Foreign Companies in China: Normalizing Cultural Imperialism and Discrimination

Hu Juan[i] was born in Hangzhou, an hour away from Shanghai. She is a rising junior at New York University, majoring in Political Science. Last year she decided to spend her summer in China, where she plans to work in the long run. This decision was significantly influenced by the previous difficulties she had encountered as a Chinese intern in the United States. She frequently experienced exclusion from leadership positions, which were given almost systematically to Western or non-Asian interns. She was therefore hoping to find in China a more respectful and equal treatment. More specifically, Hu Juan chose to apply for jobs in Shanghai within the consulting industry. Eager to "understand the nature of the relations between Chinese and Western people in professional settings, Hu Juan started working at BabTab in June 2016, a firm claiming its interest in building professional relations between Chinese and Western culture. After the end of the first day of her internship, she was surprised not to have been introduced to her colleagues. Assigned to a desk, she spent her first week in front of her computer screen, without anyone apparently paying attention to her, although she was working in an open space. Her internship manager is ignoring her, and she is not given any tasks. After a couple days, she is finally asked to translate an article from English to Mandarin. And another one. And one more. After two weeks, she has translated hundreds of pages from and comes to the frustrating realization that she had been "hired to be a translation machine, nothing more". After a few more days, she met Qi JiaQi, another Chinese intern, studying Applied Mathematics at NYU Shanghai campus. Qi JiaQi was technically hired to conduct data analysis and market researches, but she is actually ending up spending her day doing miscellaneous accounting tasks. A week later, two French and American interns join the firm. Although, like Hu Juan and Qi JiaQi, the two new interns are ignored by their hierarchy, they are yet immediately given concrete projects matching their contracts and skill sets.


These discriminatory practices stem from the Western pervasive stereotypes picturing Chinese employees as unable to behave proactively, a situation about which Qi JiaQi is more than aware. "Recruiters do not treat Chinese and Western applicants equally, she explains. It all starts during the interview process. Recruiters are convinced that Europeans and Americans know the professional world better than Chinese people. Therefore, they feel like Chinese interns would not be proactive, or capable of leadership. This is the reason why they are assigned on mechanical tasks requiring no creativity. This is the reason why, even in China, they are more Westerners than Chinese people occupying executive functions."

These stereotypes further reflect the broader ways in which Western firms treat their Chinese society. In the case of the consulting industries, Westerners tend to settle in China with the idea that they know better than Chinese people how to sell products to them. For instance, Hu Juan recalls a conversation she had with a French intern in charge of planning the marketing strategy of an American beverage company considering entering the Chinese market. The French intern wanted to build the campaign around the idea of self-confidence. Hu Juan tried to explain to him that the notion of self-confidence did not exist as such in Chinese culture, and that it might be perceived as arrogant. "I encouraged him to learn more about China, its history, its culture. He only listened quite distantly to me, as if he'd knew better than me what China was about."


Hu Juan and Qi JiaQi both experienced what is referred to as the 'bamboo ceiling' in the United States: the impossibility for Chinese people in particular, and Asian people in general to climb the professional hierarchy due to their allegedly shy nature. Hu Juan and Qi JiaQi's situation reveals that this phenomenon is not limited to the United States, but is also dominant in Western firms operating in China. "I have accepted to be discriminated against when I was interning in America, explains Hu Juan, because there I belong to a minority. But I see the same type of discrimination happening in China, my own country. In other words, we, the Chinese people, have become a minority in our very land, although we are the numerical majority. The persistence of the white privilege is neither a myth, nor an exaggeration: it is the reality of how Western people treat us, here and elsewhere.”

In an article from 2008, the Chinese sociologist Xin Jong explained that since the opening of China to foreign companies, the relationships between employees and employers were relying on “domination [by Westerners], if not exploitation.”[iii] Xin Jong employed a Marxist framework to show that the “highly qualified Chinese employees hired by international firms [were] not very different from traditional labor workers: they sell their knowledge to those who employ them, without being able to reap the benefits of their work.” They do not have ways to challenge the structure that inextricably dominates them. “This is the reason why, in China, we are witnessing what I have named a 'despotic human capital system,’ one that is structured by foreign firms mistreating their Chinese employees,” Xin Jong concludes.

Through this relation of domination based on human capital, it is quite easy for Western cultural imperialism to penetrate the Chinese society to its core. In the streets of Shanghai, an infinite number of European banners and billboards hail such brands as Coca Cola and KFC. At first glance, this profusion of images can be perceived as a way to celebrate Western consumerism in a country long considered to have been exclusivist. Yet the situation is more pernicious. These billboards do not appraise the Western way of life as such, but rather exhibit a westernized version of Chinese culture. For instance, the fashion industry multiplies the production of ads featuring racially ambiguous Asians models, portrayed as having slightly slanted eyes. The food industry also reflects this trend, as in the case of the Shanghai-based food chain “Wagas”, where one can eat “organic” quinoa salads topped with “Chinese” vegetables, even if the menus are not even available in Mandarin.

This cultural imperialism sheds light on the discriminations experienced by Hu Juan and Qi JiaQi in the professional world. This issue is further reinforced by the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which traumatized the population and destroyed potential subversive behaviors. As Hu Juan puts it: "if Chinese people want to overcome Westerners’ supremacy in China, they would first have to fight for their recognition as people with a distinct identity and culture. But because Chinese people still live with the memory of the Cultural Revolution, they are afraid to criticize the government whom is fostering foreign companies’ development in China.”

Yet, the situation can change. The new generation of  urban young Chinese people that have studied abroad  is increasingly criticizing Western worshiping and domination. Yet the last word belongs to Hu Juan, whom whispers with half a smile, that “it is the duty of Westerners to change their behavior rather than the responsibility of Chinese people to protest.”

[i] Names have been changed.

[iii] translated from French: TONG Xin, “Chapitre 6 : Travailler dans les multinationales étrangères”, La société chinoise vue par ses sociologues, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po (P.F.N.S.P.), “Académique”, 2008, 300 pages. www.