China has developed at an unprecedented rate since it opened to the world in the early 80s. Many of the gripes and complaints that some of us expats had when we first arrived have disappeared in the intervening years. As an “Old China Hand,” I’ve cast my mind back to some of the common grumbles I heard from fellow expats when I first came to China 12 years ago. Here are seven things that are no longer true about China.
Source: Nuno Alberto
“It’s not as Advanced as the West”
Before: It may be hard for today’s China expats to imagine, but there was in fact a time when nobody here had WeChat. No group chats, no video calls, no e-pay, no stickers. The closest we got to it was QQ, which you were more likely to use on a desktop computer than a mobile. Think more MSN Messenger than WhatsApp.
Not only did we not have WeChat Pay or Alipay, but China was even more dependent on cash than most other countries. Many places didn’t accept card payments, especially not foreign cards, and workers tended to prefer to be paid in hard cash rather than to their bank accounts. As a result, fake notes were rife and a common bugbear of uninitiated expats.
You may think processing your visa is a Kafkaesque nightmare now, but visiting a government office was even more inefficient back in the day. Whether applying for your work permit or registering a child, every step required countless forms and documents to be submitted physically. Nothing was accepted electronically and most of the time you couldn’t even make an appointment online in advance. And you were dreaming if you were expecting anyone there to be able to speak a word of English.
Now: QQ was quickly replaced by WeChat as the number-one way we communicate in China. In fact, expats and locals alike now live our entire lives through the app. Facebook and WhatsApp may have millions of users across the world, but no single Western app has managed to touch society in the same way WeChat touches China. And it’s not the only app to have a huge effect on Chinese society. Didi has revolutionized travel all over China, while Uber is still to launch in numerous markets in the West. While people in the West are still ordering take out directly from restaurants, people in China might go an entire month ordering meals from different restaurants via apps like Meituan and Ele Ma.
Long gone are the days when everyone paid in cash. In fact, you would probably be hard pressed to remember the last time you handed over cash from your wallet. The rest of the world may have slowly started to adopt cashless payments, but nowhere has taken to QR codes like the Chinese.
The government has been quick to adopt new technology, too. Many process are now moving online, with China expats able to do anything from pay their taxes to register their pets using government apps. You’re also much more likely to find one or two people who can speak English in government offices today and often employees and desks dedicated to dealing with foreigners.
“Stay Away from Public Transport”
Before: Back in the day, expats might go their entire time in China without ever using public transport. And honestly, you couldn’t blame them. Bus schedules were completely in Chinese, and even if you could figure them out there was still a good chance of unexpected stops, dangerous driving and random breakdowns. Few cities had subways either, so most of the time you either got around by bicycle or braved haggling with the sometimes unscrupulous taxi drivers.
Train travel could be even more daunting. The high speed network was still under construction, so if you wanted to travel overland across the country you had to brave the infamous slow sleeper trains. A trip from Shenzhen to Beijing could end up taking more than a day and felt even longer when you were trapped inside a cramped carriage with no air conditioning. It was also impossible to buy tickets online in advance, so there was the added stress of trying to get your ticket at the station either ahead of time or on the day. Often tickets would be sold out so you’d be forced to deal with touts and pay over the odds for your journey. Even then, you were by no means guaranteed a seat.
Now: The major difference between public transport then and now is the breakneck speed with which entire subway networks have sprung up in cities all across the country. Most places seem to be adding new stations and even entire lines each year, and expats can now travel around on transport that is convenient, clean, reliable and cheap. Inner-city buses are also a lot better. They’re much more reliable, stop announcements are often made in English, and all expats need is a phone with a QR code to hop on for a ride. And as mentioned above, Didi has also fundamentally changed the way we travel around our cities. Cheap rides can now be booked via the English interface app without the need to negotiate with grumpy drivers.
Long distance train travel has of course been completely transformed too with the high-speed Gaotie network. Where once Japan was the envy of the world for its train system, now China can stake a very reasonable claim to be its close neighbor’s match. Journey times have been cut to a quarter in many cases and the onboard facilities are a world away from the rickety sleeper trains of yesteryear.
“Don’t Trust Local Hospitals”
Before: There was a time when the thought of having to go to a local hospital in China was scarier than any possible ailment or injury. Most hospitals were old and lacking in certain equipment and facilities, and expats would look on in horror as patients pushed to see a doctor like they were trying to get on the subway. English was patchy at best, and the language barrier was also much more of a concern when you were discussing your own health rather than ordering a drink at a restaurant.
Even for those that did manage to get in to see a doctor, the medical advice was not what we're used to as foreigners. Talk of illness being related to “hot and cold” and treatments ranging from herbal pills to cupping did not always inspire confidence. It’s no surprise then that many foreigners opted to pay through the nose for private clinics.
Now: The days of having to fear going to a local hospital are fortunately over. Many of the older institutions have been replaced with brand new facilities, and there is a growing trend of partnerships between Chinese and international hospitals that has helped modernize the care offered. All in all, patients can expect the latest equipment, language assistance, modern treatments and even an orderly queue at local hospitals these days. Many foreigners still use private clinics, which have also improved a great deal over the years, but it’s no longer as essential as it once was. Either way, expats living in China’s biggest cities can be confident they’re getting first-world treatment.
“Everywhere is Dirty”
Before: It would not be too harsh to say that there was a time when the streets in China were less than pristine. The sidewalks near tourist spots and business centers would be littered with trash, in part stemming from a lack of trash cans in public spaces, but also from a lack of awareness among the public. It seemed acceptable for people to just drop their litter wherever they stood. Not only that, but cities were quick to fall into disrepair. Potholes in the roads and broken pavements were common hazards.
Now: Things are thankfully very different these days. Most major cities employ a small army of cleaners to keep the streets clean, and the upkeep and even beautification of public areas is sometimes staggering. And it’s not only government-kept areas. Go into a shopping mall or an office block and you’ll find cleaners working continuously to keep the place looking smart and tidy.
The trash that is collected is also being processed much more efficiently. As countries in the West started to promote recycling more aggressively, China was not to be left behind. Recycling bins are now found in most apartment complexes and there are signs and posters everywhere explaining where to put which items. In some places you’ll even find government volunteers in red jackets schooling residents on recycling best practices.
“There’s Nowhere to go for Good International Cuisine”
Before: Back in the day, China could be a difficult place to live for foreigners who did not like the local food. The international cuisine in most cities left a lot to be desired; perhaps an Italian restaurant with a sad meat sauce spaghetti, an expat bar with a limp burger or, if you were lucky, a passable Indian curry. Those craving the likes of Mexican, Middle Eastern or Brazilian food had to wait until they went home to get their fix.
Now: Nowadays, you’re very unlikely to have to go without a proper burrito in China. Gradually over the years, more and more authentic international restaurants have popped up, from tiny Mexican taquerias and giant German beer halls, to late-night Lebanese takeaways and craft breweries serving up amazing pub grub. Moving to China is no longer a sacrifice for foodies.
“There’s Nothing to See at the Cinema”
Before: Once upon a time, you’d be hard pushed to find more than one or two shabby cinemas in many Chinese cities. Not that you were missing out on much. The government had a strict limit on the number of international movies that could be released in the country every year, which meant you’d be lucky to get one new Western film a month. Even then, the movies that were chosen could be very hit and miss. There was no guarantee you’d get the latest blockbusters, and there was next-to-no chance of catching art house films or Oscar contenders. Your best bet was to seek out a DVD shop and watch pirated versions of the latest releases at home, which typically had sound or image issues and might snarl up and refuse to play right at the crucial moment.
Now: Since then, the movie industry in China has exploded, to such an extent that in 2020 it surpassed the US as the world’s biggest box office. You can walk into almost any mall in China now and find a cinema on the top floor. The Chinese film industry has grown massively, but the government has also relaxed restrictions on the screening of international films.
These days, you can find two or three Western movies showing at any given time. You can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be able to see all the latest blockbusters at the same time as the West and occasionally even one or two weeks in advance. A lot of the Chinese movies are also screened with English subtitles, so foreigners can enjoy domestic offerings, too.
“There’s Only Jobs in Teaching and Manufacturing”
Before: China has long been a land of opportunity for foreigners, but in those early days, the kind of industries we could work in tended to be very limited. To begin with, most demand was in manufacturing. The opening up of China led to a flood of foreign businesses moving their manufacturing to the country. Factory managers, quality control specialists and technical engineers came in their droves.
Following that, there came a rush of foreign teachers. International schools required educators for expat kids, and English training centers overflowed with locals looking to learn English to get ahead. There was undoubtedly a lot of opportunities in China at that time, but if you weren’t in teaching or manufacturing, the jobs were few and far between.
Now: These days, China expats will still find jobs in teaching and manufacturing, but we have also seen huge growth in opportunities in marketing, copywriting, e-commerce, videography, business development and more. These opportunities have largely appeared thanks to the emergence of China’s tech sector and the increasingly large number of Chinese companies looking to sell to international markets. Now foreigners from all kinds of backgrounds can forge successful careers in the Middle Kingdom.
What other once-held beliefs are no longer true about China? Tell us in the comments section below.
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Those who have been following China’s development should be familiar with China’s Five-Year Plan (FYP), which is part of China’s top-level policy design to guide its overall economic and social development, securing China steady and immense progress in its course of development since its initiation in 1953. By far, China has formulated and implemented thirteen Five-Year Plans, a good witness of China’s progressive development into a modernizing country.
Apr 18, 2021 12:55 Report Abuse
This is one of the best article I have read. Today western misconception on China is very much the same 20 years ago. China has achieved great changes thanks to the reform and opening-up policies implemented since 1978. The country has learned much from the world but, today, the world also has much to learn from China, such as its bullet trains. China is progressing at a fast paced that e wallet has replaced cash years back, fast speed train (Gaotie) now covers almost all cities in China. The rapid developed high speed rail (HSR) in China has covered more than 150 cities in all directions, including 32 capital cities (municipalities) and over 100 destinations. That means, you can travel from capital Beijing, to northern ice world Harbin, to east coastal Shanghai, to southeast Hong Kong, to northwest Lanzhou, to ancient capital Xian, to home of Panda - Chengdu, to picturesque Guilin and massive destinations within one single day and even less hours. In the past 2019, China has constructed more than 5,000-km high speed rails to connect more destinations, increasing to 35,000km and keeping the world’s top 1 record ( 70% of global HSR length). In the following year of 2020, China built 2,000 km new high speed lines to complete the network. With the longest high speed rail network in the world, China has achieved the goal of the Four Vertical and Four Horizontal High Speed Railway Plan with a total length of 25,000 km/15,534 miles high speed rail (HSR), about two-thirds of the world's high-speed rail tracks by the end of 2017. Not to mentioned the the number of airport that have built so far. Besides the new Beijing Daxing International Airport, the newly completed Qingdao Jiaozhou International Airport as well as Chengdu Tianfu International Airport are about to be fully in operation this year. Life in China is so convenient nowadays, basically with just an easy access / a touch from your mobile phone.
Apr 16, 2021 10:48 Report Abuse
"Nowadays, you’re very unlikely to have to go without a proper burrito in China." I guess all these articles are written by foreigners living in 1st and 2nd tier cities. Try finding a burrito in a 4th tier city today. "All in all, patients can expect the latest equipment, language assistance, modern treatments and even an orderly queue at local hospitals these days." Haha, no, just no.
Apr 16, 2021 07:23 Report Abuse