Mr. Shangkong

Don't just blame pollution for the flood of fleeing expats

Money and career prospects are more likely motives for overseas employees deciding to leave the mainland than poor air quality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 9:17am


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62% (121 votes)
Career prospects
23% (44 votes)
4% (8 votes)
11% (22 votes)
Total votes: 195

I think I have read more than enough about why some expatriates have decided to leave the mainland and why now. Articles and blogs are awash with complaints pointing to the worsening air pollution as the main cause.

Does all this really suggest that the mainland is losing its attractiveness? Is air pollution really the most important reason for them to consider leaving?

The European Union's Chamber of Commerce in China recently went some way towards answering this. Air pollution in the big mainland cities such as Beijing had become a key challenge facing many multinationals in China, the chamber told the media. Apparently this was enough to prompt many expatriate departures.

I agree that environmental issues are important considerations for people in deciding where they want to work and live, but they make up just one factor. I would think employees are usually more concerned about money and career prospects.

One of the reasons for the spate of "Why I left China" headlines is that many departing employees have worked in China for several years. It is reasonable to assume they have reached the stage where they must decide on their next career move.

When multinationals decide to post someone abroad, especially when it involves some decent expatriate terms and benefits, such assignments typically last four or five years. This fits with my experience of working for a British news agency some years ago.

When these expats are away for more than four or five years, their employers will often try to "localise" them. This is partly to save costs, such as doing away with key benefits such as housing allowances.

Those who do not want to be localised usually have two options: find a new employer so they can continue their quality expat lifestyle, perhaps on an even better deal, or just pack up and go home.

In the latter case, they would be considered by their company as a local employee and thus their one-off relocation costs would usually be paid for them.

China is not what it used to be. In top-tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai, anyone who has worked there can tell you how competitive the working environment is these days. Language is another factor that may contribute to some foreign employees' decision to leave.

Many multinational corporations have increased their hiring of local bilingual talent, crimping the promotion prospects for expats.

Moreover, many Western corporations, hit badly by the global economic downturn in recent years, are naturally more hesitant to fly their staff around the world.

All these factors taken together present far more realistic concerns among foreign employees than the air pollution.

Remember the words to that song? "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." That was for New York, but I guess today if you can survive and grow in your career in China, you can also make it anywhere.

To leave or not to leave China is your call, but why you leave is more of a personal matter rather than reaching for that easy excuse about air pollution.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit