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25 Essential China Survival Apps


We loved the list of tips and tricks for living in Beijing that Kaiser Kuo wrote on Quora.  We agree with them all (especially the last one).  Not being able to top such comprehensive and impassioned advice, we thought we’d go a different route.  Since we (YJ excluded) confess to occasionally both whining AND bitching, we’ve come to rely on a few simple hacks to avoid unnecessary bad China days.  

Which ones did we miss? Leave us a comment and let us know your top survival apps!

Language Skills

The indispensable dictionary app. The free included dictionary is pretty good, while for more heavy-duty purposes, serious language learners (or “grownups,” as Brendan calls them) can purchase add-ons including dictionaries, optical character recognition, flashcards, and more. The ABC Chinese-English dictionary is particularly useful, and more advanced users will find the Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (现代汉语规范词典) indispensable.
Homepage Android iOS

Waygo Visual Translator
Too lazy and/or stupid to learn Chinese? Or perhaps you just want to be able to order a meal without having to learn the world’s dumbest writing system first? Waygo Visual Translator has got your back: the free app offers remarkably good OCR for menus and street signs. Point your iPhone at a menu and get an instantaneous (and mostly pretty accurate) translation of dish names. Brendan used to recommend that anyone coming to China pick up a copy of James D. McCawley’s The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters; Waygo renders that excellent book more or less obsolete. So this is what living in the future is going to be like!
Homepage iOS

Xiaoma Hanzi (小马词典)
A nice little character study app that lets you quiz yourself on the pronunciation and meaning of random characters and search by stroke order, though not as comprehensive as Pleco.
Homepage Android

Sogou Pinyin Input (搜狗手机输入法)
China’s most ubiquitous pinyin input software, developed by internet giant Sohu (also good for watching American TV shows, see below), Sogou Pinyin keeps up with the latest memes, brands and names, so when you enter a pinyin string more often than not the first one is the right one. Also not bad: Google Pinyin.
Homepage Android iOS

Shopping & Eating

Taobao (淘宝)
Russian MIGs and everything else made by the hand of man, plus rent-a-boyfriends.
Homepage Android iOS

Etao (一淘)
Great for comparison shopping across e-commerce sites in China and abroad (including Amazon.com).
Homepage Android iOS

Alipay (支付宝钱包)
Want that MIG? This is how you pay for it.
Homepage Android iOS

Dazhong Dianping (大众点评)
Find restaurants by location, cuisine, price, or user reviews.
Homepage Android iOS

MTime (时光电影)
Find movie theaters and showtimes in your area.
Homepage Android iOS

Wochacha (我查查)
Scan barcodes on books, food, or other stuff and compare prices at supermarkets in your area and e-commerce sites.
Homepage Android iOS


Sina Weibo (新浪微博)
Keep your finger on the pulse of China’s netizens, follow the latest celebrity gossip, and if you’re really lucky, become popular enough that people notice when you’re banned. There’s also Tencent Weibo, but we’ve never met someone who intentionally posts anything there.
Homepage Android iOS

WeChat (微信)
Hot on the heels of Weibo, Tencent’s annointed successor to the omnipresent QQ Instant Messenger features an impressive array of ways to waste time chatting with your friends.
Homepage Android iOS


xiamiXiami (虾米)
Streaming music service, keeps up with China, UK, Billboard charts and searchable for that song you’ve got to hear right now. Also lets you save 50 songs on your phone for offline playback. Click the album cover and follow along on the lyrics (they’re not available for every song though, its hit or miss).
Homepage Android iOS

doubanfmDouban FM (豆瓣FM)
Internet radio station like Pandora. Develops a personalized station based on your favorites, also saves your latest favorites to the phone for offline playback. Particularly interesting are theme stations like those tailor for 80后 and 90后 generation listeners, playing nostalgic classics from their childhoods as well as new music popular with their peers.
Homepage Android iOS


Youku (优酷)
Youku devoured their rival Tudou last year and has an impressive collection of legal, HD films and TV shows from around the world, plus a whole lot of other films and TV shows that may not be quite as legal or high-quality.
Homepage Android iOS

Sohu Video (搜狐视频)
Need to see Mad Men, Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Big Bang Theory? Sohu licenses some of the US megahits that Chinese viewers really dig.
Homepage Android iOS

iQiyi (爱奇艺)
Baidu’s online video platform offers a number of films and TV shows not available on Sohu or Youku.
Homepage Android iOS

funshionFunshion (风行)
I’ve not used Funshion yet, but I hear good things, and they have Downton Abbey – good start.
Homepage Android iOS

Kascend (开迅视频)
Great for searching across multiple video platforms.
Homepage Android iOS

Flvshow (视频飞搜)
A good rule of thumb is to never download Android apps from outside the Android app store unless its directly from the official company website (like the Xiami links above), but this app came pre-installed on a nano PC I bought and its a pretty good aggregator of all the video sites, like Kascend. Download at your own risk – the link below is from phone manufacturer Meizu’s app store:

CNTV CBox (国网络电视台Cbox)
CNTV is CCTV’s online arm, and the CBox app lets you watch CCTV stations live – good for catching that NBA game on CCTV-5.
Homepage Android iOS


Find and reserve air and rail tickets, hotel rooms, and travel packages.
Homepage Android iOS

UMeTrip (航旅纵横)
Track flight departures, arrivals and delays at mainland China airports.
Homepage Android iOS

Yidao Yongche (易到用车)
Stuck in Guomao and have dinner plans near Sanlitun? Fees average about 2-3 times the cost of a cab, but this GPS-based pay-as-you-go car service is great for those times when you really need to get somewhere but can’t count on a taxi being available.
Homepage Android iOS


全国空气污染指数 (National Air Pollution Index)
Check the PM 2.5 levels before you leave the house so you know whether to pack your filter mask/gas mask/stay in and cry.
Homepage Android iOS

Conversion Apps
Americans in particular need help learning to think about distance and weight the way most humans do, so an app like ConvertPad for Android or Converter Plus for iOS.

Helpful Tips

  • Want 3G but don’t know which Chinese carrier to use? If you use AT&T or T-Mobile (WCDMA), you need China Unicom. If you use Verizon (EV-DO), you need China Telecom. You can only use China Mobile’s local flavor of 3G if you buy a phone from China Mobile, because its a homegrown standard that hasn’t caught on globally. 4G? Not here yet.
  • Don’t use HiMarket or other Chinese app store versions of apps on an Android device with a SIM card or your personal info.
  • Guess what? English names of apps, movies, TV shows, companies, etc. are either translated or phoneticized, so if you want to find Hobo with a Shotgun, pop the English into Baidu (Android and iOS apps available) and usually it’ll spit back the Chinese name (持枪流浪汉), and maybe even links to watch.


Playing the Meritocracy Game


A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project


  1. The now dead websites http://www.shengguantu.com/ and http://geocities.com/lswk/, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

Staying Safe During Spring Festival: A Teacher’s Advice to his Students


This is an actual email I sent to my students today.  I thought it also might be useful to any first time Spring Festival-ers out there.  


Tonight is the beginning of Spring Festival.  It’s one of the craziest, happiest, and most exciting nights in the Chinese calendar, and I hope that you all have fun tonight celebrating the Year of the Snake*.  As you are doing so, there are some things you can do to stay safe and healthy.

Be careful with fireworks.  Think about the kind of attention Chinese manufacturers usually give to such things as “Quality Control” and “Product Safety.”  Now look at the explosive device you are holding in your hand and which you just bought from some dude in a tent on the side of the road.

Fireworks are part of the culture and they can be fun, but every year the emergency room is filled with horrible injuries. They are often the kind of injury that will mean answering to new and interesting nicknames like “Lefty,” “Three-Finger Joe,” “No Scrotum Li,” and “Holyshitwhereisyourleg Wang.”

Be careful not to get caught by friendly fire or become collateral damage.  I’ve seen people throwing exploding firecrackers out of fifth floor windows into the street below because it was “hen renao.”  I’ve also seen people who are a little confused about which angle is suitable to fire a bottle rocket (Safety tip: That would be UP!).  When walking around the city, keep your eyes open and be ready to hit the deck.  Seriously.

Be careful with the Baijiu.  First of all, it is perfectly appropriate (preferable, really) to say “no, thanks.”  Your host will not think you are being rude if you decide to stick to Sprite.  On the other hand, they WILL think you are being rude if you projectile vomit on their new sofa while sexually harassing their cat.

Second, baijiu is very much a “buy the ticket, take the ride” experience.  Once you get on that train and it has left the station, it can be hard to get off.  If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t start.  Remember that it is something of a game in China to pressure people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do just to be part of the group. (See: Revolution, Cultural)

Finally, NEVER get into a car with somebody who has been drinking.  The Beijing government is getting tougher about drinking and driving, but attitudes toward driving under the influence here are lax by US standards.**  Caution is also necessary when traveling around the city or walking in the area around campus.  It is an unfortunate reality that many drivers today and tomorrow will be lit up like a forest fire.  Be especially careful of black Audis.  Just trust me on this.

Have fun. Stay Safe. Happy New Year.

- Jeremiah

P.S. Yes, your host family will make you watch the 春节晚会. No, it’s not your imagination or the baijiu fumes…it really is that bad. Yes, it’s even worse this year than last.*** No, members of China’s ethnic minorities do not spend all of their time dancing and singing about how much they love the Party even if that’s what your host sister told you she learned in school.  Yes, that is Celine Dion. No, I have no idea what she’s doing there either.  Finally, yes…you MAY make fun of it. Everybody does.


*As Zodiac animals go, only people who were actually born in the Year of the Snake get excited about it.  Souvenir sellers are especially hurting because let’s face it, everybody wants a stuffed monkey.  Not everyone is cool with a toy serpent.  Also there’s some history here.  Past Snake Years are 1989 and 2001.  ‘Nuff Said.

**Although last week a cop was so pissed at a petulant drunk driver that he pulled his gun.  The cop is now a hero on the Chinese Interwebs.

***Score bonus points with your hosts by asking them if they think the show will be the same this year without Zhao Benshan.

To Gift or Re-Gift: The Art of Reciprocal Exchange in China


Ski MaskLast month I received an awkward and unfitting Christmas present from a close Kunming friend. It was a huge, grey knit hat-scarf-terrorist-mask-thing that would look better on a resident of Tatooine than on me. When gift-giving holidays come around, regardless of the country or culture, it’s common to get gifts like unwanted golf shoes, ugly stuffed animals, off-color ties, or odorous perfumes that we never asked for and never will use. Just as many of us have been thinking about how to handle awkward and unwanted Christmas gifts, I too was presented with the dilemma of what to do with this hideous fashion mistake.

When living in China one always receives gifts from friends. Gifts serve the purpose of warming up the friendship and sharing mirth. In a different vein, when a person has power to make decisions, serves in a leadership capacity, or provides services for others, gifts come with a string of expected returned favors attached to them. I’ve been in leadership positions in China for more than ten years, yet I’ve have always had trouble personally consuming gifts I receive from people who expect me to do something for them.

I’m always happy to lend a hand where I can, and when appropriate I’ll accept gifts openly. When a gift comes with an expected request like assistance looking at a contract or a distressed mom seeking advice for sending her child to college abroad, I always follow through to the best of my ability. I know to never open the gift in front of the giver so he or she doesn’t lose face with my potential negative evaluation. But I never feel good using the gift. To me gifting is unnecessary – I’m happy to help without the gift, but nonetheless it is customary to accept the thing.  Upon receipt, the givers heart is settled knowing that the favor I performed for them was met with some level of equal reciprocation.

Recently, I changed jobs and had to clean out my office closest. I found six years worth of unconsumed gifts – little trinkets and key chains from points in China far and near, coffee beans from Mexico, a decorative tin of fine tea among other things. Most of these gifts were from colleagues thanking me for supporting their ideas and professional development. The gifts were a return favor for being a benevolent manager, I guess. My excavation also unearthed a pile of various liquors that I received in return for using the services of particular businesses over the years! None of the gifts was extravagant or expensive – in fact, no individual item had a value higher than twenty or thirty dollars – truth be told the pile of liquor was ample in quantity to summon Freddie Mercury incarnate to a KTV party a few weeks ago.  Seriously.

Even though I struggle with personally consuming gifts, years of living in China have taught me a golden rule of dealing with gifts: when appropriate, pass it on and re-gift.   Applying this rule, the liquor was shared with friends, and I dispensed the other gifts to my employees in a transparent and fair fashion.

On certain levels, passing a gift that was meant for you to someone else may sound cheap and disingenuous, yet in Chinese reality, re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable behavior. You may think that the giver thought long and hard about the perfect gift, or you may also believe in the adage that it’s the thought that counts, but in China it’s the action of giving the gift that counts and not the object itself.  Re-gifting an unwanted gift actually brings you more benefits. Passing the gift on is an action that requires the receiver to reciprocate for you further down the road.  So in many ways re-gifting is the gift that keeps on giving.

To illustrate, a few years ago the manager of a bus service that my organization employed called me saying that he would be arriving at my office in five minutes to give me something. My spidey-sense detected a gift was coming, but I couldn’t run away or say I was out of the office to avoid the gift (remember, I’m loathe to receive these). So I walked down to the front of our building as he pulled up in his 50 seat tour bus and waved my hands that I didn’t need any gifts today. However, he insisted and thrust a package in my face.  There was no other choice than to accept especially since a gaggle of Japanese tourists, with cameras ready, was watching the exchange unfold and not accepting the gift would have been an act of disrespect toward my friend.

Upon inspection, the package was a set of expensive Japanese knives most likely given to him by one of the tourists; I knew that if I took them home, my workmates would think I would use the knives for personal purposes (word always gets out fast about these things), so I donated the knives to the staff for use in our staff kitchen. The result was smiles all around because the office really needed a new set of knives. In another instance, a business partner who runs a tourist agency offered to give me a sizeable cash kickback after the completion of our first travel contract. I told him that I wasn’t interested and that he should plow the kickback into future trips to provide for use in better services for those who actually participated in the trips.

So back to the gift of the unsolicited funky head-wrap. Applying the logic of re-gifting that had worked so many times before, I rewrapped the hideous thing and served it up as a secret Santa gift at a party with friends on Christmas day. Unsurprisingly, the gift was received with as much gratitude as when I accepted it, but lo and behold, my friend, the receiver, actually liked it and thought it perfect for her tastes. Tomorrow she returns to her galaxy far, far away. I wonder what souvenir she’ll send me?

Imagethief: I’m Leaving China and It Doesn’t Mean a Thing


Note: Originally posted at Imagethief.com.

It started with the oven. In Singapore in 2001 I bought a used Sharp R-8H50(B)T Rotisserie combination microwave and convection oven from my buddy, Tuck Wai, for S$200. Say what you will about the Sharp Corporation, which is struggling, but that oven was The Bomb. It followed us from Singapore to Beijing to Shanghai and back to Beijing, proving its worth repeatedly in a country where most apartments don’t have ovens. It even survived one front panel change. It was the best S$200 I ever spent in my life. Tuck always regretted selling – a sure sign of a good deal.

Earlier this year the panel started to fail again, and no transplants were available. It was a protracted death, like a person with progressive organ failure. One by one, over the course of a couple of months, the buttons stopped working, slowly narrowing the list of things the oven could do. First we lost the grill. Then the convection function. Then the microwave time entry. The last gasp was the quick start. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Anyway, I’m not superstitious, and I don’t generally believe in portents, but if the death of our trusty Sharp Rotisserie isn’t a sign that change is in the wind, what is? So after eight and a half well-documented years in Beijing and 17 in Asia for me, we’re moving back to Palo Alto in January. I’m going because my company has asked me to move to the Silicon Valley office, very near where I grew up and where most of my family still live.

For a long time I resisted the idea of moving back to the United States. My self identity is largely based on being “the one who’s in Asia.” I was 27 when I left the US in 1995, six months out of graduate school and, in most measurable ways, a complete doofus. My personal and professional development has pretty much all been in Asia, and most of my friends and virtually all of my experience and network are out here.

Which, when you think about it, seems like a really good reason to do something different, even if that something is going home. Sometime in the last year or two my previously steadfast resistance to going home started to soften. Last May, when my boss proposed I come back to Sunnyvale, which is now where most of our senior execs are based, I found myself much more receptive to the idea than I would have expected.

There is no greater message behind our departure. I’m not disappointed in China. I haven’t been involved in public slanging matches with any Chinese celebrities. There is no shroud of legal action looming above me. I am, in fact, profoundly grateful to have been able to live and work in China for as long as I have. We all take it for granted, and piss and moan about the air and traffic and censored Internet and sketchy food because that’s our version of water-cooler sports talk. And we all rationalize a bit to be here. But step back and think about it for a moment. From your average suburban American perspective, who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who. It’s the stuff of fantasy and scarcely-believable tales from exotic relatives, like my mysterious uncle Stephen, who lived and worked in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. It has been a gift, and under other circumstances I would have remained here at least for a while.

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York TimesBusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story. For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.

In the end, there are only two possible outcomes for a foreigner in China: you either stay here for the rest of your life, or, sooner or later, you leave. If you were to diagram it, it would look something like this:

That little dot encompasses the handful of old communists who settled here for ideological reasons, such as Israel Epstein andSidney Shapiro, and maybe Carl Crook, who was born in Beijing. One or two businessmen I’ve met have been here for thirty or more years, and a couple of journalists I know are edging in that direction. Maybe Kaiser is here forever (though I doubt it). But even Sidney Rittenberg, famously “The Man Who Stayed Behind,” didn’t actually stay behind. He retired to Washington State in 1980. Of course, he was thrown in jail in China. Twice. You’d probably retire to Washington State, too. According to the People’s Daily, China has granted permanent residency to less than 5000 foreigners since it started doing so in 2004, and itmade the news when Shanghai issued its first batch of green cards in 2005. It’s a safe bet that granting citizenship is even rarer.

We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”

There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.

So they move on, and new people come in. That’s as it should be. Out with the old, in with the new. One thing that has not changed is the number of students and young professionals interested in working in China or studying Chinese. One of the fun parts of my job is speaking to MBA and undergraduate student groups, and I always ask who actually wants to live and work in China. Trust me; the supply of young westerners interested in China is not in danger of drying up.

I quit a perfectly good job in Singapore in 2004 and came to China with rudimentary Mandarin and the dream of living here. It was a crazy stunt that worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve not lived the hard-boiled life of my journalist friends, many of whom are forever getting tossed out of some hardscrabble village by local thugs. Nor did I arrive in the FEC era or spend two or three years in the boondocks. But I’ve had my share of adventures. I’ve bargained for long distance taxis in Yanji and ridden through the Zhalong Wetlands in the back of a xiaobengche, surrounded by crates of live fish. I got caught in a youthful waterfight in the alleys of old Kashgar. I’ve been invited into a Uighur house in Tuyoq for tea and sweets, and into the one-room hutong apartment of a family from Shanxi for homemade noodles. I stood on Tian’anmen Square with tens of thousands of Chinese people during the memorial a week after the Wenchuan earthquake. I was in the Bird’s Nest during its Olympic pomp. I helped companies wrestle with the melamine crisis and the acrimonious collapses of their Chinese joint ventures. I had huge stretches of unrestored Wall all to myself on spectacular, blue-sky days. I scuba dived on a sunken village in the dark and freezing depths of Qiandaohu, on sunken Great Wall in Tanghsan, and with a whale shark in Dalian’s morose Tiger Bay aquarium. I walked from one-side of Beijing to the other and discovered neighborhoods I’d have never found any other way, and went for runs in the pre-dawn winter darkness when the city is as still and quiet as it ever gets. I spent a year in Shanghai and learned that it is every bit as cool as Beijing, in its own way. I made great friends, worked with amazingly talented Chinese colleagues who disabused me of every stereotype of Chinese employees. I wrote a silly blog that people actually read. And I raised a little boy who calls Beijing home and speaks Mandarin with an effortless fluency that I am scandalously jealous of.

They’re the experiences of a lifetime. Some scruffy air and occasional difficulty with Facebook seems a small price to bear. I’ll miss it, but it’s time to go. Here’s to the next generation of young westerners who are dreaming of living in China. May they all get the chance, and may their lives in China be as amazing and rewarding as mine has been.

Getting On In Chinese Media

 by Mike Cormack

I feel a bit foolish making myself out to be any kind of success in media. I am not a trained journalist, and there are many practitioners of that fine calling in Beijing, such as Tania Branigan, Christina Larson and Gady Epstein, who really show how it’s done. However, I have made my way up to managing editor of a Beijing magazine from having been a freelancer only three years previously, so my story might be useful to those looking to get on in the English-language media in China.

I know myself how baffling the media can seem when you’re just starting out. If you have a headful of ideas, a keen interest in the news, and good writing skills, media work can seem the ideal career. I felt this when freshly graduated in English and politics, with no real idea how to go about getting any kind of writing job. Getting an internship in London was an absurd impossibility, and there didn’t seem to be any other kind of entry-level posts: every advert I saw in the Guardian Media Jobs section required experience. I remember reading Private Eye’s “In The Back” section, as written by the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, seeing the phone number listed at the bottom, and wanting to call up to demand: “How did you get started? How do you get a foot in? Where can I begin?” There were practically no entry-level posts and no doubt the few that were advertised were responded to by avalanches of naive, fresh-faced, would-be writers.

Eventually I gave up even the idea of media work and settled for being an English teacher, the great fallback career. However, this wasn’t satisfying, and I moved to Huia’an, Jiangsu province, in 2007, ostensibly to finish the zombie novel I had been plodding on with for the past several years. Though I’d only intended to stay a year, China got its claws into me, and I decided to stay. Huai’an not having any particular charm, when I was offered a job with English First in Tianjin I made the move north.

Tianjin was far bigger than Huai’an, of course, large enough to host English-language media. A few weeks after arriving, so say about October 2008, I saw an ad in Jin, the expat magazine delivered to the teachers’ room, looking for freelance writers. Swiftly I wrote up a review of the local expat dive bar and emailed it in. The editor invited me in for a chat, and I began doing some occasional freelance work for them. The assistant editor would call me up and ask me to go to some shop or restaurant; I would meet them there then write-up a 100 word piece: about one or two per monthly issue. Then sometime in 2009, I saw an ad for the rival expat magazine, Tianjin Plus, and applied. They offered more articles per issue and more money per word, so I defected.

At Tianjin Plus, I got more to do: as well as bar, shop and restaurant reviews, I did opinion pieces, then interviews with expats of note (such as there are in Tianjin). Then I got invited to do the “Last Words” article in the sister magazine, Business Tianjin, like what Kaiser Kuo did in the Beijinger. Then, after I grumbled about the copy editing in one issue, I got invited to do that too, so once a month I would receive about eighteen articles to do over the weekend. Then, in about January 2010, the owner of the magazines asked if I’d be willing to come into the office during my weekend, which as an ESL teacher was Monday and Tuesday, for a consideration on top of the payment per word. I was willing, of course. So for the next four months I didn’t have a day off. The good thing was, though, that after a day in the office, I didn’t feel tired or drained, as I did when teaching: I felt energized. You always know when you’re doing the stuff you love.

As they seemed to like my work, I asked the editor if there was a possibility of going full-time, but we couldn’t agree on salary so I looked to Beijing. Come May 2010, I got a job with an editing house, and I’ve been here since. Fortunately, Tianjin Plus were also looking for someone to write about Beijing at that time, so I became their Beijing editor and kept on copyediting. As Beijing editor, I reviewed two shops, bars or restaurants, interviewed one expat of note (I think I was the first person to interview The Beijing Beatles, for example), and wrote a short general column on Beijing life.

In Beijing I continued to accumulate obligations: a monthly column for Pregnancy and Parenting magazine, the website director for Tianjin Plus. By this time my full-time post was senior copywriter for Dentsu, a big advertising agency, so to say I was busy is a comical understatement. I was looking for editorship of a magazine by this time, but such posts are few and become available only rarely. However, when the post of managing editor of Agenda came up I was straight in there, and took it up at the start of February 2012.

That is a bald summary of three and a half years. Obviously it’s mostly been a case of taking it step by step. Sometimes I’ve been lucky when opportunities have just fallen into my lap, but all the same you have to be there to take advantage. Looking back, then, perhaps I can draw various lessons.

  1. The first and most essential one is: if you have any kind of writing gig, deliver copy on time (preferably earlier), and make as good a go of it as you can. This is always the most important thing. There’s nothing worse than being let down when someone is promising you an article. Get it in!
  2. If you’re looking for outlets, in Beijing there are lots. There are Agenda, the Beijinger, beijingkids, City Weekend, City Weekend Parents & Kids, Time Out, That’s Beijing, Global Times, China Daily, eChinacities, the Beijing Review, and more. If you’ve got an idea for an article, most are very easily approachable. It would be a foolish editor who did not at least consider the idea, regardless of whether you’ve got experience writing or not – all that really matters is the quality of the piece.
  3. Having a good knowledge of a particular field is very helpful. For myself, I have been following the Beijing and China blogosphere/Twittersphere closely since about 2009: this has been a great help in writing for the expat media. If you’re into something niche like welly-throwing or cross-stitching, there are magazines and websites out there, but necessarily exposure in China will be limited. If you haven’t any particular interests, you won’t have anything to say.
  4. Similarly, lots of people think they can just “start writing”, as though it’s as natural as breathing, or that their undergraduate essay-writing skills will see them through. I disagree. Writing is a skill which can be practised and improved upon, but which nevertheless requires some degree of innate talent: just the same as with playing the guitar or assembling code in C++. Writing a snappy blogpost is far different to the 3000 word humanities essay, and both are especially remote from headline writing. If you haven’t been practising writing through having a blog, a journal, or whatever way of writing you choose, those skills and techniques have not been developing.
  5. Social media, then, is I think today utterly essential. You don’t have to be into Twitter or Instagram etc, but a blog of some kind is fantastically useful for the budding writer. You hone your ideas and opinions; you find what you can write about well; you get good at finding appropriate pictures and trying to write arresting headlines; you get into the habit of writing regularly and to order; you get used to fumbling around for ideas; you learn how to link with other bloggers and try to drive up traffic. Your ideas written down can look very different to how they feel in your head.
  6. For a writer, the ability to handle prose is not, I would suggest, the essential skill. The most important thing is insight. Are you observant – of people, of trends, of your field of interest? Can you draw parallels, see similarities, discover underlying patterns? If so, can you look back at stuff you’ve written and find the observations stay relevant? That’s the real stuff every editor is looking for.
  7. Every day, I read and write for fun, beyond work. Before I was writing professionally, I would read and write about 20-25 hours a week. If you don’t put in the time, you ain’t gonna get good. If you think about doing a job reading and writing for 20 hours for free and the idea fills you with horror – you’re in it to make money, you say – I suggest you find something better to do.
  8. If you’re an English teacher and working evenings and weekends, you’re in an ideal position to get an internship, if you’re seeking an entry-level post. Once you’ve got some credits to your name and some feedback from an editor, you can move onto doing freelance or part-time work, and so on. It’s just step-by-step.
  9. Ultimately it comes down to what energizes you. I did not find teaching energizing – I could do it professionally, but it was draining. Advertising writing at Dentsu was better, but still not quite there. But I knew from working in the Tianjin Plus office on my weekends that media work was satisfying, and exactly what I’m most suited to. If you’re writing about your time in China already, in a blog for example, that’s a good sign.
  10. Nonetheless, I’ve no doubt there will be lots of candidates for media work in China. Despite the restrictions, there’s a lot of great content out there. If you think you can do better, get writing.


The author is the managing editor of Agenda Magazine.

Don’t Stop the Carnival: Advice for Staying in China


The path to sustaining careers for expats in China has taken a new turn.  Until recently, expats could board the China party boat and find an opportunity to maintain a livelihood in China for years if not decades. For better or worse, these opportunities don’t plop down in our laps anymore; we’ve got to go find the party, and there’s a new set of social rules running the town.  These days the 22 year-old college grad teaching history at a top Beijing college has been replaced by a qualified GRE coach from the US.  The laowai hired to sit at the board table and drink with clients is replaced by Wharton MBA who prefers Bordeaux to baijiu.  Entrepreneurs trying to  market services to the 300,000 foreigners living in Beijing are finding that local officials won’t grant licenses anymore, since income from foreign consumers in China has a negligible effect on the development of his locality.

Opportunities granted to those who used to simply show up to the party aside, we have to also admit that the social electricity that once enticed us to stay in China has tuned down.  I’m not talking about being here to experience the hollow hype of the Olympics or to think how neat and trendy is it is to see Beijingers on the subway reading their Kindles.  But rather I’m waxing nostalgic on those electric moments like a four-hour dinner experience, the strangely insightful conversation with a taxi driver, or the chance to go out for the night with some local government officials and survive the mayhem.  Certainly the chances for this style of participation in Chinese society are dwindling.  And for the less brave wallflower-laowai, fewer are the shirtless Beijing men, the canal swimmers, the annoying English language learner who approached you in the street, and the high-heeled grannies climbing the steps of the Great Wall site at Simatai.

Despite these changes, there are still plenty of us here who love the things a life in China can offer, and plenty others who just are getting off the boat to start a new career in China.  To those folks, I offer the following simple advice.


1. China is not limited to Beijing and Shanghai.That social electricity still abounds in second and third tier cities; the cross-cutting ties that bind society together are more obvious and more dynamic out in the provinces. Those who live in Beijing and Shanghai are purposefully insulated from seeing China’s challenges and conversely its vibrant society. There are plenty of other extremely livable cities (better air and greener pastures than Beijing)  in China with hot issues to explore and stimulate the mind’s curiosities. Kunming and Nanning are linking up with Southeast Asian neighbors, Chongqing has had some very interesting experiments in urban planning and municipal governance of late, and Wenzhou seems to be a great place to study finance and global supply chain management.   The list really does go on.

But if you’re looking for a place to settle down, enjoy yourself, and prosper in China, please avoid the Aihui-Tengchong line – a line that divides the country in half and runs diagonally from the northeast to southwest through cities like Hohhot, Taiyuan, Xi’an/Lanzhou, and Tibetan Sichuan.  This is the area of China with the least amount of water available per capita and living there with the dust storms, the ghost towns, and constant water shortages will consistently remind you of China’s resource crisis.


2. Narrow your focus, skill yourself in niche or emerging fields. My expat friends who are successful these days in China are savvy and thoughtful managers of their Chinese staffs.  Or they are truthful and humorous writers.  Or they teach local farmers to raise bees in the Himalayan foothills.   Or they market pharmaceuticals to provincial hospitals.  More so now than ever, one needs to apply a previously developed skill or interest to sustain a livelihood in China.   I used to tell US college students to come to China to work right after graduation, but now I advocate for them to work in the US for a few years to make them more valuable and their China experience sustainable. Another way to think about it this is imagine that you were a new immigrant to the US.  How do you differentiate yourself from the other recent immigrants to apply your skills in a successful career?  What local knowledge and behaviors would you have to express to be accepted by your local community?


3. Focus your efforts on making your money from the Chinese consumer. It may sound brash, but isn’t this what Uncle Wen wants us to do?  Didn’t this approach help the US (and the Japanese and the Korean) car industries survive the Great Recession?  By design or not,  My friends who have started or are involved with successful and sustainable business ventures all are making their bucks off of the Chinese consumer these days.   Salvador’s Café, a popular hangout in Kunming for expats is now seeing the bulk of its business from local Kunming students and white collars, and its owners have begun to pay their profits back to the local community through development projects.  Beijing United Family Hospital is seeing its most robust growth in income from the moneyed, uninsured Chinese patient taking advantage of its cancer center, neo-natal programs, and surgery department be it for needs plastic or otherwise.


4. If you are not the entrepreneurial type, insulate yourself within a large for-profit organization.  This advice is the quite disconcerting for me to give but unless you are willing to stick your neck out there and get it dirty, or deal with a huge amount of stress and red-tape, or compromise many of your moral values, or end up dead in a Chongqing hotel, you need to find a middle-management position in a company where the execs on top of you handle the schlock while you earn a modest salary and some key experience doing business in China.  On another token, over the past decade we’ve seen China’s stock of expats working in international NGOs dwindle to a platoon of holdouts.   So for all of you do-gooders out there, my advice for a long-term career path in China is to swallow the cognitive dissonance and  find a way to do good while turning a profit.


5. Get used to working for Chinese companies. Many of my former students and colleagues are running the foreign trade arms of local Chinese exporters.  Opportunities in this sector are on the rise, and China hands can now find jobs in the US working for Chinese firms.  If I were younger and bolder, this would be the direction I’d be looking into right now. But what better place is there for young expat professionals to learn how to do business in China and improve language and interpersonal skills than with a Chinese firm? I’m sure there will be a ton of frustration involved in these  organizations, but friends and colleagues who have taken this route all end up in top graduate programs in the US or launching successful startups here in China.


6. Know that China will be in an environmental crisis for at least the next 50 years.  Again, stay away from living in the difficult places.  Do some research, and given your knowledge/belief/faith in global warming, predict which places might be difficult to live in environmentally 5, 10, 20 years from now.  You’ll have to do this in the West too.   Get used to the possibility of water rationing and occasional planned blackouts in your urban local – you’ll still survive.   But at least China is a place where people seem to want to do something about the environment and effects of pollution.  An American environmentalist and colleague commented to me recently that he is so much more excited about working on environmental issues in China than in the US because business and policy makers here are actually curious to talk with him and interested in change – within this curiosity lies opportunity!


7. Have a truthful conversation with yourself living in China for a long time.  Sit yourself in front of a mirror and look at your teeth.  Know that they are likely to turn more discolored than if you lived in the US or the UK(!?).  But also know that while your likelihood of dying of cancer has greatly increased,  at least you’re unlikely to have to develop Type II diabetes or heart disease in China.  And you are likely to maintain a fit body weight 10-30 pounds less than if living in the West.  Have conversations with your future spouse about how you will educate your future children; when I was a young pup in the 90s on my first trip to China, I knew that if I ever settled down and had kids here that the far off point of departure would be when they reached primary school age; weighing the public school and international school options, the writing was as clear on the wall then as it is now.


The China party ain’t over folks, in fact it’s truly just beginning.  The social forces, environmental stresses, and the economic heft that China can now wield on the world and influence change for better or for worse simply weren’t here ten years ago when China could be that the eclectic and electric “other” place we wanted just for our own and pined for it to stay just the way it was.  Why throw in the towel now, miss the party, and read about China from afar when all it takes to stay and sustain a career here is a new way of looking at our purpose and approach to living in China?



Where Are You From?

In his very checkered career Justin Mitchell has worked at Pulitizer Prize winning US newspapers that no longer exist as well as hopscotching across China, Hong Kong and Thailand to stay employed. His past includes interviewing Yoko Ono, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis and Ray Davies as a music writer, as well as Japanese porn star Suzi Suzuki. He also broke ground-breaking stories for The Weekly World News such as “Mermaid Found in Tuna Can,” and “Irish Built the Great Wall of China.”

“Where are you from?” is a common icebreaker when meeting new foreigners or Chinese colleagues.

I’m from Boulder, Colorado, but my answer always varies slightly. If I’m talking to an American or Canadian, I usually simply say, “Boulder.” It’s an admittedly small conceit, as if it’s LA. Or Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or DC. Or New York, Philly, Chicago or Boston.

It’s none of those, of course, but it does have a slightly hip cachet and is a combination of a rocking college town, high-tech, environmentally progressive haven nicknamed “The People’s Republic of Boulder” for things like being the first city in the US with a smoking ban and strict limits on growth and a small thriving medicinal marijuana market. It sits at the foot of where the Rocky Mountains begin. There are no high rises or sky scrapers in Boulder and it has miles of hiking green belts off limits to developers.

Boulder attained one-word status like Berkeley during the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s as a hippie alternative. Many light years ago, I ran into the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg in line behind me at a Boulder Safeway grocery check out and asked him to autograph my frozen pepperoni pizza box, which he kindly did, as well as giving me friendly advice to go vegetarian. That’s the kind of place it was.

If the query comes from a Brit, European, Aussie, Kiwi or Chinese person I say “Colorado.” Though like my knowledge of Chinese geography and geography in general is hazy, most can’t connect it with anything except maybe the old John Denver song, “Rocky Mountain High” or the NBA Denver Nuggets. Or the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona.

I never mention “Columbine” as in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre; though it’s also the official state flower and the name of the street on which I grew up.

That is until the other day when a Welsh colleague asked me. “Where did you say you were from in Colorado?” We had introduced ourselves a day before and I’d confessed the only things I knew about Wales were Dylan Thomas, Cardiff, an incomprehensible native tongue, chronic unemployment, hard drinking and coal mining.

“Boulder,” I replied, starting to go into my usual Boulder Chamber of Commerce spiel.

“Not Aurora?” he interrupted me politely.

“No, it’s a piece of shit suburb of Denver. Why?”

Then he told me about the movie theater massacre. I mentioned Columbine, which he knew about and then I excused myself and began frantically Googling and quickly felt sick and sad.

Chinese colleagues and friends began asking and texting me, too. Some even asked if I knew the shooter (WTF?) and, some, more gently asked if my family was okay. I assured them that all was well and I didn’t have a clue about the killer.

I saw CNN and online photos and footage of the theater, which I recognized as a place I’d driven by perhaps a dozen or so times in the past on my way to other destinations in sprawling, soulless Aurora.

“It is like Columbine, maybe?” asked a Chinese coworker who also asked me point out Colorado on a fading world map pinned on the office wall. I showed him.

“So it is in the western United States? Why do you have so many guns? Like a cowboy or gangster movie maybe?”

I didn’t want to go there and the right to bear arms or arm bears, etc, excused myself and went back to editing a glowing piece on the harmonious relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities in Tibet.

But the next day the same coworker and two others wanted to know more. They were fascinated with the booby-trapped apartment and how one man could walk into a movie theater dressed like some kind of futuristic grim reaper packing three or four guns.

“Your country is so violent,” one said, stating the obvious and not with malice. Indeed, and Aurora, a mostly downtrodden home for many unemployed which sees about 20 of its 320,000 or so residents murdered annually, is particularly so.

But I felt defensive and asked about the recent hostage taker who was shot dead by a police sniper in the No. 10 line Hujialou subway station. Why hadn’t that received more press?

“But he was a professional man,” one coworker said. “A white collar.” As if that explained anything. I pressed on about past atrocities – some worse then the Aurora massacre – such as the rash of young school children decapitations, kidnappings and murders in Shenzhen and other cities a few years ago.

“What ever happened to the men who did that?” I asked. “And what about the other children who saw their schoolmates hacked to death? How do they handle the memory of seeing their friend’s head chopped off with a meat cleaver? In the US or elsewhere these would all be relevant, newsworthy. Here it seems it is quickly mentioned at most and then swept aside in favor of harmonious unilateral relations with Africa or squabbles over tiny islands.”

China also has its fair share of serial killers, as Robert Foyle Hunwick pointed out in an excellent piece in Danwei,though unlike the US or UK, these crimes are underreported and often virtually ignored due to  the low social status – migrant workers, hookers, etc – of the victims. The reverse side of the coin that says a hostage taker in a sport coat who is taken out by a police sniper is not worthy of much press because he’s a “professional man” and it might offend others in that class.

There are obvious answers to these questions for anyone who has done hack work or “PR for the PRC” as I have since arriving in 2003 and – exceptfor 3 and a half year stint at The Standard in Hong Kong – has otherwise toiled in the belly of the beast at state publications, including China Daily, Global Times and China Radio International.

It was at my first Chinese English language paper, a small, friendly and never feisty publication called Shenzhen Daily where I first learned how these things work. A wealthy Hong Kong family connected with Phoenix TV had been murdered and robbed in their Shenzhen luxury home.

Juicy stuff. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the journo cliché goes.

The suspects were caught shortly thereafter and all I had to do was to clean up the grammar and slap a headline on it.

“Phoenix TV murder suspects nabbed” was what I wrote. Simpl7e and to the point.

Alas and alack, my chief Chinese overseer came to me shortly thereafter and asked me to tone it down.

“It is too harsh,” he said.

“I don’t understand,” I replied.

“There was also a robbery,” he said. “Perhaps you might say, ‘Robbery suspects arrested.’ Murder is too harsh for a headline.”

Flash forward. Okay. How about “Colorado ‘Dark Knight’ premiere interrupted by discord, experts say.”

Six Points on Social Insurance for Foreigners


Author’s note:  This post has been modified slightly from the original to correct a couple of misstatements and reflect new information and concerns.  These changes are mainly found in the introduction below, points one, four, and five.

Starting in July, my coworkers and I will be among the first foreign residents of China asked to contribute to the Chinese social insurance system. Although the law was promulgated last October at the national level, Tianjin, like most major cities, has been slow to implement it locally. In fact, according to people at my company’s headquarters in Shanghai, Suzhou is the only other city which has enforced the social insurance law for foreigners working at training centers like mine. For many foreigners working in Shanghai and Beijing the social insurance tax is still something on the horizon.

The English language press published a flurry of articles about the law in fall 2011, but since then reporters seem to have tabled the topic, mostly because of the glacial speed of Chinese bureaucracy, but also because, for most foreigners, the tax seemed hypothetical, not something we could comment on directly. Now that I actually have to pay the tax, I went back and reviewed the original news articles for information, and also submitted a list of questions for the government to our HR department. After doing so I decided that there are six major issues for foreigners and their employers to think about:

(1) According to Chinese law, workers will be guaranteed retirement benefits after contributing to the system for fifteen years. However, during those fifteen years there is no interest on your contributions, though the government should provide something like a cost of living adjustment once you start receiving benefits. Every city will set its own contribution rates. In the case of Tianjin, I pay 11% of my base salary and my danwei “matches” with 33%. Much like Social Security in the United States, there’s an income cap, and any income above that level isn’t taxed for social insurance purposes. In Tianjin the income cap is 10,560 while in Beijing the cap is 12,600. Some of these funds go to medical insurance, unemployment insurance, and maternity insurance, but most are earmarked for retirement insurance. Given the rate of the inflation, the Chinese social insurance system represents a net loss for contributors, even more so than China’s low-interest savings accounts. Many of us will be wishing we could’ve spent the money while we had it – or put it into private retirement insurance.

(2) Most foreign workers have no intention to stay in China for fifteen years or more, and thus the issue becomes: how can I get my money back? Well, the government has assured us that we can get our own contributions refunded, but contributions from our employers will stay in the system. We have been told that to get the money back a foreign worker must sign a document declaring that he or she will never work in China again. However, this will certainly increase the rate of illegal foreign workers (see point 5 below), as many foreigners “swear off” China, leave, and wander back a few years later. A separate but arguably related issue is that most social insurance in China is being run on a city-by-city basis, and is not easily portable if a worker decides to move, but few foreigners want to stay in a single Chinese city for the rest of their life. What happens if I move from Tianjin to Shanghai? The government hasn’t answered this question yet.

(3) Like Chinese, foreigners should receive a social insurance card and corresponding social insurance number. There’s a fly in the ointment, however: is the Chinese system prepared for foreigners who get a new passport and thus a new passport number? Those of us who have been around long enough know that Chinese bureaucracy operates by analogizing passport numbers as Chinese ID numbers, yet Chinese ID numbers never change. Whenever foreigners renew their passports there’s a mad scramble at the bank, the phone company, and the local paichusuo (among other places) to update paperwork to reflect the changes. Most of the time we can’t get this done without letters from the embassy which endorse the passport renewal process. Considering the (potentially) large sums of money involved, and China’s track record thus far, one is left doubting the ability of the system to handle an essential fact about foreigners.

(4) One of the less commented upon yet more onerous aspects of China’s social insurance law for foreigners is retroactivity. When the central government said that the law went “into effect” in October of 2011, they really meant it. Even though most Chinese cities have been lax in implementing the law, the requirement of retroactive payments has been sitting there like a time bomb waiting to go off. The first time a foreigner has to pay social insurance it’s probably going to be a massive hit – at the time of this writing foreigners and their employers will have to pay up to 9 months of tax in one lump sum. The degree of retroactivity seems to vary from city to city and even district to district, but Tianjin seems fairly consistent.  Consider a foreign teacher employed at an international school in Tianjin with a hypothetical base salary of 18,000 RMB/mo. and benefits worth 7,000 RMB/mo. The teacher would have to forgo more than half an entire month’s salary in back taxes (10,454 RMB, to be precise), while his/her employer would have to pony up more than 30,000 RMB. Afterwards this teacher will still be paying an extra 1,161 RMB in taxes every month while his/her employer will be paying roughly 3,500 RMB in tax.* Those expensive kindergartens with foreign teachers in Beijing just got even more expensive, which leads me to…

(5) The law only applies to foreigners with a “Foreign Experts Certificate,” aka the “work visa” aka the Z Visa aka the Zed Visa. Here’s where the perverse incentives come into play. If a foreigner has a tourist visa, business visa, or marriage visa and is thus working illegally (Yang Rui knows who you are!), he/she won’t have to pay into the system. In fact, the requirement that employers must make contributions on our behalf means that, all other things being equal, an illegal employee is going to be considerably cheaper than a legal one, even if the foreigner in question has exactly the same contract salary as his/her legal counterpart. Moreover, employers during the next round of contract renewals may decide to pressure employees into changing their visas and working illegally so as to cut costs, and foreigners themselves may agree, figuring that the risks of being one of the san fei is worth the benefit of paying fewer taxes. At the same time, an employer wishing to stay aboveboard may decide to keep employees legal but refuse to offer raises during the next contract on the grounds that we are now receiving the “benefit” of social insurance.  We haven’t even factored freelance workers into the equation – those working legally should fall under the aegis of the social insurance law, which begs the question of whether they or their employers are prepared to pay the tax.

(6) Many of the above complaints and concerns could be addressed or alleviated if China reformed its green card process. For those of us who have worked here for an extended period of time or are married to a Chinese national, it’s frankly ridiculous that we have to renew our visa every year or have a work visa that ties us to a single employer’s tender mercies. Yet, despite periodic talk about making green cards easier to obtain (which recalls similar talk about ending the hukou system for Chinese migrants), the Chinese green card quota remains out of step with China’s aspirations to be a global leader. That foreigners are now being asked to contribute to a social insurance system that they are not actually guaranteed access to only adds insult to injury.

Matthew Stinson is a Floridian stalking the urban wilds of Tianjin since 2004. An educator, writer, and photographer, he pens 140 character rants as @stinson


* Before anyone shouts “Wait a minute!” the above calculations may not reflect final tax burdens, insomuch as a foreign employee’s base salary may shrink and bonuses and benefits may grow in response to the law.

Commencement advice to all my “师弟” and “师妹”: What you’ve learned matters, but learning to be professional is important too


Once I recommended one of my friends for a job in my company. I knew her personally and believed that a very smart girl like her should have no problem getting the job. However, when I saw her wearing a pair of Converse All-Stars to the job interview, I knew immediately that she would have trouble getting people to take her seriously for the position. Dressing properly for a job interview is basic common sense, but surprisingly many young Chinese still don’t get it.

My friend’s case is not isolated. Over the years, I have heard many of my foreign friends complain that their Chinese colleagues are “unprofessional.” Of course, there is the question of just what “professionalism” even means. It could simply mean small details like shaking hands firmly and looking at people in the eye when talking to them. It could also mean dressing appropriately for a particular job. For example, if you are a teacher you probably should not wear jeans or an evening gown to work. Professionalism could also be taking initiative at work without always worrying about “this is not my job” or making constructive suggestions and solutions  to your boss rather than just complaining or whining about the problems.

To be fair, this isn’t only an issue for young Chinese. Many young people around the world face this kind of challenge when they start to have real jobs. However, I feel that Chinese young professionals have a steeper learning curve about professionalism compared to their peers in European countries and in the US.

First, unlike many American kids who work at part-time jobs during their summer vacations or after school or participate, many young Chinese have never worked until the day they find an internship in college or their first job after graduation.  They don’t know how to cooperate and collaborate with their co-workers or negotiate with their bosses regarding salary. It also doesn’t help being an only child in the family without siblings to teach us the need to compromise and share.

There’s also an issue of family cultural capital.  Like many people in their generation, my parents worked in state-owned factories. They went to work at 8:00 and came home at 5:00 every day for their entire life. They didn’t need to wear suits to work. As long as they didn’t want to push for a promotion, they could just have a stable easy time. The key was to listen to their bosses and not to make mistakes. Thus, nobody in that situation wants to take any risk or responsibility. Taking initiative is not encouraged either.

Consequently, many young Chinese don’t know how to behave in a professional environment. I was one of them. I had my first internship when I was a junior in university. I couldn’t figure out why my colleagues in the company were so mean and what I was doing wrong. That internship only lasted for ten days.

Luckily, a few years later, I had a great opportunity to intern at the Mayor’s office in Haverhill, a little city in the Massachusetts, and learned how to be professional from one of my colleagues. Jeff was a student at Harvard Kennedy School. At the age of 26, he was already a young politician in his home state, having been elected as a state legislator.  From watching him, I learned the importance of a professional appearance, how to answer phones, how to handle crazy visitors in the Mayor’s office and how to take initiative in the job.

When asked to do something, he never replied that it wasn’t his job so he didn’t need to work on it. Once a town visitor called the Mayor’s office randomly from a highway and asked for direction to Haverhill. It is unbelievable in China that you just call the Mayor’s office for directions. However, Jeff answered the phone, looked up Google maps and explained to the visitor nicely how to get to the town.

It’s not about “Chinese” practices versus “Western” professionalism either.  Professionalism is professionalism.  Do your job. Take initiative. Be forthright. Respect your co-workers and your clients. Don’t take short-cuts if it means harming your or your company’s reputation.  And yet, my experience working with many companies in China is that these basic standards are often lacking, and I worry that it’s hurting our competitiveness, especially as China seeks to move to a more service-orientated economy.

Over the years, I have been lucky to receive advice from my family and mentors on how to do my job right. I also see more and more young Chinese operate according to the same professional standard. I am in a company now with about a dozen foreign colleagues and a dozen Chinese colleagues working side by side. Ten years ago, it would be very difficult for an office like this to function. However, today everyone in this room works seamlessly together because everybody more or less follows the same protocols and standards for professionalism.

My concern is that many Chinese young people feel that success is solely dependent on credentials or guanxi. Sure these are important.  As is having a solid skill set.  After all, what you know and what you can do is the most important thing.  But without the right demeanor and attitude – the soft skills – then it will be hard to find people willing to give you a chance to show what it is you can do.

Good luck.


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