Peoples of China

Strangers in a Strange Land: Expatriates in China

China’s allure over the centuries has been a magnet for the bold and adventurous. Pioneers, the likes of Marco Polo and Mateo Ricci, Robert Morrison and Bill Gates, have come to the Far East with high hopes of cracking the “China Puzzle”and just as many have returned home with a lot less money and only a little more wisdom.

As China continues its ascension as one of the most important economic and political powers in the twenty-first century, the influx of human capital has created world-class citieslike Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdongfrom their gleaming skyscrapers and wide streets to their seedy underbellies of prostitution and migrant laborers. As the Chinese from the west have gravitated towards China’s eastern/coastal regions, the largest migration in human history has created incredible strains on urban resources.

Multinational enterprises and large Chinese national corporations have found that the skilled labor pool in China is lacking, and there are great opportunities for skilled foreigners to work and live in China.

Beijing’s embassy district boasts the largest number of diplomatic relations with any nation on the planet except for the United Nations. Previously, Hong Kong was the primary port of call, but now, economic and political power bases such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangdong provide multiple gateways to unlock China’s wealthall this in only sixteen short years after that sad, June, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Everyone wants to get in on the China action.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are moving to China to make a new life; tens of thousands of Korean and Japanese parents, encouraged by their governments, are sending their children for undergraduate and graduate degrees at Chinese post-secondary institutions. They all believe that the future of Asian (and perhaps global) economies lies in connecting with China. Morgan Stanley reports that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and foreign consumers are investing as much as one billion US dollars per week in China.

The large, expatriate communities in China’s major cities are playing a role in shaping the new cosmopolitans of China. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai are now offering “Green Cards”permanent resident cardsto those expatriates working in certain promoted/designated labor categories. For the first time, expatriates have access (for a fee) to the Chinese educational, employment and health systems. One should also note that since 2004, foreigners no longer are restricted in property ownership (residential or commercial real estate). This has led to increased investment and speculation in the urban housing markets including gluts of residential and commercial property in major centers such as Beijing and Shanghai. Everything from condominiums to town houses to fully-detached luxury villas can be owned at prices starting from US$250,000 with the sky the limit.

Shopping malls and rampant consumerism in the cities of China mean that consumer goods from Swiss chocolate to French wines, from Russian caviar to Pringle’s Potato Crisps are all availablefor a price. One can remember, not too long ago, when there were only four or five MacDonald’s Restaurants in the city of Beijing; now there are more than one hundred. Starbucks outlets have gone from three in early 2000 to more than forty, including one at the Arrivals Terminal of the Beijing International Airport.

What does this mean for the expatriate? What does it mean for living in China in 2005 and beyond? Who are the expatriates? Can one generalize as to their experience and the challenges and issues they face?

As we discuss expatriates living in China, I would suggest that we take a broad and encompassing view which should include looking at at least three specific cultural groupings: (1) overseas Chinese (from Hong Kong, Taiwan and other locations such as North America); (2) Asians (from Korea, Japan and other Asian countries); and (3) other expatriates that do not fall into the first two categories. The Chinese government estimates that more than half a million expatriates live in China. These numbers probably do not take into account overseas Chinese who may be of Chinese descent/heritage but carry foreign passports.

In addition to cultural differences, there are also personality differences for the typical expat arriving in China. There seem to be several “types” of people who come to China and, at the extremes, I suggest they be called the “overachievers” and the “underachievers.”

The former are at the top of their game, usually promoted with a full “expat package” to live in some of the most expensive cities on earth (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong). These go-getters are success stories in the eyes of the world; they have made it to the top and are being sent to face the challenge that is China for their multinational enterprise.

The underachievers come from the opposite end of the spectrum. These are typically those who have not made it in their home countriesthey are “washed up” or are not “cutting it” in their business or job, and they are looking for a new lifeand perhaps a new identity. Probably more so in China about ten years ago, but still to a certain extent today, these foreigners with their non-Chinese physical features can be a “star” in China either because of their uniqueness or because of their passport. It can be all too easy for a person to make a new life in China by teaching English (with a university undergraduate degree) and then going on to other forms of commercial activity.

In between these two extremes are the expatriates who willingly choose to sacrifice good positions and salaries in the West so that they can have opportunities for Christian service to the Chinese, or from the worldly side, to find fame and fortune. In both cases, these expatriates are not blessed with an “expatriate package” to make their China lifestyle more comfortable.

As for coming from different cultural backgrounds, overseas Chinese arriving in China will typically have the least “culture shock” in adapting to their new life. This can take other twists and turns however as language abilities can often be a challenge, especially if one speaks only English or Cantonese (Hong Kong dialect). Even the slang and colloquialisms from Taiwan are different than those of Shanghai or Beijing. That being said, typically an overseas Chinese will make some of the quickest social in-roads to connect with locals because they are seen as the “same blood.” However, for other Asians (Korean/Japanese), we have seen recent examples of cultural stress in the lingering latent (or not so latent) feelings of anger from World War II.

In all cases, the expatriate arriving in China for the first (or second or third) time is confronted with the many changes required to adapt and get through the culture shock of being a stranger in a strange land. Cultural issues are a constant factor for adapting to life in China, even for overseas Chinese. Even the expatriate with the “full expat package” of salary, apartment allowance, automobile and driver and maid (ai-yi) can have issues regarding lifestyle and cultural issues once the dichotomy between “haves” and “have nots” in Chinese society is seen. However, these times of stress and adaptation can also be a key time for Christian expatriates to connect with these new China arrivals who may be open to an opportunity for fellowship and friendship that only Christian fellowship and a community such as the church can provide.

If there is one constant in China, it is change. In general, life has grown easier in terms of livability and creature comforts. Many resources have made expatriate life in China more comfortable. Websites such as “Expats in China” (www. are designed to be an on-line community supporting those foreigners who are living in China and helping them with basic understandings of Chinese culture as well as practical issues such as medical clinics and international schools. However, there continue to be regular challenges for expats living in Chinaeven for those of Chinese/Asian background.

One of these challenges is the diversity of the Chinese people. While many think of the Chinese as a homogenous grouping of 1.3 billion people, between seven and eight percent of the population are not Han Chinese and represent fifty-five official, and hundreds of unofficial, minorities including Muslim and Buddhist groups at the western edges of the frontier (i.e. Xinjiang/Tibet). While members of these diverse cultures may be of Chinese nationality and carry a Chinese passport, they have more in common with cultures and countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Uzbekistan or Myanmar.

Chinese government statistics indicate that more than ten million foreigners visit China each year for business and tourism. Statistics from the Beijing taxation department show that foreign nationals paid 5.89 billion yuan (US$710 million) of income tax from January to November of 2004, up 29.8 percent from that of the previous year. Analysts also note that with China’s implementation of its WTO entry commitment, China is increasing its demand for foreign talent.

Over the years, while many expatriates have come to make their millions, very few stay permanently. It is very easy to feel alone and confused in cities of millions. One must try to understand his or her place in the “chaos”what the Chinese refer to as “harmony”and survive in it. “Whereas to most foreigners China seems too centralized, with an all-controlling party brooding at the hub of a vast monolithic state, everywhere there seems to be a kind of institutionalized confusion” (“Mr. China,” p. 129). Chinese have understood and lived for centuries with the tension of contradiction, and that indeed is what the current China is really likeyou can have the best and worst day of your life in the same day.

Expatriates continue to be a social change agent in China (some for good and some for bad). With China’s drive for “international-ness,” all things Westernfashion, music, and even religion (i.e. Christianity)are of great interest to the Chinese, especially those in urban settings. In the new China of rampant consumerism, everything is availablefor a price. For those who like a fast-paced and dynamic environment, there may not be another place on the planet like it. However, this can have both good and bad effects. Everything is available and permissible from materialism to mistresses, from great opportunities for friendship evangelism to helping plant a church at a micro and macro scale.

For years, foreigners who have come to China have had opportunities to encounter Christ. Since the Chinese experience is not one easily assimilated into (for both language and cultural reasons), Christian expatriates have time and again welcomed nonbelievers into their homes. They have invited them to attend any one of the International Fellowships that meet legally in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing that provide hospitality and friendship to “outsiders” who may not be easily welcomed into Chinese culture. International Fellowships such as the Hang Cheng Community Church in Shanghai and the Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF) have weekly and Sunday meetings where several thousand expatriates from hundreds of nations speaking many different languages can worship together. BICF even has simultaneous translations of their morning worship services into languages such as Korean, Japanese and French. On last count, Beijing had more than ten protestant congregations/communities meeting on any given Sunday.

Other international programs such as Alpha Course (www. provide expatriate seekers and new Christians with an introduction to Christianity through a series of dinner meetings and video tape studies. These groups have sprung up across China at International Fellowships and, more recently, have received the blessing of the TSPM/CCC churches. Business people and workers meet in affinity groups in cities like Beijing and Shanghai where more than fifteen Alpha groups meet in workplaces or work units. Alpha participants meet as well in various international home groups of expatriates throughout the country. Nikki Gumble, founder of Alpha Course, held a successful international Alpha Course at a TSPM church in Shanghai in December, 2004.

Ethnic groups that may not necessarily be English speaking are also starting fellowships and churches across the country. In Beijing alone, at last count there were more than fifteen Korean churches, and multiple fellowship groups serve the hundreds of thousands of expatriate Koreans living in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

While this article does not have the scope to provide answers to the following, there are certainly issues to be considered by expatriate churches advancing into the future. How can expatriate Christians and churches/fellowships have an impact on furthering the Kingdom for non-believing expatriates? What kind of role could expatriate Christians play in working with and building unity in both house and registered churches in China? How can expatriates play a role in encouraging China’s development of the charity and non-profit sector in light of SARS and the Beijing Olympics 2008?


Chinese government statistics at: www.

Expatriates in China statistics at:

That’s China, Beijing and Shanghai editions, June 2005.

Clissold, Tim. “Mr. China,” Harper Business, USA, 2004.

“Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),” The World in 2005, UK, 2005.

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James H. Law

James H. Law is a Chinese-American lawyer who has lived in China for several years and continues to work in support of Christian and secular non-profit organizations in the charity and philanthropy sector.View Full Bio