Last week, the municipal government of Foshan in Guangdong unveiled its latest weapon in the contest to attract more of the FDI flooding into China to their own locality: foreigners.
The city has employed three Britons, a Uruguayan and a Mexican to convince foreign businesspeople to invest in Foshan. The foreigners, who are proving a hit with domestic media, are not employees of a multinational firm contracted by the local government—they are Chinese bureaucrats employed directly by the city, cadres just like any others throughout the People’s Republic (just better paid). The idea might sound novel and innovative, but in fact the idea of using foreigners to promote China to other foreigners was a common practice with ample precedents in Chinese history, from Marco Polo and the Jesuit astronomers all the way up until 1949.
In 1867, Anson Burlingame, who had been US ambassador to the Qing Empire for the preceding six years, crossed the floor to become the Chinese ambassador to Washington, and the West generally. Along with two secretaries from Britain and France, Burlingame successfully negotiated a series of beneficial treaties with Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Prussia, and his own home country, where we was able to leverage his influence with the GOP to exact good terms for China. The treaty he negotiated with the US, which became known as the Burlingame Treaty, permitted Chinese to become American citizens and enjoy the same rights as citizens of the most favoured nation. It was the first equal treaty signed between China and a Western power after the Opium War.
Whenever China had to be represented and promoted in international festivals such the Great Exhibition in London or the World’s Fair, it fell upon the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service to market China to the world. The Customs has been founded by the British, Americans and French in Shanghai during the Small Swords Uprising in 1854, when triad criminals took over the Native City and drove out all of the Qing officials, including customs officers. When Prince Gong saw how customs revenue increased tenfold when foreigners were responsible for assessing duties on foreign trade and also enabled Peking to centralize control over both financial and foreign affairs, he agreed to replicate the Shanghai system throughout the entire empire. The resultant institution employed almost exclusively foreigners at the managerial level, but its loyalties were entirely Chinese. Sir Robert Hart, the revered Ulsterman who served as Inspector-General of Customs from 1863 until his death in 1911, said that the mission of his service was “to do good work for China in every possible direction”—and he didn’t disappoint, becoming easily the most influential foreigner in the country, as well as one of the most trusted advisors to the imperial court.
Before the imposition of Western-style nationalism onto China in the 20th century, the country’s rulers were motivated by a Tianxi (all under heaven) view of the world, rather than a Westphalian. Regarding all of the world’s peoples as nominal subjects of a universal and divinely appointed emperor, employing individuals from distant lands in the service whenever it served the interests of the Son of Heaven was a logically consistent decision.
In one city in Guangdong, at least, it looks like China might be open to including foreigners in the China story once again. That or they just want a bit of publicity.
By Ryan Kilpatrick
[Image via Shanghai Daily]