China, just like every other country in the world, has its fair share of problems. But recently it seems that its list of grievances stretches as far as the Great Wall itself. First, last year’s GDP dropped below 8% for the first time this century. Second, the country is losing its competitive advantage in labor, which has long been considered the engine behind the country’s robust growth. Third, soaring prices coupled with stagnant wages are diminishing salaries in real terms to make daily expenditures much more expensive. Fourth, landing a “good job” is becoming increasingly difficult, as there’s more competition and a higher demand for better-qualified individuals within corporations based in China. And the problems just don’t lie in the economy either. Last year there was a wave of xenophobic attacks against foreigners in Beijing. The heated Diaoyu Island confrontation with Japan has left both sides teetering on the brink of war. There’s also a plethora of macro trepidations that directly and indirectly affect us, like the demographic burden and gender imbalance, widespread corruption and civil unrest, stricter online censorship and severe pollution.
With so much noise coming out of China these days, it’s no wonder many expats are considering packing their bags and leaving. But even despite all of these problems, we believe that there are still several big reasons why it’s still worth living in China.
1) Opportunities still abound
Despite years of reports stating that it would inevitably happen, the slowdown of China’s economy is nonetheless causing many to believe that the “dragon years” of unprecedented growth are finally over. In July 2012, the New York Times addressed this concern head on, stating that despite the drop, China’s 2012 GDP was still much better than the other BRIC countries, was still soaring above the EU and the US and was becoming less dependent on Western economies (exports as a percentage of GDP dropped from 40% in 2007 to 29% in 2012). Moreover, the Chinese government is clearly aware of the sluggish growth, having implemented austerity measures by slashing interest rates, relaxing constraints on bank lending and reinvesting an outstanding 48% of GDP into development. All in all, it seems that China is still doing quite well for itself, especially when compared to others. The country will no doubt continue to encounter new problems as it grapples with fitting its domestic output to the changing global economic landscape. But one thing the Chinese government has excelled at during the past 30-plus years is proving its naysayers wrong when it comes to criticisms of how it manages the economy.
From the individual perspective, the expat job market has become much more competitive and the good old days when a foreigner could land a high paying “face job” are long gone. Companies today increasingly require that foreigner employees not only speak fluent Mandarin and understand the culture, but also come bearing additional sets of expertise as well (mostly in IT or finance). However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it suggests that China’s economy may finally be developing past its inordinate penchant for cronyism and nepotism, although networking is still incredibly important. In theory, China’s more competitive job market should ultimately weed out the under-qualified/over-paid workers in favor of more capable candidates, with increased efficiency and productivity benefiting the overall society and economy, the individual cooperation and your wallet, assuming you’ve put the time in to develop a few extra skill sets.
It’s worth noting that local salaries have remained virtually frozen in recent years, hardly adjusting to the rapidly rising cost of living and inflation. However, since Beijing carried out reforms in 2005, allowing its vastly undervalued currency to gradually appreciate, the value of the Yuan has increased 32% against the U.S. dollar. If current trends hold, as were predicted by a 2011 Time report, your RMB savings could potentially double against the dollar in as little of 15 years. Also, in the long run, as the economy becomes sturdier and the Yuan reaches a natural exchange rate, salaries should eventually re-adjust to reflect the cost of living increases.
2) Occasional outburst of nationalism aside, you’re still probably safer in China
Though the Chinese media has a loud bark when it comes to discussing the possibility of war with neighboring countries like Japan (backed by their longtime American allies), the reality is that China is not ready to start a war any time soon. As stated by Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in 2011, in terms of military might, “there is a 20 year gap between China and the US.” This suggests that China is well aware that any such war would likely be catastrophic for the PLA. So even though the Diaoyu Islands and several other maritime boundary disputes all make for great headlines about “ China asserting itself around East Asia”, it’s rather unlikely that China will instigate an all-out war with one of its neighbors any time soon. Moreover, North Korea, perhaps the greatest threat to regional stability in East Asia, is not likely to even consider an attack against China, since it is it’s number one ally and major financial/aid donor. So for those paranoid of war during their time in China, it’s best not to lose any sleep over it—China could actually be the safest place in the area in regards to potential North Korean hostility, while attacks from other neighbors is highly improbable.
Though the days of the Boxer Rebellion are long buried in the past, there was a series of violent attacks aimed at foreigners (mostly women) in Beijing last year. While racial crimes are clearly unacceptable in any society, the sad reality is just about every country out there experiences racial/religious/sectarian violence. And despite the recent increase in attacks on foreigners (which still remains exceptionally small), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked China’s homicide rate at the extremely low digit of 1.0 per 100,00 individuals, about the same as France at 1.1 and substantially safer than the US at 4.8. Moreover, the PRC has taken action, increasing the punishment for crimes against foreigners to deter future incidents. So while you may not believe all of the stories published by state media proclaiming “China to be the safest country in the world”, when push comes to shove, China is still extremely safe for foreigners. (Perhaps consider staying away from places like Beijing’s Sanlitun Bar Street at 03:00 though).
3) It’s easy to forget that China is improving overall
From Facebook to the one-child policy to corruption, there’s a vast array of macro-level problems that never fail to drive foreigners insane. Yes, I’ll admit, internet censorship constantly makes my life more difficult (especially when doing research for articles like the one you’re reading). But at least there are hundreds of VPNs out there that internet addicted expats such as myself can (still) use with a fair amount of ease. Regarding the demographic dilemmas, China has been gradually adding exceptions to the one-child policy for some time now. And in light of growing concern over the aging work force and a number of other related issues, it’s looking increasingly likely that China will relax or abolish the policy in the near future. The Guardian also reported this year that China’s soon-to-be president Xi Jinping has vowed to crackdown on high and low ranking officials, or “tigers” and “flies” as Xi put it, involved in corruption, making it a pillar of his domestic policy.
If you allow yourself to take off your “jaded China expat” glasses for a moment, there are many signs that China is actually improving out there as well (we recommend leaving the face mask on for now though!). The general population is becoming more conscious of queues, while there’s less spitting, smoking indoors and excessive horn honking. Poverty plummeted from 81% of the population in 1981 to only 16% in 2005. The PRC is also gradually relaxing its restrictions on foreign journalists. In the end, many of the small things that used to drive expats away seem to have been nothing but growing pains, but as the country is developing, many of these “nasty habits” are becoming less and less common. One can only hope that this continues to be the case.
Conclusion: Is it really that bad here?
As mentioned in the introduction, no one is denying that China has issues. While some of these are being addressed in a relatively transparent manner, others, it seems, simply are not. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind that no place is perfect, no matter where you travel to on this planet. If you’re an expat considering the big move away from China, evaluate the pros and cons of your life here and ask yourself, “Is it really that bad?”
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Keywords: worth living in China
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I suggest guest 901006 that you return to to Amerika and wait your knock on the door for re-education in FEMA. Lot more wholesome over there listening to the drones overhead and watching the beautiful chemtrails painting the sky while you wait for your door to be kicked in.
Mar 09, 2013 09:45 Report Abuse
I just spent about $3000 travelling S.E. Asia. because of China's ridiculousness. I love the China I first came to in 2004, but were it not for my husband's studies, I'd be out of here. I was working for a Chinese company that decided to violate the terms of our contract. When I mentioned it to them, they promptly "lost" the documents for my work visa. When I went to HK to get a visa, I was informed that 4 months ago visa policies were changed... due to China's nationalism. I received a vague answer that due to some unspecified political conflict, Americans (and only Americans) now have to return to their country of origin to convert an X visa to an L or an F visa. While waiting in line at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, a worker scribbled a sign onto notebook paper saying that if you are not a Thai citizen or resident, you must return to your home country to apply for a visa... effective immediately. I was tempted to simply have my things mailed back to the U.S. and kiss China goodbye. However, I returned to the embassy the next day, and they'd taken the sign down. In 1 day they had made and reversed a visa policy! I completely disagree with your article due to: 1) Corruption- this eats up a lot of $$$ 2) Unpredictability of the laws (esp. visas)- With wages steadily decreasing and visas getting harder to obtain, I'd argue it's less and less worth it... I do not earn enough to recover these costs in the near future. Perhaps if it were possible to get a 5 or 10 year visa, there would be the necessary stability. 3) Lack of the rule of law- Yeah, so my employer violated the contract and completely screwed me... what can I do about it? Nothing. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to get these problems addressed by the authorities. 4) Wages are decreasing and the govt is not giving more rights- So, I won't be able to afford to send my kid to an international school. I also won't be able to afford constantly making trips to HK for a visa. And if you think the people are becoming more polite, please come to Xi'An... out here we really get to see Chinese nationalism and car-flipping at its finest. Unless China really does an overhaul of the current system, I'm out of here as soon as hubby finishes his PhD.
Mar 08, 2013 23:44 Report Abuse
"The general population is becoming more conscious of queues, while there’s less spitting, smoking indoors and excessive horn honking." Please tell me in which part of China this is occurring, because all of the above habits are still the cultural norm here! Perhaps the author of the article would like to swap his rose-colored glasses for my "jaded China expat" glasses; I'm interested to see this mythical sounding Shangri-La version of China!
Mar 05, 2013 09:16 Report Abuse
I agree that living in China can be frustrating at times but to be honest, the lifestyle I live here is somewhat better than I can currently live in my own country if you allow for higher pollution levels, some questionable hygiene and the language barrier. Opportunity abounds here if you have an entrepreneurial flair and if you are a teacher it's difficult to complain about the hours you work even though teaching methods and the Chinese education system warrant some significant change, which, by the way, was not mentioned by the writer but should have been a consideration. As foreigners here we tend to bitch and moan about many things but didn't we do the same thing back home albeit for probably different reasons? I would like to see China publicly berate and criticize itself at times rather than patting itself on the back continually: Good job! Not only does that wear thin but it has the desired affect (unwanted in my opinion) of convincing the majority of the population that they are lucky to be living in a heaven on earth resulting in a reluctance to want to change. They say knowledge is power so a better informed public might start thinking for themselves. I see and experience many things in China that I don't really like but at the rate the country is advancing I'm sure change will eventually be embraced. Let's hope they don't become too westernized as there are some customs and cultural stuff I hope will remain.
Mar 05, 2013 07:36 Report Abuse