Brazil: Dances with Dragon

The Confucius Institute in São Paulo, Brazil, one of the few cosmopolitan cities that does not feature a Chinatown, recently celebrated its first anniversary. The presence of the Institute is not only a sign of China’s rising soft power, but also the many ways in which China and Brazil have become intertwined, according to professor Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. The most important, of course, is trade, with Brazil supplying important commodities like soybeans and iron and China exporting electronic equipment, shoes, and textiles. But there are also cultural exchanges, with over forty Chinese language schools in São Paulo. Yet, for all the positives that the Sino-Brazilian relationship holds for the two countries, it runs the risk of deindustrializing Brazil, according to Barbosa. In fact, China has already displaced Brazil as the largest exporter to South America. In the end, Brazil will need to grow its internal market as well as increase its range of partners abroad to meet China’s challenge. – YaleGlobal

Brazil: Dances with Dragon

China's soft-power drive combined with economic interest opens new doors in Brazil
Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More than a paper dragon: Chinese New Year celebrated in São Paulo; China emerges as a growing trade partner of Brazil as well as competitor

SÃO PAULO: In November, citizens of São Paulo were treated to an unusual celebration. With the accompaniment of drums and cymbals, a group of Brazilian students performed a lion dance to mark the first anniversary of the Confucius Institute. The quintessentially Chinese dance in downtown São Paulo may not be a metaphor for Brazil dancing to China’s tune, but it was a reminder of the growing ties between two of the world’s rising powers in two continents. Intensifying trade and cultural contacts between the two may be laying the groundwork for political cooperation on a global scale and helping Brazil to consolidate its leadership in South America. However, growing, but lop-sided, trade ties also risk hastening the deindustrialization of Brazil.

Set up with Chinese government funding through a partnership between Hubei University and São Paulo’s State University (UNESP) with the aim of promoting Chinese soft power, language and culture, the Confucian Institute is a glimpse of China’s growing presence in Brazil. Behind the cultural advance lie growing economic ties between the two countries – with two way trade rising to $36 billion in 2008 from $2 billion in 1998. Whereas Brazilian exports are concentrated mostly on soy and iron ore, Chinese sales cover a wide range of industrial goods, from electronic equipment, machinery, shoes, textile and garments. Moreover, Brazil accounts for less than one percent of the total Chinese exports, whereas the Asian country is the destination of around 10 percent of Brazilian exports. Today, one third of Brazil’s imports of electronic equipment come from China, a figure that surpasses the combined imports from US and EU. Not only that, Brazil, which used to be the largest exporter of goods to the South American region, now is facing Chinese competition, not only within, but right across the border.

Of course, the competitiveness of the Chinese exports does not arise only from its cheap labor force: certainly this factor doesn’t have the same weight for different sectors. But it is also clear that if Brazil doesn’t come up with a coherent development strategy, it faces the risk of losing its industrial power.

Perhaps the varying impact of Sino-Brazilian ties accounts for contradictory perceptions. Many Brazilians see the Chinese as a bunch of slave-like workers, selling cheap and disposable goods all over the world; while others see a monolithic party behind every decision made by its government. Then there are those who think this is the new place of the future, so let’s go there and “make China”. The love-it-or-hate-it approach is predominant.

On the political front, Brazil’s growing association with China, apart from it belonging to the group of rising BRIC countries, is also improving through bilateral ties. President Lula da Silva traveled to Beijing in May, signed 13 cooperation agreements and discussed with President Hu Jintao a joint action plan for the period 2010-2014. Brazil and China also met each other in the G-20 sessions held this year in London and Detroit and for a special BRIC encounter in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

Brazil emerged as a “special partner” of China in 1993, for very concrete reasons. The South American giant is an important commodities supplier, has the largest market of the region and likes to appear in the global scenario as the South American representative in the new “multipolar world” – a discourse that goes hand in hand with Beijing’s diplomacy of “peace and development”.

In short, while the US influence in the world took a nose dive with its invasion of Iraq, China got busy making business abroad and spreading its soft power all over the world through the Confucius Institute. The Institute in São Paulo has been involved in teaching Chinese language and encouraging cultural exchange. Professor Chen Jing, one of the Mandarin teachers, was amazed by the motivation of her Brazilian students. They are not as stubborn as the Chinese ones, she says, but they are more talkative, ask interesting and unexpected questions and don’t conform easily to strict rules.

As a matter of fact, the city already has 40 Chinese schools. The year 2004 was a sort of turning point. Professors and translators of Chinese suddenly became scarce, according to Professor David Jye Yuan Shiu, a retired professor from the University of São Paulo, who came to Brazil in 1972 to teach at the Chinese Social Center.

By the time professor Shiu arrived in Brazil, Maoists could be found within the Chinese students. The police would show up every now and then as Brazil was ruled by an anti-communist military regime. Now businessmen, physicians, and a new wave of addicted-to-China students make up a very heterogeneous group of classmates.

This China mania was positive for the Chinese community in São Paulo. Being for so long dispersed in a sea of Japanese – São Paulo is the only cosmopolitan city that is known for not having a Chinatown – now the Chinese population recovered its self-esteem and started once again to celebrate its New Year.

Although people of Japanese extraction may be more prominent, the China connection with Brazil, once a colony of the Portuguese crown, goes back to the 17th century – long before the Japanese appeared on the scene. Portuguese traders introduced, mostly from China, sun hats, fans, porcelain, silk cover beds, Asian roof styles and fireworks to Brazil. Gilberto Freyre, one of the most distinguished Brazilian sociologists, found in the sugarcane civilization, the tea being served with sugar in Chinese porcelain. According to his poetic depiction, the Asian goods – used by the rural aristocracy – brought alongside a model of family and society that resembled the hierarchical and patriarchal patterns being shaped in colonial Brazil.

Chinese immigration in Brazil started after the Second World War. Up to then, not even waves of immigration were seen: just some bubbles, like the 400 families that were brought to Rio de Janeiro outskirts by the Portuguese emperor in 1814 to produce tea. In the Brazilian Census of 1940, 646 Chinese immigrants were counted.

Today, the figures are much higher. Most of the Chinese live in and around the city of São Paulo, working mainly at the retail sector. Some are petty entrepreneurs trying to get a better opportunity. They benefit from the informal networks built up by the Chinese overseas community. Others face a perverse globalization enacted by mafias spread out all over the world. They are the indentured servants of our times.

One may have an idea of the number of Chinese illegal immigrants in Brazil through the data collected by the Federal Police, which, since this August, granted amnesty to those already in Brazil and without permits. The Chinese population is responsible for the second highest demand for Brazilian residency, after the Bolivians, reaching almost five thousand people.

China’s presence in the Brazilian media is full of swings. Last year, the Asian power was flooding the country’s internal market with industrial goods. Right now, China helps the country’s economic recovery through its strong demand of imports. President Lula should foster a partnership that goes much beyond this. However, the policy of diversifying the range of political allies – the recent visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil is another signal of this new attitude – must be embedded in a much stronger economy, capable of simultaneously enlarging its internal market and meeting the Chinese challenge at home and abroad.

Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa is a Professor of Economic History at the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEB/USP) and holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP).

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