Working in China

Despite recent economic woes, the People's Republic remains the world’s second-largest economy, and there are still opportunities for expats looking for work in China. Expats have traditionally relocated to China to fill senior positions in international companies based in one of the major cities, have moved there to start up their own business, or go there to teach English.

A Chinese work permit is needed for expats to find work in the country. The process for acquiring a work permit for China can be complicated and is mostly handled by the hiring company.

The job market in China

Expats working in China typically fill upper management and senior level jobs in fields such as IT, human resources, finance, accounting and manufacturing. As economic dynamics have shifted, however, highly skilled expats at all levels of the corporate ladder have been seeking employment in China. As the country continues its shift towards a service and special skills economy, many expats now take jobs in sectors such as sales, marketing, engineering and banking.

The education sector continues to be the country's biggest source of employment for expats, with a significant percentage of its foreign workforce in the teaching profession. While it may once have been a relatively low-paying job, teaching English as a foreign language in China has developed to provide a respectable salary for expats with a tertiary education. It is also a means for many young expats to earn while experiencing a new country and culture.

Finding a job in China

The majority of expat jobs are found in major cities with large expat business communities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Speaking Mandarin is an advantage and is often a way to secure a high-paying job. However, many international companies use English in everyday affairs and many expats get by without Mandarin.

To balance this view, however, the majority of expats continue to be hired by international firms, and opportunities at companies that are completely Chinese-owned continue to be limited. Relocation packages are also less lucrative than they used to be, although many companies still subsidise housing costs, airfare, health insurance and some tax payments.

Many local businesses also prefer hiring Chinese candidates with overseas experience. Hiring foreign employees comes with high costs, and many initially have difficulty adjusting to the language and the culture. Furthermore, some businesses have turned to hiring middle-management level employees from places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not only do these candidates often speak English, they demand lower salaries and can often speak some Mandarin.

One way many young expat professionals have found around this is to take relatively low-paying entry positions, trading income for experience that benefits them later in their careers – in China or elsewhere.

Work culture in China

Chinese business culture is dominated by guanxi, a local concept that is a more intricate take on the Western idea of networking. Much time is devoted to cultivating and maintaining relationships, as local business people rarely do business with those they don't know and trust. 

Related to the concept of guanxi is 'saving face'. It’s important that expats always conduct themselves in a dignified manner and avoid offending or embarrassing their Chinese associates at all costs.

Integrating into Chinese corporate culture can be quite a challenge for Western expats. The language barrier, in particular, may take some adjustment, and expats would do well to at least learn some key phrases in Mandarin.

Despite the challenges, the expats that do manage to successfully find work and integrate into Chinese working life report high levels of satisfaction.

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