On the “exodus of expats from China”

The debate initiated by Mark Kitto’s article for Prospect Magazine, “You will never be Chinese”, is showing little sign of dying down. Over the last couple of months we have seen more articles by well known expats explaining why they too are leaving the Middle Kingdom and replies by other expats explaining why they are staying put. There have even been articles in the New York Times and other important publications wondering if an exodus of foreigners from China is afoot.

As a foreigner who has lived in China for four years, I would like to use this space to contribute to the debate. First of all, I recognize that China is certainly no place for the faint-hearted (unless you are a Chinese with a faint heart and no means to go abroad, in which case you just have to put up with things). It is an overcrowded developing country whose society is changing extremely fast, with all sorts of unresolved issues. For those of us who are used to the comforts of places like Europe, North America or Japan, Chinese daily life can feel rough and unsafe. If you are a manager on a full expat package with a villa in Shunyi, a cook and a driver, you may be able to bypass many of the worst aspects of life in China. For the rest of us, life can be tough.

In the big Chinese cities where most of the foreigners live the air is extremely polluted, and Beijing is among the worst places. Streets can be filthy and full of litter. Hygienic standards in restaurants can be catastrophic. The traffic is unruly and congested. Public transport is also often packed to breaking point. Things don’t always work fast and well. People spitting on the street, children with split trousers doing their business wherever they want and other such unhygienic habits are still widespread. Standards of work and of service can be low. Estate agents and others who you do business with are not always honest and straightforward. Rules and regulations can be unclear and appear to change at random. Not everyone has had the chance to receive a decent education (although actual illiteracy is rare). Certain important foreign internet sites are inaccessible. And the list could go on.

While all these issues are undeniable and eventually test one’s patience, it must be remembered that many of these problems are by no means limited to China. Western expats in other developing countries often have similar complaints. I once had the opportunity to spend a few months in Cairo, Egypt. In my experience expats in Cairo complain about the locals and the living conditions with far more passion than the ones in China.

Just like Beijing and many other Chinese cities, Cairo is polluted, overcrowded and dirty. Many things work slowly and badly, and construction is shoddy. The traffic is unruly to a point where it makes Chinese drivers seem extremely law-abiding. Crossing certain streets in Cairo is a terrifying ordeal, in comparison to which negotiating any chaotic crossroad in Beijing seems like nothing. Eating in cheap Cairene restaurants is also a sure recipe for food poisoning in the long term.

Foreign women in Cairo complain about being hassled by local men on the street, even when they are doing their best to “dress modestly”. You can’t walk around the center of the city without people pestering you in order to sell you stuff, something which rarely happens in Beijing. Corruption is also rampant, and the rule of law is shaky to say the least. Meaningful interaction between expats and locals seemed to be even more limited than in China, at least from what I could tell in the relatively brief time I spent there. Nationalism was widespread, and it didn’t seem to be possible to have a rational discussion on Egypt’s problems with many of the locals.

I do not know if and how Cairo will change in the wake of the recent upheavals there, but the point is another: some of the reasons expats give for disliking China, or wanting to leave, would probably not change if they were living in Egypt, India or Vietnam. Pollution, corruption and chaotic, overcrowded cities are in common to lots of places in the developing world. And China is indeed still a developing country, as the Chinese government press loves to remind us. According to IMF statistics for 2011, China came 92nd out of 183 countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity). This means that it came just behind Ecuador and East Timor, and far behind countries like Iran, Brazil and Mexico.

Of course, this cannot be used as an excuse for all that is wrong with China, just as the country’s huge population cannot either. But you might wish to consider if it isn’t a bit unreasonable to move to a place like China and expect life here to measure up to life in the US or Germany. It doesn’t and it won’t for a long time, and there is precious little you can do about it.

It also seems to me that many long-term expats in China become so frustrated with their surroundings that they are no longer able to recognize some of the perks of life in China, for instance the fact that Chinese cities remain eminently safe to walk around in late at night, in contrast to many other cities around the world.

I realize that some of the complaints people have about China are more specific to the Middle Kingdom, for instance the extreme materialism and individualism which seems to have taken hold of urban China, the education system based on rote learning and geared towards exam taking, and the insular outlook which means that foreigners are always seen as nothing more than guests, no matter how long they stay in the country. Foreigners living in Japan and other East Asian countries also tend to note a similar insularity in the locals’ outlook, so perhaps this last problem is also not limited to China.

In any case, I have no doubt that the predictions of a major exodus of foreigners from China are wrong. There will not be one as long as the country has jobs and business opportunities to offer for foreigners. As frustrating as China may be, migratory trends will always be determined first of all by economic opportunity.