The Blog

The Decline of the Expat: Foreigners in China Proliferate, But Become Less Special

In recent months, the "China expat" has been making international headlines. Several longtime residents of China announced their intention to leave on public forums, explaining that living in China was not only hazardous to their health, but worse, an alienating experience.

Tiffany Wang is a contributor at Tea Leaf Nation.

In recent months, the "China expat" has been making international headlines. Several longtime residents of China announced their intention to leave on public forums, explaining that living in China was not only hazardous to their health, but worse, an alienating experience.

However, their much-publicized exits seem to be the anomaly, not the trend. The Shanghai Daily reported that Shanghai's expat population now exceeds 173,000 - a 6.7% increase from 2011. What's more, that figure only accounts for a quarter of the total number of foreign residents currently residing in mainland China.

The rise of the expat

China's expat population has grown every year since 2000; in 2004, the government even introduced a green card system allowing foreign citizens to gain permanent residency. Before then, newcomers arrived in China to find a world stringently guarded against the outside. These early expats were the pioneers, the ones willing to carve out a life for themselves in cities bereft of cheese, English signage and sit-down toilets. Local food was dirt-cheap, and Western fare impossible to find outside of hotels. Instead of streets clogged with cars, dusty bicycles reigned supreme. Meanwhile, anyone with a white face and/or foreign passport was associated with wealth and prestige, regardless of their actual status.

Mark Kitto - a Welshman who has spent the last 16 years of his life in China, and whose exit set off the aforementioned spate of farewell letters in the Sinophile blogosphere - puts it best: "When I arrived in Beijing [in the mid-'80s], China was communist ... The basic necessities of life: food, drink, clothes and a bicycle, cost peanuts. We lived like kings - or we would have if there had been anything regal to spend our money on."

A changing climate

Life changed dramatically in the last decade, however, at least in China's major metropolises. These days, expats are practically spoiled for options, from Western grocery stores to pubs, international fast-fashion retailers to luxury brands, Burger King to Michelin-starred restaurants. Part of this can be attributed to the influx of expats, with local businesses adapting their offerings to keep up with demand, and part to expats themselves opening up restaurants, bars and boutiques that cater to foreign tastes.

But far more significantly, the market has been redefined by a burgeoning Chinese urban middle class with more spending power. In an interview with CNN Money, consultant Helen Wang notes: "The Chinese are shopping a lot more. Retail is booming like a wildfire in China. There are a lot more consumers and they are demanding a lot more services." This domestic growth, coupled with the economic downturn in America and Europe, has many Western companies expanding across the mainland, looking towards China to fill the gap.

At the same time, even more expats are flocking to China. Expat Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, explains: "[Besides] well-paid executives ... there are also younger expats [who have been] pushed away from home by unemployment and pulled to Asia by work and travel opportunities, combined with lower living costs."

Shifting roles

What does this mean for China's expats? First off, they are less and less a novelty. Once upon a time, they were asked to pose for photos wherever they went. While this is still true in most areas, they are now hardly given a second glance in the trendier areas of big cities. With more of them around, expats have been demystified - and more opportunities for interaction have perhaps led local Chinese to a startling revelation: that many foreigners are poor students, or are struggling to make ends meet, while China's middle class is only growing more and more wealthy.

If "laowai" (a colloquial Chinese term for foreigners) are no longer assumed to be rich, of course they will be entitled to fewer privileges. In July 2010, China-based journalist Mitch Moxley wrote an article called "Rent a White Guy" for The Atlantic about his experience as a fake businessman in a third-tier city in China, where the "only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit."

Is this sort of scenario still possible? Absolutely. Will it be in another ten years? Probably not. At China's current rate of growth - The Guardianrecently cited a U.S. Intelligence report that predicts China will be the largest economic power by 2030 - local Chinese will have plenty of rich people among them. Its urban areas will likely become less and less affordable for the young foreign college grads who have been drawn to China in recent years. (2009 already saw a 25% jump in housing prices in Beijing.)

Bloomberg Businessweek writer Shaun Rein cautioned, "[foreigners] need to remember that operating a business here is not easy, and they need to be patient. China is no longer a cheap place to do business, and competition from domestic companies is fierce."

Exploring the fears surrounding this shift, French expat Benoit Cezard released a photo series, "China 2050," that reimagines expats as construction workers, maids and street vendors, taking on the roles traditionally filled by China's devastatingly poor migrant worker population.

Most telling are Chinese netizens' reactions to the pictures, which have since gone viral. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, @六耳猕猴在北京 said: "By 2050, China will be the economic superpower. The white devils who come to China will have to take on the low-paying positions. If only I could see this happen in my lifetime." @陈大瓏琦 commented: "This is a reminder to white people what the consequences of high welfare and complacency are." It's worth noting these commenters both conflate being foreign in China with being white; China's resident foreigners are more diverse than that.

While the expat underclass that Cezard imagines is an extreme rendition, he does make one important point: that the influence of expats is waning as China's world status grows. Does this mean that fewer opportunities will be available to them? Certainly, they will no longer be able to rely on their "exotic" looks to land a job. But an increasingly powerful China will continue attracting expats, who will simply have to adapt and face new challenges. And while that will make life less "interesting" for expats, it will also make life more fair.