On weekend evenings in Buenos Aires´ upscale Palermo neighbourhood, newly washed sedans and SUVs line up along the wide Libertador Avenue, creating a shimmering cascade of lights as their occupants eagerly await valet parking.
The restaurant of choice is a fashionable American-style bistro, aptly named Kansas. It has become a staple for well-heeled Porteños whose frequent trips to Miami and New York leave them craving burgers and good service. Known for remarkable consistency in a land of improvisation, the only thing that has changed since its opening six years ago is its clientele. It’s now packed with Chinese.
Chinatown apparently is unable to satisfy the increasingly sophisticated tastes of Argentina’s Chinese immigrants. At 120,000-strong, when including Taiwanese and temporary visa holders, the Chinese are the fastest growing non-Latin American immigrant population. Since 2004, Argentina has granted over 26,000 visas to the Chinese—a figure topped only by neighbouring Paraguayans, Bolivians and Peruvians, many of whom find work with the Chinese upon arrival.
A Chinese supermarket opens every two days in Buenos Aires. With over 10,000 in total, it’s rare to walk more than a few blocks without coming across one. Los chinos, as they are known, collectively generate a whopping $6 billion a year. Their secret to success? Location. Location. Location. They also manage to maintain competitive prices thanks to their broad wholesale distribution network; this is especially difficult with inflation topping 20 percent yearly since the 2003 economic recovery.
Ever evolving, this year the Chinese markets began branding their own products and offering a credit card financed with an initial $20 million by the Chamber of Chinese Supermarkets (CASRECH) and backed by the Chinese government.
Success, however, comes at a price. There are a shocking 120 crimes per day perpetrated against their markets, some of them bloody. This has led to conjecture about a Chinese mafia. The Argentine security forces are now grappling with the appearance of an underground network that relies on provincial dialects and unusual codes.
Though ubiquitous, these newcomers have not developed an immediate rapport with the locals. The Chinese immigrants´ non-existent or sloppy Spanish leads to social isolation, and, in some situations, arouses suspicions. The March 2011 opening of a dramatic comedy directed by Sebastián Borensztein and starring Argentina´s favorite actor, Ricardo Darín, hilariously portrays this cultural and linguistic disconnect between the Italian-like Spanish speakers and the Chinese among them. Darín´s character, forced to share a roof with a young Chinaman, takes extreme measures to locate the young man’s long-lost uncle since cohabitation proves to be comically unbearable—a twist on the play and U.S. sitcom The Odd Couple.
Social ineptness, however, has not hampered Chinese commercial prowess or the attractiveness of their millennial culture and language. China´s international rise coupled with its growing diaspora have fuelled Argentineans’ demand for chow mein, tai chi and Mandarin classes. Today, there are around 2,000 Argentineans enrolled in private Mandarin courses.
To level the playing field, the mayor of the Buenos Aires municipality of Tigre, Sergio Massa, just launched a program sponsored by the Chinese Embassy to provide free Mandarin classes in public libraries. “We are preparing the future generations for the world to come,” said the government official to the press.
The Chinese prefer a low profile. Given their proliferation and commercial inroads, they have received relatively little media attention in Argentina. This also holds true for Chinese diplomacy in South America in general where modesty is not only a cultural virtue but a practicality since chest-beating could alarm the superpower to the North or upset their hosts. The Chinese government’s reticence to talk to the media, however, has done little to promote transparent exchange and mutual understanding.
After Chinese President Hu Jintao´s momentous trip to South America in November 2004, news reports exaggerated short-term investment promises to Argentina and created confusion surrounding the Asian giant’s real intentions for the country. For a number of years, it looked like China would stick solely to extracting commodities—foodstuffs, energy and metals—and exporting cheap manufactured goods.
While these remain its principal activities, major deals in the last three years have revealed China´s more nuanced, long-term intentions for Argentina. And the Chinese government is just now beginning to talk openly about its plans for this so-called “strategic partner.”
In an unprecedented move, the Chinese embassy acquiesced to a meeting with the foreign press on September 16. “This is the first time they agreed to meet in 26 years,” boasted the president of Argentina’s foreign correspondents´ association, Ricardo Rivas. Yet Mr. Yang Shidi, the Chinese embassy’s commercial attaché, did little more than confirm trade and investment reports.
In sum, China is now Argentina’s second most important trading partner after Brazil with bilateral commerce reaching $12.9 billion in 2010. Argentina is China´s fourth largest trading partner in Latin America after Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Chinese investment in the country has escalated in the last three years with an estimated $15 billion injected primarily into petrochemicals and agriculture but also into telecommunications, mining, finance, transport, energy, and manufacturing.
China emerged a player in Argentina’s oil business with Sinopec´s $2.5 billion purchase of Occidental last year, and it will triple its stake in the industry should CNOOC Ltd´s pending $7.1 billion acquisition of BP´s Pan American Energy holdings go through as expected this year. These deals along with loftier promises to revamp dilapidated rail in the north-western interior, turn arid land green in Patagonia, and clean-up the toxic Riachuelo water basin in Buenos Aires have vindicated the 2004 investment rumors.
The embassy official touted the plethora of ministerial and business exchanges between his country and Argentina. Yet hiccups are frequent with one row interrupting Argentina’s all-important soy oil exports in May 2010—a $2 billion a year blow. After painstaking negotiations, the Chinese lifted the ban a year later with no apparent strings attached. Argentina maintains 36 anti-dumping measures against China—more than when the conflict began. Stifled Chinese imports include thermoses, bicycles, ovens, dishware, shoes, and fabrics.
To allay concerns about China´s ever-growing presence, Mr Shidi insisted that China looks to provide social as well as economic benefits to Argentineans. He lamely held up the Riachuelo sanitation project as proof of their altruism.
The diplomat declined to discuss the commercial bonanza of the Chinese population in Argentina, piquing curiosity as to how the government could exploit this formidable network in the future. Yet the embassy’s belated debut was met mostly with shoulder shrugging.
China´s omnipresence in Argentina is now a given.
*Janie Hulse Najenson is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is an analyst based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the editor and producer of Insights from the Field, a quarterly publication promoting perspectives from within Latin America on politico-economic and security issues affecting the region.