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Workplace Face Off: Chinese vs. Foreign Employees

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Over the last few years, China has seen an influx of foreign talent wanting to gain experience in the world’s fastest growing economy, explore China and its culture, and take some time away from life at home, if only for a year or two. As the popularity of joining the workforce in China has increased, so has the competition for jobs between both foreigners and Chinese alike. Not only are there more and more outsiders looking to make it big in China, but more and more Chinese are educated in the West and becoming fluent in more languages, only making the job market here in China that much more competitive. Who is better off? Who has the advantage? How has it changed? And what can you do to make yourself more competitive in the ever-expanding China.


Photo: gruntzooki

How it’s changed and still changing
Foreigners who have been in China five or more years agree that the workplace landscape has changed dramatically. And as more and more companies expand in China, the need for talent who are competent in both English and Chinese is essential. Relying on your “foreign face” in modernized cities like Shanghai and Beijing won’t cut it with the real jobs. A Chinese woman, who has been working in advertising in Shanghai for over five years, said, “The platform for foreign and Chinese talent is starting to level out.” Because of the need for talent who can work in both languages, “Chinese are starting to have an advantage in that way over foreigners whose Chinese is not above a conversational level.” Particularly for those in the communications and media world, finding an entry-level or even middle management position can be tough when competing with Chinese talent.

As those looking to make it in China’s business world are struggling to compete with home-grown talent, another profession is also taking a hit: teaching. There are a lot of opportunities for foreigners in China. However, most of these opportunities are in the education arena for teachers at all levels of expertise (and the sometimes suspect “English factories”). However as competition has grown for non-teaching professionals, the result has led to increase competition for teaching jobs as well. As one teacher who has lived and been teaching in China for four years said, “There are more foreigners competing for teaching jobs – especially in the big cities like Shanghai.”

The case for the Chinese
Westerners in China are up against a large work force. With millions of graduates entering the workforce in China, it’s intimidating to think of just how many others are applying to that job you saw posted online. Not only is there the risk of not enough jobs for all of China’s workforce, but there are a few advantages that Westerners just can’t compete with.

First of all and most obvious is the issue of cheap labor. The difference in pay between Chinese and Western staff is dramatic. Where an appropriate salary for a Westerner would be 10,000 RMB a month, their Chinese equivalent could be making as little as one third of that amount. Another cost factor is that Chinese staff do not need visas paid for, housing accommodations or stipends, travel allowances or any other the other additional added costs that generally come with hiring a foreigner. Similarly, a factor in favor for Chinese is that they from China – they’re not going anywhere. While Chinese seem to jump around from job to job, they still have the advantage that they are not going to leave China at a moments notice, whereas foreign employees may seem less committed and have less incentive to stay in China.

Language abilities also come into play as an advantage for Chinese. With more and more mainland Chinese going aboard for semesters, years, or even for whole degrees, the number of Chinese with competent, near-fluent second language skills is growing. While not native, their ability to work in an environment using their first and second (or third language) is an attractive quality – especially considering how much they cost a company.

The case for the foreigner
There are a few obvious advantages that foreigners, particularly those from English-speaking countries have with the most obvious being native language abilities. No matter how long one lives in another country, it’s hard be able to write, speak and use a second language like a native speaker. This is particularly helpful in the area of English education but also in non-teaching professions – for example, a consultancy-type role. As foreign expansion in China continues to grow, there is still the need for a familiar face who knows how things run at home. And while translating and editing Chinglish can be painstaking at times, there is always a need for a native English (or other language) speaker to fill the role of polishing reports.

Another advantage for Westerners is their education background. There are apparent differences in the Chinese and Western Education system which can be especially noticeable in the workplace. Things like problem solving and critical thinking are not taught as heavily in China as in Western countries and creativity in ideas is not terribly common. So when its crunch time and your boss is asking for quick solutions or new ideas, Chinese coworkers may be struggling to come up with “outside the box” ideas while the Westerner could provide a different perspective. While one’s way of thinking and working may not be better than the other’s, it is a definite advantage to have the skills not found so readily in Chinese employees.

How to compete
A common question among foreigners is how to compete in the job market. And it is definitely different in China. It’s challenging enough to compete with people who all speak your language – but in China you’re in a much bigger pond. An important resource to take advantage of – for teachers and other professionals alike – are networking events. Many top-tier Chinese cities have at least one foreign chamber of commerce that host various events. Just as networking is crucial at home, it’s important in China as well. It’s a way to learn about new opportunities, potential employment opportunities and new business to be won. Building a strong network in your community will only benefit you.

It’s important to know your strong points and the advantages you have against local talent. While keeping an updated resume is essential, it’s also important to be well versed in your skill set. Being able to demonstrate your work experience, the results you’ve produced or the problems you’ve solved will most likely set you apart from your home-grown competition.

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72 Comments ( Add your comment )

1
comment|2846|0
me

What kind of jobs are you talking about? An appropriate salary for foreigners is 10,000RMB per MONTH?? 10k RMB/month is only 120,000 per year... less than US$18,000 per year. Even a janitor earns that annually in the US. I can't believe any college-educated foreigners would settle for that kind of salary. How can a Chinese person survive on one third that amount?

Mar 12, 2010 19:38
2
comment|27385|0
Wufnu

A janitor would earn that, or more, it's true. He also has to pay very high rent, health insurance, car payment, gas for the car, etc etc etc. Most foreigners are unburdened from that and unless we're earning more than (I think) $95000 a year, we don't have to pay taxes either. A foreigner earning $18000 a year in China can save more money than someone earning $40000 a year at home. Also, college educated doesn't mean you're going to get a good job or that your major is in high demand. In China, if your degree is in demand (mathematics, physics, economics, etc etc etc) you can work at an international school and save double what you would save in the US. 10000RMB/month is extremely low for those types of schools.

May 11, 2012 18:21
3
comment|27387|0
bartleby

you cannot imagine it? i suggest you should come to china and check out . i am a native chinese and i donot know the exact salary number which eapats will get per month, but i am do know that much more chinese people's salary is less than 3k, that is life, and it is not fair to compare with janitor who worked in your country!
welcome to china!

May 11, 2012 19:28
4
comment|27393|72676
Some sums

Here's a useful fact. I make 10,500RMB per month as a teacher in a small city (2.5millions), pay little tax and live rent free. My disposable income gives me a purchasing power 385% higher than the average Chinese and on par with Australia. Making the same money back home would mean that I would not be able to save, but here I can gave well over half of my income and have a very comfortable lifestyle. Not a bad deal at all.

May 11, 2012 20:44
5
comment|27401|74093
her

How much you can live on depends on how willing you are to eat drink like a local, or how much you need to have western goods and services. If you live like a local, you can live on next to nothing; if you need to (I also earn just a little over the ten thousand mark).

For example, I went to lunch today and got a HUGE meal in a small Chinese restaurant for twelve quai (this was the most expensive meal, in what is by no means the cheapest restaurant in my city)... then I stopped off at a shop that stocks some western products and picked up a tub of Haagen-dazs for sixty quai.

The western comfort snack cost a bomb compared to everything else, but its something I can easily afford since everything else is so cheap.

May 12, 2012 00:43
6
comment|27402|65791
aroberts42

Why are you posting here when you obviously have no idea what life is like for foreigners in China? The average pay for a foreign teacher is between 6-7,000 RMB, yes, about 1000 USD per month. I have a masters degree in English and made even less than in my first job. We know the pay is low in China compared to the US, but we aren't living in the US. Cost of living here is a fraction of what it is in the states and most foreigners come out far ahead financially by living and working here in China and making less than if they were living and working in the US and making more.

May 12, 2012 00:50
7
comment|27417|0
bartleby

where are you ? now!!

May 12, 2012 01:10
8
comment|27826|63121
Alva

I also live in China and every teacher I know earns between 10,000-12,000USD(Small cities) or up to 15,000USD per month in a bigger city...!
Of course the school pays their rent and other expenses..so that average doesnt fit with the information I have from everyone I know here...

May 19, 2012 19:01
9
comment|28642|0
Wanmei

@Wufnu:
The taxes on income in China are as follows:
Income in RMB % of Gross income to be paid (less X amt of RMB)
1 --- 499 5% - 0
500 -- 1,999 10% - 25
2,000 -- 4,999 15% - 125
5,000 - 19,999 20% - 375
20,000 - 39,999 25% - 1,375
40,000 - 59,999 30% - 3,375
60,000 - 79,999 35% - 6,375
80,000 - 99,999 40% - 10,375
100,000 45% - 15,375

**NOTE**
There is a 4,800 Yuan exemption for Expats & only a 2,000 Yuan
exemption for Chinese people before taxes on income kick in.

E.g.
An expat that earns a gross of 10,000 for the month will pay taxes on
5,200 Yuan of it; the taxes to be paid would be 665 Yuan (5,200 yuan
taxable income * 20% - 375). The expats net income would be 9,335 Yuan.

The same scenario except it is a Chinese person. Exemption of
2,000 Yuan, so the taxable income would be 8,000 Yuan. The taxes
for the Chinese person would be 1,225 Yuan (8,000 yuan taxable
income * 20% - 375). The Chinese person's net income would be
8,775 Yuan

Hope this was helpful and/or informative.

~~Wanmei

Jun 13, 2012 01:18
10
comment|2847|0
Anonymous

To "me" - Do you live and work in China? Many entry-level non-teaching positions in China are around that. Those in in the writing/communications/media industry are sometimes lower. Friends of mine who have been working 3+ years in China are making 25,000- 30,000k a month, so I guess the amount can go up after a few years working here. However, the cost of living in China is significantly lower (maybe not as much in Shanghai or Beijing). But as a laowai earning just under 10K rmb a month and living in a second-tier city, I'm able to save at least 1,000 a month. And I live quite comfortably!

Mar 12, 2010 19:51
11
comment|2848|0
Anonymous

I am from HK..... I think i am kind of in the middle of the local chinese and expat..... the average uni fresh graduate earn 10 thousands HK dollars per month.... here is just 3500 RMB per month... It is a great different... i mean it is hard to survive with 3500 RMB per month.... I am just wondering how much a HKese should ask for the salary when applying a job here.....

Mar 12, 2010 21:44
12
comment|2858|0
Nemo

To "By Me": If you are making a chinese salary but living in the US, thn you are right! But, if you are living in CHINA, then 10,000 yuan a month is GREAT unless you spend all your time eating in western restaurants, going by taxi, etc. Remeber the old adage: "It is not how much money you make, but how you manage your money."

Mar 13, 2010 23:31
13
comment|2890|0
Iancaus

Some of us have values other than $$$. What price do you place on job satisfaction, self respect and pride in accomplishment?

Mar 16, 2010 05:47
14
comment|2897|0
Anonymous

A factor in favor for Chinese is that they from China – they’re not going anywhere...

Mar 16, 2010 23:39
15
comment|2911|0
kamal das

i m kamal, from india, now i m stay in china guangzhou, last 3 years i m work in china, in export companey as a QC, agen i find good job in export companey, plz help me,

Mar 18, 2010 21:54
16
comment|27441|51210
E

oh yeah! you're the guy sorting the W's from the M's at the M&M factory!! You're doing a freaking amazing job!

May 12, 2012 06:59
17
comment|2942|0
Anonymous

Foreigners get better jobs and higher salaries because their English proficiency is higher. I teach Advanced Maths in English at university. Can a Chinese teacher do that? I doubt it. Sorry, I do think, everyone gets what he deserves. If you get 2000 yuan, it's not because you're Chinese, but because you don't have relevant skills. Besides, foreigners don't really go to those restaurants where you can eat noodles at 4 yuan per bowl. They eat in western restaurants, where a cup of coffee is 60 yuan. And there are many more examples. So, instead of moaning, study, get a PhD from an American university, get employed at Beida and get your 10 thousand yuan!

Mar 23, 2010 08:05
18
comment|27539|0
jon

I think any Chinese dude can do better math than you. You just happened to be a white guy and Chinese people like that myth white folks are competent. If you are so competent, try to teach in the US. Feel bad for Chinese people who speak 2 languages fluently but the fact that they are Chinese, they get paid less, but it's their fault, because they see themselves lower than whites. But they might have figured that out already, non of the Expat packages are high anymore as it used to be, Westerner settle for less, gap between locals are smaller and smaller.

May 14, 2012 04:06
19
comment|27827|63121
Alva

That gap is not fair but I think companies who hire foreigners take into account other skills which Chinese people will learn very soon..
Chinese education is based in a read and memorize basis, therefore any work related to analytical skills is not as well accomplished by a local as a foreigner nowadays.
This is a skill westerns learn from their childhood, and nowadays is getting better in China, future generations will be able to, but still there is lack of analytical mindsets here.
Sure, they might be good in maths, but there is a need to know how to "interpretate" those numbers, not just "creating"them.
Many Chinese are now traveling to Western countries, and studying there, at the beginning they face problems and even fail when it comes to do exams which are related to business cases, decision making, and so on..but some months later they do great.
So, for everyone, dont worry.. this gap is due to the need of a skill which is still developing in China!

May 19, 2012 19:06
20
comment|27952|0
dan

@ Alva

I agree, and it is not just skills. Work ethic is also an issue with many college leavers in China. Their parents might indeed be workaholics, but many young people do not want to work, they just want to turn up and collect a salary.
There is also a lack of basic business savvy.
Even in manufacturing there is an inability to work smarter, they just work for longer hours. I saw a recent documentary about a manufacturing company that is leaving China. One of the issues is that the UK workers were much more productive, even if more expensive.
People opened factories in China because labor was cheap, not because people worked harder. Labor in China is now 5x the cost of 10 years ago. In other industries too, the premium pay of foreigners is now a smaller premium than before.

May 23, 2012 04:48
21
comment|29244|0
just me

I liked your attitude jon. One shouldn't judge a person based on the color of skin.

Jul 05, 2012 20:21
22
comment|2982|0
Pete

As I've been advising Chinese students for years, there's no point in their going abroad and trying to find a job - for them or for us - unless they work specifically with their being Chinese as a skill in itself. Should they fail to do so they'll end up washing dishes. Were I not using my own 'foreignness' as the basis of my employment in China, I too would be washing dishes. I work in QC here, an area in which foreigners are specifically sought by importing western companies for reasons news stories make all too clear. We're out of the guanxi and other pressure loops and QC here is now big business for foreigners. That will change in due course, but not while outdated industrial practices are institutionalised. Prior to working in QC I was an English teacher and still keep in touch with that area of employment, though without any paid involvement. Shanghai is one thing, but I can assure you, beyond the attraction of a high wage in such places colleges and universities are in a greater state of crisis than they have ever been in my ten years here in seeking out foreign teachers. The campus closest to where I live is down to a single foreign teacher, I believe, and it is a foreign language college. There are many reasons for this but it underlines an old point; Shanghai is 'not China'.

Mar 25, 2010 19:38
23
comment|2986|0
Anonymous

Shanghai is the best place I've ever been to, really)))

Mar 26, 2010 08:29
24
comment|2991|0
Secrets

Well I think its alittle unfair a foreigner can earn so much more...Im a young guy dont have a full Uni degree, but i can come to China and easy make alot of money teaching. Most of the Chinese teachers know more about grammar then me at my school, but I guess i can speak better then them so we all have some skills. As for me living in China I make alot more than back in the UK, back home I could make around £20,000(200k rmb) a year but could save very little and not live a great lifestyle...whereas in China I get an apartment and 7000rmb a month, i can save over 4000rmb(£400) a month here. Sure i ride a bike or use public transport and cook myself but i did the same in the UK and saved £100/£200 a month there. So i earn double the savings working in China, just because I have blond hair and blue eyes! Great for me but i feel sorry for the Chinese some working harder than me for alot less.

Mar 27, 2010 18:26
25
comment|32586|0
juanisaac

That Chinese teachers earn less than you for doing more work is a bunch of bravo sierra. I got fed the same line as you by Chinese teachers who told me, "We poor little Chinese teachers earn so little compared to you." Then the next day I saw them drive onto campus in a new car. How does that happen? What they did not tell you was the bonuses they get for test scores, the contributions to their pension plans by the government, full summer pay, and here's the kicker- all the Chinese students they teach at home for 100 yuan per student per hour! This is how my ex-girlfriend bought her house. Thirteen students in a one hour class- you do the the math. Private summer school easily doubles their school salary. I have talked to Chinese teachers, and I talked to the head teacher trainer I once knew, and my 5,000 yuan salary per month was the median for teachers in that town. Mind you this was without the side jobs (grey income), teachers do at home. Don't feel so sorry for them next time. I have seen Chinese teachers in action during class regurgitating the whole book verbally, it's not as hard as you think.

Oct 16, 2012 18:52
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