6 Career Obstacles For Expats Working in China

6 Career Obstacles For Expats Working in China
Aug 08, 2019 By Cian Dineen , eChinacities.com

China is generally a fantastic land of career opportunities for foreigners. With so many industries booming and new positions opening up by the day, now is a great time to forge a career in China. However, for all the career opportunities out there, there are also a number of career obstacles that all expats working in China should watch out for. Below I outline six career obstacles you might face when working in China and, most importantly, offer some guidance on how to traverse them.

xpats working in China

1. Not being able to speak Chinese

If you’re serious about a career in China, especially one in the upper management realms of a big company, you need to ask yourself if you’re willing to learn Chinese. I don’t just mean conversational Chinese. I mean Chinese where you can read, write, listen, and speak with confidence about what will likely be some very technical and specific subjects. If the answer is no, then you need to reassess your expectations of working in China.

There’s only so far a basic understanding of Chinese can get you. For some that might be enough, and that’s fine. But to reach the higher levels of business in China, you’re going to have to study regularly with a professional teacher, practice daily both in your work and personal life, and race through those HSK exams as fast as possible.

At the end of the day, the big decisions in Chinese companies are discussed and decided in Chinese. To have any sort of chance of getting a seat at that table, you need to really know your putonghua.

2. Not being willing to work overtime

Foreigners typically get an easier ride when it comes to working overtime in China. We might have to do it sometimes, and it might still be a lot more than we would ever do (especially unpaid) in our home countries, but usually our local colleagues are working longer hours than we are.

In many of the positions that foreigners usually hold, this isn’t an issue. Chinese bosses tend to be aware that they can’t push foreigners to quite the same extent, and if you don’t do the extra hours, it’s likely not going to put you at risk of losing your job in the immediate future. The issue is that those in managerial positions are 100% expected to work around the clock, basically until the job is done. If you can’t or won’t do that, you probably aren’t going to make the cut in these high up positions.

You therefore need to ask yourself how badly you want that job. How much is that career worth to you? If you want to be in with a shot, you’re going to have to start putting in the hours, just like your Chinese counterparts.

3. Nepotism

At the end of the day, sometimes it doesn’t matter how good your Chinese is or how many hours you work. Just like everywhere else in the world, nepotism is still prevalent in China’s private sector. In certain companies, bosses may hire and promote family members or even people they have vague guanxi with, such as people from the same province or university.

This is an obstacle that’s hard to overcome. There are two courses of action, although the best course may be to do neither. One is to identify the cliques and social groups and try to ingratiate yourself to them. However, despite your best efforts, as a foreigner this may not be possible. The second one is to raise the issue with the right people in management. The problem with this course of action is that it could spectacularly backfire and see you ostracized even further.

Perhaps the best way to overcome nepotism is to pour more energy into overcoming the obstacles that are within your control.

4. Managerial differences

Even if you manage to overcome all of the above obstacles and you get yourself a managerial position in China, that’s only half the battle, possibly just a quarter of it. Being a manager in China is very different to being a manager in the West. The way you deal with your staff is going to have to be different, and the way you deal with higher management is also likely to be a challenge.

You might think you have a bag full of great practices you can bring in from the West. But while some of them may well improve the company, they will only work if you have a good understanding about company and work culture China. If you want to be successful, you need to implement your ideas as part of a marriage with the existing system. Achieving that can be the fine line between getting promoted and getting effectively sidelined, eventually demoted, or worse.

5. Always having an eye on the door

One of the biggest obstacles for foreigners forging careers in China is that they do not see a long term future here — whether this is what the foreigner actually thinks or whether it’s what the company believes the foreigner thinks.

Firstly, many foreigners spend years in China before they finally accept they will be in the country long term. Some are constantly going back and forth, while others have definite plans to leave one day. The issue is that this flip-flopping and, to some extent, denial, leads to foreigners stalling their own careers. They don’t throw themselves into their careers in quite the same way as they should, be it learning the language, getting extra qualifications, doing overtime, or even going up for management positions.

Additionally, Chinese companies have come to learn that foreigners tend to have a limited shelf life. What’s the point of investing time and resources in training up and elevating a foreign member of staff if they’re just going to leave China after a couple of years?

This is something of a deeply personal issue. The best advice is just to be honest with yourself about your future in China. It might be scary to admit that you could be here for five or ten years, but if you’re only planning one or two years ahead, your overall career prospects will stall.

If you can see yourself here for the long term, what are you waiting for? Get out there and make the most of your opportunities. And while you’re at, make it clear to your company that you are investing in China. You may be surprised by how much they’re willing to invest in you.

6. The pull of family 

Even if you’ve conquered all the above obstacles and committed to a longterm future to China, things outside of your control may force your hand. Simply put, this obstacle is family. When I say family, I mean both children and parents.

First, if you have children in China, it’s not cheap to give them the sort of lifestyle you had back in the West. International school fees are enough to cripple some small nations, while commercial health insurance isn’t much better. You might reach a point where you wonder if it’s worth it, particularly if both education and healthcare are free or cheaper, and arguably better, in your home country.

On top of that, many expats at this stage in their lives have parents who are getting older. They’ll want to spend time with you and, more pressingly, their grandchildren. As your parents age, this pressure begins to feel heavier.

No matter how good a career you have, or how well your company takes care of you, if anything can make you put that all aside, it’s your children and your parents. For this last obstacle, there’s no good solution. You just have to come to a decision that you’re happy with and hope you won’t regret it down the line.

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Keywords: expats working in China career obstacles in China


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Thank you!. It's helpful.

Mar 10, 2020 11:04 Report Abuse



to Sponge_bob. I have been living in the same city for the last 3 years and a half. I was awarded by a chinese government scholarship (only chinese courses because I'm from a developed country so can't apply for a full degree program). After my studies I got a job in the same city that hired me legally/provided work visa without illegaly charging me for it. Companies/agencies dont care if I can speak chinese or not (many dont like it) they also dont like that I know about chinese culture and I have chinese law awareness or even that I have local friends. For them there's only natives and non-natives. I'm in the non native category. I'm eligible for work permit and I got it for my first job. Still 8 of 10 job offers offer me illegal work conditions and the remaining 2 offer me a way lower salary than what they advertise for inexperienced and holders of fake tesol certificates "natives" and no benefits or rights at all even if i have years of experience working with chinese children (back in my home country and in China). Chinese companies dont want you to grow with the company and you'll never have career progression (at least in the teaching ESL/EFL area).

Aug 23, 2019 23:11 Report Abuse



Interesting article

Aug 11, 2019 00:51 Report Abuse



very true

Aug 09, 2019 17:37 Report Abuse



This is very true. Especially number one.

Aug 09, 2019 06:07 Report Abuse