By Jiajun Li, Haozhe Meng, Jiadong Zhu, Yihong Yin, and Lezhong Wang
Located in the middle of Zhejiang province, Yiwu is home to nearly 2 million residents, including 13 thousand foreigners from more than 100 countries. The city owns the largest commodity wholesale market in the world. Yiwu has been developed into one of the most significant locations for international trade since the implementation of the “Economic Reform and Opening-up” policy in the 1980s and the introduction of the “Belt and Road Initiative” in the 2010s.
The achievement of Yiwu today is the reflection of the successful social integration of foreign merchants. Attracted by the opportunities offered by the city, an increasing number of foreign merchants have settled down in Yiwu permanently. However, to be accustomed to unfamiliar cultures is challenging. According to H. Entzinger’s theory, an authoritative standard of measuring the integration of immigrants in sociology, integration can be viewed from four aspects, including socio-economic integration, political integration, cultural integration, and attitudes of recipient societies in order of significance.
Social-economic integration: suitable business atmosphere in Yiwu
According to H. Entzinger’s theory of integration, social-economic integration is the most critical factor. In Yiwu, there are abundant policies that facilitate FDI and encourage foreign merchants to work in the city. According to the Jinyi Sector of China Pilot Free Trade Zone Website, for newly established foreign projects, an incentive of 0.03 CNY per dollar will be given to the enterprise. The upper bound is 5 million CNY annually. “Foreign merchants could gain lots of benefits from policies.” Said Hai Lin, the manager of an international logistics company in Yiwu. “They can get benefits in fields like investment and transportation. That is one reason why a lot of foreign trading companies are here.”
Except for the beneficial government policies, social organizations have also built up a suitable environment for businesses which facilitates socio-economic integration. There are many exhibitions in Yiwu. Many foreign merchants like exhibitions because they could easily find the manufacturers on exhibitions rather than spend significant amounts of time searching by themselves. “We started to hold convention and exhibition since 2006,” said Ms. Zhong, the manager of Amy Fair Business Network Service Company. “In the 2020 Yiwu Sanitary Ware Equipment Expo, we had more than 10000 square meters with 800 normal booths and 500 brands. We held online exhibitions this year due to Covid-19. Thus, the pandemic hasn’t caused a huge shock to our exhibitions.”
On the other hand, foreign merchants also face issues in social-economic integration. Many of them used to be cheated during online trading. On Alibaba Fraud Victim Database, there are 109 sufferers with 559 cases since 2008 where suppliers fooled foreign merchants. The foreign merchants lost their money and started to distrust the online suppliers and platforms, even famous platforms like Alibaba. Kasim, a foreign trader, bought ten phones from an Alibaba supplier and paid the money through Western Union. However, he only received one phone. Even more appalling was that the supplier and the service staff of Alibaba did not respond to Kasim’s complaint. Few weeks after the trading, the supplier canceled their shop on Alibaba, making Kasim unable to take back his lost money. The African Union Business Council leader also reflected similar situations, “I don’t trust any online supplier or trading at all because I used to be cheated. Nowadays, I travel all over China to communicate with suppliers and factories in person.”
Political integration: difficulties under various policies
In Yiwu, issues around political integration, other than social-economic integration, also perplex foreign merchants. They include policies education, visa, business license, marriage, etc. Mr. Masa is one of the managers of the African Union in Yiwu that we interviewed. When sharing his experiences of his first arrival in China, he was moody and embarrassed. He told us that it was complicated for him to apply for an immigrant visa. It took him months to complete the application.
Similarly, Bashar, a Syrian manager and live streamer. He revealed that he also spent a long time applying for his business license when he first came to China and started his business. “To get the business license, we must prepare a lot of materials, which is pretty hard for us as foreigners.” The application procedure is complex and strict.
Fortunately, some professional visa services in Yiwu help foreign merchants gain a clearer understanding of the policies and assist them in solving these complex application problems more efficiently. One of the leading examples is the SIKAI organization. It is a professional company specializing in visa and license application. It offers one package service to foreign merchants. These companies provide efficiency and convenience to foreign merchants, which reduces the waste of time.
Nevertheless, some companies will take advantage of foreign merchants’ unfamiliarity by charging an exorbitant price for the services to earn profits. Many foreign merchants have little money when they first came to China. They hope to change their economic situation by running businesses in Yiwu. Such a high price might push those foreign merchants into financial distress. The government can screen reliable agencies, regulate service fees, and form partnerships with reliable companies to solve this issue. In this case, the reliable firms could be more widely publicized among foreign merchants.
Cultural integration: cultural differences lead to challenges
Cultural differences are another prior problem when foreign merchants first arrive in China. Although it takes time to accept Chinese culture, “we always have the time to learn.” This is a quote from Mr. Masa. Knowing how to follow and efficiently adapt to foreign cultures, it only took him two months to be entirely accustomed to Chinese cultures. However, during his first year in Yiwu, unfamiliarity in Chinese still led to misunderstandings during his work and daily life. Nevertheless, because he studied at China’s University and had access to an environment where people naturally speak Chinese, he has become accustomed to the language culture.
However, Bashar’s integrating experiences into the local community was not successful. When he first arrived at Yiwu, lack of knowledge and cultural differences in language led to numerous problems. During his first job, unfamiliarity in language brought no benefits but misunderstanding, repulsive curiosity, and exclusion. To solve these issues, Bashar studied in Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College’s part-time Chinese study program. After one year of learning, he can now respond to our interview in Chinese fluently and confidently. Foreign merchants often encounter language differences. Specialized education in the Chinese language allows them to fit into the local language cultures.
Other than language issues, other cultural differences, including unaccustomed food, lifestyle, and festival cultures, could also make it harder to integrate into the local community. In Yiwu, there are 3490 restaurants in total, including Chinese and Western ones. Despite abundant traditional Chinese restaurants, there are also streets of foreign restaurants that foreign merchants manage. According to Da Zhong Dian Ping, 21% of Yiwu restaurants contain meals from foreign countries. These restaurants provide foreign merchants unaccustomed to Chinese food culture with access to their own food cultures. Furthermore, in these restaurants, foreign merchants will gather to celebrate their traditional festivals and Chinese festivals.
However, many foreign merchants are still not accustomed to the local lifestyle after years of cultural adaptation. According to Bashar, he dislikes Yiwu’s busy and commercialized atmosphere. He believes that “not everything is about money and business.” Nevertheless, in Yiwu International Trade Center, local merchants that we interviewed widely accept the busy lifestyle. In Yiwu, most local merchants are still trying desperately to earn money for daily life. In contrast, Bashar has started to desire entertainment because he has made enough money from foreign trade. Overall, differentiated opponents on lifestyle are caused by different economic strengths instead of cultural differences.
To better aid foreign merchants’ issues relating to cultural differences, a variety of projects are created by social organizations. “Liu Xia, Dai Lu” is a project started by Mi Lai, a Zimbabwean currently studying at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology. The project aims to help newly arrived foreign merchants fit into local cultures. It has carried out various volunteering works to promote cultural exchanges and assist foreign merchants in successfully integrating into the local community. The establishment of the project effectively supports foreign merchants’ integration into the local community
Attitudes of the recipient society: ignorance has led to misunderstanding
Apart from cultural differences, the attitude of the recipient society is also one of the main problems in Yiwu. “People rub their fingers on my skin to see if there is any dirt,” said Mr. Masa. He was embarrassed. “I understand that this has nothing to do with racism. It’s only ignorance.” Mr. Masa considered the stereotype to be a misunderstanding. However, “ignorance” must be resolved because not every African has an open mind like Mr. Masa. This is a symbol of prejudice against them, especially for sensitive minorities.
Consider the following scenario: You visit another country for business opportunities and decide to settle down with your family permanently. However, whenever you try to interact with residents, they act as if there is a barrier and exclude you. You feel isolated, which further leads to a greater distance between you and the local society. After all, you still cannot integrate into the local community.
Mr. Masa gave a solution to this problem. He said, “The reason for this is people’s lack of experience and knowledge. They never have the opportunity to visit other countries.” Mr. Masa said, “The more you travel, the more you will find that we are the same.” Although traveling abroad is costly, residents can achieve this by watching more international documentaries or movies. After that, the stereotype that Mr. Masa experienced will happen less often. The internal relationship between local people and foreign merchants will improve.
Although there are still plenty of barriers for foreigners to integrate into the local society, Yiwu has its advantages in many aspects. Take education as an example. Public schools in Yiwu can enroll international students, which is ahead of many other major cities. This enhances Yiwu’s attraction to foreign merchants. Successful integration of foreign merchants requires collective efforts across all social groups. We, young people, are significant forces in this process. As an African fellow said in the interview while telling us a few problems they have encountered: “I never talk about these negative things in the face of Chinese – it’s embarrassing. But you are young. You are open-minded. You can see the world. You guys will bring changes to China.”
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