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Is There An Expat Exodus in China? Not Quite…

Posted: 05/20/2014 1:19 pm

While it has died down a bit of late, there has been a lot of talk over the last few years of expatriate workers finally packing it in and heading home. Rampant pollution, questionable food quality, problematic education systems, crowded transportation, unbearable bureaucracy and more have been blamed for making China increasingly unlivable.

We wrote extensively about two relatively high-profile expats who penned “Why I’m Leaving China” articles that drew substantial attention, even among mainstream media outlets. But does perception match reality? Are expats really leaving China in droves?

An organization called SmartIntern has put together a handy infographic that says things are not as they seem. While the number of foreigners coming to China has declined, it is only very slightly. Plus, the country remains insanely popular, with Shanghai leading the way.

And if you ever question your decision to come to China (or, more likely, stay this long), you must always remind yourself that things aren’t so bad.


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  • mpwoodhead

    What proportion of ‘foreigners’ in China are Chinese born? When I fly into Beijing from Australia most of those in the foreign passport line are overseas Chinese.

    • sizuco

      Many of those are Chinese born but have since obtained American or Canadian citizenship (requiring them to give up Chinese citizenship).

  • charlesliu

    “Single Chinese Ghost Town” FTW.

    It’s very nuanced.

  • Ed Sander

    An infographic by a company that makes money from internships in China. I can imagine that they want to minimize the idea of an expat exodus for the sake of their own business. Nowhere in this infographic is the most important question answered with statistics: how many people have left in recent years and is that more than normal? Neither the number of people present at any given moment nor the number of people not coming is relevant to the question about an ‘exodus’.

    • Brandon

      Hi Ed, man behind the infographic here. Thanks for the comment. The purpose of the infographic was to paint a picture of China’s current foreign population as well as explore whether this “expat exodus” is currently happening. Unfortunately there is not a lot of current data out there showing the number of people coming to/leaving from China, but we spent hours scouring the web and the sources in the article are the best we could find. Ultimately, my conclusion is that talk of this Expat Exodus is based more on a few high profile expat exits and anecdotal observations than it is on hard data, which I think most people would agree with. However, we’ll have to wait a few years before we know for sure.

  • Clarence

    Who said there was an “expat exodus”? Nobody! Just because Mark Kitto says he’s leaving doesn’t mean everyone is. I think the writer lives a little bit too much in the Western media world and not nearly enough in China.

  • Davin Torjsen

    Neither Mark Kitto or Marc Van Chijs left anything of note behind in China. Chris D-E did, and moved elsewhere in the rest of Asia which may now look like a shrewd move, but his practice is still here and he still visits. A lot have also left at the top end in the wake of the Peter Humphreys / GSK scandals because they don’t want to get caught up or jailed because of China’s business corporate politics and I know a LOT who have quietly moved because of the pollution, but who may be elsewhere in Asia and visit China only when they have to. I also know a lot who have planned too, but have obtained more money from their employers to stay but have sent their families back home. I think its been mostly at the senior end where there has been attrition. For young guys its not a hassle, they will put up with the crap, for others with family attachments or growing business commitments elsewhere I bet they are glad to have had the option to bail. Lets face it with rubbish career prospects in the US and EU many younger and less experienced expats are stuck in this fucking shithole. Because that is what it has become and there is no mistake about that. If I could get a job in Tokyo or Singapore I’d be off too, and even cities like Manila are starting to look more appealing at least I can get some cheap beer and pussy and there’s nice beaches there. Where is there to go in Shanghai or Beijing? Zip.

  • Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    It’s hard to tell, although I do think the employment situation in Europe and the US has lead to more young expats coming to China than would otherwise have been the case. But at a more senior level it should also be noticed that hardship allowances, and some of these worth up to 30-40% of total salary are being re-introduced into many higher level expat packages just to keep them there. I also see on my travels around Asia a lot of ex-China expats now cropping in places such as Manila (big time) Surabaya (Indonesia) Singapore (esp. services) and even India (Mumbai & Chennai. Note Goa is very close to Mumbai). Not to mention engineers and designers relocating to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, KL, Jakarta and so on, although Bangkok is being looked over at present. My firm also deals with a lot of factories based in China setting up alternative operations in ASEAN especially, and a lot of the guys who set up the China plant are now moving elsewhere to do the same, but in different countries. That’s always been the case, but the China ‘experience’ and desire to stay seems to be declining from say a five year period now to just two or even less.
    So are incentives being given to get expats to stay in China? Yes, they are.

    • Brandon

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. Saigon is really starting to emerge as a destination for recent graduates, at least those of the “digital nomad” variety. I don’t think this is statistically significant (yet) but I personally know dozens of people working on their (mostly digital) businesses there. In China, or at least Beijing, there does seem to be attrition among high level salaried expats but I think recent graduates and 20-somethings are continuing to come in large numbers. Would love to see some research from Dezan on this!

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