, and my cash starvation had been particularly acute (and, er, it is), I would still have turned it down.

It is deeply unethical to endorse - however implicity or indirectly - a company or event about which you know nothing. It is deeply unethical to allow yourself to be represented as something you are not, as an employee or authorized agent of that company or whatever. It is deeply, deeply, deeply unethical to impersonate someone else. (I had an American lady friend a few years ago who accepted one of these Token Whitey gigs in a spirit of fun and mischief, and was alarmed to discover that she was being introduced as the head of an internationally famous jewellery maker. You really do not want to accept a 'free holiday' in an armpit town like Shenyang or Zhengzhou, and then find that your audience thinks you are Steve Jobs or Ralph Lauren.)

I was extremely disappointed, depressed that my student (one of the brightest young ladies I have worked with here, and someone who has subsequently spent 3 years studying business in the UK, where I might have hoped that she would develop a broader cultural awareness) would approach me with such a ridiculous proposal, that she would have such a complete ethical blindspot about how dodgy it was. I tried to get a bit of dialectic going with her: WHY do you think they want me there? How am I supposed to 'add value' for the organizers? She just did not get it at all.

White Face=Sexy. That's all there is to it. In China, you have more chance of closing a deal on whatever sketchy business proposition you're peddling if you have a foreigner along with you. (In these - ever so slightly - more enlightened times, I'd hope that our black or Indian friends might now be getting offered gigs like this as well, occasionally.)

These things sound fun and innocuous. And if they're trying to entice you to somewhere nice, like Dalian or Xiamen or Lijiang, then you might very well feel sorely tempted. But, really, if you have any concern for your soul or your self-respect, you should not go anywhere near one of these engagements.


Matthew said...

Competition for the token whitey gig is pretty tough in Shenzhen. I was always asked to participate in boring meetings without promise of anything in return, so I always declined.

Froog said...

I once came close to doing one of these - going down to Luoyang, I think it was, to assist some Chinese guy in promoting a CleanTech product from an American firm. It foundered because he wasn't willing to pay me quite what I thought two days of my time would be worth.

Well, it also foundered because I'd done some research about the product and the company so that I could genuinely 'help out' - if any of the people we were meeting should happen to speak some English. I then contacted the company to ask why they weren't sending one of their own people to try to help close this deal.

Well, of course, they'd never heard of this guy I'd been talking to. He certainly wasn't their 'approved agent' as he was claiming to be.

I don't know if he was hoping to crowbar them into making him an agent, or paying some kind of finder's fee, if he was able to present them with a 'done deal'. I rather suspect he was just going to pirate their technology, peddling some crappy locally made knock-off under their name.

They asked me if I knew how to get hold of the chap, but I'd only had contact with him by phone and e-mail, didn't have a 'business address' for him. He disappeared.

He's probably one of China's growing legion of multi-millionaires now, the sly little bastard.