Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why are foreigners leaving China?

It is a fact: over the last few years, there have been more foreigners moving out of China than moving in.

The exodus of foreigners has been especially pronounced in Beijing, and even the Chinese media has reported on this (here's an English translation, and here's the original). But the situation is essentially the same all over the country: foreigners are leaving in larger numbers than they are arriving. A new study by a company which helps relocate expats has confirmed this trend, claiming that in 2014 twice as many expats left China than those who arrived.

Most of the articles covering this phenomenon, including the Wall Street Journal one linked above, note a few specific reasons behind the trend. First of all there is the dreadful air pollution, which has only worsened in the last few years, and is scaring people off. This factor looms especially big in the case of Beijing, where the air quality is way worse then it is in Southern cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen (where it's still pretty bad, by the way). Then there is the slowdown in China's economic growth and the rising productions costs, which may be pushing some multinational companies to relocate elsewhere in Asia. Finally there is the rising cost of living in China's big cities.

All of these factors seem perfectly plausible to me. Living in Beijing, I personally know people who have left due to the pollution. Costs of living have risen, especially if you want to maintain a decent lifestyle: you have to pay for expensive air purifiers to keep your flat breathable, you have to shop for imported food if you want to be certain of its safety, you have to take taxis rather than the subway in order to avoid being driven crazy by the crowds etc... Rents in the major cities are now almost as expensive as they would be in Western Europe, and healthcare at international standards costs a bomb.

I am surprised that none of the articles on the exodus of foreigners mention another obvious annoyance of life in China: the censorship of foreign websites, which has become more and more extensive over the last few years. Even though there are ways to get around the firewall (but it's getting harder), it still complicates the lives of foreign expats and serves as a constant reminder of the sort of system they are living under.

This leads me to another factor which looms big, although it isn't usually mentioned in a direct fashion: there is a distinct feeling that China is no longer as welcoming as it used to be for foreigners. This begins at the institutional level. It has become harder and harder for foreigners to receive Chinese work visas over the last few years. This is partly a matter of the rules themselves becoming tougher, and partly a result of the pre-existing rules being applied more strictly (in China one always has to look at how the rules are applied, and not just at what they say on paper).

Both international and Chinese companies are now more likely to try and recruit local talent for positions for which they previously recruited expatriates. This is partly due to the large numbers of Chinese who have returned from studying abroad and are assumed to have a good grasp of international business culture. But it is also due to how difficult it has been made to recruit foreigners. Chinese companies especially are only allowed to employ foreigners under very specific conditions which are hard to meet. And while in the past it was fairly tolerated for foreigners to work on a business or even a tourist visa, the authorities have now become stricter on this front too.

The truth is that those in power have never viewed a multicultural society or the integration of foreign immigrants as desirable goals. The presence of foreign nationals working in China is seen more as something to be tolerated if it helps the country develop. Foreigners are in China to the extent that they are needed, but they do not acquire any kind of stake in the society. If there are Chinese who are capable of doing the same jobs, then it is preferred that Chinese do them. Of course attracting talented immigrants would appear to be a hallmark of most successful modern countries, at least in the West, but as far as the current Chinese government is concerned the benefits just do not outweigh the hassle of integrating all those un-harmonious foreigners.

Receiving a permanent residence permit is extremely arduous for a foreign national, and receiving Chinese citizenship practically impossible (and not too desirable, especially since you would have to give up your own citizenship in the process). No matter what you do in China, you will eventually be confronted with the fact that you have no permanent basis to reside in the country. Visas have to be renewed at least once a year, and if you want to change occupations you will have to consider what your chances are of getting a new visa in time. Constant "visa runs" to Hong Kong are obviously not a safe and long-term solution (then again, Shanghai has just announced new rules making it easier for foreigners to get permanent residence permits. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen).

I also think that the worsening political climate is playing its part. In the old days (say the first decade of the 21st century), there was a distinct feeling among foreign residents that China was on a path towards becoming a more open and liberal kind of country, slowly but surely. With this belief in mind, people could tolerate a lot. Nowadays that feeling has basically gone, at least among those who take an interest in Chinese affairs. The current atmosphere of repression (which has caught even the odd foreigner in its net) and the mounting populistic nationalism are not exactly encouraging people to remain in the country.

All of these factors, I am convinced, are pushing people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In the long run, the loss will mostly be China's. 


Yananne said...

It doesn't sound good at all but I think the obvious point missed out here is about the US's foreign policy and the way it's pushing China in her own waters. The number of recently developed restrictive measures, rising nationalism etc is a reflection of Chinese reaction to the way the US is, in blaming China for everything that goes wrong with the world, supporting Japan, initiating the TTP which most people are very critical of. Can you expect China not to react to such bullying from another country? After all, China had been through this aggression for the most of the last century. It's time to stand back and make amends, I'd say. The US will have a new president, hopefully a much better and more positive president hopefully working for peaceful developments… by opening China to foreign workers, China is absorbing some of the world' unemployment crisis… and from what I've read in expats' forums, it's altogether a very healthy experience for both sides and we should have more of that. It should start at the conference tables and let's see some strong initiatives coming forward for a proper peace and mutually beneficial globalisation among the major countries. The alternative is a ugly, destructive and long suffering consequences of a war nobody in their sane minds would want.

Meursault said...

I don't normally give China the benefit of the doubt, but in this instance I will. The trend you are describing is very real, yet certainly not limited to China. It is an Asia wide phenomenon. In my line of work I deal daily with this. Regulations on hiring foreigners have tightened considerably in countries including Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Getting a legit foreign work visa in Thailand or Indonesia is almost impossible and comes with a ton of extra taxes and quotas to offset.

Even so-called cosmopolitan Singapore has gone down that road. Now a company has to give very good reasons to the Ministry of Manpower to hire a foreigner and the quota is a minimum of 4:1 locals to foreigners before a foreigner can be hired. International companies are moving out of Singapore as they can't hire foreigners anymore. At a more down-to-earth level restaurants close after just 6 months because they can no longer hire cheap Filipino labour and young Singaporeans won't do service jobs.

Open border policies are a uniquely western trend.

Ji Xiang said...

@Meursault: you are of course right, open border policies happen only in the West.

Having said that, there has been an actual diminution in the number of foreigners living in China, which is startling given the country's continued economic growth.

According to the article I linked, the number of foreigners living in other Asian countries is not decreasing, in spite of everything. In the case of Singapore, it must be remembered that it is a small city-state trying to protect the jobs of the locals and not make them feel like they are being overwhelmed. That obviously doesn't apply to China.

justrecently said...

which is startling given the country's continued economic growth

There may be growth, although I doubt the Chinese statistics - but creating jobs for Chinese citizens appears to come first. A lot of students seemed to aim at government jobs in the recent past, and may still do so - that's not the innovative economy & society the CCP is aiming at, and private-enterprise employment (or semi-private, or whatever) needs to be encouraged - and no matter how much in need China may become of labor (to care for the elderly, for example): there will be no migration - maybe "guest-working contracts" like in some Gulf states.

Just read an article in a German paper's online edition that finds "Epoch Times" coverage on refugees in Germany sort of problematic. I'm not trying to explain to the authors how conservative, philistine or even racist Chinese domestic media can be. In terms of imagination and intercultural knowledge, there's no such thing as a "global village".

Yananne said...

Good news about opening up PR permits to foreigners in Shanghai. I think this shrinking presence of foreign workers in China is part of the crackdown on corruption countrywide perhaps. I know that many foreigners, and perhaps a significantly large number of foreigners, have worked in China under 'business visas' as they were unable to get work permits which are very strictly classified. I was amazed at how liberal and tolerant the government and local officials were towards this practice on the whole; I guess it's mainly because the workers benefitted Chinese entrepreneurs as well as the locals. That's one thing we so love about China - its massive magnanimity towards the universal good - that which President Xi Jing Ping brought up in the British Parliament.

While the crackdown on corruption is most called for, I am wondering if the scale of it would have affected many foreigners working in China under various visas that are not work related? It's a massive country and no doubt, changes made centrally will affect anything not in line with the bureaucracy.

Global villages are signs of professionalism, progress and peace; even among the blue collar workers up. It's always reassuring to find multiracial communities wherever we are. Life would be utterly boring, perhaps unbearable, if we exist within mono-ethnic cultures only.

It's important that all countries and governments recognise that this melting pot culture is set deep in our postmodern psyche; and appreciate that the end result is not just an amazing dynamic output but also of the most selective productivity.

In retrospect, it will require that the Xi Jing Ping's government reduce the restrictions on professionals working in China and extend eligibility of work permits to professionals seeking to work in China e.g. extend the age limit to 75 since every country now expects their citizens to maximise their contribution and allow graduates to be trained on the job or open up internships. They can put more attention to vetting the prospective incomers joining their work force instead, to ensure quality, integrity and professionalism.

in the face of the humungous global and scientific projects in China's blue prints, surely China will require a massive work force in place?

Apology about the number of deletions - there ought to be an Edit command in place.

Ji Xiang said...


I don't think China lacks private enterprise nowadays. It's obvious that creating jobs for Chinese people comes first. But attracting real foreign talent doesn't mean taking jobs away from Chinese people. It means creating jobs for them too. There is no modern country which doesn't have at least some foreigners working in its major cities, and there are certain jobs that foreigners can do differently or better. I do agree that China, like most Asian countries, does not want to allow large numbers of foreigners to settle down in it permanently. If it comes to the point where they need foreigners to come and do menial jobs, they will probably use "guest-working contracts" like the Gulf states. But right now, they are making it harder for foreign professionals to even come and work temporarily in China, let alone settle down and "become Chinese" (we know that's out of the question). Ironically, the only job for which it's still easy to get a visa is teaching English.

@Anna Teoh: I've cancelled all your deletions. No worries. I really don't think denying foreigners work visas and then turning a blind eye is an example of great magnanimity. It's more an example of a system where the rules are impractical, and then everyone works outside the rules. This is designed intentionally to some extent. As long as it's convenient, the authorities will tollerate this situation. When it's not, they will suddenly crack down.

Yananne said...

They weren't denying foreigners work visa; they made certain criteria for the work visa which exclude those over 65 and those who are untrained; both of which I think are fair enough and done in consideration for the benefit of their people; as would most other countries. So I still see that when they close an eye to that rather widespread bending of the law, they're really being magnanimous to all. When I lived in China, I could find many examples of this. They do support everyone's livelihood and it's part of Chinese socialism.

Ji Xiang said...

They currently don't only deny them to those over 65 and "untrained". They deny them to anyone without a university degree and two years work experience after the end of their degree (thus preventing foreigners who got their degrees in Chinese universities from staying in the country to work, in theory). These rules are tougher then what you would find in most countries both in Asia and the West, in my opinion. It is also made very difficult for Chinese companies to employ foreigners. They have to apply for a special permit, and they have to be a certain size to get it.

FOARP said...

@Anne Teah - "the obvious point missed out here is about the US's foreign policy and the way it's pushing China in her own waters"

Which has exactly what to do with negative attitudes to foreigners in general? So, for example, the stabbing of a French man and the murder of his wife that happened in Sanlitun last year are basically the US's fault?

"It's time to stand back and make amends, I'd say"

Billions in aid, the acceptance of tens of millions of immigrants, these things are apparently not sufficient?

"by opening China to foreign workers, China is absorbing some of the world' unemployment crisis"

This is somewhat illogical. The Chinese government allows foreigners to work in China with the basic requirement that the position could not be filled any other way and it is necessary to fill the position. Foreigners are often working for foreign-invested firms that create jobs within China. As such, foreign workers in China are solving China's unemployment problems, not being accepted into China out of charity.

" I know that many foreigners, and perhaps a significantly large number of foreigners, have worked in China under 'business visas' as they were unable to get work permits which are very strictly classified. I was amazed at how liberal and tolerant the government and local officials were towards this practice on the whole; I guess it's mainly because the workers benefitted Chinese entrepreneurs as well as the locals. That's one thing we so love about China - its massive magnanimity towards the universal good - that which President Xi Jing Ping brought up in the British Parliament."

What exactly is liberal and tolerant about doing something in your own interest - and then stopping doing it the moment you were informed not to? As for "massive magnimity towards the universal good", this is deluded.


"Having said that, there has been an actual diminution in the number of foreigners living in China, which is startling given the country's continued economic growth."

What growth? By now you really have to know that the GDP growth figures should be treated with deep scepticism, not least because they do not even match the provincial ones.

"Ironically, the only job for which it's still easy to get a visa is teaching English."

Ironic, yes, surprising, no. It's one of the few things the authorities can admit to not being able to supply from their own population without a degree of loss of face.

Ji Xiang said...


I don't disagree. I think however that the downturn in the number of foreigners is only tangentially related to the slowing down of economic growth. China is still awash with cash, and its economy still produces the kind of positions which foreigners can take up. I think it's more to do with quality of life and the tightening visa policies.

FOARP said...

@Ji Xiang - certainly the turn-down may affect a certain kind of expat who came to China solely because of the economic opportunity they felt it represented (though how many of them actually ever managed to make any money is an open questions). You may of course be right that this isn't the main factor though, and these expats are, after all, only a sub-set of expats as a whole.

I've been back once every year-two years or so since leaving at the end of '07, and all I can say is that when I see the pollution, the increasing oppression (not that it was fantastically better in the Hu era, but its worse now), and what certainly feels like an increasing negativity towards foreigners (though of course I have no way of knowing whether it really has increased), every time I am more sure that I will not go back to live and work in China for the foreseeable future. Now that I am married with a kid, this is an an absolute certainty.

wukailong said...

"These rules are tougher then what you would find in most countries both in Asia and the West, in my opinion."

Er... I disagree. As someone who's worked both in China and the US (I'm currently living in the US), in both places without being a national, the visa rules in Western countries can be very harsh. Since I've helped Chinese people apply for both US and European (Schengen) visas, I know what you have to do in each case, and getting work visas in any of these places is tough, tough, tough. If you were to work on a business or tourist visa in the US and were found out, you could get deported and be banned for _life_ for making a "material misrepresentation" of your intention when visiting.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Chinese policies aren't tightening. But I think you need to look at attitudes to foreigners, on the one hand, and strengthening previously extremely lax rules on the other.

Ji Xiang said...


Don't get me wrong, I am aware that the requirements to get a visa in Western countries can be tough, at least if you come from a developing country.

It is, however, hard to compare that situation with China's one. Western countries are extremely attractive as a place to settle to people from all over the world. Most of them already have a large proportion of foreign immigrants within the country, something which at least in Europe is creating a strong backlash from the locals. Countries like the US, Britain and even other Western European countries just can't open their doors to every single person in the world who wants to move there. In many ways, it could be claimed that they are already pretty generous, taking in large numbers of refugees and allowing large numbers of foreigners to settle down and acquire citizenship. Of course, this doesn't justify the racism and the sometimes unfair rules like the one Britain has passed making it hard for foreign spouses of British citizens to move there.

China, on the other hand, is basically not such an attractive country for foreigners to move to. The proportion of foreigners remains infinitesimal. We are talking about a few hundred thousand foreign residents, in a country of 1.3 billion people. There is clearly hardly a concern of the country being overwhelmed or of jobs being "stolen" from the locals (always a fake problem in reality), or a public order problem connected with foreigners.

Of course you're right that in the US it would be much more frowned upon to work on the wrong visa, and the consequences would be more serious than they are in China. But again, this is connected with the general way the country works: in the US and in Northern European countries, the norm in such things is to follow the rules (Southern European countries are also much more lax, and in Italy you will find a wealth of Chinese businessmen doing things illegally). In China rules and regulations are less clear, there are lots of grey areas, and generally people don't do things by the book. The government tolerates it, but when they need a good reason to attack a company or individual, they can always find one. Foreigners just integrate into the kind of society they find themselves in.

There is at least one area, notably English teaching, where there is a huge demand for foreigners in China, and the difficulty of applying for a work visa means that schools will employ foreigners on a business visa. Everyone colludes in this, and it is considered practically normal, or it was until recently.

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Peter Panini said...

The US is not "bullying" China. China is stealing reefs that belong to the Philippines.

Get your facts straight, Teoh.