Is the “Beijing Cough” Driving Away Expats?

Foreign companies are finding it harder and harder to attract top expatriate talent to Beijing, where air pollution reached record levels in January as the capital city battled a winter “airpocalypse” that saw the measure of two key air pollutants rise by nearly 30% through March. From Laurie Burkitt and Brian Spegele of The Wall Street Journal:

BMW isn’t alone. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China says air pollution is a key challenge facing companies here, and is an underlying reason why many expatriate workers choose to leave. Soaring levels of pollution are driving expatriates out of Chinese cities, and dissuading others from coming. That is a problem for many multinationals who need to attract some of their brightest and most experienced executives to China at a time when the Chinese market is becoming central to their global success. Volkswagen AG, for instance, is managed in China by Jochem Heizmann, a member of VW’s global management board.

Over the years, Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become magnets for global entrepreneurs and adventurous young M.B.A. graduates seeking opportunities in China’s booming economy. Among them was Marc van der Chijs, who arrived 13 years ago and co-founded leading Chinese online video site Tudou. In March, he packed up and left Shanghai, and headed for Vancouver.

“I was looking for a place where my kids can grow up in a healthy environment,” he said.

Earlier this month, Jamil Anderlini of The Financial Times reported that foreign companies are bracing for an exodus of foreign employees this summer, when the school term ends, and one executive at a search firm told the China Daily that “air quality is absolutely the main reason” that the number of foreigners applying for teaching positions in Beijing has dwindled by more than half. The state-run Global Times conceded last week that Beijing had lost some of its appeal due to the smog-induced health issues:

Some netizens were eager to use the report to criticize. They said China was still at the stage of the industrial revolution that the West once experienced. It seems that Beijing is unable to provide both business opportunities and high living standards.

The government has promised to make greater efforts to tackle the pollution crisis. For instance, 100 billion yuan ($16 billion) is to be spent over the next three years to turn Beijing green. But still, there is no fundamental solution in the short term.

Expats aren’t the only people fleeing China’s smog-cloaked major cities, as middle-class Chinese have also started to head west in search of cleaner air. Last week, Tea Leaf Nation’s Shi Yunhan also reported that migrant workers have cited pollution levels in Beijing as a reason for moving home. Tea Leaf Nation’s Rachel Wang also noted that many Chinese – especially the wealthy and well-educated – are also leaving the country altogether:

It is not hard to understand what may have pushed this group of Chinese away from their hometowns, given recent news about pollution, food safety, quality of life, education and infrastructure in China. Even the inconvenience of carrying a Chinese passport, which makes international travel a nuisance, can drive some people to seek passports of a more convenient color.

This wave of emigration has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some who cannot leave, while others expressed understanding. Wrote one user on microblogging platform Sina Weibo, “Capital is continuously being transferred abroad, leaving a mess at home.” Another commented, “With high housing prices, skewed education and healthcare systems, and a worsening environment…even basic reproductive rights have also been taken away. With all of this, you can’t blame those who are able to do so for emigrating, they just want to find an environment that is just and suitable for living.”


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