Editor’s note: This article, translated from Wenxuecity.com, 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.
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
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I left Beijing for very simple reasons. 1. it has the worst air i have ever seen in my life 2. It is a cesspool of filthy assholes 3. It is way over populated 4. And for things I won't bother wasting my time writing here. I now live in a much smaller city down south with TREES! remember that? foliage. yea and fresh mountain waters. i'd rather live in my hometown than Beijing and I hate my hometown. by the way Foreign devil is a name I chose because I love to ridicule those with small minds who love to rip on people just because they are different. in fact the truth is that we are all of the same blood. human is human. get over it and move on
Mar 12, 2016 12:05 Report Abuse
Foreigners have a hard time with all the internet censorship. Basically my life is build around google-mail, google-maps, google-translate, facebook, dropbox, youtube, etc. So once I am in China, these are all blocked for me and I am completely lost (except if I pay for a VPN, which also doesn't usually work as imagined). Chinese authorities cannot whine about foreigners leaving while at the same time making their lives extremely difficult. There were talks to reduce censorship in Shanghai soon, guess we have to patient.
Sep 25, 2015 11:20 Report Abuse
No one mentioned censorship. In contrast to what XJP said he'd do, censorship has markedly increased. Accessing the net is a bigger and bigger PITA. When I'm trying to get information from regular, reputable websites in order to do my job, and am blocked by ridiculous, increasing censorship, I get PO'd. Add to that snail speeds and unsteady signals, and any job which requires a decent internet connection is getting more difficult.
Dec 20, 2014 17:49 Report Abuse
As one who is in the process of leaving. It was not smog or food that caused my decision. I'm an artist, photographer and jack of all trades around seeing. I contribute to China by mixing with local artists and people in the visual fields. we discuss we challenge each other. We all learn to see different. They chip of some of the cultural assumptions i hold as i do theirs. I made a living by a little photography, some design, some acting, and of course english teaching. There is no visa for me and less so after last years changes. The visa system for foreigners is tied with working in multinational companies, (and learning of how they operate and do business) those of us who work on a more one to one basis are not considered. in fact there is no visa anymore for interns. Anything i build in Beijing could be pulled down in a moment because I can't be fully legal. In China anything is possible, but as XJP brings in rule of law the first people to feel it will be foreigners (Galxo anyone?) So i take the wonderful experience i have had and pack my stuff... so China signs a FTA but that seems to be all about retaining the status quo... i.e. Western countries should allow chinese to live there (we are immigrant nations) and buy our property, but not have to reciprocate...
Dec 11, 2014 08:44 Report Abuse
The term '外-国-人', pronounced as wei-guo-ren, is comprised of three distinct chinese words/characters. On a word to word, literal translation, it means 'outside-country-people'. Any english/chinese dictionary will confirm this. It is a neutral term. Every country/group has an equivalent expression of that, 'foreigner' being the one in english. The term '老-外', pronounced as lao-wei is comprised of two distinct chinese words/characters. On a word to word translation, it literally means 'old-outsider'. The lao (i.e. old) is the same 'old' as in 'old friend'. This half is an indication of affection. The trick is in the second half, the 'outside' part. What do you mean when you call someone an 'old outsider'? It has many shades. It means no matter how 'old' (not physical age, but the duration you have known each other, as in old friend) your stay in China has been, how long they have known you, you are still an outsider. A VERY SNEAKY term if you ask me, borderlining on fake friendliness. Also, laowei is used ONLY by Mainland Chinese. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, USA, UK, Europe.....etc. traditional chinese use the neutral term 'wei-guo-ren' to denote any non-chinese human being. They never call you a 'laowei'. If you are a friend they call you a friend, period. They don't call you a 'half friend', the kind of 'friend' you want something from.... Ask any Chinese from these places to confirm this truth. It is not difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, most experienced expats can spot a mainlander with a glance. IMHO, it is best to use your eyes to see their facial expression and body language, your ears to hear the tone the person adopts, your gut feel even when some mainlander calls you a laowei. In my experience this is far more accurate than relying on the surface meaning of those words. Hope this helps clear up the tremendous confusion which seems to be going on here.
Dec 10, 2014 21:17 Report Abuse
I would say the majority of the posters got it right too. Look at Chinese history, the historical arrogance of their emperors, thinking China was the center of the world (China means Middle Kingdom) as if they knew how big the globe was, calling countries around China 'barbaric little countries', ie ones filled with savages. Why did they build the Great Wall of China? To keep those savages out. In THEIR history, outsiders/foreigners were nothing more than primitive savages who knew no manners. This is why I say laowei is a very sneaky term.
Dec 11, 2014 08:09 Report Abuse
Okay, back to the Romans. Ever bothered to look at the word "Mediterranean"? Med = middle Terra = Earth The Romans thought they were the center of the world; at the time, from their point of view and their knowledge of the world, the term made sense.
Dec 20, 2014 17:38 Report Abuse
Amazing how many posters on here are ignorant of basic Chinese culture. Laowai is neutral. It can be used racially, but is not inherently racial. Why? Because Lao means "old". In Chinese culture, ingrained over 5,000 years, age carries respect. If they always called you Waiguoren (外国人） then that would be racist. Laowai is a mark of respect, although depending on how it is said and in what context, as with any language, it could carry racist overtones. As another poster said, all cultures distinguish between their own and outsiders. Even Americans! Your ignorance now cured, I shall leave you to ponder.
Dec 10, 2014 12:16 Report Abuse
I've heard "laowai" used toward me as a term of respect, but also in a way similar to "that _____ (white, black, whatever is used to mark a person as different) guy." Used in that way, I don't appreciate the term. Would you say "Hey black guy, how are you?"
Dec 20, 2014 17:33 Report Abuse
Not understanding how to cue or not wanting to drives me crazy. At IKEA today I had everything load up on the counter and still these local cows tried to get in front of me. So I razzed them about Bejing people not wanting to cue. I said in foreign countries we always cue and if they don't when they're abroad they're have a problem. They said they've been to a foreign country and I told them I didn't believe them because they tried to cut in front of me, needless to say they were embarrassed . Queue lol .
Dec 08, 2014 20:38 Report Abuse
For me, the number one reason I would want to leave China is the lack of hospitality and rudeness of the society, as a whole. Not all people are rude, and not all people lack hospitality, but when you show up for a job, you expect certain things. I've been to other countries and have been well taken care of by my hosts. Here in China, they get you here, then sort of leave you to figure it out. I've gotten used to it, and don't expect any more from my employers now, but some people simple can't tolerate this. I've had my share of tantrums due to the all out lying and conniving of my employer. Basically, it just seems like there are too many people passing the buck and nobody wants to take responsibility for something. Many times I've not been told about upcoming holidays and that sort of thing. Just the simple lack of decent communication is what drives me nuts about living and working here. On top of that, this is a society full of spoiled brats who have no problem shoving you out of the way to get a seat on the subway, or stepping in front of you and interrupting while you're talking to somebody at the counter, or cutting in front of you in line at the airport. Last week I yelled at a man in line at the airport while we waited in the queue for the taxi because he kept pushing up against me. Two nights before, the same happened when a couple behind me in line at security were "playing" and bumped into me with no apology whatsoever. Then the girl's purse kept hitting me as she was laughing and goofing around. These were two adult people. I finally had to ask the woman to please step back a bit. She said, "Oh, sorry," then started laughing at me to her guy. It's that sort of behavior that drives people like me to want to leave China. I'm not a confrontational person, but living in China has driven me to have to be rude back to people.
Dec 07, 2014 14:12 Report Abuse
And they wonder why they can't go to other countries. You're rude to me , I'll give it right back. I asked this rude girl today which farming village she she was from. Then said some backwater place that really embarrassed her. At line at the 7-11 some cow thought she was going to go ahead if me, I told that Beijing people don't know how to behave and its a backwater cesspool. The guy at the cash register agreed with me. She sheepishly went to the back of the line.
Dec 07, 2014 17:59 Report Abuse