Mumbai Capital

A Chinese company in India, stumbling over a culture

A security guard on farmland acquired by Beiqi Foton Motor near Shinde.— Photo: The New York Times  

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 250 acres of farmland in this western Indian village. Foton wants another 1,250 acres nearby to build an industrial park for suppliers.

But the mountain here is sacred to many Hindus. For at least 2,000 years, the cliff-side 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 neighbour.

“In today’s life, spirituality and science are both important, and neither should deny the other,” Kailash Nemade, a monk, said 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 this 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.

But 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 haven’t had to address the same challenges.

In China, companies with strong Communist Party connections can bulldoze communities and religious sites. The Chinese government bans independent labour unions. While strikes and other labour 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 a look into the internal struggle that countries face.

India desperately needs outside investment to support the 13 million young people entering its labour force every year and to begin relieving chronic unemployment in its countryside. Indian and western factories within a few miles 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.

Foton strongly defends its plans. The company says that its plant and supplier park will create a much-needed economic boost.

“Because of these projects, the employment of thousands of people, even tens of thousands, will be accomplished,” said Zhao Jingguang, Foton’s executive vice president.

But Foton keeps revising production plans and delaying construction. With the project stalled, the promised jobs have not materialised.

Foton’s corporate style has also caused friction. It managed the project mainly from Beijing, sending executives to India for two-week visits. When Foton’s Indian managers needed to work with the main office, they sat through videoconferences that lasted hours, with Chinese executives often speaking at length in Chinese.

Mr Zhao denies that the company picked the location for its Feng Shui, which the Chinese government condemns as superstition. Still, he acknowledged that “there is a river, should be good Feng Shui.”

But the land deal has been less than harmonious.

Regulations mandate that factories be located at least 500 metres from temples, preventing construction on half of Foton’s site. A state agency also reserved land for a 15-yard-wide dirt access road to help pilgrims reach a footpath to the caves.

Despite Foton’s efforts, many villagers and monks say the factory would still be too close. Pilgrims, who can number over 5,000 during religious festivals, would have only a half-acre site to pitch their tents.

Sitting cross-legged in a pink-painted cave, the monks’ leader, a Hindu holy man named Vishwanath Maharaj, listened closely when asked for his view on Foton’s plans. But he merely gave a slight smile and shrugged his shoulders, preserving his 35-year vow of silence. — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 8:48:30 AM |

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