Opinion / China Watch

Why Young Expats Are Heading to China?
By Ralph Jennings (Newsweek )
Updated: 2006-05-08 11:19


Jeremy Goldkorn spent six years hanging out in Beijing, drifting from job to job. He taught English for a while. He rode his bike through Tibet. For a year he worked at Beijing Scene, an entertainment magazine, until it was shut down a year later. He bounced between Beijing and Silicon Valley for a high-tech company, until it went belly up. By 2001, he had resettled in Beijing to start a bilingual entertainment magazine, which became Time Out, but quit after nearly a year "mostly because I wanted to do my own thing," says Goldkorn, a 34 year-old South African. In 2002, Goldkorn helped start Standards Group, a Beijing advertising, Web-site and corporate video agency that now boasts lucrative blue-chip clients. "China is a superb place if you want to get your teeth into different types of creative work," he says.

Goldkorn is not the only Western drifter to make good in Beijing. China seems to be awash in expats who seem content to drift from one job to another before landing something that catches their fancy. They are taking advantage of burgeoning demand for local-hire China hands with Mandarin-language skills in entertainment, media, finance, trading and other fields. At the same time, Western firms are looking to scale back on their longstanding practice of sending highly compensated expats to China with housing allowances and hardship pay. Instead, they're turning to a labor pool of Westerners-estimated at 300,000-who have decided to settle in China, at least while the economy continues to grow and rents (one-bedroom apartments in Beijing start at $300 a month) stay cheap. "You're in a market that's growing at 10 percent a year, so there's a market here for whatever you want to do," says Kaiser Kuo, a musician and local magazine satirist who came here 10 years ago from the United States.

Until the late 1990s, China didn't let foreigners stay long-term for much more than diplomacy, university study, or pre-arranged jobs with well-established foreign organizations. In the past five years, however, Beijing has relaxed visa restrictions in order to attract foreign investment and foreign staff for Chinese companies, from airlines to English-language newspapers. China's liberalization of its so-called F visas-ostensibly for come-and-go foreign investors and company executives-has allowed more people to stay in China without formal jobs. Despite occasional rumblings of a crackdown on F-visa abuse, visa agents in Beijing say they can process the paperwork for six-month or one-year stays. Over the past five years, many cities have also scrapped rules requiring foreigners to live in designated high-end apartment complexes. As a result, the number of foreigners in China has increased fivefold, according to visa consultants and Chinese press reports. The biggest single group of expats are about 110,000 Americans, half of whom live in the two prime job centers of Beijing and Shanghai; the rest are scattered across the mainland.

Expats who speak Mandarin and offer specific technical skills are most likely to find work, according to Jim Leininger, general manager in the Beijing office of the human-resources consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide. They may land high-level finance jobs, which lack qualified Chinese applicants, or jobs in areas such as media and advertising that emphasize creativity and innovation, because the Chinese educational system has been "traditionally weak in these areas," he says. Half the foreign companies in China plan to add expatriate staff, particularly specialists and middle managers, according to a study last year by Hewitt Associates, a British human-resources consulting firm. The maxim of many of these companies is "talent first, package later," says the Hewitt report.

That's good news to people like Seattle native Perri Dong, 40, who was having trouble finding a job after the dot-com bust had put a damper on hiring in San Francisco. His wife had done some work in China, so in 2001 they made the move to Beijing. Because his wife held a stable job, Dong could afford to "put in a little bit of investment" in building connections. He wrote a cooking column for a monthly magazine and cofounded a wine and cheese tasting club in Beijing. Then in December, he got his break: the American-owned importer ASC Fine Wines hired Dong as North America brand manager in its Shanghai office. "In the end everything came together," he says, "I got a job that pays pretty well, and it's in an industry that's consistent with what I know. All the stars seem to be in alignment right now," says Dong.

Xuer Khawa Dang, 33, had good luck as well. A U.S. citizen, she moved to Beijing in 2003 because China had grabbed her attention when she joined a women's talent show in Chengdu in 2001. She worked for several Chinese and joint-venture companies, then decided to run her own business to capitalize on her familiarity with both China and the United States. Dang realized that she could profit from her passion for swimming. She had been informally buying waterproof strap-on MP3 players for friends in Beijing, so last year it hit her to ask the gear maker, California swimwear company Finis Inc., for China distribution rights. She now earns a living from MP3 player sales and tutoring four children in English. "After living in Beijing for two and a half years, I have to admit that I'm very content with the current lifestyle I have," Dang says.

First jobs often include editing for Chinese state media or a public-relations firm, processing visa applications at an embassy or doing freelance work for local magazines. Garage musicians may get a few yuan for mentoring a Chinese rock band. Other expats live in bars and out of backpacks on noncareer incomes plus savings from home. Most study Chinese in their down time. The classic starter job is teaching English, sometimes at top universities (for some 4,000 yuan per month, or about $500) but often on hourly wages at private schools that want white faces more than educators. Brian Gottlieb, 29, who moved to China in 2001 because he'd been inspired by a Chinese couple who stayed with his family in Washington, D.C., picked up whatever jobs he could find on the side, writing for local publications or copy-editing English-language documents for Chinese enterprises. After working for several traditionally autocratic Chinese companies, he took an internship with the American consultancy APCO, which led to a full-time job.

Western companies favor long-term expatriates over local Chinese for jobs that call for bilingual skills skewed toward English, cross-cultural communication ability and problem-solving instincts, said Teresa Woodland, founder of the Wudelan Partners consulting firm and a member of the board of governors of the American Chamber of Commerce in the People's Republic of China. She said local Chinese do not only always know how to talk with Western clients or have a "solution" mentality toward client queries. But Chinese hires are still cheaper. "The reason you'd want a foreigner is because they bring something different," she said. Expat hires have increased with growth of overseas firms in China's communication-intensive service sector, especially public relations, travel, moving and consulting, Woodland added. Ten percent of New York-based Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide's 120 Beijing employees are expatriates. Ogilvy hires foreigners who have found their own way to China, learned Chinese and want entry-level positions largely "because they want to be here," said Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy Public Relations China. The company still brings people into China for special expertise-the leader of its investor-relations team was brought in from the United States-but does not automatically pay them more than local-hire expatriates, he said.

The good times for expat drifters may not last forever. Chinese citizens returning from college educations overseas now have the English fluency, technical skills and low salary requirements required to fill jobs previously held by higher-paid expatriates. As with the dot-com phenom that propelled many expats here in the first place, the boom could end with a bust. For the time being, however, China is a good place to be an expat drifter.