The “Invisible” Chinese in Brazil: Strategy or Tragedy?

“It’s a mystery,” said Teresa Rossi, a researcher from CEBRI who studies Brazil-China relationship, talking about the efforts the Chinese companies in Brazil made. This gives an example of the lack of visibility of Chinese activities in Brazil.

Brazil, the biggest economy in South America, ranks 4th in size and 5th in population among all the countries. Both as members of BRICS, Brazil and China currently have an intimate relationship. China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner for 10 years[1], and its total investment in Brazil between 2000-2018 has exceeded $US 48,557 million[2].

However, although Chinese immigration has over 200 years’ history in Brazil[3] and there are mega Chinese investment projects here such as Belo Monte transmission project, Brazilians know very little about the Chinese in Brazil. Indeed, Chinese in Brazil did not catch much people’s attention so far.

With the new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro openly calling Chinese presence in Brazil a threat and the upcoming 11th BRICS summit in Brasilia, this may change soon.

The Chinese Large Corporations: No Criticism, Nor Praise

While China’s presence in the global south has been accused of “debt trap”, “neo-colonialism” for the past few years, Chinese large corporations in Brazil suffer very little of similar blame.

“I would say over 99% of the comments on our Belo Monte transmission project are positive,” said Li, a State Grid’s employee who is responsible for monitoring local public opinion. According to him, in over 10 countries that he has been working in, Brazil is the most friendly country to China.

Li said he knew some NGOs are watching them, but so far they had not made much contact with them nor complained about them.

Chinese large corporations started to enter Brazil around 2010. Today, there are more than 200 Chinese large corporations here, either state-owned, like State Grid, or privately owned, like Huawei[4]. Since 2015, China is investing in a wider range of sectors, 53% of its investment, though, flows into the energy sector because of Belo Monte[5].

Although Belo Monte dam itself suffers a lot of criticism about human rights and environment, State Grid is only building the transmission cords after the dam was done, which spares the Chinese company from the blame.

“A few weeks ago I was in the US, talking about China in a seminar, with people from a few countries in Latin America… I was the only Brazilian. My speech was a lot more friendlier towards China than any other speakers,” said Teresa Rossi from CEBRI.

However, although criticism is not a big challenge for Chinese companies in Brazil, the companies’ effort in corporate social responsibility might not be well-known as well.

Apart from supporting a local village around the transmission project to start a fruit juice production factory and many other small projects along their power line, State Grid was the earliest sponsor of Maré do Amanhã Orchestra[6], a nowadays famous orchestra from a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

“Today 1/3 of the sponsorship we receive every year is from State Grid. At the beginning, they were the only donor – without them we could not have grown like this,” said Carlos Prazeres, the founder and executive director of the orchestra.

Students of Maré do Amanhã Orchestra are practicing in their new building sponsored by State Grid

“I love State Grid!” said Isabora, cello of the orchestra, “Before, we only had three instruments, but with their sponsorship, now we have all kinds.”

Not many people know such projects from the Chinese companies. “I’ve heard about it because I am really into China. It is not common for people to know about it, ” said Paula Carvalho, an expert on Chinese studies from IBRACH.

The Chinese Small Businesses: Overlooked and Misunderstood

The first immigrants from China to Brazil can be traced back to 1814, even before the foundation of Brazil as a country. Today, there are about 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese residents in Brazil, most of whom running family-based small business. As one of the largest immigrant groups, they are not only overlooked but also misunderstood, especially in Rio de Janeiro, the city where they first landed.

Saara Street, where most Chinese concentrate in Rio de Janeiro

In Rio de Janeiro, where the population of Chinese community is expected to be around 30,000, most locals have no idea about the details of these Chinese people running shops and pastel restaurant – a typical Chinese food shop in Brazil.

Even local Sinologists do not have a lot of interaction with the local Chinese. “I’ve never been to a Chinese restaurant before,” Isbelle Carvalho, a researcher on China-Brazil international relations for 3 years, claimed, “I didn’t know where they are.”

Chinese immigrants also endure daily misunderstanding.

“The last time I saw us in the local news was several years ago, when dog meat was discovered in a pastel shop,” Feng, a Chinese shop owner in Rio said.

“Eating dogs, no human rights… are Brazilians’ impressions on Chinese people,” said Martinho, a business manager of a Chinese trader, who just visited China.

“My mother was crying: why do you want to go to a country where people eat dogs?” Philipe, a Brazilian student who has been studying China-Brazil relations recalls his monther’s reaction after knowing he was going to China.

“In Brazil, most people still have the vision that China is a poor country, which is not the reality nowadays,” said Tulio Cariello, an analysis coordinator at CEBC, “for example, they associate China with bad products and low-quality stuffs.”

Reasons for being Invisible

Both Chinese large corporations and small businesses in Brazil are in a way invisible, and there are reasons for that.

Host country’s regulation seems to be crucial in preventing Chinese in Brazil from misconducts and criticism.

Brazil has strict rules and high standards for companies on environmental issues.

“Their environmental regulations are even stricter than those of European countries,” said Li from State Grid.

“If you are an environmental agency, and if you sign off a project, and the project is bad for the environment, you can be put in jail personally,” said Teresa Rossi from CEBRI.

“Thanks for the strict rules, they are doing ok.”

Under strong regulagtion, the Chinese companies pay a lot of attention to environmental impact, community consultation and so on.

“We put a lot of effort to mitigate negative impacts on the locals before the constructions”, Li from State Grid said, “we visited all 81 cities and nearby communities, household by household, that are going to be affected by the construction, and spent 22 months on negotiations.”

Apart from not catching people’s attention by problems, Chinese in Brazil are invisible also because they are not active communicators.

“Chinese companies are so discreet. We wrote to them, called them…no response,” said the researchers from CEBRI-IBRACH.

“Many local and international NGOs, researchers and media find it difficult to talk to Chinese companies/people overseas. That is due to many reasons about culture and management system of Chinese business,” said Hongxiang Huang, founder and CEO of China House, an organization who does numerous researches about Chinese business in Africa and Latin America.

“We just started to have someone handling the press. Before, even our colleagues in China did not know what we do here,” said Li from State Grid.

Discussion with Researchers from CEBRI and IBRACH

Indeed, even Chinese companies’ own employees complain about communication system. “It’s like a ‘golden-box’,” said a Brazilian project manager at State Grid, “only people who are inside the box are eligible to know what happens.”

For small businesses, the willingness to improve communication might be even less.

“I want to move back to China once I earn enough money,” said Chen, running a pastel shop, “you are forever a guest here.” He never feels it is necessary for him to communicate with the local people.

“When it’s carnival, the Brazilians go crazy, and our Chinese churches usually arrange trips to the mountains,” said Wei, running an online-shop.

“Chinese here are Chinese mingling with Chinese,” said Lin, owner of a gift shop.

“The Silent Toad Catches the Fly”?

Being invisible could be a double-edged sword.

On the one side, it actually meets the preference of many Chinese businessmen: to keep quiet and make money on.

While the large corporations are happy that they do not attract attention and critiques from journalists and NGOs, the Chinese small business owners celebrate this invisibleness as they know their business are operating in grey area therefore exposure could be lethal.

“If we pay all the custom duties and tax according to the law, there is no profit,” said Wen, a Chinese trader who said their current profit margin is over 20%.

On the other side, this situation could be problematic too.

“Many of the Brazilian elites are already concerned about China: the unfair competition, Chinese taking over national security, the religous difference, and so on,” said Mauricio Santoro, a Professor of International Relations and an expert on China-Brazil relations.

“Currently, there is a big cultural gap between China and Brazil,” said Professor Santoro. He believes such cultural gap could have an impact in future on how locals see China, and therefore the Brazilians’ attitude towards China, in both political and economic aspects.

“We fear what we don’t know.”

By Li Li, Yuemeng Wang, Tianhui Ying, Runmin Wang


[1] Malcolm Moore, “China overtakes the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner”, The Telegraph, May 9, 2009, accessed June 29, 2019, https://telegraph.co.uk/.

[2] Alejandra Cuéllar, Sophie Bauer, “Chinese foreign direct investment to Latin America slows” last modified April 17, 2019, https://dialogochino.net/.

[3] Jeffrey Lesser, (1999). Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil. Durham & London: Duke University Press. p.16. ISBN 0-8223-2260-9.

[4] Charles Tang, (Speech, Rio de Janeiro, June 24, 2019).

[5] Tulio Cariello, “Chinese Investment in Brazil 2018”, (Speech, Rio de Janeiro, June 26, 2019).

[6] Carlos Prazeres, (Speech, Rio de Janeiro, June 25, 2019).

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