Expat Facts

Sometimes the simplest questions are always the most difficult to answer. For example, I’m always asked how many expats there are in Beijing. It’s a difficult question because the numbers I’ve heard over the years have been all over the map.

Several years ago, I was having dinner with a senior member of the Beijing Automobile Industry Corporation (BAIC), and I thought for sure that he would know. After all, BAIC is owned by the Beijing municipal government and many of the company’s officials have come from city government.

My friend didn’t really give me an answer, but he volunteered that there were at least 500,000 Koreans living in the capital city. Because BAIC has a joint venture with South Korean car company Hyundai, I felt this was a number I could take to the bank. However, I admit to being both surprised and not surprised by his answer. Surprised, because 500,000 is a big number. Not surprised, because of the number of Korean-focused businesses that have popped up all over the city in the past three years.

Despite my conviction that my friend from BAIC was a reliable source, I did some research. Most Internet sources put the number at something more like 100,000. See what I mean about the numbers?

As to the number of non-Korean expats living in Beijing, a recent article in City Weekend appears to have gathered some hard statistics. City Weekend is one of a handful of English-language magazines that Beijingers regularly read to get information about new restaurant openings and other events in Beijing. (City Weekend also publishes editions in Shanghai and Guangzhou.)

In its article, Expat Evolution, the magazine describes how the type of expat living in China is changing. The main point of the article is that, in the past, expats primarily consisted of middle-aged executives from multinational corporations who were here on full expat packages, complete with expat salaries and housing allowances for serviced apartments or even stand-alone homes.

As a result of the global economic crisis, this is changing. More locals are being hired; companies are trimming employment; and expense accounts have been cut. The article quotes a local restaurant manager who noted that, “Now, you might only be entitled to one or two glasses of wine. Any more, and the company won’t compensate.”

According to the article, today’s expats are more often than not “half-pats,” foreigners who come to China without expat salaries and benefits. They tend to be younger, live in walk-ups rather than expensive apartments, and are in competition with a growing number of qualified locals for jobs.
Some interesting facts about expats and expat life in China and Beijing:

  • There are an estimated 250,000 expats currently living in Beijing, up from 60,000 in 2002. (My understanding is that there were many more than that in 2002, but I’ll give City Weekend the benefit of the doubt.)
  • Rentals for serviced apartments have dropped 15 to 20 percent since the Olympics.
  • Beijing is now the 26th most expensive city in the world for expats to live in, compared to its 104 ranking just last year.
  • Expat premiums (cost of living allowances and housing assistance) have dropped 11 percent since 2001.
  • 50.5 percent of the total expat population in China now consists of half-pats, compared to 27 percent in 2005.

5 Responses to “Expat Facts”

  1. Hi Jack,

    The same thing — albeit on a much-smaller scale, of course — occurred here in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) post-Communist states, especially in the pre-eminent city after Wall Fall, Prague. This town took in all the FDI, and enjoyed the highest sample/trial rates for all of the new consumer culture and product madness which we (I say that in the collective sense) now take for granted in our little Czech burg.

    Expats are not like they were. Here and apparently in China (not Africa, it would seem).

    The money thrusts further east and finds its home there too. Interesting phenomenon is that it’s now the locals themselves who are making those investments — Czechs, like their Chinese counterparts, now have enough dough on the go to take matters well into their own hands.

    Thanks for this, Jack. It helps put things into perspective for those of us who are planning their eventual China Move, like me…

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis July 24, 2009 at 4:59 am

    The main issue Jack with this question – as you alluded too – is how do you define an expat? I suspect that City Weekend, which is western owned, may not have considered other Asians. And what about HongKongese? Are they expats? Or Chinese? And what about Taiwanese? Or returning Chinese? It gets hugely complicated. In India, non-resident Indian’s are in fact generally referred to as “NRI’s” to deferentiate them from resident Indians. China as yet possesses no such definition. Maybe it should. If you include Hong Kong & Taiwan, those two will be numbers 1 & 2, and possibly Koreans and Japanese next. Singaporeans? Malaysians? Even Russians have a huge population here – at least in Beijing where the cities current hottest club “Chocolate” is Russian, with Russian caberet. MTV and songs. No Mandopop there, and it’s packing them in.
    The truth is you’re right, its difficult to judge. And when looking at demographics, do you really want to lump in a lowly paid, 24 year old English teacher in Shanghai with the likes of someone like the head of Volkswagen? Probably not.

    So if you want to get to an approximation of expats who are serious (with proper jobs) about being in China, then look at the specific country Chamber directories. I have these, and a quick glance would define it roughly as follows for China totals as according to the last published 2009 directories:
    Hong Kong: 25,000
    Korea: 12,000
    Japan: 14,000
    USA: 5,000
    Britain: 2,500
    Germany: 4,500
    France: 3,500
    India: 1,000

    I could go on but you get the idea. I should point out that also excludes diplomats. The totals here then, for expatriate businessmen, who are living and working in China and who have registered with their national chamber of commerce are actually rather smaller than you may think. And some of those individuals are registered with more than one chammber.

    Cheers – Chris

  3. Chris,

    Many thanks for taking the time to present the additional facts. You make some very good points. Now I understand why I keep hearing different numbers.


  4. ADM,

    Appreciate the comments. Glad to hear that you are thinking about a move to China. Have never been to Prague, but want to visit. If you come to China, I’ll tell you about Beijing and you can tell me about Prague.


  5. I’d like to see an update on this article – do you have one Jack?