Sometimes the simplest questions are always the most difficult to answer. For example, I’m always asked how many expats there are in Beijing. It’s a difficult question because the numbers I’ve heard over the years have been all over the map.
Several years ago, I was having dinner with a senior member of the Beijing Automobile Industry Corporation (BAIC), and I thought for sure that he would know. After all, BAIC is owned by the Beijing municipal government and many of the company’s officials have come from city government.
My friend didn’t really give me an answer, but he volunteered that there were at least 500,000 Koreans living in the capital city. Because BAIC has a joint venture with South Korean car company Hyundai, I felt this was a number I could take to the bank. However, I admit to being both surprised and not surprised by his answer. Surprised, because 500,000 is a big number. Not surprised, because of the number of Korean-focused businesses that have popped up all over the city in the past three years.
Despite my conviction that my friend from BAIC was a reliable source, I did some research. Most Internet sources put the number at something more like 100,000. See what I mean about the numbers?
As to the number of non-Korean expats living in Beijing, a recent article in City Weekend appears to have gathered some hard statistics. City Weekend is one of a handful of English-language magazines that Beijingers regularly read to get information about new restaurant openings and other events in Beijing. (City Weekend also publishes editions in Shanghai and Guangzhou.)
In its article, Expat Evolution, the magazine describes how the type of expat living in China is changing. The main point of the article is that, in the past, expats primarily consisted of middle-aged executives from multinational corporations who were here on full expat packages, complete with expat salaries and housing allowances for serviced apartments or even stand-alone homes.
As a result of the global economic crisis, this is changing. More locals are being hired; companies are trimming employment; and expense accounts have been cut. The article quotes a local restaurant manager who noted that, “Now, you might only be entitled to one or two glasses of wine. Any more, and the company won’t compensate.”
According to the article, today’s expats are more often than not “half-pats,” foreigners who come to China without expat salaries and benefits. They tend to be younger, live in walk-ups rather than expensive apartments, and are in competition with a growing number of qualified locals for jobs.
Some interesting facts about expats and expat life in China and Beijing:
- There are an estimated 250,000 expats currently living in Beijing, up from 60,000 in 2002. (My understanding is that there were many more than that in 2002, but I’ll give City Weekend the benefit of the doubt.)
- Rentals for serviced apartments have dropped 15 to 20 percent since the Olympics.
- Beijing is now the 26th most expensive city in the world for expats to live in, compared to its 104 ranking just last year.
- Expat premiums (cost of living allowances and housing assistance) have dropped 11 percent since 2001.
- 50.5 percent of the total expat population in China now consists of half-pats, compared to 27 percent in 2005.