China as pricey for expats as Tokyo and NYC?

That’s what the article says.

Companies are increasingly moving staff and offices to global investment hotspot China, but while still a developing country it has some of the world’s highest living costs for expatriates, according to a new survey.

Conducted by the US-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting firm, the survey says the cost of apartments and tuition for children in China’s expat hubs was even more expensive than cities like New York and Tokyo.

Luckily I didn’t have to deal with the tuition costs for kids. But I think the headline of this article is misleading, as the survey seems to apply only to senior executives sent overseas by big MNCs willing to pay for them to have the best of everything. (It looks at apartments in Shanghai, for example, that rent for nearly $10,000 USD a month.) In these cases, Beijing and Shanghai certainly rank among the most expensive places to live.

Having lived in several different countries, I can safely say an expat can live like a prince in Beijing on a relatively small salary. I had to take a $3,000-a-month drop in pay when I moved from Hong Kong to Beijing, and I was scared to death about it. It turned out the amount of money I spent on a daily basis was so dramatically less in Beijing, I had more to spare than I ever expected. Taxis are almost free; restaurants (outside of tourist spots) are an incredible bargain, and cheap shopping abounds. I had a bigapartment in the fashionable Tuan Jie Hu complex for about $600 a month, far less than half of what I payed in HK.

So if you’re considering moving to China to live the expat life, do not be intimidated by reports that it’s “as expensive as Tokyo.” That’s BS, unless you insist on living a Park Avenue lifestyle, and if you need to send the kids to the best schools. You can live there for next to nothing, especially if you’re willing to give up some of the not-so-necessary niceties like indoor swimming pools and a jacuzzi in the bathroom.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

These surveys are meaningless. Yes, if you take an upper-middle-class US lifestyle as a base and try to duplicate that in other countries, it’ll cost money. Big surprise.

Suppose you take an upper-middle-class Japanese lifestyle and duplicated it in the west for Japanese expats? If we use the same criteria as these people do, that would involve working with Japanese-speaking realtors, signing only Japanese contracts, and getting a Japanese-style apartment with tatami and all in the USA. Then paying for Japanese schools and Japanese food equivalents that generally aren’t available at the local Shoprite. And guess what? Tokyo becomes cheap, and the price of NY triples, and the cost of living in Idaho is more than NY.

The key is to adapt a bit and not pretend to be living in the US when you move somewhere else.

July 22, 2004 @ 7:19 pm | Comment

Yeah, those cost of living studies are indeed bullshit. A Guiness costs 30% more in Beijing than it does in Dublin! OH MY GOODNESS!

But education is the one sticking point. I would never raise a kid in China/Taiwan because the only way for them to get a quality English-language education would be to send them to one of those obnoxiously expensive American schools in one of the big cities.

July 22, 2004 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

This is by no means the first survey to list Beijing among the most expensive cities in the world. It’s been going on for years now, and as you know it’s a load of shit. If you read these reports a little more closely, you should come across the disclaimer saying that this is purely for ‘expats’, meaning those rich bastards in the business and diplomatic communities. An example, a friend of mine pays more per month in rent than I’ve ever earned. I pay a fraction of his rent and enjoy the same quality of life. And that’s not the only area in which I’m saving vast amounts of money that he spends.

July 22, 2004 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

There’s really two kind of expats. Those employed by the big multinationals, who earn a Western salary and live in mansion-like houses, have chauffeurs and ayis, and never venture out anywhere but the best restaurants and bars form one slice.

Then there’s the teachers, aid workers, journalists and adventurers who earn a fraction of that, live in ordinary apartments and cook their own food or eat at local restaurants.

I live in Shanghai on finances comparable to what I had as a student in the UK 10 years ago, and I’m fine. I don’t however, spend $8 on a pint of Guiness at O’Malley’s every weekend.

July 22, 2004 @ 10:11 pm | Comment

Maybe there are three kinds of expats, Phil. The two you named, and the middle group like me, working for multinational companies that pay a few thousand dollars for relocation but nothing for housing or tuition or any perqs, and who pay a salary that’s middle-low by Western standards but generous indeed in China. On a salary of $40-60,000 a year in China you can do whatever you want (again, if there’s no tuition and you don’t live in a mansion), and you can even enjoy that $8 pint.

So anyone considering expat life: Do NOT be discouraged if the company says they can’t pay you more than $40,000 a year. On that salary you can live a sweet life in Beijing.

July 23, 2004 @ 8:58 am | Comment

Asia by Blog

Let’s plunge straight into today’s Asia linkfest: Hong Kong, Taiwan and China More on the Taiwan-China potential for conflict. Firstly Richard points to a story of some Taiwanese people perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time. Joseph Bosco fol…

July 26, 2004 @ 12:45 am | Comment

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