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Salaries for expats in China

Updated 12 Sep 2020

China is one of the world's economic powerhouses, and more and more expats are jumping at the opportunity to live and work in Shanghai, Beijing and in other thriving metropolises. 

That said, expats eager to become part of this East Asian economy should realise that positions are primarily available for senior employees and those individuals who possess a specialised skill set. 

Expats interested in working in China should also note that overcoming the language barrier can be a challenge, both in terms of integrating into the local culture, and in terms of finding a well-paying job. The competition for expat jobs in China is stiff, and a level of mastery over the local language is crucial in the hunt for a good mid-level expat job in China.

Expat jobs in China

Many Chinese companies have embarked on aggressive expat hiring policies, encouraged by the fact that opportunities are thin on the ground for many expats in their respective countries of origin. 

That said, the effects of Covid-19 and the dip in the world markets have affected the standard for lucrative expat packages. Companies are now less likely to offer housing allowances and help with school fees than they were in the past.

Healthy employment industries and expat jobs that are especially in demand in China include:

  • Banking and financial services (risk and compliance managers, anti-money laundering managers, CEOs in the consumer sector)

  • Accounting and finance (finance and commercial directors)

  • Sales and marketing (media planners and operation managers)

  • Engineering (project managers, team leaders, civil engineers)

  • Legal (private managing and equity partners, as well as in-house counsel)

  • Human resources (managers, advisors and consultants – note that these roles usually require Mandarin)

  • Teaching (predominately ESL teaching, but also teaching business and marketing classes in English)

  • Advertising and communications (creative directors)

  • Manufacturing and industry (sales managers, strategic marketing managers)

  • Health sciences (research and development roles)

  • IT (project managers, web developers, programmers)

Keep in mind that international firms employ a significant percentage of the expat workforce. Expats are rarely employed by local Chinese companies, and those that are, usually are hired as engineers or as top-level managers in manufacturing firms.

Expat salaries in China

When gauging salary expectations for China, expats should bear in mind the following important considerations:

Being hired from within China will dramatically decrease one's salary

Although expat salary packages in China are less attractive these days than in the past, expats who are 'hired in' from outside of China will earn much more than expats who are appointed locally.

The more bilingual an expat is and the more experienced they are, the more they will earn in China

This simple maxim is true in the overwhelming majority of expat cases. Similarly, the more experience one has working for multinational companies, and the more unique one's skill-set and area of expertise, the greater the salary will be.

The cost of living in China is reasonable

Even though an expat's salary in China might be much lower than they are used to (sometimes a quarter or even a fifth of what they earned back home), the cost of living in China is much lower than in most Western countries. Meaning that although one might not save vast amounts of money at the end of every month, they should be able to get by comfortably on what would ordinarily be considered a 'pittance' by their home country's standards. Do keep in mind, though, that the cost of a lavish lifestyle in one of China's big cities will rival that of most European capitals.

Saving potential for expats in China

For many expats, the question of whether or not to immigrate to China will depend on their saving potential – i.e. how much money they can 'bank' at the end of every month, after paying tax and covering accommodation and living expenses. 

For highly qualified and skilled expats, this is not so much of a concern, with about 25 percent of expats in China earning in the region of USD 200K a year. For those seeking mid-level employment in China, however, the following factors should be taken into consideration: 

  • Although China's cost of living is famously low, an expat salary package remains very important. Expats should try to negotiate the best possible deal for themselves, as often the 'perks' of the contract will decide whether a move to China is financially viable or not.

  • Although many Chinese employers won't provide an accommodation stipend, some will.

  • Health insurance for foreign workers in China is quite expensive, and if this is provided in a salary package, it will save quite a bit per month.

  • The issue of whether or not the company will provide for education expenses is often the 'deal-breaker' for expat families planning a move to China. The price of good quality international education is astronomical.

  • Bear in mind, too, that most expats will be taxed around 20 percent of their monthly salary in China, but that this can rise to 40 percent for high earners.

  • Note that as a foreign worker in China, expats will be expected to work very hard for their money, and that the intensity of the Chinese workplace can be a bit overwhelming for some expats.

  • Remember that although working in China might not be as financially rewarding as working in other expat destinations, such as the Middle East or Russia, there are some wonderful cultural benefits to such an adventure. China is at the forefront of global economic development, and there are many exciting things happening within the country to attract ambitious professionals. Also, the opportunity to learn a bit of Mandarin is widely reported by expats to be one of the most valuable aspects of working in China.

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