Twenty years is how long the golden era of expatriates lasted for. As jobs dried up in the west, China welcomed the dregs of society with open arms. Student loan defaulters, jobless taxi drivers, and restaurant staff all found paradise. Easy jobs, loose money, cheap beer, and no rules.
That era is no more. This article is the eulogy paying tribute to that golden era.
2000 to 2010
The article Predictions from the Kali Yuga lays out a timeline of 4 cycles. First, a golden age of pure bliss. In the second age, virtue begins to fade. Emperors rise. Society organizes into diminished classes. The third age is one of discontent and quarrel. The final Kali Yuga age is one of darkness and ignorance.
The year 2000 saw the beginning of the Golden Age in China. The early expat pioneers found a China with no cheese, English signs or sit-down toilets. Anyone with a white face became an instant celebrity. The whole country — obsessed with western standards — fueled plentiful jobs for foreigners.
Scott Brown, chairman of Kiwi Expats Abroad China, recalls those day. “It was like that bar in Star Wars – everyone was a freak of some sort. You had such extreme characters. Everyone there was either looking for something or running from something, or had a damn good reason for being in Beijing…”
2010 to 2014: expats demystified
This was the second age, where glorious days of fast money and boozy lifestyles began to fade. Once, expats strutted around China like rock stars. By this time, with so many of them around, their novelty faded and the expat myth shattered.
As China rose to superpower status, the Chinese the middle class was growing bigger and getting wealthier. Locals began to pick up on the fact that the bulk of expats were poor students or financial exiles. Struggling English teachers living month-to-month lost their superstar status.
2014-2015: exodus begins
In 2014, 459,800 Chinese students went abroad to study, while 364,800 graduates came home. In 2015, over 500,000 Chinese students went abroad to study, while 400,000 graduates returned home. These graduates flooded the Chinese work market. Armed with bilingual skills and local culture, they were obedient and worked for cheap.
As cheap bilingual labor flooded the job market, western executive salaries slumped. An American software engineer was one of many who packed it in. He told Global Times that “benefit packages have stayed the same, or even decreased, while the price of education [for children] has increased significantly.”
In 2014, the exodus began. Twice as many expats were leaving than arriving. Reasons cited included rising costs of living, air pollution, and company labor cuts because of China’s slowing economic growth.
2016: crackdown on scumbags
On the surface in 2016, foreigner life in China was grand. Everything from pubs, western supermarkets, and fast-food burgers were common. But in the background, the government started making moves to crack down on unskilled foreigners leeching off the system.
In 2016, new visa rules split expat vias into A, B or C ratings. These depended on work experience, language ability, and education. China-Britain Business Council director Peter Williams commented. From his view, the move was to clamp down on unskilled foreigners in China. The idea was to close the gates to riff-raff. Thus, “making sure people coming to the country could make a contribution.”
Around the same time, jobs began to dry up across all sectors. Corporate packages, teaching jobs and service gigs fizzled. Teachers were especially hit hard, with online teaching schemes lowering salaries and teacher demand even further.
2017: drugs raids in pubs
In 2017, expatriate drug raids started in Beijing and Shanghai. Police began swooping in on expat pubs and forcing everyone to take drug tests.
If a urine or hair sample is positive, expats would get a choice. Name five other expats who use drugs, or go to jail then leave the country. A friend of Planet Asia’s got caught in the dragnet. Lucky for him, he had the connections to survive. After a few days in jail and an apology letter, they freed him and allowed to stay in China. His case was an exception.
2018-2019: state surveillance
I asked my friend how life in China was going. His answer: “Can’t complain.”
2019 put a boot in the ass of expat life in China. First, Internet freedoms hit a new low, driven by paranoia on several fronts. The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square was the big one. Then there were protests in Hong Kong, Xijiang concentration camps and a US trade war. Information controls in China reached unprecedented levels.
News broke about surveillance spyware getting installed on tourist phones. People in Xinjiang were getting arrested for posting in Weichat groups. Rumors turned into fact about of government listening devices, with word-detection triggers.
2019: more drug busts
Arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China skyrocketed. This was part of a broad police crackdown for a “cleaner” education system.
Swiss company Education First (EF) runs 300 schools across 50 Chinese cities. They told Reuters that in 2019, they had seen a “significant” increase in detentions in China. Offenses included drugs, fighting and cybersecurity violations.
The EF rep added that drugs were the biggest issue. Several of their staff had been “picked up by police at their home and work as well as in bars and nightclubs” for drug testing.
In the summer of 2019, 19 foreign citizens (including seven EF teachers) were busted for drugs in Xuzhou.
The case drew fierce criticism in state media. Beijing sounded a call to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s schools.
Through the downward spiral, many expats left China. But some hard-core vets, with roots too deep, chose to stay. As of this writing, those friends of ours who remain are all under literal lockdown. Cops patrol the streets with rifles and temperature sensors. You need permission to be outside, and your temperature needs to be normal. Otherwise, it’s off to the gulag.
This ends the story of the expat experience in China.