Peoples of China

The Unique Role of Foreigners in Present Day China


In 1972, Nixon was the first United States President to visit the People's Republic of China. Six years later in 1978, Deng Xiaoping committed China to adopting Open Door policies that promoted foreign trade and economic investment. These historic events initiated a process which allowed for not only progress in trade, economic cooperation, and interdependence, but also opened the doors for foreigners to enter China. Over 30 years later, China now has a population of foreigners that exceeds 400,000. As China has emerged as a major economic and political player globally, it is important to reassess the unique role of foreigners in present day China and how it has changed over time.

During the 80s and early 90s the vast majority of non-national population was limited to roles in government (embassy staff), business, education (students and teachers) and tourists. Historically this population of non-nationals was concentrated and restricted to larger cities. Government restrictions limited residence in other cities and travel restrictions even restricted trips to many areas of the country. As recently as 1995, non-nationals were required to use foreign exchange certificates (FEC), a completely separate currency system from the domestic RMB. The FEC could only be used in certain locations, which had significantly higher prices than the rest of the China market. It is evident that over time, as China has progressed so has the role of foreigners.

Today, we can see that there is a significant expansion of the role of non-nationals as well as their geographic reach. Just within the realm of education we can see that it is no longer the case that students are simply coming over to China to study the Chinese language. In this day and age it is common to see students being attracted to a much wider array of subjects, ranging from traditional degrees in chemical engineering, electronics, economics or business administration, to more alternative studies such as Chinese medicine, culture or martial arts. In the 2006-2007 school year, there were more than 11,000 Americans studying in China. Just over ten years earlier, there were less than 1,400.

Just as foreign students are learning a much broader range of subjects, the opportunities to train and educate have expanded and broadened for foreign teachers coming into China. English teachers are in higher demand than ever as the English language has virtually become a prerequisite to higher education and a requirement for business success. It was recently stated in an American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) China meeting that China will eventually become the world's largest English speaking country. Many Chinese schools begin English classes when children are three and four years old. Chinese parents want their children to learn English, and they want them to be taught by native English speakers. Parents recognize the value English will have for their children, and nowadays there is a considerable population that has the ability to pay the price for first-rate education in China or even taking their child abroad for quality English education.

Twenty years ago foreigner teachers were only permitted to teach at state owned universities, but today they are teaching all levels of both private and public institutions. Some have even started university and private training schools, which give greater freedoms in student interactions. Private preschools are paying teachers more than university teacher's salaries, and there are many positions that are looking to be filled.

In the business world, foreigners are providing training in management for many Chinese individuals that previously did not have leadership opportunities available to them. Gone are the days when foreigners held all executive and high level positions in multinational companies. Foreigners are now vertically integrated in all levels of business. There are now foreigners in China ranging from owning their own business, to mid-level managers, all the way down to unpaid interns who are simply interested in learning how business works in China. Though there is still considerable government interference, foreigners are learning the processes and regulations to start up their own businesses with increasing efficiency. Furthermore, many of the previously foreign dominated high-level positions are now occupied by nationals. This change is largely due to the fact that many Chinese are now proficient in English. Armed with foreign education and a global outlook, many Chinese are returning to China to become very influential in policy, business, education, and cultural change. There is now a much higher integration of different nationalities in the workforce. National background has become irrelevant; hiring is based solely on merit.

The compensation gap between foreigners and nationals has decreased over time. For foreigners, those working in China will often receive a lower compensation than those working back in their home countries. Years ago, high level and experienced foreigners, known as "expats," were sent by their firms to China and expected a higher compensation than their counterparts back home. This was due to the perception that employees were entitled to a hardship premium and making a sacrifice to be in an "underdeveloped" country. It was also common for foreigners to assume that they would only be in China for a one to three year stint, with a position waiting for them back home upon completion. Though this may still hold true in some of the larger multinational corporations, China has continually developed its living standards and loosened restrictions so that there is much less of a justification for providing any sort of premium compensation. In fact, many foreigners are choosing to go to China directly out of school and on their own initiative instead of being sent over by companies. This new subgroup of young inexperienced foreigners can be described as "half-pats." With the low costs of living in China, it can be expected that many foreigners will be paid even less than their counterparts back home. This, however, should not defer any foreigners from coming to China; there has actually been significant progress that has made it considerably easier for foreigners to reside in China. In fact, not only are there more foreigners today than back in the 80s and 90s, but they are staying for a much longer period of time. Back then, it was rare for people to stay longer than five years; nowadays there is a significant population of foreigners that have been in China ten years or more.

Today with advancements such as the internet, cheap phone calls, high speed trains, higher education and overall openness to foreigners, non-nationals can live comfortably in any of the 500 cities in China. Many foreign families consider China to be their home; this previously was not the case. Words such as "bicultural" or "third culture" are used to describe foreign children born in China. Often these children grow up with no ties or life with their home country. An increasing number of non-nationals are now seeking the "almost unattainable" permanent resident status, allowing them to forego the hassle of constantly updating visas and maintain a permanent status. Although it is still uncommon for foreigners to retire in China, this will change with more retirement communities geared toward non-nationals. Traditionally, retirement communities go against Chinese culture as children are expected to care for parents in their old age.

With increasing numbers of foreigners that are considering coming to China, it is important to understand what roles and behaviors are appropriate and what to avoid. As with any country, it is important for foreigners to approach China with a humble and respectful attitude. It is ill advised to come to China with an attitude of su-periority. In colonial history, foreigners were regarded as rich as well as arrogant in their treatment of Chinese. Foreigners and Chinese locals can mutually benefit each other by sharing each other's cultures and ideas.

The progress China has experienced also has had an impact on the role of foreign Christians in China. Today, the Chinese government estimates 21 million registered Catholics and Protestants which is a fifty percent increase from less than ten years ago. These statistics do not even account for the unregistered churches. According to estimates from the World Christian Database there are 70 million Christians now in China which accounts for five percent of the population. With the broad range of opportunities for education and work, non-national Christians have a vast array of ways they can make a difference in China. No matter what their gifts, there are opportunities to reflect Christ to the Chinese people. Through relationships foreigners have cultivated with Chinese nationals in the workplace, at the university, and philanthropic organizations, the average Chinese now has a much deeper understanding of Christianity. Salt and light can truly permeate each area of Chinese society.

Image credit:A foreign teacher with two students at Anyang Normal University, Henan Province, China by V.T. Polywoda, on Flickr

Dwight Nordstrom

Dwight Nordstrom, B.A., M.B.A. is chairman of Pacific Resources International (PRI), a privately-held USA Holding Company for manufacturing investments in China, and a twenty year China BAM veteran. View Full Bio


Andy Yi

Andy Yi, B.S., M.S., is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps and served four years of active duty including in Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Currently he is interning as a Project Manager at Pacific Resource International in Beijing. View Full Bio