Where Are the Foreigners From?

When I first went to China (way back in 1984), foreigners were something of a novelty. At the time, I was working in the city of Zhengzhou, in Henan Province. I was one of perhaps a dozen foreigners in the city of 2+ million people, which meant that we could draw crowds of curious onlookers merely by purchasing toilet paper in a department store. If we saw a foreigner we didn’t recognize, we would find ourselves staring, and sometimes chasing them down to find out who they were and why there were in Zhengzhou!

Since most of our students had never seen a real-live foreigner before, they greeted us with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Fortunately, both of those quickly dissipated and were replaced by warmth and friendship.

Thirty years later, things have changed. In many of the larger cities, you can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a foreigner, much less spotting one. This change is illustrated in two infographics recently published by China Brief showing the current make-up and distribution of China’s expat population.

There can be no doubt that in recent years, China’s expatriate make-up has been changing. With the country’s domestic work force steadily maturing, managerial positions are increasingly being taken on by Chinese talent, often with foreign degrees in hand and without the cultural disconnect of previous generations. The role of expats is changing as well. Where multinationals once came to China mostly for manufacturing and exporting, they are now increasingly here to access the Chinese consumer market, and are shifting their focus to logistics, warehousing and distribution accordingly.

The overall number of expats working in China has increased dramatically since the launch of “reform and opening-up” (in 1978). According to China’s most recent National Census held in 2010 – the first to record the number of foreigners residing in China – there are at least 600,000 expats working or living in cities throughout the country, broken down by nationality in the chart below.





I note with interest that Shanghai has twice the number of expats than Beijing and that there are just 97,000 expats in the provinces not highlighted in this map. Most of my expat friends and acquaintances live in those provinces.

Measures, Counter-Measures, and Filial Piety


The Chinese have a saying: “shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce.” A fairly literal translation is “the top adopts measures and the bottom adopts counter-measures. A more colloquial way of putting it is “the leaders make the policies and the people find a way around them.”

This plays itself out in a thousand ways every day in China. A wall gets put up and within weeks there is either a hole in it or a ladder propped against it. Driving restrictions are instituted based on the last digit of the license plate. If it ends in a 4, the driver can’t drive on Thursday. Within days the last digits of license plates are covered up with blank stickers or stickers with a false number on it.

But these counter-measures are not limited to the small stuff. Last week China’s National People’s Congress (it’s legislature) passed a law requiring adult children to visit their parents. Here’s how The New York Times reported it:

They are exemplars from folklore who are familiar to Chinese schoolchildren. There is the Confucian disciple who subsisted on wild grass while traveling with sacks of rice to give to his parents. There is the man who worshiped wooden effigies of his parents.


But Chinese officials apparently think it is not enough these days to count on tales and parental admonitions to teach children the importance of filial piety, arguably the most treasured of traditional virtues in Chinese society.


The government enacted a law on Monday aimed at compelling adult children to visit their aging parents. The law, called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” has nine clauses that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly.”


Children should go home “often” to visit their parents, the law said, and occasionally send them greetings. Companies and work units should give employees enough time off so they can make parental visits.


The law was passed in December by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress. It does not stipulate any punishments for people who neglect their parents. Nevertheless, that officials felt the need to make filial duty a legal matter is a reflection of the monumental changes taking place throughout Chinese society.

On the same day a court in Wuxi cited the new law when it ruled in favor of a woman who sued her children for not visiting, and ordered her daughter and son-in-law to make bi-monthly visits. In an article in Bloomberg titled “In China, Visit Granny or You Might Get Sued” Adam Minter writes about the case, the new law, and the issues behind them:

Granny Chu’s is a tale worthy of a guilt-ridden Woody Allen comedy, except that the verdict — and the law that enabled it – – are designed to address a serious problem in contemporary China: How to financially and “spiritually” (in the words of the new legislation) support an aging population. Of course, major problems meeting the pension and health-care needs of a rapidly aging population are certainly not unique to China.


But the scale of the looming problem in China makes the pension shortfalls in the U.S. and Europe Union seem trivial. In 2012, Zhu Yong, deputy director of the Chinese government’s National Committee on Aging, told a Beijing conference on pension reform that in 2013 the number of Chinese over age 60 would exceed 200 million; it would peak in 2050 at 483 million.


In China’s traditional agrarian culture, those aging relatives would live with, and be supported by, their children. But the country’s modernizing economy means children are moving far from their parents to work. Moreover, thanks in large part to population-control policies, Zhu estimates that China’s workforce will shrink to 713 million by 2050, down 24.2 percent from 2011, leaving fewer children to support aging parents. This demographic crunch is creating something relatively new in China: empty-nesters.


In other words, the number of households containing parents whose adult children have moved out is growing. According to data gathered by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2011 empty nests accounted for 49.7 percent of urban households and 38.7 percent of rural households. This number will increase as China’s population ages, reaching more than 54 percent of all elderly households in 2050, says Zhu Yong.

So the “top” has issued its measures. Stand by for the people to deploy their counter-measures.

Within days Taobao, the giant e-commerce site was offering “human rental services” for people who for some reason find the law burdensome. Here’s a report from the Shanghai Daily:

Don’t have time to visit your elderly parents? No problem, just hire someone to go on your behalf.


At least one vender on Taobao.com, China’s biggest e-commerce website, where one can seemingly find any product or service, is offering to visit parents for 100 Yuan (US$16.30) per hour.


The service sprouted up after a new seniors’ rights law came into effect on July 1 and states that children need to visit or contact their elderly parents regularly. The service targets people who are too busy or have a bad relationship with their parents. Experts said the service is at odds with the intent of lawmakers. “We offer services such as chatting, celebrating birthdays and even performances,” a Taobao storekeeper whose username is “ygwcj1985” told Shanghai Daily.


The Zhejiang Province-based storekeeper charges 100 yuan per hour, excluding transportation and extra payments for activities or gifts. “We have a professional team but you have to tell us topics they like to start a good chat,” the storekeeper said. Few people have paid for the new service, according to the shopkeeper’s sales record that appears on Taobao.com.


“Hiring someone else to visit your parents or other elderly family member is so artificial,” said Zhang Minghao, a 22-year-old Shanghai resident. Zhang said it would be difficult to implement the law but the intention was good. His opinion was echoed by many lawyers and law experts.


Fu Minrong, a lawyer with Shanghai New Wenhui Law Firm, said the service has similarities to those hiring a girlfriend or boyfriend to meet their parents, who often nag adult children to settle down and marry.

It’ speaks to the nature and scope of social change that has taken place in China in recent decades that something that was once the bedrock of traditional Chinese culture (filial piety) is now a legislative mandate.

For further reading:

When Filial Piety is the Law (The New York Times)

New Elderly Law Misinterpreted by Netizens (Global Times)