Not long ago I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.
“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”
And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”
Six of us met at the Beijing airport, where Jake briefed us on the details. We were supposedly representing a California-based company that was building a facility in Dongying. Our responsibilities would include making daily trips to the construction site, attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and hobnobbing. During the ceremony, one of us would have to give a speech as the company’s director. That duty fell to my friend Ernie, who, in his late 30s, was the oldest of our group. His business cards had already been made.
Dongying was home to Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, and that’s just about all it has going for it. The landscape is dry and bleak, with factories in all directions. We were met at the airport by Ken, a young Canadian of Taiwanese extraction with a brush cut and leather jacket, whose company, we were told, had been subcontracted to manage the project.
The lobby at our hotel was dimly lit and smelled like bad seafood. “At least we have a nice view,” Ernie deadpanned as he opened the drapes in our room to reveal a scrap yard. A truck had been stripped for parts, and old tires were heaped into a pile. A dog yelped.
Ken drove us to the company’s temporary offices: small rooms with cement floors and metal walls arranged around a courtyard. We toured the facility, which built high-tech manufacturing equipment, then returned to the office and sat for hours. Across the courtyard, we could hear Ernie rehearsing his speech.
The next morning was the official ribbon-cutting ceremony. A stage and red carpet had been set up near the construction site. Pretty girls in red dragon-patterned dresses greeted visitors, and Chinese pop blared from loudspeakers. Down the street, police in yellow vests directed traffic. The mayor was there with other local dignitaries, and so were TV cameras and reporters. We stood in the front row wearing suits, safety vests, and hard hats. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, a foreman standing beside me barked at workers still visible on the construction site. They scurried behind the scaffolding.
“Are you the boss?” I asked him.
He looked at me quizzically. “You’re the boss.”
Actually, Ernie was the boss. After a brief introduction, “Director” Ernie delivered his speech before the hundred or so people in attendance. He boasted about the company’s long list of international clients and emphasized how happy we were to be working on such an important project. When the speech was over, confetti blasted over the stage, fireworks popped above the dusty field beside us, and Ernie posed for a photo with the mayor.
For the next few days, we sat in the office swatting flies and reading magazines, purportedly high-level employees of a U.S. company that, I later discovered, didn’t really exist. We were so important, in fact, that two of the guys were hired to stay for eight months (to be fair, they actually then received quality-control training).
“Lots happening,” Ken told me. “We need people for a week every month. It’ll be better next time, too. We’ll have new offices.” He paused before adding: “Bring a computer. You can watch movies all day.”