What goes round comes round for expats in China

Published:  19 Feb at 6 PM
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Tagged: Visas, USA, China, Hong Kong, Jobs, Euro
To live successfully as an expat in today’s China, you’ll need to understand its recent past.

China’s popularity as an expat destination began 20 years ago at a time very little was known or, more importantly, understood about the vast country’s present, let alone its stunning, millennia-old past. Pioneer expatriates arrived to find their chosen location had no signs in the English language, no sit-down toilets and nothing to eat which bore any resemblance to food in the Western sense. Those with European features became instant celebrities and the trillions of jobs available displayed a land obsessed with all things Western.

The new arrivals were totally unrepresentative of the style of today’s expat professionals, with most either escaping from something or searching for something else. Extreme characters predominated, many of whom had good reason for choosing Beijing as a refuge. Fast forwarding some ten years and many thousands of expat arrivals, the myth had shattered and the novelty of having Western neighbours faded, as did their superstar statuses. First-world style salaries shrunk due to the repatriation of overseas-educated young Chinese willing to work 24/7 for a pittance, and the expat exodus began.

As recently as five years ago, expat lifestyles in China were still attracting the bold and the brave, but Western–style supermarkets, pubs and fast-food outlets were eroding the magic and the government was beginning to crack down on the unskilled using draconian new visa rules ensuring those admitted would be of benefit to the country. In 2017, drug raids on Western-style pubs began, and during the following two years surveillance by the state spread across the cities’ expat communities, fuelled by the US trade war and the Hong Kong protests.

However, throughout all these periods, expats determined to follow their dreams to China still arrived, settled and attempted to ignore their diminishing place in local society. Others simply upped and left, but those who’d put down genuine roots chose to stay. Since early January this year, a huge majority are now under lockdown due to the coronavirus, unable to leave their homes without official permission and reduced to watching armed police patrol the streets waving temperature sensors. Many now believe the crisis is signalling the end of the expat experience in this unique land.
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