Finding a Job in China: Recent Struggles of Some Expats

Finding a Job in China: Recent Struggles of Some Expats
Jun 03, 2013 Translated by

Editor’s note: this article was translated from and looks at some of the difficulties foreigners are currently having finding a job in China. The article focuses on expats from different backgrounds who are all based in Nanjing, looking at the difficulties they have been having finding jobs that match their criteria and expectations. The article then presents the viewpoints of experts in the field of hiring foreigners, who try and explain the reasons behind this current phenomenon.   

Foreigners from all different backgrounds are trying to find jobs in China, which is no surprise given the country’s booming job market. Many choose Nanjing as their destination to embark on a potentially lucrative career, however it turns out that for many foreigners here, finding an “iron rice bowl” (stable and promising) job isn’t as simple as they’d once thought.

Fei Xiang African finance student

“I studied finance,” explained an African expat who goes by the Chinese name Fei Xiang, “And I want to find a job in Nanjing related to my degree. However, a majority of the jobs on offer here are related to teaching English.” For someone who had come from so far away with high hopes on finding a steady job, this discovery was disappointing. Fei Xiang said that it wasn’t the fact that most job fairs were purely made up of English school recruiters that made it tough; it was the fact that they were all after native English speakers only.

Fei Xiang said that one time he did find a stand at a job fair that was advertising for a position in a trade company that exported machinery, and after a promising chat with representatives he thought he had the job in the bag. “The HR department later told me that they wanted me to teach English to their Chinese employees, and that when I wasn’t teaching I could hang around the office doing nothing. They said that they just wanted someone whose presence simply created an “atmosphere” of English study.” Fei Xiang believes that employing someone to just lounge about the office to boost morale and create such an atmosphere was, according to him, “Laughable.”       

Ali and his family – future dilemmas

During a recent expat job fair in Nanjing, an Iranian couple were looking for jobs while trying to keep an eye on their two children who were understandably restless. The husband, Ali, is currently studying for a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at Nanjing Forestry University, while his wife takes care of the kids at home. Ali stated that he arrived in Nanjing in March 2011, and his wife and children moved over the next year. Ali previously worked at a research institute in Iran for ten years, and plans to return home with his family once he has finished his studies. Recently however, Ali has considered staying in Nanjing, should he manage to find a job.  

“Everything’s great here. The only major problem we have is our children’s education,” explained Ali. His eldest son, who is ten, has found it difficult to settle into schools here, and Ali and his wife are worried that their son won’t be able to adjust to a purely Chinese learning environment. They did look into sending him to an international school, though they found that the fees were too expensive. Ali fears that the problem with his children’s education, as well as the potential forthcoming lifestyle problems that may emerge should they choose to stay in Nanjing, are both issues that the family won’t be able to overcome.   

Li Canxin – South Korean graduate

“In Nanjing, if a company offers to pay me a monthly salary less than 10,000 RMB, I don’t think I’d consider it,” said a 24-year-old South Korean expat who goes by the Chinese name of Li Canxin. Li is aware that most South Koreans who come to Nanjing to work end up working for South Korean companies such as Samsung or LG. In South Korea, recent graduates can expect to earn a monthly salary equating to between 8,000 to 12,000 RMB. But in China, renting an apartment costs around 3,000 RMB a month, while food will cost you another 2,000 RMB at least. And that doesn’t include money for transportation, domestic and international phone bills or money for social relationships. According to Li’s estimations, it seems that even 10,000 RMB isn’t enough to get by comfortably any longer. “My Chinese classmates have told me that if you’re a graduate in Nanjing, it’s almost impossible to find a job that pays 10,000 RMB a month,” Li said.           

Why is finding a job in China proving so difficult for foreigners?

1) Procedures are complicated
“For companies hiring foreigners in China, all of the ‘red tape’ is often a real stumbling block,” according to an employee in the HR department of a company in Nanjing that employed foreigners. In order to secure a foreign employee at a company in China, HR departments have to be pretty unrelenting in overcoming all the official procedures. First, employers must go through the process of acquiring a work visa, which can be a very complicated affair. Also, companies have to worry about ensuring that all aspects of the foreigner’s life are taken care of. For newcomers, food, transport, and housing will need to be taken into consideration. “If after all that then there’s no real benefit for the company to hire the foreigner, then they probably won’t bother,” added the employee.                

2) Not all companies can hire foreigners
“If foreigners applying for job don’t speak any Chinese, or have little understanding of the business culture of Chinese companies and aren’t willing to try to adjust, then even if they do end up working for a Chinese company they probably won’t last long in China. Even if that’s not the case, hiring foreigners isn’t as simple as some would assume,” said an employee who works for a company that helps foreigners find jobs in China. In order to hire a foreigner, a company must have assets of at least 1 million RMB. More importantly, the company must have a license to hire foreigners among other certifications. “Also, foreigners must have at least two years related work experience and a clean criminal record. It’s not a case where you can just hire anybody,” the employee said.            

3) Low salaries don’t appeal to foreigners
“If foreigners are looking for a job in China, they should mentally prepare themselves for lower salaries, which are of course less than what they could be earning back home,” advised Zhang, a teacher at Nanjing Forestry University. Many foreigners who come to Nanjing looking for jobs at places such as private training centers can in fact earn well over 10,000 RMB a month, however if they’re looking for an “iron rice bowl” position that grants them security and stable work, such as a university teacher, then salaries in Nanjing are only around 5-6,000 RMB. “Young foreigners are often very keen to experience life in different areas, and tend to move around a lot. For them, experiencing different lifestyles is more important than earning a high salary. This is one of the reasons why many foreigners like to come to Nanjing. For older foreigners however, stability and career prospects are the priority. If they choose to stay in Nanjing, then salaries will most likely be much lower than they expected,” the teacher concluded.


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I agree with Judred1967, its real stupid, and visa issues also.

Feb 16, 2017 14:24 Report Abuse



Maybe foreigners from more affluent countries should stop demanding and whining too much. If the pay is lower in China, just return to your first world countries where you will be paid higher ....and also pay rent. That is if you can find a job there with the kind of economy the world has today. I wonder if the USA will accept a Chinese applicant who only has a high school education and let him/her teach Mandarin and give him a high salary, free housing, and free visa processing just for being a native speaker despite the lack of teaching credentials? Many foreigners who teach English in China are not even qualified teachers. We all know that being a native speaker of English does not mean one can teach English well, especially at the lower levels where teaching techniques and strategies are needed to keep students interested and motivated to learn. There are few jobs that pay that high for high school graduates in first world nations. This is one of the reasons why many expats from the West flock to China to try their luck. Some also want to tour the country and earn on the side. I believe if that is the kind of motivation for finding work in China, then it is no wonder both the Chinese and the Western expats try to use each other.

Feb 11, 2017 19:09 Report Abuse



I have been turned away from prospective teaching jobs due to my age of 56. Age discrimination is everywhere in the world but it seems to be more prevalent in China than anywhere else in the world.

Jun 11, 2016 12:15 Report Abuse



Age limit is a reality anywhere, even in first world countries. It is not so much about discrimination but the fact that older people do have health issues already as a rule. Plus, there are jobs that demand youth. If you are an employer, you tend to see how age can affect productivity. I have accepted that reality now that I am nearing 50. It is just like women cannot say there is gender discrimination if the work requires a lot of physical strength.

Feb 11, 2017 19:15 Report Abuse



Very informative, thanks

May 19, 2016 17:05 Report Abuse



simply saying FUCK IT...dual policy...china is going down by restricting and implementing strict law, learn from US you BUG

Sep 21, 2014 00:28 Report Abuse



i was turned down numerous times for the same reasons mentionned in the blog...hiring foreigners (including giving them proper visas to work) isn't something a lot of companies in china can do. they need to have an established relationship with the government as they are tightening down on the immigration policies here, making it harder and harder for foreigners to work and live here.

Feb 27, 2014 11:19 Report Abuse



I have been turned down for teaching jobs just because I am female, despite having more experience than some male colleagues - go figure !!

Jun 30, 2013 00:26 Report Abuse



As for English schools many Chinese English schools will of course hire "native speakers" or sometimes non-natives depending on student demands. As for the regular Chinese companies, what benefit is there to hiring a foreigner? Many Chinese now speak English and they have good skills in the area needed such as finance etc. Chinese natives are also much more tolerant of free overtime and lack of benefits etc. In addition, there are thousands of "sea-turtles" (native Chinese and very good English) who are unemployed and millions and millions of young mainland educated Chinese who are unemployed as well--thus it is hard for everyone. job growth for sure. Chinese will work for much less..manager salaries of Chinese are a 1/4 of Western manager salaries. Unless the business is teaching English or teaching a subject in English, there is little need to have a foreigner. Even English teaching job salaries have at best been steady for 5 years but for many positions the salaries and benefits have gone down (summer paid vacations at public schools used to be the standard) because so many expats with unemployable skills in their respective countries are flooding the market and agreeing to work for less but which is more than they can get in their own country. I think two good honest questions for everyone to ask are: "How valued are my skills in my country? Should I really expect better opportunities or salaries here?"If people have come here for cultural reasons then they can opt for the lower salary or even volunteer. For the record I left a professional teaching job in the States that paid 30% more with much better benefits but I think that is not the norm. I have no regrets. Lastly, throw in the increased cost of living/inflation and you can understand why many long time China expats are going home or finding new places in the world to make a start.

Jun 05, 2013 13:37 Report Abuse



maybe they speak english, but finding a good speaker isnt that easy. also foreigners provide cultural context s well. for example i am learning japanese. I would rather learn from a Japanese speaker as they are native speakers and can answer most of my questions.

Jun 06, 2013 21:05 Report Abuse



Just wanted to say something about the "As for the regular Chinese companies, what benefit is there to hiring a foreigner?". Well, yeah you could see it that way and most people here do. Actually there *are* benefits such as expressing a different perspective (important for ideation and marketing outside of China), representing diverse groups, different background (course content at universities in different countries is similar but different, hence slightly different skillsets. The same is true of skills gained in work experience since companies operating in different countries do things differently), I could probably think of other stuff but whatever. My point is that it's not purely the case that expats have nothing to offer but native English. The problem is the perception of what expats offer. From a typical employers view here; having a different perspective is causing trouble, raising important points at a meeting that your manager didn't think of is causing him to lose face, knowledge of what happens outside of China is irrelevant because many people here have a very introverted view of the world. The cultural divisions are seen as more important than any other possible gains so we're simply not wanted because we're different.

Jun 29, 2013 13:02 Report Abuse



This is a good article

Jun 05, 2013 12:07 Report Abuse



That's not always true, but you have to clearly demonstrate the value you bring on a daily basis. For example I work in consulting and my main role at the firm i'm stationed with here is to get the best work out of the chinese managers by taking responsibility for new projects. Locals don't like to stick their necks out so nothing ever gets done, but when you develop a good reputation everyone will lend support to your initiatives in order to get their names on a winning project, without worrying about the consequences of proposing a loser. But then I work for an international company; probably different for local places out in the middle of nowhere where the education is bad.

Jun 03, 2013 17:13 Report Abuse



What Chinese expect of foreigners is to take, carbon copy, plagiarise, all their skills and experiences after which they would rather have you bugger off. Caution, do not expect any growth prospects here.

Jun 03, 2013 07:31 Report Abuse



Exactly right! Not only skills, but your face too. Add in what the article said about company appearance and that's exactly what it's like to work for a Chinese company. They make sure they take plenty of pictures of you before your contract expires.

Jun 08, 2013 06:40 Report Abuse



MSI understands how this place works. Particularly like the "Caution, do not expect any growth prospects here. "

Jun 08, 2013 12:15 Report Abuse