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Tiffany Wang

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

A 2008 expat Halloween party in Shanghai. (Jakob Montrasio/Flickr)

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 Guardian recently 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.

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Tiffany Wang

Tiffany Wang is a freelance writer and blogger based in Beijing. She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Smith College and previously served as the style editor of the Beijinger. She continues to track the progress of China's nascent fashion industry at tiffanywang.net.
  • Ben Sangree

    Nice article Tiffany!

  • Brent

    Actually Matt, its the degree of violence and mafia runned clubs and local establishments that are very dangerous to an expat’s ‘health’ as well as the bad behaviours of laowais in the past made the CCP take organized “re-evaluation” in regards to “white people.”

    • fsfsdf

      As well as Asian AMerican men such as myself who are fed up with you white pieces of shit and your white supremacism, propaganda against East Asian men, brainwashing Asian girls with Hollywood and your attitude that says you think you own Asian/Chinese women.

      You want a race war? You got one, motherfucker.

      Especially because you do your best to influence society in favor of white male Asian female but do your best to emasculate Asian men with media and make it extremely difficult for East Asian men to date and marry with myths like “low testosterone” or “small dick”. MOre like you whites have the greatest incidence of microdicks, whereas a 6.3 inch long dick like the one I possess is pretty average among not just Asians, but the entire world according to statistics. Yet you white phags always insult us in America with “small dick” first, aside from the usual “ching chong”. Seems like you whites are both homosexuals and have sucked on hundreds of millions of Asian male dicks to full erection to know that we have ‘small dicks’, and you have insecurities about your microdicks, so you do your best to project your insecurities onto others.

      http://ethnicmuse.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/east-asian-testosterone-i/

      And then you have the fucking gall to think you own Asian women and do shit like this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2jzjATPshs

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LJG6kC5Pl4&feature=youtu.be

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pB4aA4eO8wY

      We East Asian men who are fluent in our mother tongues but know you white pieces of limpdicked phaggot ass redneck western imperialist shit, inside and out, will be the ones leading the revolution to kill all of you fucks on the spot, take back the USA for native AMericans and peoples of color, and rape your white women like you rape Asian women and have raped every non-white woman on Earth int he past during western imperialism.

      An eye for an eye makes the world go blind but only if you aren’t quick enough to take both eyes of your enemy and cut their fucking head off.

      Karma will be a bitch for you whites. And the message to destroy your white privilege is already being spread around, fucker. So you better fucking watch out next time you see a Chinese Japanese or Korean guy. He might just be 黑社会 or yakuza or other East Asian mobster who grew up in the USA and knows all about you racist ass entitled white pieces of shit.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/VictimOfBoredom Matt

        Idiot.

  • China Shouts

    China has 1.4 billion people. If you know where to go, you can still fool a lot of people there. In other words, do what marketers do: Survey the market and avoid markets which are over saturated. Basic marketing principle? Market segmentation.

    All these, Americans should know only too well.

    • fsfsdf

      Asian Americans such as myself will crash your white privilege party the first chance we get. And too bad for you, motherfucker, I and others are fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and are tired of your racist bullshit especially your HOllywood propaganda war against East Asian men and anti-Chinese abusive dehumanization culture of anglo-America white supremacist birdshit limpdicked scum.

  • Paul Schoe

    Thanks Tiffany for an article that not only highlights some of the current situations but also puts it in perspective with numbers, and by not forgetting that it was quite different in China 10 to 15 years ago.

  • ya_motha

    why would “white devils” ever go to china to be maids and street vendors when their own countries are 400% richer, and would pay 400% more, and they don’t execute people for smoking pot? I highly doubt the number of white people in china is going to grow. maybe africans and afghans and other poor nationalities willing to put up with a totally corrupt legal system and no path to citizenship or basic rights. sorry sina weibo users but you’ll have to wait a couple of centuries, if not millenia.
    Last I checked China still can’t make a proper jet engine, news provider, or aircraft carrier or even a video game. how are the “white devils” supposed to get their google fix when there’s a great firewall.
    Then there’s always the possibility north korea nukes the south and china gets nuked in retaliation for supporting that god awful regime. any nuke from north korea is likely to be delivered using a chinese built airplane or missile.

    • LuwianMemories

      “Last I checked China still can’t make a proper jet engine, news provider, or aircraft carrier or even a video game. how are the “white devils” supposed to get their google fix when there’s a great firewall.”

      The jet engine and aircraft carrier will have to wait – China does invest in R and D in these fields, but it does not want to bankrupt itself like the USSR. As for news provider, that will have to wait until censorship eases up. You are, however, dead wrong about video games – look up Tencent and other Chinese companies. They make excellent video games, unless you don’t consider MMORPGs to be video games.

      As for citizenship for foreigners, China is like its East Asian neighbors. Look up how many foreigners Japan or South Korea has made citizens. Japanese even rejects their own ethnic kin from Brazil.

      And why the heck are you bringing in North Korea? If anybody nukes China, China will simply nuke back, be it North Korea or any other country. End of story.

    • Taishanese

      Well, first of all, before you get so defensive, it was a Frenchman who wrote the article about 2050 China. And while he does show “white” folks doing the manual labor, that possibility does exist. They may not come from the US, but instead poorer countries such as the Eastern European countries. And by 2050, pay in China could possibly be higher than than in Europe or Russia. And some of the poor working class from there could wind up in China.

      And 2050 is a long ways off in terms of jet engines. Not achieving that today doesn’t mean they won’t excel at it in the future (and even surpass the West).

      And whatever they can’t make, they have sufficient knowledge to be the world’s largest exporter. And they continue to grow as measured in revenue.

      And likely the Frenchman had an affinity for China and wanted to make a picture to appease the Chinese public. And while some Chinese bloggers pounced on it as just deserts for historical injustices (perceived or otherwise), a silent majority of Chinese likely were amused by it rather than feeling any sort of historical justification.

      • plorf

        Poorer Eastern European countries? China is still among the poorest countries in the world, the average Polish worker earns roughly 10 times more than a Chinese migrant worker today… and is far better educated. 2050 is indeed far away, China won’t stay where she is today, and neither will any other country… the way current Chinese kids are educated in the countryside compared to Polish kids suggests that Poland (I’m not from there by the way) will stay richer for at least another 20 years.

        • LuwianMemories

          Poland is not reflective of the entirety of Eastern Europe. It is a relatively successful country after the fall of communism in Europe. There are countries that are quite pitiful financially in that region, such as Moldova and Ukraine. Also, economic reversals can occur with any country, including Poland and China. That is why forecasting the future up to 2050 is pretty worthless in the end.

    • Chineseguy

      I love how white people are so insecure when they know they are losing power in the world, and resort to belittling China in order to protect their pathetic and frail egos.

  • Mike Lovett

    total dribble! Most foreigners are poor students/barely making ends meet? Who fed you this party line young lady?
    This piece is loaded with so much propaganda I nearly choked on the rhetoric.
    Best stick to fashion little missy and leave the real stories for the men.

  • David Patterson

    In her China pride, Tiffany, who received her education in the United States, just as China as a country has received (or stolen) most of its most of its advancements from the West, claims that life will be “fairer” when expats eat more humble pie. Hmmm. As an expat who lived in China for 10+ years, I don’t remember ever getting a fair deal in business or retail. In fact, the game was always titled in the locals’ favor, win-win being a decidedly non-Chinese concept. I suppose the Party’s “victimized” narrative has jumped the ocean to Smith College’s privileged students. Great fiction–better to live real life there and see if your generalizations are true, Tiffany.

    • Pride

      I really don’t like hearing this from a person whose ancestors were eating their own shit only a few centuries ago

    • fsfsdf

      PHaggot, you whites would NEVER HAVE INVENTED ANYTHING if you had not STOLEN ALL THE RESOURCES AND REAL-ESTATES OF NORTH AMERICA, SOUTH AMERICA, AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND, and STOLE RESOURCES FROM CHINA, JAPAN, KOREA, REST OF EAST ASIA, THE MIDDLE EAST, AFRICA during your western imperialist days.

      YOU WHITES WOULD STILL BE EATING SHIT AND DYING FROM BUBONIC PLAGUE AT 50% OF YOUR POPULATION IF YOU HAD NOT STOLEN GUNPOWDER, THE CANNON, PRINTING, PAPER, THE COMPASS, AND THE KNOWLEDGE TO BOIL WATER…. FROM CHINA.

      YOU WOULD NOT HAVE MATHEMATICS WITHOUT MUSLIM ARAB-CHINESE MATHEMATICS AND INDIAN MATHEMATICS.

      YOU WHITES WOULD NOT HAVE HUMANITARIANISM WITHOUT STEALING ALL OF CONFUCIUS’S IDEAS.

      STFU FUCKER.