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Foreign professionals face new challenges in post-COVID China

The recent COVID-19 pandemic forced many foreign executives living and working in China, who had initially no intentions of leaving, to rethink their professional future in the country. Though some decided to stay and weather the storm, most departed to their home countries and pursued different opportunities in other parts of the world, creating a vacuum of expat talent in China.

As the world slowly recovers, China lingers in isolation longer due to visa restrictions, high travel ticket prices and shaken interest in visiting there. Since China reopened its borders, last January, some foreign professionals have returned but not in large numbers.

Currently, to be an expat in China can become a lonelier experience, especially for those who do not speak Mandarin fluently. Moreover, Chinese business culture has stressed the importance of personal networking for decades, and that has become much harder in a post-COVID environment.

According to experts, there was a significant exodus of expats from Shanghai and other cities during and since the pandemic. This situation has made the recruitment of capable foreign staff more difficult and is affecting the lives of foreign professionals living in the country.

Those expats who weathered the pandemic years inside China eventually formed a strong commitment to the country and upgraded their careers due to a chronic shortage of non-native talent. Not all jobs can be “localized” when executives leave large multinational firms, so human resources managers look for locally available foreign talent.

The Chinese government and large multinational enterprises will have to work hard to restore trust and reverse this trend.

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Although both the demand and supply for expats in China today is a fraction of a decade ago, some movement remains. For example, industries such as pharmaceutical, luxury fashion, automotive, and service and investment firms will need expat leaders and specialists.

Most new arrivals never experienced pre-pandemic and COVID-era China, so they start with a clean slate. China is sufficiently large and economically successful to continue attracting global talent.

Becoming an expat and moving to China in 2023 presents an enticing opportunity for individuals seeking cultural immersion, career growth, and personal development.

China offers a diverse array of cities, each with its unique appeal for expats looking to make China their home. Among the top choices is Shanghai, China’s financial hub, renowned for its vibrant cosmopolitan lifestyle and job opportunities. Beijing, the capital city, boasts a mix of modernity and historical charm, attracting expats seeking cultural experiences and international career prospects.

Shenzhen, a tech-driven metropolis, appeals to entrepreneurs and tech professionals with its dynamic business environment. Chengdu, on the other hand, draws expats with its laid-back atmosphere, rich culinary scene, and proximity to nature.

These cities provide a wealth of amenities, diverse expat communities, and an immersive blend of tradition and innovation, making them prime destinations for those seeking a business position in China.

In recent years, multinationals started transferring former expat jobs to local managers to reduce costs, integrate China branches better into a vast and complex, mostly Mandarin-speaking market, and break the “glass ceilings” that kept local talent from top jobs. Those goals have been mostly accomplished, but unexpected side effects have emerged.

Chinese managers didn’t learn English and other foreign languages at the expected rates and still find it harder to travel than citizens of 80 other countries based on passport-strength rankings. Emerging local firms drain talent from multinationals, and China’s tense relations with major economies, such as the United States, make employment at foreign firms less attractive.

The pandemic and China’s “zero-COVID” regime fundamentally changed the experience of running international operations from the country. For many expats, the forced separation from home and family, or from China-based teams and businesses, was not tolerable, forcing most jobs to shift online during the pandemic.

Currently, there is a new economic environment post-pandemic. The economy has slowed, the job market has tightened, consumption has stagnated in many areas and there are significant problems in key industries such as real estate.

New expat executives relocating to China must face numerous hurdles, besides the cultural shock, such as the intense speed of work that top Chinese cities can dictate, the quasi-parental role that a manager must play, the looming presence of politics in business and the permanently temporary existence of foreigners.

According to experts’ advice, foreign professional arriving in China should have realistic expectations of how much they can achieve in the first year. How individual expat executives overcome these hurdles, craft their personal leadership methods, and ultimately manage to perform well in China will be the secret to their success and longevity in the country.


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Woodburn Accountants & Advisors is specialized in inbound investment to China and Hong Kong. We focus on eliminating the complexities of corporate services and compliance administration. We help clients with services ranging from trademark registration and company incorporation to the full outsourcing solution for accounting, tax, and human resource services. Our advisory services can be tailor-made based on the companies’ objectives, goals and needs which vary depending on the stage they are at on their journey.


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