Immigration

For Spain, an Economic Lifeline from China


With an unemployment rate of 22.8 percent, the euro zone’s highest, Spain appears to be spiraling back into recession. Yet the Cobo Calleja industrial park 15 miles south of central Madrid shows few signs of economic distress. A manager’s Mercedes must be moved to make way for an incoming truck. Forklifts and workers pushing metal carts swerve to avoid each other as they rush to deliver orders. Merchants cram white sneakers and brown leather boots into cardboard boxes. “I can’t think of one Chinese person who is unemployed,” Jin Jing says as she surveys the commotion outside her warehouse crammed with women’s clothing. “There are jobs to be found in this crisis if you are willing to work. The Chinese are clearly willing to work.”

The activity in Cobo Calleja reveals a surprising source of strength for the troubled Spanish economy: immigrants from China. Virtually all of the shopkeepers and wholesalers in the park are Chinese. Only 2.9 percent of Chinese registered for social security received unemployment benefits in 2010, vs. 16.5 percent of Spanish nationals and 24.5 percent of all foreigners, government data show. And though they account for less than 3 percent of Spain’s 5.7 million immigrants, Chinese make up nearly 23 percent of the country’s foreign-born entrepreneurs, labor ministry data show.

For a decade, Spain’s explosive growth lured foreign workers into the country. But when the housing market collapsed in 2008, more than a million immigrants found themselves out of work. The government offered €10,000 ($13,300) to foreigners who agreed to go home and not return to Spain for at least three years.

Few Chinese accepted the offer, and government statistics show there are now 165,000 Chinese in Spain (though many academics believe the real number may be more than double that). Nearly 18,000 new Chinese immigrants arrived in Spain in the three years ended December 2010, and most seem to have found work with little problem. From 2007 until the end of 2011, legal Chinese workers increased 41 percent, while employed Moroccans and Ecuadoreans—the largest non-European immigrant groups—fell 23 percent and 52 percent, respectively, according to the labor ministry.

A primary strength of the Chinese community in Spain is its cohesion. Though no official figures exist, many Chinese in the country say a strong majority of their ranks come from one place: Qingtian County, about 300 miles south of Shanghai. That mountainous corner of Zhejiang province has little arable land, so for the last 200 years many of its people have emigrated. Qingtian folklore even holds that 18th century migrants walked across Siberia to Europe. Throughout the 20th century, Qingtian immigrants trickled into Spain, and their numbersbegan to rise in the late 1990s.

After arriving in Spain the Qingtianese began opening Chinese restaurants and small corner stores, then began importing and selling goods from their homeland. Lately they’ve started buying tapas bars catering to Spaniards, and today signs of their presence are everywhere. Many Chinese schools and cultural centers are operated by Qingtian natives. Chinese restaurants serve up the region’s cuisine, and the lingua franca in many Chinatowns in Spain is the rough Qingtian dialect. The close Chinese community helps new arrivals find work and has created informal lending groups that allow immigrants to pool capital and more easily borrow money.

Such networks helped Jin Jing and her siblings, who have been in Spain for more than two decades. They own Freebase, a clothing line designed in Spain, made in China, and sold in over 2,000 stores across Spain, including the El Corte Inglés department-store chain. In 2002, the siblings invested €60,000 in a tiny store in Madrid. Three years later they plowed €3 million into a sprawling warehouse in Cobo Calleja. In January the company bought a 113,000-square-foot textile printing factory previously owned by a Spanish company. “For the Chinese who have managed their savings, this crisis has brought a business opportunity,” says Jin’s brother Yong.

The growing Chinese presence has forced Spaniards to recognize the Chinese as customers and competitors. While many in Spain admire the can-do spirit of the newcomers, they often feel the Chinese “do not integrate and are only interested in working,” says Dan Rodríguez, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. As a result, “anti-Chinese sentiment is quite widespread,” he says.

Katia Wu, a 27-year-old clothing wholesaler and retailer in Barcelona, says she has experienced that resentment. “I have been told by Spaniards that I work too hard and steal business from the locals,” Wu says. Though Wu says business has slowed, she and her husband, Deng, opened three new shops last year. “We had a choice,” Deng says. “Slow things down or be aggressive. We decided to compete.”

The bottom line: Chinese immigrants, who have an unemployment rate of just 2.9 percent, are helping the troubled Spanish economy.

Ma is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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