Dec 02, 2014 Translated by

Editor’s note: This article, translated from, discusses possible reasons behind the continuing decrease in foreigners choosing to live in Beijing. The article cites pollution and safety concerns as main reasons for the decline; however, it makes no mention of the increasingly tightening visa restrictions, which is certainly a contributing factor to the continuing trend.

As China’s capital, Beijing is the center for foreign embassies, news organizations, foreign companies and all kinds of international artists. Tens of thousands of foreigners have traveled to Beijing to work and live. They are affectionately called laowai by local Beijingers. As early as the reopening of the country in the 1980s, foreigners came to Beijing. Back then they were exotic, and brought different kinds of lifestyles to the city. They have been an important part of Beijing’s internationalization, helping to create international urban spaces like Sanlitun and transform formerly abandoned factories into the 798 Art District.

When looking to measure a city’s globalization by international standards, one important indicator is the frequency of cross-border population movements and the maturity of foreign communities within the cities. Beijing reportedly has 200,000 expatriates living in the city. Data shows that in September of this year, there were about 37,000 long term work visa holders. According to reports from the Beijing Exit-Entry Administration Bureau, in 2010, about 46,000 foreigners were issued a residence permit for work purposes. This number was nearly 10 percent higher than the number of foreigners with work permits in 2009, and 1.7 times higher than before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From this data, it is easy to see that the number of foreigners working in Beijing peaked around 2010 and then began to fall.

An Anxious Beijing to Departing Expats: “Please Stay, Guests from Far Away.”
Photo: Chelsea Marie Hicks

Food safety issues and pollution scare foreigners

What made foreigners begin to leave Beijing? The Beijing municipal government wanted to know the answer to this problem. Recently, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Foreign Expert Affairs met with expatriates in Beijing in an informal setting and talked with them in order to better understand foreigner’s needs in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, air pollution is the primary factor why most people consider leaving, especially for families with young children. Air pollution has also impacted the number of foreign tourists in Beijing. Food safety issues were also a concern for Beijing expats. There are frequent food safety scandals in the city. Many avoid various locally sourced products and the cost of imported food is extremely high – often two or three times the original price. Milk and eggs are difficult to keep fresh when imported. For many Beijing expats, health is an important prerequisite for career development. Many have also noticed issues with their hair and skin while living in Beijing.

Quality and cost of education is also an important issue for Beijing expats. An executive for an American company in China calculated that while his company provides an education allowance of 10,000 USD per child, the tuition for Beijing international schools has reached 200,000 Yuan per year. Therefore, about 150,000 Yuan per child must come out of his pocket every year. This depletes his overseas allowance from their companies as well. He said that expats with children may as well return to the US to work because there is free and relatively high quality public education. In addition, Beijing has a lack of medical resources and bad traffic conditions. These are other areas that need improvement.

International giants on the move to Shanghai?

During this year’s APEC meeting, foreign dignitaries were greeted with the folk song, “Please stay, guests from far away.” This sentiment from the Beijing Municipal Government is sincere. Beijing fears that the accelerated departure of foreigners will undermine the city’s international competiveness. For example, many of the world’s top 500 companies may in the future move to Beijing’s rival city Shanghai. There are numerous reasons behind the threats to Beijing’s internationalization including environmental issues and pollution, food safety and uneven basic education. These issues do not just affect foreigners but are also a problem for every Beijing citizen. The city has rapidly developed over thirty years and many issues have been neglected for the sake of efficiency. Perhaps the government had anticipated these stumbling blocks on the road to development, but did not expect to have to face them so soon.


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Keywords: decline in foreigners in Beijing Foreigners leaving Beijing

56 Comments Add your comment



All countries and communities have idiosyncratic names for people not indigenous to that area. If you want to be part of the local community then you must accept their customs, manners and habits I am Caucasian and will never be mistaken for a local. If people want to refer to me as laowei I am not offended but I sometimes (tongue in cheek) point out that I am not Laowai, I am English, therefore cannot be a foreigner. it usually starts the confusion which leads on to a good humored debate. To me Laowai does not mean alien or foreigner, it means different and yes I am different If you don't want to be a lao wai the answer is simple, go back where you came from and get a life.

Dec 04, 2014 00:00 Report Abuse



I think the answer to "Why are foreigners leaving?" is quite easy to answer. During the APEC meeting, the pollution was cut down to impress those world leaders. When they left, it's back to smog city. Chinese leaders in Beijing are snakes and don't know how to create long-term effective solutions. Foreigners who live in Beijing know the truth and all one has to do is look out the window. China needs to slow down its rate of "development" soon or there may be nothing left to develop in 50 years.

Dec 02, 2014 01:20 Report Abuse



Over time this will have more effect, but perhaps indoctrinate the younger crowd into having better manners and practice good behavior (and encourage the older crowd)? I know some expats get the vibe that Beijing is too gritty and nobody is nice.

Dec 02, 2014 04:21 Report Abuse




Dec 02, 2014 07:24 Report Abuse



I am always amazed how people who explicitly express their intolerance/disdain of other than their own point of view ('Those who are here for the "love of China" are a bit nut and have some psychological problems') are complaining about China intolerance ... To be fair this particular message just shows the writer intolerance towards other opinions - no complaints included here :)

Dec 04, 2014 12:33 Report Abuse



im a negro & i had no problems

Jan 05, 2015 01:00 Report Abuse



Facepalmingly ignorant. If you want people to stay, you might want to actually understand them. Non-Chinese are not all members of an amorphous, homogenous group, all from the same country (waiguo), with the same interests, cultural background, and views. Refusal to allow integration into society, due to entrenched xenophobia and a constant "Us" vs. "Them" mentality can go a long way to making people not want to stay. It's not really likely you'll put down roots in a place that constantly sees you as "One of those people". Also, kinda doubt your sincerity when you claim that the racial slur used against a group of people is "affectionate".

Dec 02, 2014 08:20 Report Abuse



It's not affectionate, you are right. Through my personal experience, the word in its simplest form basically means "the person who does not belong here." It depends on the user, the tone and the context etc. But on a neutral note it is like being constantly reminded 100 times a day that you are not from China. Not a great way to go about making foreigners feel welcome. You will notice that when THEY are being affectionate they will address you the same as other Chinese with "xian sheng" or "xiao jie"... or "wai guo peng you" to be nice and polite. They know the difference. Even the cab drivers, waitresses... they know.

Dec 02, 2014 12:19 Report Abuse



Along your own thinking 'laowai' is not a 'racial slur' because it can be used against many different races of foreigners.

Dec 03, 2014 10:53 Report Abuse



It actually is a racial slur - In the context that it is used to discriminate against every race of person that is not belonging to the 中华民族 (any different ethnicity outside of the ones that are said to make up Chinese civilization). You may be accustomed to a racial slur being a very specific one, making the distinction to a specific race, with an emphasis on negativity. In this circumstance , "Laowai" is the same thing, but in the reverse sense. They don't look at what you are and ascribe feelings to you for it- they look at what you are NOT, and ascribe such feelings. The term "Lao Wai" is used to distinguish all people who are not a specific group of people, in this case "The Chinese people." It is because of what you are not, that you are deserving of this special term and the treatments and thoughts people have associated with it. The emphasis on ”Lao Wai“ as a racial term can be seen in the example of how foreigners having Chinese ancestry are treated. Since they are seen as being Chinese, or having Chinese characteristics, they deserve a name that is outside the range of "Lao Wai." For Chinese who are born in other countries, they are seldom referred to as a Lao Wai, and instead referred to as "overseas Chinese", "China bridges" "later-generation Chinese" or in the case of being American-Chinese, they'll call them Mei Ji Hua Ren (美籍华人)。 Obviously, having Chinese ancestry puts you in a lot better place terminologically speaking.

Dec 03, 2014 14:31 Report Abuse



That one "guest" tried escaping the racism tag by playing the card that Chinese are equal to everybody in their usage of "Lao Wai" (Basically being racist against everybody but themselves, so that cannot classify as racism. How delightful, no? ) The concept is definitely racially influenced though - but in a reverse order from what you traditionally think of as racism (Instead of saying, if you are X, then you are a ____(Racial slur here) Chinese say If you are NOT ______ (race term here, which would be an ethnicity of China) , then you are a Laowai. Their statement is racially based and is as exclusive as traditional forms of racism are, it just reverses the order. Erthioso mentioned Xenophobia, which I think indeed is the most correct word in this case. I'd like to still argue for the word racism too, though, because Xenophobia in its basic form is also racism. China, being an non-integrated society, requires the two to overlap at a point, both sharing a middle point but each having a different emphasis. Xenophobes here are racist while being xenophobic. Are they racist because they are xenophobic, or xenophobic because they are racist? Or am I simply repeating the same question twice in different words? I'd say for all the Chinese that I met that were not xenophobic, they were also not racist, and that for the ones that I met that were xenophobic, they were definitely racist at the same time. I think with China, these two words tend to mean the same thing. Thoughts ?

Dec 03, 2014 14:57 Report Abuse



So what about Chinese people being called chinese and getting that despised look we get on other countries? I was born and rise outside of China, I'm already the third generation of my family and growing up was a hard, feeling excluded with the "local" people. Even though I consider myself more local than Chinese because being the 3rd Genereation i didn't get as much chinese background as my parents did, I couldn't even speak Cantonese. But don't get me wrong, I'm not in for calling everybody "Laowai' either, everybody got their own name. The thing is that some "Expats" think it's in a bad way. Maybe some of them do make it sound in a bad way but I'm pretty sure that "Laowai" was doing something weird or inappropriate。 However not all of them mean it in a bad way, I believe some are just saying it in a curious way remember China is populated by a lot of farmers, even in big cities, and seeing a "Laowai" is like seeing something rare for them, but others they are not so amaze by seeing "Laowais", it's like anybody else in the metro, but cannot ignore that there's a "Laowai" standing there. One thing I've learnt is that it's all about the way they say it. I don't mind my friends calling me Chinese, I find it ok hearing it from them because they don't mean it in a bad or derogatory way. And saying "Laowai" is the easiest and fastest way to referred to a non-chinese looking person, because it's all about the outside looking. In your own country you will automatically think a chinese looking person is chinese and you will never think that Foreign looking guy was in fact born in China.

Dec 03, 2014 23:06 Report Abuse



Nah, I was calling Mateusz out on his BS - he always says that when he is making a claim against "Chinese" people it is not racist, because Chinese people have many different races. By that logic, Laowai is not racist either because Laowai have many different races. Not claiming anything, I am just calling him out on his BS. I agree with you, but Mateusz loves to claim that you can't be racist against Chinese people, and by his logic your reduction of why Laowai is a racial slur doesn't fit.

Dec 04, 2014 08:58 Report Abuse



It's a shame that you get lumped in with those that don't know how to behave.

Dec 04, 2014 10:26 Report Abuse



Theoretically it could, but it's not. It's used regardless of "foreigner" (in the sense of nationality), and instead, based on looks. Whenever I've seen Chinese people use the word, they always have used it when seeing a person's physical appearance, never asking to see their passport first. Also, when children point and shout, "Laowai!" just what race is the target?

Dec 04, 2014 10:48 Report Abuse



I fail to understand this 'laowai evergreen' obviously preferred by many contributors of this forum as it appears again and again. The only explanation I can think of is that majority of these contributors mother language is English and they mostly travelled just to English speaking countries. My job took me to more countries than I would like to and so far my experience is that nearly everywhere the people distinguish between 'locals' and 'others'. There are probably different reasons for doing it in different places but it looks to be very common and widespread phenomenon over all races and nations in the world. Even if the person is not distinguishable by appearance so after opening mouth and having 'foreign' accent you are immediately singled out. I do not say it is good and I do not say it's bad - it just basically happens almost everywhere. But for some strange reason it's interpreted here, in China, as xenophobia and/or racism. I think if the Chinese person in here wants to act as racist so Chinese language offers many more 'appropriate' words to describe foreigner than apparently very neutral word 'laowai' (on top of that word carrying the appreciation part 'lao'). But I still fail to understand what is the problem? If some non Asian likes to settle in China so it's possible. If that person strives hard to learn the language well, understand and appreciate local people values and life approach, so such a person should not have a problem to live here the happy life. If such person wants to become indistinguishable from the locals so it's simply not physically possible (exactly as the Asian will be also for the first glance different in predominantly Caucasian society). Any complaints about this should not be addressed to any person (or nation ...) but to the nature (or appropriate god(s) - everyone personal preference ;) ). But being different does not immediately mean being better or being worse. This especially in China where foreigners are usually facing 'preferential' treatment ... One of my friend is saying: 'You may not be able to influence what the other people say but you may choose the way how you handle it'. In other words you may decide if you feel annoyed by others calling you 'laowai' or if you see it as very normal way of addressing foreigners in China.

Dec 04, 2014 13:01 Report Abuse



No, you weren't. You were making an attempt, but failed. You think you know so much about what I love, and my preferences, yet, fail to grasp the basics of words. I'll try to simplify it again for you. "Laowai" is a racial slur, as it is not in relation to countries. If it was, then Chinese people would not use it until they knew someone's citizenship, yet, that's not the case. It's not by "my" logic. It's by logic.

Dec 04, 2014 20:36 Report Abuse



Hi, What I can't understand is why someone will call out the word Laowai (say, when you walk into a shop)and everyone else hangs their head down as if they are embarrassed.Worst of all some students say it when you aren't looking directly at them Fine to say (maybe) "Laowai hello!". Why not say "Weiguo ren"...foreigner not "Old foreigner!" I just don't get the way that it is used that eggs me.It just sounds dodgy to me. BTW, an old lady in a village shop said weiguo ren to the shopkeeper, I even heard two young boys say weiguoren to each other. Why do foreigners say it, particularly when they don't even know you? Maybe I should dye my hair or get a wig!

Dec 09, 2014 12:59 Report Abuse



@gouxiong Why my students were embarrassed when somebody would say "laowai" within my hearing range ? Or why colleagues are embarrassed too in the same situation ? Why my in-laws looks ashamed and terrible when people starts to say it with stupid remarks when we are just walking together in a park ? Really no connotation and context with that word ?

Dec 09, 2014 17:01 Report Abuse



Exactly, why is it some say it is a kind of affection, but all seem embarrassed when someone yells it. I have been in China for over seven years, but I can not understand why people have to say it the way they do!? Seven years ago I never heard it said, it only seems like the last couple of years. I'm very confused, it is easier to learn Hanzi than to understand what the meaning of Laowai is. BTW all the foreigners that say it should just stfu!

Dec 09, 2014 20:07 Report Abuse



May be it has no connection with the words meaning but rather with the way how they are used. Shouting on somebody on the street that he/she is Chinese/American/foreigner is certainly not considered a proper behaviour in China despite of its frequent happening. Nevertheless if you would ask your colleagues if they use the word 'laowai' when they tell their friends the story of having the dinner with you (for sake of example) so you may get different reply than you apparently expect ... But honestly - it's absolutely OK with me if anybody chooses to get offended by being called laowai or even being called by her/his own name. I just wonder why the person selects such a 'masochistic' behaviour but I fully respect every person free selection as long as it's legal ...

Dec 10, 2014 09:21 Report Abuse



Romans, not "every white native Europeans [sic]" used "barbarian", meaning "hairy person", to describe non-Romans. Compared to Asians, most Europeans are barbarians, in the original sense of the word.

Dec 20, 2014 17:12 Report Abuse



The races being targeted by the moniker of "Lao Wai" are the races that do not fit the qualifier category of the "中华民族“(zhonghua minzu), or the ethnic peoples of China. I believe the number is 56, but I can't remember if that figure is only inclusive of minorities, or if it accounts for that of Han as well. <p> <p>The common experience tells us that the statement of "Lao Wai" is deductive based on race - as soon as you are seen to have skin that is not yellow and hair that is not black, you are immediately determined to be a Laowai. (For Non-Chinese, that are also eastern asians however, usually there is a need to hear them speak language before judgement can be made.) </p> If the government offered citizenship in any significant capacity to foreign nationals, that would perhaps initiate a change. But in a racially mono-pole society, anybody not possessing characteristics of those races in that society will be seen as a foreigner. This is the reality of the closed society model. </p> <p>Lao Wai as a term is is the product of deductive reasoning, the premises of which are exclusive. Let's make an example. Assuming a situation in which there is no communication occurring between the Chinese and the Foreigner in question (so we cannot use language to determine between people) Such a situation may look like: <p> 1. We Chinese are yellow people. (黄种人) 2. He is not yellow. therefore, 4. He is a laowai. In any case where the person was yellow, like Japanese or Korean - in the silent scenario with no linguistic interaction, most Chinese would not determine that person to be a Lao Wai. They wouldn't whisper as soon as that person got on the train "hey look, Lao Wai!" because they couldn't determine the difference, based off of appearance (aka race). There would be no racially visible clues to give them that judgement in other words. Lao Wai is not being used to refer to what specific race you are - but it is referring to what race you are NOT. It is therefore racially based, it is just not specific to any single race. This may be a very historical concept for Chinese. In all of ancient dynastic China, anybody of an outsider status was seen to be a barbarian. The very insulting term of barbarian has disappeared thankfully, but it has been replaced by a counterpart that doesn't seem much better. That counterpart apparently just means "foreigner" yet it performs the same dividing function of the old term. Differentiating between "US" and "THEM." This is not a very appealing quality to possess in the modern world, though. You may argue that it is purely a political word differentiating countries of origin (xenophobia) instead of a racial based one. However, in China, nationality is very close to race. The boundaries between race and nationality are very blured, if you belong to a race within the Chinese cultural system. On the other hand, if you don't, then the line is clearly very separate.</p> <p>Look at any political speech that has been broadcast in China in all of modern history. Look at the basis of their foreign policy right now. It is always related to the Zhong Hua Min Zu. Nationality and race are very closely linked concepts in closed societies. In a closed society, it is easy to determine who is Chinese and who isn't primarily according to racial differences. A person exhibiting any racial difference will be seen as an outsider. This is why Lao Wai is a xenophobic term, but is also inseparable from the racial component.

Dec 21, 2014 20:15 Report Abuse



RIGHT. In the states if I were to call someone a foreigner my parents or brothers and sisters would turn to me and correct me right away. i dislike being called laowai. but instead of wasting good energy i just tell them bu shi. wo shi wai xing ren.

Mar 12, 2016 12:00 Report Abuse



If you want foreigners to stay be nice to them. With the terrible air, food concerns, etc. rude people are yet another reason why people leave. People from Beijing shouldn't be allowed out if the country in my opinion. If you hate foreigners stay in China. I usually don't go to restaurants due to the gutter oil situation, but Saturday I had some time. The locals at the next table were of course talking about the lao wai. It was so funny people the middle school boy was eating with his mouth open. I covered my eyes and the boy became so embarrassed. He was shy for the rest of his meal. He and his mother ordered enough food dr ten people. I guess people were supposed to be impressed by them wasting food.

Dec 02, 2014 10:28 Report Abuse