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Doing Business in China: Welcome Mat Rolls Back for Foreign Graduates

By Doug Young

It used to be that China wasn’t really a stop on the road map for freshly minted foreign graduates. When I first came here three decades ago, the country I experienced was more a place for young adventurers like me, alongside a handful of alternate-career seekers who didn’t mind living in hotels, using bikes as their primary mode of transport and giving up their Western diets.

Fast-forward to the present, when Beijing and Shanghai have more appeal for new graduates seeking an exciting place to begin their climb up the corporate ladder. The current landscape in many ways resembles the 1980s when Japan was all the rage. Back then, many high schools and colleges rolled out Japanese study programs, and the country also became a popular destination for study abroad.

While China may be a flavor of the day among new foreign graduates, the feeling doesn’t seem to be mutual. Following last week’s look at the job landscape for local Chinese, I’m taking a look at the flip side of the coin this week by focusing on prospects here for newly graduated foreigners.

The picture I found was quite sobering, with China apparently doing its best to keep out most of these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young professionals. That contrasts sharply with the message you get from local media, where you see regular stories on how China is making it easier for these people to stay and find jobs.

In a way, it’s understandable. Any country wants to reserve the best jobs for its own people, and China is no exception. What’s more, new graduates — especially ones from overseas who don’t speak good Chinese or know much about the culture — don’t exactly bring lots of practical skills and experience to the table. But that said, China’s doors do seem a little more tightly shut than most.

The Shanghai university I visited this past week, where I also happened to teach for six years, seems quite representative of the situation. Among the 13 foreigners studying in the Master of Communications program at Fudan, one of China’s leading schools, about nine entered with at least some hope of staying to work after graduation. But among those, just one managed to land a position.

Devil in the visa

The big culprit behind the lockout is a Chinese rule that requires anyone getting a work visa to have at least two years of related experience. That’s basically a deal-breaker for most of these people since most have no experience at all beyond scattered internships.

Getting around that barrier isn’t impossible, though it’s certainly not easy. The best employers at skirting the rule seem to be well-connected state-owned enterprises that know how to work the system. The one student I spoke with who managed to get a job did so at a big state-run media outlet, and the same was true for a couple of others who managed to get jobs a few years ago at a major Beijing university.

But even among the two earlier cases, their respective visa statuses seemed to fall into a gray area. One of those is finally expecting to get her official work visa next month, two years after first beginning to work here. Another got his earlier, though he already had some relevant experience before he graduated. But even there, he admitted that he and his employer “may have stretched the definition of ‘relevant’ a few inches past the limit.”

Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai have widely publicized efforts to relax the two-year rule for students who receive their degree at a Chinese university in recent years. But the people at Fudan told me the official policy has a major disconnect with reality, which is unfortunately quite par for the course when it comes to the numerous visa-relaxing policies for foreign workers that China often likes to publicize.

A second factor that makes life tough is also the tight leash that students get kept on in terms of their study visas, which basically expire as soon as they graduate. By comparison, the U.S. now gives new graduates an extra year on their visas to pursue jobs, while Britain gives a few months. I doubt China’s short-leash policy was rolled out with any ill intent, but was instead probably engineered by bureaucrats who saw no reason to give any extra time beyond that needed to complete a program.

Lastly, there is the very real issue of affordability and salary, which apparently aren’t too attractive either. Nearly all of the foreign students I’ve met over the years ultimately end up at startups and other small companies that are interested in their language skills and foreign connections, and also their willingness to work for very little.

That used to be acceptable in the days when Shanghai and Beijing were still relative bargains compared with similar-caliber Western cities. But both cities are rapidly becoming just as expensive as Western counterparts, and the Fudan program director confided that some students had balked this year at lowball salary offers in the neighborhood of just $1,000 per month. Such small amounts are hardly enticing, and, when taken together with China’s difficult visa policies, make it clear why the nation may fast be falling off the career map for new graduates.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

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