Tue, Jan 05, 2016 - Page 9 News List

A Chinese company in India, stumbling over a culture

Chinese companies have embarked on ambitious overseas expansion efforts, snapping up land in dozens of countries, but they are struggling to navigate complex cultural, political and competitive dynamics

By Keith Bradsher  /  NY Times News Service, SHINDE, India

Illustration: Yusha

When a Chinese truck company wanted to open a factory in India, its president looked at sites that had a mountain in back and a river in front — especially auspicious locations in the traditional practice of feng shui.

The company, Beiqi Foton Motor, found a seemingly ideal spot, securing 101 hectares of farmland in a western Indian village. Foton wants another 506 hectares nearby to build an industrial park for suppliers.

However, the mountain there is sacred to many Hindus. For at least 2,000 years, the cliffside caves have been home to generations of monks. One of the most revered Hindu saints is said to have attained a pure vision of his god during the 17th century while meditating in the highest cave overlooking what is now Foton’s site.

The culture clash was immediate.

Foton erected barbed-wire fences and hired uniformed guards to keep out trespassers. Cattle herders and Hindu pilgrims have repeatedly trampled the fences. The monks do not want a noisy neighbor.

“In today’s life, spirituality and science are both important, and neither should deny the other,” said Kailash Nemade, a monk, during a pause from chanting religious poems. “But this factory should not come here, because it will ruin the spirituality of the mountain.”

Chinese companies have embarked on ambitious overseas expansion efforts, snapping up land in dozens of countries to build factories, industrial parks, power plants and other operations. While the investments provide critical support for many economies, Chinese businesses are struggling to navigate complex cultural, political and competitive dynamics.

China’s economic slowdown last year, along with a stock market plunge and a currency devaluation, have not deterred the country’s companies. Many have accelerated their global shifts as their home market becomes less attractive.

However, Chinese enterprises lack the experience of their Western counterparts, which have spent decades developing international operations. As Chinese companies have built their businesses largely at home, they have not had to address the same challenges.

In China, companies with strong Chinese Communist Party connections can bulldoze communities and religious sites. The Chinese government bans independent labor unions. While strikes and other labor protests are becoming more common, they are quickly squelched by the government if they show signs of spreading.

As Chinese companies now venture overseas, they are dealing with a wave of resistance.

In Africa, workers at Chinese-run oil fields and copper mines have gone on strike over low pay and dangerous working conditions. The Myanmar government halted China’s construction of a hydroelectric dam there after protests over environmental damage and the displacement of villagers. And in Nicaragua, residents have resisted the planned resettlement of villages to make way for a canal proposed by a Chinese businessman.

In India, Foton’s experience provides an insight into the internal struggle that countries face.

India desperately needs foreign investment to support the 13 million young people entering its labor force every year and to begin relieving chronic unemployment in its countryside. Indian and Western factories within a few kilometers of Foton’s site have created thousands of jobs.

Western companies have tried to tread more carefully in India, in some cases learning from past mistakes. They have worked closely with communities, explaining their projects to residents. The companies have typically sent teams of executives, often with overseas experience.

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