Wednesday, July 27, 2011

China: the changing expat market

skyline of pudong,shanghaiShanghai via WikipediaA few times this week, I was forced to think about the position of expats. I was asked about my opinion of a few online services: internations, and With a background in China, my roots with the former expat community might be slightly different from other countries, but both websites seem to focus at an interesting niche market at best. A market I no longer belong to.

In my experience in China, the expat market seemed to be a booming one, when I started to travel the country early 1990s. Much of the needed management skills were imported, literally, into this booming country. Those expats had different levels of success, but in numbers they were huge and growing. When I arrived in Shanghai, two bars and the Australian consulate were enough to cater for most of the expats needs. But that exploded very fast, as it was initially very hard to get enough domestic managers, on any level.

So, you had expats on any level. The CEO-level for foreign companies in China, the middle management and the adventurers. At my time at the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club I had mainly to deal with the last group. Enthusiastic American or European journalists who wrote me an email telling they had packed their suitcases to join the booming Chinese economy. Where could they go to, to join the action? My advise in most cases: start unpacking again and become real.

But the expat world was a parallel universe, next to the Chinese one. It looked like a real industry, and I had a part time job in avoiding investment advisers, real estate agents, language schools and other nuisance at meetings of the chambers of commerce, in in cold calls. But the situation of the foreign expat has changed dramatically, as far as I can see from afar.

In the top-management, you still find the expats, although their numbers and packages got a severe dent during the first financial crisis. But they are increasingly comparable to the expats in Brussels, Zurich and New York. Global companies have their own staff-rotation schemes, and services are still needed to provide them with housing, advise on how to greet the natives and where to find the more popular hangouts. But they feels expat for perhaps a few months, when they are in transition. But see them as a kind of community? I have serious doubts here. When being _not_ part of a society is your basic identity, there is something wrong. And, compared with the 1990s and early 21st century, generous packages have typically disappeared.

The middle management has almost fully swapped places with Chinese managers. Both domestically groomed and returnees from abroad have taken the places where previously foreign managers dominated. For my work at the China Speakers Bureau I deal in China almost exclusively with Chinese managers, as we deal with Europeans in Europe, and Americans in the US. That is not only good news for the Chinese in those positions: compared to their colleagues with international exposure elsewhere in the world, their salaries tend to be much lower. For expat services, here is no chance.

The third group, the adventures, are without doubt the most active participators on most expat fora. They need jobs, cheaper housing, contacts, all things I was not able to offer them. I'm not sure if journalistic adventurers are different from those in other industries, but I have seen their income levels seen falling below those of Chinese journalists. Chinese journalists have a pretty good position in their society, but that is very much closed for their foreign colleagues. Poorly paying English language publications and copy-editing for Chinese publications. And of course, native English speakers can get a job as a teacher. For me, those groups are not very interesting, and I seriously wonder if expat services, online or offline, can make a buck here.

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