In China, it’s hard to find a city that has not built ambitious new districts on its rural periphery. But overbuilding has led to ghost towns: Towering rows of luxury apartments sit completely empty, especially in smaller cities in China’s hinterlands. The lifeless streets seem to contradict official claims that these new developments will become booming, globalized cities.
In this Op-Doc video, I profile one interesting solution: the rent-a-foreigner industry.
In provincial West China, I filmed specialty firms that collect groups of foreigners whom they rent out to attend events. Clients can select from a menu of skin colors and nationalities; whites are the most desirable and expensive. The most frequent customers are real estate companies. They believe that filling their remote buildings with foreign faces, even for a day, suggests that the area is “international,” a buzzword in provincial areas that often translates to “buy.”
The operation usually works by recruiting a few of the thousands of ordinary expatriates in China, and paying them to play whatever role the client feels will best convey its building’s desirability. Musicians and models — often amateurs billed as “famous” — are the most popular personas. But while making this video we also encountered Westerners posing as businessmen, athletes, diplomats and some simply as city residents.
As a foreigner myself, I sometimes became part of the show, too. Event M.C.s frequently pointed me out to audiences as I filmed the scene, explaining to the crowd that the development for sale was garnering attention from the international media.
While it is impossible to gauge foreigners’ effect on property sales, the widespread nature of the phenomenon suggests that it works, at least in the eyes of real estate developers. But as property prices continue to decline in China, whether it works enough is another story.