As the job market and cost of living begin to evolve, expats are forced to decide where they can gain the best opportunities for work, schooling and their families

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/4 5:03:40

Paulina Baumert has lived in Beijing for two years and still wants to stay longer. She believes she has better career opportunities here, and she enjoys the people and places she gets to experience. Photo: Courtesy of Paulina Baumert

It was not an easy decision for Kaiser Kuo, a 50-year-old American-born Chinese, to choose to leave Beijing with his family this July after living here for over 20 years. A major factor in the decision making process was finding better education for their two children, who are 10 and 12, back in the US.

"I love Beijing deeply. I was sad to leave behind friends and an exciting life in Beijing. But we chose to leave this summer because it was a good time for my children to begin their US portion of what I hope will be a fully bicultural upbringing," said Kuo, the former head of communications of Baidu.

Like Kuo, in recent years, many foreigners have left China for reasons including the pursuit of better education for their children, a more competitive job market and the rise in cost of living.

Wall Street Journal reported in February 2015 that twice as many foreigners left China than coming to China in 2014, according to a study by UniGroup Relocation, an international relocation company based in the US. The reasons for the outflow include expiring work contracts, rising costs of living, pollution and China's plateau in growth since 2009. Americans make up the largest amount of foreigners leaving China, followed by German, Singaporean and French.

The recent exodus might indicate that China is becoming less desirable for some foreigners. However, the long-term and short-term foreigners living in Beijing, interviewed by Metropolitan, think that the time for "white face" advantage is over but China is still attractive.

Though in recent years many foreigners have left or are leaving China, some foreigners think that China is still an attractive place to live because of new job opportunities and a fast-paced, diverse life. Photo: IC

The driving forces

Kuo said that many high-profile expats like him who have left, have young children and share the same primary concerns over heath conditions and a desire for their children to be educated in Western countries.

"While Chinese elementary schools are great and give kids a solid foundation, middle and high schools (as well as university) are still better in the US. We hope the combination of the two will produce well-rounded, critical thinkers," said Kuo.

Paulina Baumert, a 28-year-old Polish woman who has been in Beijing for two years, said some of her friends are leaving due to increased living costs, lower salaries and limited job opportunities for foreigners.

"Salaries stopped growing a few years ago, but the cost of living did not, especially for international schools and private hospitals. Companies are not willing to provide housing or cover education fees for children, which are crazy expensive now. Some companies also expect foreigners to pay for their insurance, visa procedure costs and tax. For some foreigners, going back home is just cheaper," said Baumert, who now works as a marketing manager.

Besides, many Chinese are now more educated and speak English well, so the gap between foreigners and Chinese is quickly getting smaller. She thinks that foreigners should not have as many privileges and advantages as they have in the past. It should be working qualifications and experience that count, Baumert said.

"Having a 'white face' is not enough anymore. You need to be good at what you do, have good business ideas, be fluent in Chinese or have other skills that make you desirable," she said.

Richard King, senior managing director of Michael Page in North & Eastern China, an international recruitment company, told Metropolitan that if you look at the past 10 years, there has been an exodus of Western foreigners from China in recent years.

"The market in China is currently more competitive and the increased competition is coming from Chinese talent who are also vying for many of the senior roles previously occupied by expats," said King.

He said that they are seeing an increase in foreign expats coming to the end of their contracts being replaced by locally trained Chinese or Chinese with overseas education or work experience.

Attractions remain

Although many Westerners have left, King believes that for people with the right skill sets, China still presents great career opportunities.

"China remains an attractive option for foreign professionals. As an economy which has enjoyed enviable levels of growth for many years, China is still an exciting place to live and work for those who want a chance to develop their careers here," said King.

He said although growth is currently lower in areas such as manufacturing, there are still opportunities in China for skilled foreigners within high-growth areas such as technology, education, travel and leisure, as well as insurance and healthcare/life sciences.

The demand for expats has shifted toward Asian foreigners who speak both English and Chinese, such as professionals from Malaysia and Singapore, said King.

For Baumert, she does have concerns, but she still thinks China is a good place to live and wants to stay for a few years because she believes she can further her career here. She also enjoys many of the people and places she gets to experience every day.

"China is varied and develops quickly. There are different business opportunities and there is a lot of room for foreigners to grow in areas like engineering and IT," said Baumert.

While using her experience from her current marketing job, she hopes to break into Polish-Chinese business, focusing her efforts on culture and import to China.

A new way of life

Jeremiah Jenn, a Beijing-based American writer and educator, who has been living in Beijing for over 14 years, said most of his friends leave because they have children, but he still loves it here.

"I am an optimist. Some things are better than before," said Jenn.

For example, he said, the rise of WeChat and more convenient e-commerce options have made many onerous tasks like utilities, shopping and paying rent much easier. There are better international flight options, including more direct flights to the US, and the food and beverage scene in Beijing continues to improve and develop. In addition, the high-speed rail system is a marvel.

Kuo does not feel that bad about leaving because he will be back in Beijing at least three times a year.

He thinks that China is certainly still among the most interesting places on earth, and being able to witness the epochal change up close is exciting for anyone wanting a front seat for the frantic, hyper-competitive nature of life in major Chinese cities.

"For Beijing, as China's political and cultural capital, the attractions are the pace of change, which is addictive and makes places in the West feel like they're standing still, the city's odd mix of heady cosmopolitanism and quaint parochialism and the warmth, wit and humor of the Beijingers," said Kuo.

The experience Kuo cherishes the most is sitting in a café or bar and having stimulating conversations with someone knowledgeable and opinionated about a wide range of topics like politics, history, literature and technology, Kuo recalls.

"What Beijing offers in real abundance is intellectual stimulation. Beijing is full of smart people doing very interesting things," he said.

A plan for the future

According to an August report of, beginning from August 1, Guangdong Province has taken the initiative to pilot new measures to lower the threshold for foreigners to get green cards and simplify visa application procedures.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Public Security also announced that China would ease the permanent resident application process for foreigners and provide them with better services in order to attract international talent, especially highly-skilled foreigners, the Xinhua News Agency reported this February.

"I think that the ongoing simplification of the visa process is a good thing, since it is a complaint of many foreigners," said King.

"The remaining challenge for attracting foreign talent is public communication," said King. Positive information in foreign media about life, work and raising a family as an expat will make the move to China more appealing to highly-skilled professionals.

"Also, as more Chinese companies follow the trajectories of Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei in their rise on the global stage, it is likely that more foreigners will be open to working in China with these companies," said King.

As for the future, Kuo is feeling confident.

Although many of the high-profile expats have left or are leaving, China is still full of younger foreigners - people in their 20s and 30s - who are still just getting started in their professional lives. It is really just a cyclical thing, said Kuo, who now cohosts the Sinica Podcast in the US, a podcast related to China.

"People will still come, and many of those who've been in China for five or 10 years, will still be here five or 10 years hence. The fact remains that China is an intellectually compelling place," said Kuo.

"It will only grow more interesting and it will become even more important for people from abroad to strive to understand it if, as many claim, things do continue to diverge."


Newspaper headline: Are foreigners over China?

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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