Despite recent economic woes, the People's Republic remains the world’s second-largest economy, and there are plenty of opportunities for expats looking for work in China. Expats have traditionally relocated to China to fill senior positions in international companies based in one of the major cities, to start up their own business, or to teach English.

A Chinese work permit is needed for expats to find work in the country, and the process for acquiring a work permit for China can be complicated and is mostly handled by the hiring company.

Job market in China

Expats working in China typically fill upper management and senior-level jobs in fields such as IT, human resources, finance, accounting and manufacturing. As economic dynamics have shifted, however, skilled expats at all levels of the corporate ladder have been seeking employment in China. As the country continues its shift towards a service and special skills economy, many expats now take jobs in sectors such as sales, marketing, engineering and banking.

The education sector continues to be the country's biggest source of employment for expats, with a significant percentage of its foreign workforce employed in the teaching profession. While it may once have been a relatively low-paying job, teaching English as a foreign language in China has developed to provide a respectable salary for expats with tertiary education. It is also a means for many young expats to earn while experiencing a new country and culture.

Finding a job in China

The majority of expat jobs are found in major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, all with large expat business communities. Speaking Mandarin is an advantage and is often a way to secure a high-paying job, but many international companies use English in everyday affairs and many expats get by without Mandarin.

To balance this view, the majority of expats continue to be hired by international firms, and opportunities at companies that are completely Chinese-owned continue to be limited. Relocation packages are also less lucrative than they used to be, although many companies still subsidise housing costs, airfare, health insurance and some tax payments.

Many local businesses also prefer hiring Chinese candidates with overseas experience. This is at least in part because hiring foreign employees comes with high costs, and many new arrivals initially have difficulty adjusting to the language and the culture. Some businesses have turned to hiring middle-management level employees from places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not only do these candidates often speak English, they demand lower salaries and can usually speak some Mandarin. Many young expat professionals have found a way around this by taking relatively low-paying entry positions, trading income for the experience that benefits them later in their careers – in China or elsewhere.

There are a number of ways of going about job hunting in China. Company websites may provide listings of available postings, while online job portals and employment networking websites, such as Glassdoor, XpatJobs and LinkedIn, are also a good starting point. Expats may also find the services of recruitment agencies helpful.

When securing a job, we recommend that expats thoroughly read through their employment contract and understand all terms and conditions of their roles and requirements in China. Harsh penalties are known to be faced by foreigners who do not obey the law, so ensuring a valid work permit and visa is essential.

Work culture in China

Chinese business culture is dominated by guanxi, a local concept that is a more intricate take on the Western idea of networking. Much time is devoted to cultivating and maintaining relationships as local businesspeople rarely do business with those they don't know and trust. 

Related to the concept of guanxi is 'saving face'. It’s important that expats always conduct themselves in a dignified manner and avoid offending or embarrassing their Chinese associates at all costs.

Integrating into Chinese corporate culture can be quite a challenge for Western expats. The language barrier, in particular, may take some adjustment, and expats would do well to at least learn some key phrases in Mandarin.

Despite challenges, those expats that manage to successfully find work and integrate into Chinese working life do report high levels of satisfaction.

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