BEIJING — The pollution is choking, the traffic clogged, and the food scares range from toxic bean-sprouts to the use of gutter oil in restaurants. Not to mention that this one-party state has a shoddy human rights record with no free press. So why is China fast becoming one of the most desirable locations for expats to live?
The answer is money. This month, China ranked 7th in HSBC’s 2012 Expat Explorer Economics annual survey, up from 19th the previous year. The survey measured disposable income, quality of life and the challenges of raising children abroad (for which no data was provided for China), among other things, by talking to expats from four continents. Almost half of the expats surveyed came with the expectation that they would earn more in China. They weren’t disappointed. Sixty-four percent stated they saw a marked improvement in their household’s financial status after arriving in the country.
People taking note of the survey might be well-paid executives. But there are also younger expats moving to China, pushed away from home by unemployment and pulled to Asia by work and travel opportunities, combined with lower living costs. I am one of them.
In 2009 I graduated from Britain’s top post-graduate school for journalism into a recession. Jobs were hard to come by, compounded in the media by an industry in upheaval. That summer, I was offered an internship at Time Out magazine in Beijing, which I took. The decision was simple: China seemed like the future. Europe, for all its beauty, history and culture, was stuck. Unemployment was, and continues to be, desperate. It was the right decision; my internship soon became a full-time position.
I am not alone. At least four friends from the same journalism program have ended up working in China at some point over the last three years — helped, of course, by a country that continually dishes up some of the juiciest stories around.
My European friends work in architecture, nonprofits, fashion, finance and film. Bizarrely, for all its censorship, China is an environment in which creative types, from art to design, seem to thrive. Above all, China offers not only work but a chance to jump up a few career rungs in the process.
Take my former Spanish roommate (who does not want me to use his name). He arrived in Beijing from Barcelona last October after being laid off from his market-research job after six years. At 34, he decided to start over again in a country of 1.3 billion where he knew only one other person.
After a year of patchy freelance work while he lived off his savings, my friend now has a job in Shanghai at a foreign-owned company. He feels lucky: Not only has he found work but he has responsibilities he would never have been given back home. He is much better off than had he stayed in Spain, where young people in many cities have been reduced to going through public trash bins for food.
Of course, the more than one million foreigners living in China are far more varied than the well-paid executives and overqualified Europeans fleeing the recession. Traders from Africa are arriving in the southern city of Guangzhou in large numbers; many Russians work in the country’s northeast; South Koreans make up a large proportion of Beijing’s expat population. Foreigners entering China have increased by 10 percent annually since 2000, according to the vice minister of public security.
Life for European expats watching from afar as their home economies crumble is bittersweet. Miguel Espigado, a Spanish language and literature lecturer at Peking University, came to China in 2008, looking for “adventure, money, a cultural and exotic experience.” Four years later he feels he cannot return home to Spain because there would be little for him to do there.
For me, living in China is worth it for the energy, optimism and entrepreneurial spirit that comes with a growing economy. This spills into life outside work, too. For all its grit and rough edges, Beijing is on its way to becoming an international city.
Here, you can eat in fancy French restaurants or try local cuisines, such as the delicate floral flavors of southern Yunnan for as little as $8 a person. Brazilians I know shake their heads in wonder at the low crime rate. Taxis, though increasingly hard to find, remain cheap, and travel across the country — to China’s vast and fascinating hinterlands — is always a pleasure.
Today, pollution has reached the “hazardous” level. A cloak of gray smog covers the city; I can barely see across the street. For some old China hands, health compromises combined with the ever-present power of the Communist Party in daily life, is enough to make them head home. As for me, I’ll stay where the jobs are.
Photograph: Shanghai, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore