By NBC’s LisAurel Winfree
BEIJING – Wanted: A Westerner who can pretend to speak intelligently about a subject they know nothing about. No experience needed. Will pay.
That’s right. Welcome to the Chinese concept of a “face job.”
In China, a face job is when a company hires a white person to pretend to be an employee or business partner, usually for an important event or meeting.
Westerners are thought to be rich – so Chinese companies will often hire one to appear at meetings or events so they can give the impression that they have wealthy overseas connections, status and prestige.
I encountered my first face job at a press conference recently held by the World Luxury Association at a five-star hotel in Beijing’s well-heeled Chaoyang district.
The event featured a series of talks about different aspects of China’s luxury market and covered subjects ranging from how to increase brand awareness to the sale of jewelry and yachts. There was a long list of Western speakers available as experts to discuss their various industries and they seemed like the people to talk to – cameramen swarmed around them and Chinese journalists shoved microphones at them.
But their speeches were vague and barely scratched the surface of the topics they were presenting. Perhaps they were trying to keep things simple because of the language barrier? Perhaps some further questioning would yield something more interesting?
When the opportunity arose, I ran up to talk to one of the Western speakers. He introduced himself as “Jake.” I asked him a question about the luxury market. At first, he looked confused, and then he started to laugh. “I don’t work for this company,” he confessed. “They hired me just for today.”
He went on to explain why he believed he’d been hired. “They had government officials [at the conference] that morning. My guess is that they’re probably trying to get some kind of distribution deal. They’re probably trying to legitimize themselves. If you buy into it – that could give the business a lot of legitimacy.”
Jake said that there seemed to be a lot riding on his appearance. He said after he’d agreed to go to the event, “They kept asking, ‘Are you gonna come? Because it will be embarrassing if you don’t.’”
It turns out that four of the foreign speakers at the event were hired as face jobs. It’s a fairly common experience for many expats looking to make some extra money. Much like acting, the hiring company will provide a set and script, complete with business cards.
One of the speakers at the event had been in Harbin the week before at a hospital, pretending to be a doctor to introduce a new medicine.
“I think you can learn a little bit about the culture,” Jake said about the job. “I had a friend when we were studying. He used to go to business meetings and pretend to be a CEO, put his hands on the table and pretend to be angry.”
But sometimes Westerners find that they’ve accidentally become a face job. Before arriving at the WLA event, Jake thought he was being hired to give a talk at a finance conference, according to the online advertisement he’d answered.
“I would never wanna do anything like this again. To give a speech or be fraudulent, no I would not wanna do anything like that. For me, someone who wants to make a career in China, it’s just bad.”