• Sat
  • Aug 23, 2014
  • Updated: 1:39pm
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

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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I have been travelling to coal-fired power plants and the design institutes that build them in Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi and Sichuan over the past 2 months. There is absolutely no seriousness about reducing pollution from these plants. It's business as usual. At the plants the themes are 1. Reducing costs and 2. Speeding the construction of these new plants. Not sure how many expats want to leave China today. There will be more in the future as the single biggest source of pollution, coal-fired power stations, continues to conduct business with little regard for emissions.
Another piece of ****. Another piece of shallow article. Another mainlander imposter! Can you please bugger off, Mr Shangkong? Stop ruining SCMP.
The European Chamber of Commerce in China says pollution is almost always cited as one of the factors foreign managers leave. Whitney Foard Small loved China and her job as a regional director of communications for a top automaker. But after air pollution led to several stays in hospital and finally a written warning from her doctor telling her she needed to leave, Small packed up and left for Thailand. In doing so, the Ford Motor Company executive became another expatriate to leave China because of the country’s notoriously bad air. Other top executives whose careers would be boosted by a stint in the world’s second-largest economy and most populous consumer market are put off when considering the move.
“I actually got a written warning from my pulmonary doctor and it said you need to reconsider for your life’s sake what you’re doing and so that was it. I didn’t really have a choice, my doctor made it for me.”
Ivo Hahn, the CEO of the China office of executive search consultants Stanton Chase, said that in the last six months, air pollution has become an issue for candidates they approach.
“It pops up increasingly that people say ‘well we don’t want to move to Beijing’ or ‘I can’t convince my family to move to Beijing” he said. Two expats, one Western one an overseas Chinese, recently turned down general manager and managing director positions because of the air pollution
IMO, Mr. Chen is bias!! But what exactly is 3rd world mentality? I personally find many 1st world mentality is now becoming 4th world mentality
Expats, for Hong Kong it is normal as a place to work since Hong Kong was a colony. The Brits came for mostly good jobs. Well, we now have global businesses and working abroad become a way of life. Even that, it is not the norm that expats are the mainstream prime workers except in political or economical colonies. The coming and going of expats in Shanghai or New York City shouldn’t be more of a concern than the well-beings of the locals’. But Hong Kong still remains in a colonial mentality that the large number of expats seems normal and a large number of international schools is normal too. So, keep cool and carry on. Just as Alex Lo reminded us in one of his column – at least not to all workup if some expats decided to leave or someone wrote about it. Let’s discuss about the abnormality.
The article is correct. Expats leave China for many reasons, Pollution, career prospects, family and localisation. And if we are talking about foreign multinationals, then it is cheaper for them to employ a local than an expat - no surprise there! I've worked in in Beijing twice for local companies and left twice - as the companies went bust - another reason to leave!
Dai Muff
Congratulations. Racist article award of the week goes to ........
You argue Westerners are leaving China because they can't hack it. Meanwhile your compatriots north of the border are arguing Westerners get all the unfair breaks even in China. Guess it doesn't matter to be logical as long as the xenophobia drum is beaten loudly enough.
Really this IS a Third World mindset.
About the only cliche you missed is the one about them stealing all your women.
China's narrow mindedness and CPP indoctrinated robots are spreading to Hong Kong
Without looking at who wrote this article, it is obvious the person who wrote this article is from a 3rd world country without a brain. There are many factors why people are going back where they come from, not just the pollution. Obviosuly, there are cultural and financial considerations as well. Foreigners just have bad Chinese speaking and reading so they cannot get ahead.
This Northern Mainlander just copied from a similar article from the AFP.
George Chen is judging the expats' motives from his own perspectives, a Chinese national who grew up in China with ingrained and indoctrinated CCP mind set. One size does not fit all, this article is biased and dogmatic,
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.
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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