Walking around Beijing or Shanghai these days, it’s sometimes difficult to tell you are in China. Instead of the mom and pop shops that once defined Chinese neighborhoods, you’ll now find Korean clothing boutiques, Taiwanese milk tea shops, international fast food chains, and brightly-lit sneaker stores lacking a clear national identity.

China’s largest cities are indeed international; residents who only decades ago would have been isolated from the outside world, are now often as cosmopolitan as their counterparts in other large Asian cities. They easily identify European luxury brands, contrast America’s largest cities, recount the beauty of Thailand’s beaches, and top it all off with a barely-accented “C’est la vie.”

But for all of these leaps in cosmopolitanism, there remains a tremendous lack of understanding, even among highly-educated Chinese, of fellow developing countries. Among these, Latin American countries top the list. Despite China’s rapidly increasing presence in the region, Latin America remains inaccessible to most Chinese, not only geographically, but linguistically and culturally. Even Brazil, a fellow BRICS member, is poorly understood by most.

This lack of awareness is partially attributable to the fact that extensive interaction between China and Latin America has only occurred relatively recently. While Chinese migrant populations have been present in Latin America for generations, it wasn’t until 2001, and former President Jiang Zemin’s historic visit to the region, that China’s dealings in Latin America expanded much beyond Taiwan-related political jostling.  In the past few years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica; rapidly strengthened its strategic alliance with Brazil; and invested in energy and resource-related projects throughout the region. Trade between China and Latin America exceeded $100 billion in 2009. 

But increasingly robust economic ties have done little to impact understanding among the majority of Chinese. A mere handful of Chinese academics study Latin America, and when they do, it is usually within the context of energy policy or economic development theory.

There is a general perception among observers that China is doing a much better job of understanding Latin America than Latin America is of understanding China. In Adrian Hearn and Jose Luis Leon-Marnriquez’ recently-published book, China Engages Latin America: Tracing the Trajectory, Dr. David Shambaugh argues that “compared to Beijing’s communities of Latin American experts in think tanks, universities, and government, there is a pressing need for expertise on China in Latin America.” In a report today on NPR, correspondent Juan Forero described China’s impressive “charm offensive” in Brazil, as well as its sophisticated and multilingual diplomatic corps.

There have indeed been efforts in China to address perceived cultural and linguistic deficiencies. Chinese institutions, for their part, are slowly beginning to emphasize Latin American studies. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a government-affiliated think tank, ramped up Latin America-related research in recent years, and also opened a new Center for Brazilian Studies. In addition, a few more Chinese, especially in the business world, are now studying Spanish and Portuguese.

But although China has a slight linguistic advantage, and perhaps a leg up with regard to cultural understanding, it still has a very long way to go. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Latin American Studies (CASS ILAS) scholars are well-versed in Latin American culture and history, but there are only approximately twenty-five of them and many have just begun studying the region. Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives have impressive Spanish and Portuguese skills, but their commentary on Latin America often seems limited to “white paper”-inspired platitudes. In addition, while the research and policy communities in Beijing may have an advantage over counterparts in Latin America, general Chinese and Latin American populations typically know very little about each other.

Due to the contributions of expatriate populations, hints of Latin American culture are increasingly apparent in China’s largest cities, albeit to a limited degree. In Beijing or Shanghai, one can easily satisfy a craving for Brazilian barbeque or find a fairly authentic Mexican taquería. On Beijing’s Nanluoguxiang hutong, a trendy, well-preserved Ming dynasty-era street, Chinese youth line up in the dozens in front of a churros stand. Only a few miles away in the Sanlitun district, a latin dancing club attracts hoards of smartly-dressed Chinese with polished dancing skills. But if you ask the Chinese patrons where tacos originated, or about the Latin American countries where salsa dancing is most popular, or even about the languages spoken in Latin America, the answers are generally not of the same caliber as the merengue footwork.

As China and Latin America continue to engage economically and politically, cross-cultural familiarity will be of increasing consequence for both parties. Latin America certainly lags far behind other regions in China studies, and stands to lose a great deal by misreading China’s intentions. The Asian giant has had a transformative effect on much of the region and future interactions must be considered carefully. An appreciation for China’s language and culture, as well as its global perspectives, will be invaluable to Latin American countries seeking to assert themselves as viable partners, and not simply as sources of natural resources and commodities.

As a new global player, China would also benefit from a more thorough understanding of the regions in which it is currently operating. Greater familiarity could reduce labor-related tensions, ease joint ventures, expose untapped markets, or alleviate fears of Chinese neo-colonial intentions.

With China-Latin America interaction poised to increase over the next few years, the current degree of cross-cultural understanding remains strikingly insufficient.