Across Latin America, Mandarin Is in the Air

Yuan Juhua was sent to Bogota by the Chinese government as interest in Mandarin spiked after a 2004 visit to the region by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Trade between China and Latin America reached $50 billion last year, according to Chinese data.
Yuan Juhua was sent to Bogota by the Chinese government as interest in Mandarin spiked after a 2004 visit to the region by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Trade between China and Latin America reached $50 billion last year, according to Chinese data. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 22, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Elizabeth Zamora is a busy mother and executive. Still, for three hours every Saturday, she slides into a battered wooden desk at Bogota's National University and follows along as Yuan Juhua, a language instructor sent here by China's government, teaches the intricacies of Mandarin.

Zamora already speaks German and English, but she struggles to learn written Chinese characters and mimic tones unknown in Spanish. She persists for a simple reason: China is voraciously scouring Latin America for everything from oil to lumber, and there is money to be made. That prospect has not only Zamora but business people in much of Latin America flocking to learn the Chinese language, increasingly heard in boardrooms and on executive junkets.

"It's fundamental to communicate in their language when you go there or they come here," said Zamora, 40, a sales executive for the German drugmaker Bayer, which is growing dramatically in China. "If you don't know their language, you're lost."

Latin America, with its vast farmlands and ample oil reserves and mineral deposits, has become a prime destination for investors and others from China, whose economy has been growing at 9 percent annually. The total value of trade between China and Latin America rose from just over $10 billion in 2000 to $50 billion last year, according to Chinese trade data.

"Latin American countries want to diversify their markets, and they see a huge opportunity, not just in the present but in the potential for growth," said Chris Sabatini, a senior director of policy for the New York-based Council of the Americas, a business association that encourages trade in the Americas. "Latin Americans, as people in any country, should be opportunistic, and they see opportunity with China."

Chinese companies are investing in farmland and energy installations in Brazil. Beijing has signed a free-trade agreement with Chile, its first with a Latin American country, while announcing investments in the Chilean copper industry and gas and oil fields in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia. Beijing has also cemented a $5 billion oil deal with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, which is seeking to diversify exports to other countries beyond the United States.

The arrival of China in a largely Spanish-speaking region half a world away might seem unusual. But Beijing is in a relentless quest for oil, coal, iron ore and copper for its factories, soybean and poultry to feed its 1.3 billion people, lumber for housing, and fish meal for its livestock. President Hu Jintao's government, which two years ago pledged $100 billion in investments for several South American countries, said it also wants to bankroll road, port and railroad developments that would help bring exports more quickly to China.

Veering toward China, though, is far from easy for entrepreneurs and students from a region that has long been intertwined with the giant to the north. The United States remains the biggest investor in Latin America, its trade with the region eight times that of China's. English prevails as a second language.

Mandarin, on the other hand, is considered far harder to learn, with dialects and a tenor significantly different from the phonetic cadences of Spanish and Portuguese. Yet the Chinese language is making gains, as is the revolutionary idea of looking west across the Pacific for business opportunities.

"The world is divided into east and west, and the culture is completely different," said Miguel Angel Poveda, president of the Colombo-China Chamber of Commerce in Bogota. "The only way to get around it is to understand the culture and learn to do business with them, but in their language."

Many of those taking up the challenge are young, like Leidy Catalina Ortega, 17, who recently dropped an English-language class in favor of Mandarin. Her parents want to import clothing from China to sell in Bogota. If she learns the language, she will help manage the business.

"If you're interested and work hard, you can learn and talk almost like they do," she said. "You are afraid at first. Later you get it and move on."


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