• Mon
  • Sep 15, 2014
  • Updated: 3:49pm
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

Great article! In fact, most foreigners come to China just for the air pollution. It's my favourite thing in China.
This is a glaring example of bad journalism. Your views need to be backed up by facts, data, surveys or at least interviews. The only third-party view you cited, that of the European Union's Chamber of Commerce in China, refutes rather than supports your points.
I would daresay this article is so identical tune to China government. Don't blame governance, blame yourself, or just dream your Chinese dream.
If I'm not mistaken, I recall I read an article citing 80% of Chinese millionaires planning to immigrate aboard. Does this implies any concerns even local Chinese has over issues such as pollution, food safety, freedom of speech, medical etc etc...plus expats normally still have a root in their home countries that china no way can offer in terms if food, cultures and friends etc....honestly I worked Patti e in China for 5 to 6 years and no way I want to live their. Most or all off my chinese returnees friend from America had already returned back to US particularly when their kids starting to go high school. Same issues cited above.
George, stick to writing about financial services.
I am sorry but could Mr Chen first demonstrate that the phenomenon he is attempting to refute the explanation for is actually occurring and on what scale? Is there actually a net outflow of expats out of China? I'd like to see some data on that before we proceed.

I only see anecdotal evidence of expats leaving or threatening to leave. Whether it is because of pollution or not is yet another question. Meanwhile, I still have the impression that there are scores of expat-wannabes in Europe, the US and elsewhere who would very happily accept a multiyear posting in China.

Let Mr Chen first demonstrate that there is indeed a net outflow of expatriate workers, then we can proceed to debate the causes of such trend.
I think a word of caution is required. Using air pollution as a literary vehicle to present views on why expats are leaving China is risky. I don't really care why they are leaving, but we need to acknowledge that pollution is a serious issue for China to confront. Much damage has already been done, most visibly to water quality, and if we do not clean up now then it is future generations of Chinese that will suffer much more than a few expats.
Poddy, give it a break. Were you given an assignment from Uni to write in a certain style or do you really not love or care for China? Twoddle Poddy. Absolute Twoddle!
I'm pleased to see that finally there's an article to dispel the myth that expats' are put off by China's air pollution. I'm also pleased to see that this article didn't even give the time of day to over-hyped issues such 'human rights' and 'personal freedom' in China as reasons for expats leaving. Aren't we all sick of hearing expats making stupid excuses for leaving our Great mother country? How dare they!
George Chen's assessment is objective, free of nationalistic sentiments and propagandist agenda.
It is good to see that SCMP, with its laissez-faire Chinese editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei, can maintain such objectivity in its opinions. One only needs to Goolge his name to find what a respected editor he is.
Articles like this are testament to the great press freedom we enjoy Hong Kong. (what propaganda, what self-censorship?) This type of article will never make it to publications like 'People's Daily'- because it sounds nothing like propaganda!
It was so entirely unpredictable that this article was written by a Shanghai-bornn columnist. We need more Chinese-born columnists to join SCMP and write articles like this to keep us educated, and cleanse us of the brain-wash we get from HK's mainstream media.
With all due respect, I am an expat who worked in Hong Kong for 2 years and has been in china for 4 years now. My employers would like me to stay but since we are about to have a child we asked either to be transfer to Hong Kong or either to go back to Canada and the main reason is food safety and pollution. Sure not all expat leave for pollution reasons, but after 4-5 years is usually the time when a lot of them who arrive in their lates 20's early 30's are now about to want to have a family and yes they leave for pollution. China for its size and the size of its economy as such a low number of foreigner and their are some reasons.For example Canada as a very competitive local population but in Vancouver region, they have over 27% of their population that is Chinese, why because of quality of life it offers. Immigration of quality people is good for any country and for China too. I believe pollution does play an enormous factor in the reason why China can't retain a lot of those foreigners.
Right, Canada is much cleaner in air. HK is still less polluted than china but is still pretty bad. Have you counted how many days of blue sky here in HK? Not a lot. I presume our food is ok here. If you are a outdoor person like me, the issue in Hk is not too much you can do except hiking as our trails are not bad, thought not fantastics as we are still too crowed.




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