BEIJING—On a recent Friday night, as quick salsa rhythms poured out of Beijing's hottest Latin dance venue, owner Zhou Junyi stood at the entrance and swiveled his hips to display his skill at salsa dancing.
He quickly looked embarrassed and gave up.
"I don't understand it," he blurted out. "But it doesn't matter. I hire professionals."
While China's trade and diplomatic relations with Latin America are surging, average Chinese know little about the region. Most Chinese have difficulty naming any Latin personalities or leaders other than singer Ricky Martin and Ronaldo, the Brazilian soccer star. But a small core of government officials is orchestrating a dramatic rise in Chinese investment in the region.
Following a trip last November by President Hu Jintao to four Latin countries, China has opened the spigot to tens of billions of dollars in investment to nations such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Beijing has become an obligatory stop for Latin presidents. Last year, 49 percent of all Chinese overseas investment went to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yet China's interest isn't only trade. Chinese military officials are zipping back and forth to the region, Chinese police help keep the peace in Haiti, and Chinese diplomats are expanding their presence in Latin America.
"Presently, relations between China and Latin America are at the best of times," said Dong Jingsheng, an expert on Latin America at Beijing University. "China's economy needs the resources of Latin America, such as oil and minerals."
As China's economy opens up to the world, bits of Latin America are creeping into the nation's more cosmopolitan cities, from Brazilian barbecue restaurants to Argentine tango classes. A salsa dancing craze has also erupted.
Urban Chinese experiment with foreign leisure pursuits and foreign foods as never before.
"People prefer to enjoy foods with different flavors now," said Wang Hua, a saleswoman of imported foods, as she checked on deliveries at Churrascaria Beijing Brazil, where waiters clad in gaucho-style pants tucked into boots served barbecued meat from skewers.
Asked to name any Latin American celebrity or leader, Wang pondered long and hard. "It's very far away," she said, stymied by the question.
"I know about (retired Argentine player Diego) Maradona, the soccer star, and about Ronaldo," responded a diner, Zhou Honghong, a college librarian.
Lack of knowledge goes both ways. Chinese who venture to Latin America say they find people familiar with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—especially consumer products from those nations—but not China.
"Everybody knows Acer," said Wang Ping, a Latin American scholar at Nankai University in Tianjin, referring to the Taiwanese computer maker.
Large numbers of Chinese emigrated to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to toil in railroad and canal construction, landing in California, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru.
Curiously, as China began to open its doors to market forces in the 1980s, a murderous insurgency arose in Peru. Sendero Luminoso was fighting to install a peasant dictatorship there styled after the China of Mao Zedong. The insurgency was largely quelled by the mid-1990s after tens of thousands of Peruvians died.
Wang, an adviser to the government on Latin American affairs, said China and Latin America are so distant that little contact was even contemplated until recently.
Even today, despite the boom in commercial links, few Latin diplomats speak Chinese with fluency, operating instead in English, which all Chinese study in school.
And while several major Chinese universities—including Beijing University, Fudan University in Shanghai and Nankai University—sponsor institutes studying Latin America, their academic offerings are scant.
"Every year, there are about two or three courses on Latin America, either in history, international relations or Spanish," said Dong, the Beijing University scholar.
Barely a dozen students focus on the region each year, although with the current boom in interest, "it is very easy for them to get jobs in banks or diplomatic institutions," Dong said.
Latin American students studying in China are also rare.
"I'll tell you the truth. The professors and students think all we know how to do is to dance, drink, play soccer and mess around with women," said Erick Morales, a student at Beijing Science and Technology University from Sucre, Bolivia. "They think Bolivia is a city in Europe."
"It's worse," piped in Mariela Martinez, a fellow Bolivian. "They think it's in Africa."
Even so, Martinez, who lives in coastal Zhejiang province, said many compatriots back home ask her how they can send their children to China to study Chinese.
That's because the effect of China's economic juggernaut—and its voracious appetite for crude oil, copper, tin, bauxite, iron ore, zinc, manganese and soybeans—is rippling all the way to South America.
"China's economic growth is benefiting Latin America. The price of primary goods in Latin America is rising," Dong said.
One of the biggest beneficiaries is Chile. China became Chile's second largest trade partner last year, after the United States, as trade volume surged 52 percent to $5.5 billion. In the first five months of this year, Chile's exports to China leapt another 55.6 percent. Chile and China are now negotiating a free-trade agreement.
China is also cozying up to oil-rich Venezuela. For the first time ever, in mid-June, a tanker with 1.8 million barrels of Venezuelan fuel oil set sail for China, part of a pledge to provide it with 30,000 barrels per day. As oil prices soar, such long-distance transport has become more feasible.
The boom in Chinese activity in Latin America has caught Washington's eye.
"We will be attentive to any indication that economic collaboration will feed political relationships that could run counter to our key objectives for the region," Roger F. Noriega, the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told a House of Representatives panel in early April.
President Hu included Cuba on his four-nation tour of Latin America last November and announced sharply higher investments in Cuba's nickel sector.
But Dong, the Beijing University scholar, said China's relations with Latin America are largely oriented to trade and the need to secure raw materials.
Issues that bedevil U.S. relations with Latin America, such as drug trafficking, the fight against terrorism and threats to democratic rule, don't hinder China's ties to countries in the region, he said.
The two sides "don't have ideological clashes. There are fewer obstacles," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-LATIN
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