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  • Oct 25, 2014
  • Updated: 8:02am
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 9:17am

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


George Chen is the financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's financial industry and economic reforms since 2002. George is the author of Foreign Banks in China. He muses about the interplay between Shanghai and Hong Kong in Mr. Shangkong columns every Monday in print and online. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen

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 facebook.com/mrshangkong


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This article is now closed to comments

Pollution is pretty serious from personal experience but I don't for a moment believe any significant number of expats with their colonial lifestyle in gilded cages will leave just because of pollution.
The rise of local talent is a major factor; taking kids back for education is another; getting past their in their career peak move others. Many older ones will never make it further as they never learnt the language.
In short, China must do something to curb pollution but that will not keep expats. Don't worry about those leaving. Ignore them. They don't like it or cant make it or have other concerns anyway, so they might as well blame something.
it seems this is no longer the SCMP , rather the South China Daily with a Mainland editor who writes only about beloved China (who gives a f? adjust the website so we do not have to see that kak every day with opt out links) and this poor example of a journalist who seems to tag along.
I suggest he moves to Lanzhou to pen his misinformed trash and see how long he lasts there.
I agree Mr. Chen is bias!!! But your colonialist mentality is even worst!!! After all, you are living in a foreign land. If you do not like it, go home!!!
Although career changes undoubtedly influence where people live, you cannot deny the truth about the pollution, or are you? You seem to be in denial about pollution and other reasons people might have for wishing to leave China, such as endemic corruption and rotten governance.
Who wants to live in a city with extremely high levels of pollution? Of course pollution is a deciding factor for people leaving.
May I enquire why my earlier comments were removed?
What type of paper is the SCMP becoming?
Air quality maybe a red herring, but issues like family ties (aging parents etc.) - cost of air travel for that Christmas get-together for family of 4, SH & BJ being no longer a cheap place to eat-out, or rent, price of a maid had treble/or more, while taxi-drivers are still a pain, and average guy-in-street still barges around and are generally very rude. Corruption has got worse insofar bribes has sky rocketed! And good mistress are getting rare.
If it wasn´t for China´s severe environmental problems, I would have loved to work here in Shanghai for many more years. But with three kids, I have decided to move back to Europe after only three years in China, in spite of less favourable economic benefits back home.
But it's not 'any' excuse is it? It's a 'deciding' factor. A game changer.
Unlike this 'any' article.
As a Hong Kong company we've turned down multiple opportunities in China because of the pollution, Beijing in particular. We don't have any expats. None of my staff (or myself) want to breathe that gunk. It's lucky that our business does not depend on China at all, something that's been a positive selling point to recruiting talented staff.




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