Expats arriving in China will find life both exciting and challenging, with language difficulties and cultural differences to navigate. Diversity and inclusion is becoming important in China, but while the Chinese notion of inclusion overlaps with Western definitions, there is more emphasis on the tolerance of differences rather than the idea of celebrating them.
Accessibility in China
In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, China signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), committing to providing fundamental freedoms, such as the right to education, employment, and transport. Since then, China has made progress in ensuring that its cities are more accessible to the elderly and those with disabilities.
Although still behind Western standards, major cities have features such as kerb drops at intersections and raised paths for the blind. The more recently built public transport facilities are fully accessible; most airports and metro stations have elevators between floors and 'braille trails' on the ground for the blind, along with disabled toilets and other facilities. Buses rarely have ramps, though, and ramps that are available tend to be steep, so most wheelchair users will require assistance when boarding and alighting. Accessible taxis are hard to find in China.
There is little deference for people with disabilities in China, and not many locals will give wheelchair users space to enter a metro train or proceed along a pavement, so it may be necessary to be assertive.
LGBTQ+ in China
The Chinese constitution provides for equality for all citizens, although there is no explicit mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.
China excluded homosexuality from hooliganism in 1997, but the LGBTQ+ community still faces discrimination, and more recently life has been getting harder for gay people in China. There has been a social media crackdown on LGBTQ+ groups, and China’s only LGBT celebration, Shanghai Pride, has not taken place since 2020.
Despite this, every major city in China has a thriving gay scene, with gay-friendly bars, restaurants, and clubs.
Gender equality in China
The equality of men and women was enshrined in China’s Constitution in 1954, and since then women in China have seen notable gains in life expectancy and literacy. This is mainly due to China’s rapid economic development. China’s modernisation has, however, seen a drop in the female workforce participation rate. Women are usually solely responsible for child and elder care in China, which principally explains their lower representation in the workforce.
Gender-biased sex selection continues to be a problem in China, particularly in poorer rural areas, due to a 'son preference'. Incidents of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide have resulted in male overpopulation; in 2005, men under age 20 outnumbered women by more than 32 million. It is now illegal to identify the gender of a baby before birth for nonmedical purposes, or to terminate pregnancy for gender preference.
Women in leadership in China
Although women represent almost half of the population, they occupy less than 8 percent of senior leadership positions in China. The level of female representation in key government roles is extremely low, and there is just one woman within the Chinese Communist Party Politburo.
Only 10 percent of board directors in listed companies in China are women (World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, 2020). Entrepreneurship is, however, one area where Chinese women take a leading role. More than half of technology and healthcare start-ups in China had at least one woman on their boards, and 70 percent had at least one female executive. The Global Gender Gap Report puts China towards the bottom of its list – in 2020, it was rated 106th among 153 countries included in the study.
Mental health awareness in China
Mental health is a growing issue in China, and this has been exacerbated due to the country’s extended and strict COVID lockdowns. It is also an issue among the elderly, with many senior citizens facing loneliness as their children move away to build new lives in big cities.
Mental health is a taboo subject among many in China, and the fear of being stigmatised and socially isolated discourages people from seeking help. To address this, the Chinese government has introduced laws aimed at raising awareness, training health workers, and integrating mental healthcare within the health service.
Expats can be at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, exacerbated by the stress and loneliness of moving away from home. Most international companies are now more aware of the impact of mental health issues, and many have adjusted their policies to provide better support. This includes ensuring that mental illness is well covered by the company’s chosen employee healthcare schemes, as well as promoting knowledge and decreasing stigma by holding in-house workshops.
Finding help as a foreigner in China can seem like a daunting prospect, but it is possible to find highly qualified mental health professionals in all the major cities, including psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors.
Unconscious bias training in China
Unconscious bias is an implicit set of often stereotyped ideas an individual carries about groups of people different to themselves. These ideas are not purposefully adopted but rather develop subtly over time, and people tend to hold unconscious biases about groups they never or rarely come into contact with. As a result, they're often inaccurate and based on assumptions.
Unconscious bias can profoundly affect both personal and work conditions. In the workplace, unchecked bias undermines vital aspects of the company, with negative effects on employee performance, retention and recruitment. In a bid to create a better work environment, many companies are beginning to institute unconscious bias training.
There is a preference in many Chinese companies to only take on candidates who are native Chinese. Despite claims of ‘zero tolerance’ by the authorities, xenophobia and racism continue to be a problem in China. According to Human Rights Watch, people of African descent in China face particular discrimination in employment, housing, and refusal of services including by hotels, taxi companies and public transport.
Diversification in the workplace in China
The number of foreigners working in China’s two most important cities is declining due to a change in tax laws, and more recently because foreign talent is deterred by the stringent lockdown measures introduced in response to the COVID pandemic. There are now just 160,000 foreigners living in Shanghai, and only 60,000 in Beijing.
Many Western companies in China face difficulty in attracting and retaining foreign talent, and the reasons are not limited to Covid-related restrictions. According to the European and American companies surveyed in 2021 by the European Chamber of Commerce, other reasons include the high cost of living, a lack of good-quality affordable education, poor air quality, internet restrictions, and, particularly in the case of American companies, geopolitical concerns.
Most global companies now recognise the benefits of a workplace that champions diversity, equity and inclusion. Studies show that diversity often breeds creativity and innovation, and organisations with a diverse and inclusive workforce are happier and more productive. A recent study by the City University of Hong Kong showed 46 percent of those surveyed in Mainland China believe that diversity promotes innovation.
Safety in China
Serious and violent crime in China is rare, although expats can fall victim to petty crime and pickpocketing, particularly in tourist areas. Foreigners should take sensible precautions, like keeping valuables out of sight and only hailing taxis from a marked taxi rank. The standard of driving in China can be low, so the biggest safety risk may, in fact, be crossing a road.
Calendar initiatives in China
4 February – World Cancer Day
8 March – International Women’s Day
March – TB Awareness Month
April – Stress Awareness Month
1 May – Labour Day
19 May – Global Accessibility Awareness Day
10 September – World Suicide Prevention Day
October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month
10 October –World Mental Health Day
14 November – World Diabetes Day
November – Men’s Health Month ('Movember')
1 December – World AIDS Day
►Learn more about day-to-day life in this Asian giant by reading Culture Shock in China
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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