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.