Why Choose China? – Working in China

Article by Christina R. Roca

So you’ve decided to embark in a long-term relationship with China and settle down for a while. You have found a job, an apartment, your visa issues have been sorted out and your expat life can finally start! Like all newbies in foreign territory, you try to adapt to your environment, little by little, you get into a routine. While there are many others like you, it does not mean it is an easy task. There are many challenges associated with professional life that you need to be aware of when you start your first contract in China. The cultural differences at work a foreigner experiences on a daily basis is a totally different experience and not everyone can cope with working in a cross-cultural environment. Actually, the expat “failure rate”  for China has been reported to be as high as 70 percent, with many expatriates returning home before their contract expires . Like in any long-term relationship, you will have to learn how to make concessions in order to make it last, and no one can give you advice better than people who work in Xi’an and are living the Chinese dream. (The names have been changed to protect their privacy).

  • ‘Failure’ is defined as an organization’s loss of an expatriate manager before the completion of their contract in such a way that a financial burden is caused to the organization (Lund & Barker, 2007; Valner & Palmer, 2002)
  • Studies performed on the American expat, Lund & Degen, 2010,


Engineering Manager in an American High-Tech company
Age range: 50-60
Nationality: American
“Chinese are sticklers for procedures and rules.”
“The atmosphere at work is great. Our staff is always smiling and people are genuinely friendly. Our team building activities are always a success. Their fluency in English and the time and effort they put into their work is highly appreciated. You really feel that they care and a relationship can build up from that. As a manager, one of my main roles is to teach them how to become more independent. Their lack of confidence when it comes to decision-making slows things down and makes it hard to get things done. They are stickler for procedures and rules. Most Chinese employees are also quite shy when it comes to giving their opinion. It is also my job to fish for information and ask questions like “how can we do better?”. After having worked for a few years here, they have opened up and trust me more. I have to add what most differs from the US is the work mentality; for example, when it comes to rewarding individual performances. In the US, if you do well, you will get promoted. In China, you have to make your boss shine and it is team effort that counts most.”
“Ask for feedback because it does not come naturally to them to question their managers. Learn some Chinese so they do not see you as a “temporary guy”. Respect all the procedures, even if you feel they are unreasonable.”
International Sales Manager in a Chinese High-Tech company
Age range: 25-30
Nationality: American
“Doing business is all about creating a relationship between two parties.”
“I was lucky to get a job in Sales to develop my company’s international presence. I speak Chinese and that was definitely an advantage. I rarely see my boss and it can be very frustrating when I have urgent things she needs to validate. But the real obstacle I have is actually when sealing a deal. For example, I had found a potential buyer, but my superior was reluctant to give a quotation on the premises that we needed more information about the interested party. It was quite embarrassing because my contact had given me so much information and seemed genuinely interested…I did not see how giving a price quotation could be such a problem! I feel that for junior levels such as myself, it is hard to be taken seriously. My past experience and diploma obtained in the West are not as highly valued. My company definitely emphasizes connections or “guanxi” over business strategy.”
“This type of opportunity helps improve your Chinese and understanding of the culture. You have to be patient because at times, you will feel you are not moving forward. Play by their rules but try to bring your knowledge on the table and share it. If they hired you, that is what they expect. If they want to succeed internationally, they need westerners and business oriented people.”

Engineering Manager in a Japanese High-Tech company
Age range: 50-60
Nationality: Singaporean
“They need managers who create real leaders”
“It was clear from the start: my company chose to send me because I can speak Chinese, and because I am Asian. I have the language skills and also the ability to understand my Chinese counterparts better than anyone else. I have been introduced to the Chinese culture very young from Singapore, and dealing with the Chinese mentality is far less challenging for me than it is for an American. I am here today because I can assure the Japanese company has a Chinese successor in Xi’an who has the open-mindedness and the people-skills our company values to succeed. China is in its phase where true leaders are needed to take over and make the transition go smoothly. This is also a question of cost-effectiveness. Sending a foreigner to manage an international branch is expensive for multi-national companies.
My biggest challenge in my daily tasks is empowering people, making them less bureaucratic in some situations. They need to find solutions, be creative and learn how to implement them effectively.”
“If you want to succeed in China, learn Mandarin. Making this effort will not only show them you are committed, but it also shows you want to be part of the team. I would also recommend to start your management career in Singapore, Shanghai or Hong Kong to avoid a strong cultural shock after following a cross-cultural management training.”

Engineer in a Chinese Telecommunications equipment company
Age range: 25-30
Nationality: Indian
“It is difficult to strike a work / life balance”
“The work culture in my company is extremely high-paced and to keep up with the pulse of the market and technology, committing an average of 12 hours a day is normal. Besides the breaks for meals, people focus on their work. But at least your efforts are acknowledged with high rewards here. Such a high pressure environment coupled with tight deadlines also provides you a steep learning curve. On the flip side, it is difficult to strike a work/life balance. As a foreigner however, I do not feel so much pressure. No matter how challenging the work may be, Chinese people are very friendly and patient when it comes to helping you. There may be a language barrier but eventually it gets better. What I appreciate is the communication across different teams that always goes smoothly.”
“Get a contact point in your team for help; learn to appreciate the fact that Chinese are highly punctual; and finally, learn at least one Chinese song because you’ll be taken to a karaoke!”

Why Choose China? is an ongoing look at professional development in China and the personalities who decided to embark on or enrich their careers here.