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Living in Shanghai is like living in China — only less so. In many ways, it is the least Chinese of cities: English is widely (if often badly) spoken in many shops, restaurants and residential areas patronised by expatriates.
But Shanghai taxi drivers famously do not speak English (or understand the English names of even the most famous city hotels) and finding an English speaker outside expat areas can be tough. Overall, Shanghai packs a mean punch in terms of culture shock for anyone who is not Chinese — but less so than anywhere else on the mainland.
Exotic but not completely alien, modern but with a taste of the ancient, Shanghai attracts people from around the world who want to cash in on China’s economic boom — but without stepping too far outside their comfort zone. And that remains true today, despite the Chinese economic slowdown that has given stock markets around the world jitters.
Despite Beijing’s recent announcement that GDP growth could fall as low as 6.5 per cent next year, down from double digits as recently as 2010, there is little sign of a big exodus of expatriates from the mainland. In truth, China’s economy has been slowing steadily for several years as it matures, but for ambitious expatriate managers, it remains an important place to build a career.
InterNations, the global expat community, says China ranks third behind only the US and Malta, in its “job and career” rankings of expatriate life in 64 foreign countries. A remarkably low 3 per cent of expats surveyed in China said they regarded the state of the local economy negatively — compared with an average of 21 per cent who hold that view in other countries, InterNations said in its 2015 rankings released last month. But when it comes to “feeling welcome”, China sits at 61 out of 64 countries.
Still, there is no shortage of expats coming to Shanghai for work, local headhunters say, and figures for the number of residence permits issued to foreigners in Shanghai fell only slightly between 2013 and 2014 and remain 70 per cent up on a decade ago, at about 170,000.
But local relocation companies, international schools and long-time expat business people say they see a marked change in the kind of expatriates who are moving to Shanghai. Fewer are coming on lavish corporate packages (as companies save money by localising senior positions) and more are coming on their own.
Overall, foreign resident numbers fell 3 per cent last year, but relocation company numbers and international school enrolment suggest a much steeper decline in executives heading to Shanghai on full expat packages. The headmaster of one of the leading Shanghai international schools says he sees a marked change in the racial composition of the school’s students, with many more Asian children and fewer Europeans, to the point where the school has had to offer English as a second language support to preschoolers for the first time.
At a recent meeting sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, several managers of multinational corporations said that most executive positions in their corporations had been switched to local terms in recent years.
“The number of expatriates hasn’t fallen, but the composition of the expat population has changed. Many more expats are actually returning Chinese, and the western expat on a two-three-year contract is much scarcer than before,” says one expat service provider.
Lawyers, who work on visa matters, say that although overall residence permit numbers have not fallen sharply, the statistics could be inflated by expats who were previously in the country illegally, but regularised their status after a recent crackdown.
Still, Shanghai’s reputation as a place to live is far from stellar. Shanghai did not even make it into the top 100 of the world’s most liveable cities, according to 2015 rankings from Mercer, the employment consultants.
Many expats complain about traffic and pollution, food safety and internet speed. The stampede at the 2014 New Year’s Eve celebrations in which 36 people were trampled to death on the Shanghai Bund was a sombre reminder of the city’s crowds and chaos — and a lack of public civility that is extreme even by global megacity standards.
With additional reporting by Jackie Cai