Brazil isn't China's first foray into Latin America — Chinese companies have a strong presence across the region, from mining operations in Argentina to manufacturing in Mexico. China has bilateral trade agreements with Peru, Costa Rica and Chile.
Zhang Jianhua, chief of the Bank of China's operations in Sao Paulo, said Chinese companies have been enticed by Brazil's wealth of iron ore, soy, oil and other natural resources, and many companies are finding it more cost-effective to move closer to the commodities. Chinese companies also see Brazil's booming middle class as a lucrative market.
Chinese companies' experience elsewhere in Latin America, however, hasn't helped them avoid problems in Brazil.
A former top executive for Chinese computer maker Lenovo said most Brazilians at the company's local offices were frustrated by demands to come up with almost immediate results in a country with some of the world's worst red tape. Even seemingly mundane tasks, such as getting a phone line or renting an apartment, can require trips to the notary and stacks of paperwork.
Brazilian workers also balked at what they saw as their Chinese superiors' suffocating management style, said the executive, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of putting in jeopardy the jobs of other Brazilians at Lenovo.
"It was not the quantity of work — we're all chained to our Blackberry, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. "But the Chinese bosses wanted people physically in the office 100 percent of the time so they could control them.
"That's definitely not how deals are closed in Brazil. It's over dinner, at lunch, having a drink. You cannot keep your work force locked up in an office and expect to make headway in Brazil."
The executive added that Chinese bosses would often create ill will by upbraiding Brazilian project managers in front of their staff.
"They thought the workers would do more if the orders were coming from the big boss, but that's not what Brazilian workers think — it's just the opposite," she said. "They lost motivation because they thought their manager had no respect within the company, to the point that he was being dressed down in front of them. I saw that a lot."
Calls to Lenovo were not returned.
Asian executives have had their own complaints about what they've seen as the lax work ethic of Brazilian employees, but are up against laws that require all foreign companies in Brazil to hire locally.
Charles Tang, who founded the Brazil-China chamber of trade and industry 25 years ago, vividly recalls the difficulties he encountered when the Bank of Boston first sent him to Brazil in the mid-1970s. He was particularly frustrated with what he said was some Brazilians' lack of punctuality.
"I banged my head against the wall for a year or so before I really got into Brazilian culture," he said.
Tang said he soon learned the Brazilian way — essentially to relax, realize nobody is going to arrive at a meeting on time and understand that informality doesn't necessarily equate with a lack of professionalism. He realized that the differences in style ultimately didn't affect the bottom line.
In fact, data from the U.S.-based business group The Conference Board show Brazilian workers were 30 percent more productive last year than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese worker productivity, however, grew at more than twice the annual rate than that of Brazilian workers.
In the past, Chinese firms circumvented such complications by importing thousands of their own workers, a practice Brazilian officials don't tolerate, said Antonio Barros de Castro, a former president of Brazil's state development bank who has closely studied China's rise.
"They know that here they have to work mostly with Brazilian laborers, the government has made that clear," Barros said. "In places like Africa, they resolved work force problems by ignoring the problem, by working with Chinese workers."
Despite efforts to build better working relationships between the two countries, distrust was still rife on a recent afternoon in the Liberdade neighborhood of central Sao Paulo.
Celio Lin, 29, sat by the cash register of his family's busy Chinese restaurant complaining about the Brazilian staff, while his mother checked on the line cooks by tugging on their coats and attentively peeking into pots of soup and noodles.
"Brazilians want vacations for I-don't-know-what, they want a day off for I-don't-know-what, they want to go to the beach, to relax," Lin said. "The beach is obviously pleasant, but if you send a Chinese man to the beach, he'll go there to sell something!"
Associated Press writer Jack Chang in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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