Workplace Face Off: Chinese vs. Foreign Employees

Workplace Face Off: Chinese vs. Foreign Employees
Dec 05, 2016 By

Over the last few years, China has seen an influx of foreign talent wanting to gain experience in the world’s fastest growing economy, explore China and its culture, and take some time away from life at home, if only for a year or two. As the popularity of joining the workforce in China has increased, so has the competition for jobs between both foreigners and Chinese alike. Not only are there more and more outsiders looking to make it big in China, but more and more Chinese are educated in the West and becoming fluent in more languages, only making the job market here in China that much more competitive. Who is better off? Who has the advantage? How has it changed? And what can you do to make yourself more competitive in the ever-expanding China.

Photo: gruntzooki

How it’s changed and still changing
Foreigners who have been in China five or more years agree that the workplace landscape has changed dramatically. And as more and more companies expand in China, the need for talent who are competent in both English and Chinese is essential. Relying on your “foreign face” in modernized cities like Shanghai and Beijing won’t cut it with the real jobs. A Chinese woman, who has been working in advertising in Shanghai for over five years, said, “The platform for foreign and Chinese talent is starting to level out.” Because of the need for talent who can work in both languages, “Chinese are starting to have an advantage in that way over foreigners whose Chinese is not above a conversational level.” Particularly for those in the communications and media world, finding an entry-level or even middle management position can be tough when competing with Chinese talent.

As those looking to make it in China’s business world are struggling to compete with home-grown talent, another profession is also taking a hit: teaching. There are a lot of opportunities for foreigners in China. However, most of these opportunities are in the education arena for teachers at all levels of expertise (and the sometimes suspect “English factories”). However as competition has grown for non-teaching professionals, the result has led to increase competition for teaching jobs as well. As one teacher who has lived and been teaching in China for four years said, “There are more foreigners competing for teaching jobs – especially in the big cities like Shanghai.”

The case for the Chinese
Westerners in China are up against a large work force. With millions of graduates entering the workforce in China, it’s intimidating to think of just how many others are applying to that job you saw posted online. Not only is there the risk of not enough jobs for all of China’s workforce, but there are a few advantages that Westerners just can’t compete with.

First of all and most obvious is the issue of cheap labor. The difference in pay between Chinese and Western staff is dramatic. Where an appropriate salary for a Westerner would be 10,000 RMB a month, their Chinese equivalent could be making as little as one third of that amount. Another cost factor is that Chinese staff do not need visas paid for, housing accommodations or stipends, travel allowances or any other the other additional added costs that generally come with hiring a foreigner. Similarly, a factor in favor for Chinese is that they from China – they’re not going anywhere. While Chinese seem to jump around from job to job, they still have the advantage that they are not going to leave China at a moments notice, whereas foreign employees may seem less committed and have less incentive to stay in China.

Language abilities also come into play as an advantage for Chinese. With more and more mainland Chinese going aboard for semesters, years, or even for whole degrees, the number of Chinese with competent, near-fluent second language skills is growing. While not native, their ability to work in an environment using their first and second (or third language) is an attractive quality – especially considering how much they cost a company.

The case for the foreigner
There are a few obvious advantages that foreigners, particularly those from English-speaking countries have with the most obvious being native language abilities. No matter how long one lives in another country, it’s hard be able to write, speak and use a second language like a native speaker. This is particularly helpful in the area of English education but also in non-teaching professions – for example, a consultancy-type role. As foreign expansion in China continues to grow, there is still the need for a familiar face who knows how things run at home. And while translating and editing Chinglish can be painstaking at times, there is always a need for a native English (or other language) speaker to fill the role of polishing reports.

Another advantage for Westerners is their education background. There are apparent differences in the Chinese and Western Education system which can be especially noticeable in the workplace. Things like problem solving and critical thinking are not taught as heavily in China as in Western countries and creativity in ideas is not terribly common. So when its crunch time and your boss is asking for quick solutions or new ideas, Chinese coworkers may be struggling to come up with “outside the box” ideas while the Westerner could provide a different perspective. While one’s way of thinking and working may not be better than the other’s, it is a definite advantage to have the skills not found so readily in Chinese employees.

How to compete
A common question among foreigners is how to compete in the job market. And it is definitely different in China. It’s challenging enough to compete with people who all speak your language – but in China you’re in a much bigger pond. An important resource to take advantage of – for teachers and other professionals alike – are networking events. Many top-tier Chinese cities have at least one foreign chamber of commerce that host various events. Just as networking is crucial at home, it’s important in China as well. It’s a way to learn about new opportunities, potential employment opportunities and new business to be won. Building a strong network in your community will only benefit you.

It’s important to know your strong points and the advantages you have against local talent. While keeping an updated resume is essential, it’s also important to be well versed in your skill set. Being able to demonstrate your work experience, the results you’ve produced or the problems you’ve solved will most likely set you apart from your home-grown competition.

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All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.


I read all the discussion topics and wondered how these so, called expert teachers in China wrote so, many sentence fragments in their discussions.
If you claimed native English language speaker, I think you should write well; it does not matter whatever condition that you may have.

The conclusion that reached from reading all the discussions is that wages are low in China, and at the same time, cost of living is equaly the same.

I earned a MASTER of SCIENCE in General Psychology from American University. Is teaching the only common and easy employment available in China? Need a profound feed back people.

May 20, 2012 18:55 Report Abuse


Make a true comment, it gets deleted. Screw this site.

May 17, 2012 22:43 Report Abuse


Local talent? It's not about job competency, it's about the fact that Chinese companies can now only hire foreigners if there is a specific reason why a Chinese person can't do that job. It's not even actually about pay. Sure if a foreigner makes 10,000rmb a month and a local 3,000 - big deal. The company would have to hire EIGHT Chinese workers to match the productivity level of your average American worker. Yep. American workers are 8 times more productive than a Chinese worker. Eight. So, you'd need to pay 8 workers 3,000rmb = 24,000 or 1 foreigner 10,000. It's a no brainer. But you need to PROVE why you can't hire a local Chinese. Usually native English speaker is the requirement used.

May 17, 2012 19:46 Report Abuse


Chinese with overseas degrees make about 5000RMB/month here in WuHan. Good luck with whatever it is you're doing...

May 13, 2012 04:35 Report Abuse


no sorry, it is the blue eyes and blond hair, and if the boss is a Chinese woman like at my job then she is feeling very heated up in your presence giggling and smiling a lot more when you come around, then she does with the chinese male employees, hmmmm I wonder what that's all about! It is a definite fact that many of the women here have what i call the "superman" obsession - fantasizing that the good looking caucasian man will come and rescue them from their experience and sweep them off their feet for a whirlwind international romance that will make them white by association and make them entitled to all the benefits of being WHITE! Read that as VISA, MONEY INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL AND STATUS and EVEN MORE THAN ONE CHILD! a chinese man CAN NOT give them that - but a WHITE MAN CAN!

Sep 01, 2012 06:32 Report Abuse


That gap is not fair but I think companies who hire foreigners take into account other skills which Chinese people will learn very soon..
Chinese education is based in a read and memorize basis, therefore any work related to analytical skills is not as well accomplished by a local as a foreigner nowadays.
This is a skill westerns learn from their childhood, and nowadays is getting better in China, future generations will be able to, but still there is lack of analytical mindsets here.
Sure, they might be good in maths, but there is a need to know how to "interpretate" those numbers, not just "creating"them.
Many Chinese are now traveling to Western countries, and studying there, at the beginning they face problems and even fail when it comes to do exams which are related to business cases, decision making, and so on..but some months later they do great.
So, for everyone, dont worry.. this gap is due to the need of a skill which is still developing in China!

May 19, 2012 19:06 Report Abuse


oh yeah! you're the guy sorting the W's from the M's at the M&M factory!! You're doing a freaking amazing job!

May 12, 2012 06:59 Report Abuse

Some sums

Here's a useful fact. I make 10,500RMB per month as a teacher in a small city (2.5millions), pay little tax and live rent free. My disposable income gives me a purchasing power 385% higher than the average Chinese and on par with Australia. Making the same money back home would mean that I would not be able to save, but here I can gave well over half of my income and have a very comfortable lifestyle. Not a bad deal at all.

May 11, 2012 20:44 Report Abuse


How much you can live on depends on how willing you are to eat drink like a local, or how much you need to have western goods and services. If you live like a local, you can live on next to nothing; if you need to (I also earn just a little over the ten thousand mark).

For example, I went to lunch today and got a HUGE meal in a small Chinese restaurant for twelve quai (this was the most expensive meal, in what is by no means the cheapest restaurant in my city)... then I stopped off at a shop that stocks some western products and picked up a tub of Haagen-dazs for sixty quai.

The western comfort snack cost a bomb compared to everything else, but its something I can easily afford since everything else is so cheap.

May 12, 2012 00:43 Report Abuse


I also live in China and every teacher I know earns between 10,000-12,000USD(Small cities) or up to 15,000USD per month in a bigger city...!
Of course the school pays their rent and other that average doesnt fit with the information I have from everyone I know here...

May 19, 2012 19:01 Report Abuse