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.


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




      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


  • 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.

      • Jon


  • 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.

        • mk

          Maybe you really do not the really situation, or official data from Chinese government misled you. At this moment, wages a PhD earned monthly who is working in east coastal area surpass Spain, no mention Polan!!!!

          • plorf

            Lol, some funny logic there. A classic case of comparing rotten apples to organic oranges. Of course a Shanghai PHD graduate earns more than a Polish cleaner, would be pretty odd otherwise.

            And nobody claimed that Chinese labour is cheap, it really isn’t. But the average salary is still very low, outsourcing it to Eastern Europe only makes sense because of the higher productivity, not because wages are low.

          • mk

            You didn’t get what I really mean. In China, income inequality is quite huge, a PhD in eastern China earn much more than a counterpart in Poland, even in Spain. On contrary, cleaners get much less paid than their West European partners. Why I know that, because my friends told me, which is more authentic than the official data. Chinese government is good at making up data in office rather than going to factories for investigation.

          • plorf

            That’s only true because of an anomaly in the Chinese system: A PhD is much more important to advance in your business career than it is anywhere in Europe, where a PhD sets you on an academic track, often involving less financially rewarding careers. Hence my comment about apples and oranges. But we can probably agree that top qualified people in China earn internationally competitive salaries, not “third-world” salaries. Even normal office salaries in Beijing or Shanghai are rapidly approaching Southern European levels, my best guess at the moment is that it’s about 30% lower still, but rapidly catching up. Beijing top graduate salaries working for international companies is almost on par with Italian graduate salaries already, though that’s comparing the top 5% to the average again.

        • Taishanese

          Well, I don’t know about Poland being 10 times higher than China, but it is still likely that China will be higher by 2050. And when I said poorer, I meant less well off than the US.

          • plorf

            Like I said, It’s a rough approximate, but a Polish workers earns around USD 1k / month, whereas in poorer provinces the minimum salary starts around 1/10th of that figure…
            My point was simply to show that China is still catching up with even most of “poor” Eastern Europe – and that the whole of China being richer than that region by 2050 is anything but guaranteed, as over-eager extrapolations of past growth trajectories have shown. Let’s not forget that Mongolia, not China was the real growth champion in the last years, though few would argue that this will continue for the next 30 years.

            I for one would be interested in why you think that China is likely to be richer than Poland by 2050. I

          • Taishanese

            Well, Poland’s per capita GDP is about 60% higher than China’s, but then you say that it’s possible that wages in Poland could be “roughly” 10 times higher than in the poor regions of China.

            But then you lamblast me when I say, in my original post, “And some of the poor working class from there could wind up in China”. And that’s who I was talking about as well, those Poles that would fare well below the Polish average.

            As far as China surpassing, Poland on a per capita basis, it is still possible. Not every Western country has a higher per capita GDP than every country in Asia, i.e., Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, etc. And those places are known to have some of the poorer working class from the West drift on through.

            For China to close a gap with a country that is only 60% higher isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Now if it was say 50 times higher, then yes, I would be extrapolating too much.

            Don’t assume every last person in the West is going to living in the best of conditions and much of the rest of the world will be mired in poverty.

          • plorf

            I think you’re confusing a couple of things here. First of all, there is only a very loose correlation between average workers salaries and GDP per capita. Wages are substantially higher in Poland than China for workers, even though GDP/capita is “only” some 50-60% higher… in terms of skilled manual labour they are actually catching up with Germany.

            And I never said that it’s impossible for China to overtake Poland on a per capita basis, to the contrary, it’s entirely possible. I was asking WHY you thought it likely to happen, so I was wondering about your reasons/thoughts. I could only guess that you view China as a dynamic, changing country whereas Eastern Europe remains where it is today, and I find that unlikely to be the case.

            And for that last assumption: never even crossed my mind, I’m well aware of rich non-Western countries, not sure where you got that one from.

          • Taishanese

            The correlation maybe loose (between wages and per capita GDP), but they are not entirely irrelevant either. Per capita GDP data is more readily available too and we both could both go down the role of wages in big cities vs poorer rural areas and having to show the level of wages in each area, etc. I’d rather not do that.

            As far as China surpassing Poland, one only look at the level of activity in Chinese construction vs other developing nations like Poland. This is not to say Poland isn’t moving ahead or catching up with Western Europe, but the level of infrastructure development in China is substantially more even on a per capita basis.

            As far as the last statement, I suppose its based on my own experience in debating this topic. So I take it back.

    • 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.


      Um apart from all that nonsense, I know that white people loves China and especially Shanghai and Beijing. Do you know walking down the streets in Shanghai is just like walking down the streets in a foreign country?

  • 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






  • Bull Winkle

    There is an exception here. Chinese do seem to worship white men & they are becoming fairly common in big cities. However, as a black man who is tall, handsome & preppy looking, I attract a lot of positive attention, far more than the average white guy. A black guy who looked more African or less gentile might face some issues but I am far more of a novelty than the ubiquitous, underqualifeid white guy walking about China. In the end, no one can tell you what your experience will be like. They only know what it’s like to be them.