China business: The dragon eyes the tiger

BANGALORE, India — The Chinese are out to conquer the world, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the India operations of the giant Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies.

Against the backdrop of deeply rooted suspicion about a Chinese company making inroads in a politically sensitive area like telecom, Chinese employees of Huawei have hit upon a new strategy to win over their subcontinental customers: doing in India as the Indians do.

Chinese employees — especially on the marketing team in New Delhi and in the Research and Development unit in Bangalore — are adopting Indian names, going local in the fashion sense, celebrating Indian festivals and even learning a smattering of phrases from Indian languages.

Such is life as two of the world's fastest growing, and most complicated, economies come together for mutual benefit, profit and a bit of old-fashioned culture clash.

Consider Huawei’s Chinese employees Sang Jing and Yao Weimin. Those traditionally Chinese names are hard on the Indian tongue, so they are being replaced by popular modern Indian names such as Rohan, Rajiv and Nikhil.

“It helps the Chinese blend in India. It helps them click," said Gilbert Millicent Nathan, a Bangalore-based spokesperson for Huawei, which has 5,000 employees in India.

“Main Hindi bol sakta hoon [I can speak Hindi],” said Li Jian, an expatriate Chinese in Huawei’s marketing operations in New Delhi who goes by the name of Amit.

With language skills and a local name, Li Jian said he finds it effortless to forge bonds with Indians.

“Bahut aasani se,” he said, Hindi for “very easily.”

Female Chinese employees at Huawei’s Indian headquarters in Gurgaon outside Delhi are adopting the sari and the salwar kameez, quintessential Indian garments. They are also assuming names such as Deepika and Priyanka, after the country’s hottest Bollywood stars.

In yet another move, Huawei said it would establish a board of directors for its Indian unit that would consist entirely of Indians. India, one of the fastest growing telecom markets in the world, is an important market for Chinese equipment makers.

This growing commercial relationship, however, is an uneasy one. India and China have had a complex political relationship for many decades, and fought a bitter war in 1962.

But economic ties between the two countries have increased dramatically since both governments liberalized their large, and now rapidly growing, economies.

Bilateral trade is approaching $60 billion a year, a 60-fold increase since 2001. But an almost $16 billion annual trade deficit with China has set off alarm bells in this country.

Recently, New Delhi’s government showed that it was torn between treating China as a fellow economic power and a serious political rival.

India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh said the commerce ministry was "paranoid" in vetoing imports of Chinese telecom gear (the fear is that Beijing could use the gear to spy on its rival).

Despite the tensions, business marches on. Huawei has localized some operations by taking on Indian vendors as partners, while outsourcing product development and other projects to Indian outsourcing firms like TCS, Wipro and MindTree.

It has also invested in large R&D operations in India’s technology hub, Bangalore.

And hence,  the closer cultural ties.

Huawei India’s Chinese expatriates are now celebrating traditional Indian festivals like Diwali (festival of lights) and Holi (festival of colors). They're also taking to butter naan and chicken tikka.

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