China reopens: What does this mean for expats and the economy?

Expat news
  • Nanjing Road, Shanghai
    Ralph Rozema /
Published on 2023-01-20 at 10:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
After 3 years, China finally reopened its borders on January 8. Most travelers can now enter the country only with a negative PCR test. Many expats in China feel relieved and want to resume enjoying the life they loved there. However, some who were stuck outside of China in March 2020 are hesitant about returning, and doubts remain about the economic prospects of expats in the country.

China lifts pandemic measures in a sudden u-turn

In December 2022, the Chinese government made a sudden u-turn in its pandemic policy. It announced that the quasi-totality of the restrictions of the past 3 years would be scrapped on January 8. Inbound travelers no longer need to undergo quarantine, not even at home. They only need a negative PCR test taken 48 hours before their flight.

Expats with residence permits for work and family reunification have been able to enter the country since September 2020, but they still had to undergo quarantine then. While Chinese immigration services haven't started issuing new tourist visas yet, citizens of countries with a visa-free agreement can now enter China. For instance, 53 countries (including the US, the UK, Germany, France and Singapore) can enjoy a 144 Hour Visa Free Transit in some parts of China on their way to another destination. The travel agency China Highlights estimates that all tourist and 10-year visas (the latter is only available to Canadian citizens) will start being issued again by the second quarter of 2023.

Reuters reports that, on January 8 itself, thousands of people entered China from Hong Kong. The check-in counters of Hong Kong International Airport were crowded with many residents of this special administrative region who were happy to be able to see their families in Mainland China again. The South China Morning Post reports that there are now 500,000 daily border crossings between Hong Kong and China.

Unfortunately, some diplomatic tensions are turning fully open borders into a more complicated matter. When Japan and South Korea decided to impose entry restrictions on travelers from China (e.g., negative Covid tests only for Chinese travelers, limiting the number of flights) because of the surge in Covid cases there, Beijing retaliated by suspending all short-term visas for the Japanese and Koreans, including for medical treatment.

The sudden policy reversal has indeed made Covid cases spike in China. The British health data modeling firm Airfinity estimates that there are now 1 million new cases per day after the abrupt, rather than gradual, lifting of social distancing measures. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in late December, before the border was even fully open, that nearly 20% of the population was infected.

Expats in China are relieved, while those stuck abroad hesitate to return

Expats who have called China their home for multiple years are sighing in relief. They now want to resume the lifestyle they loved in the country, even if they know that things won't be entirely like before. For instance, many French expats had chosen or were obliged, by various factors, to remain in China throughout 3 years of strict, on-and-off lockdowns. 

Jeanne, a teacher in her late 30s, says that the last years were surreal and full of fear. She says that she always brought a bag with pajamas to the campus where she works in case a positive case was found there and all people were forbidden to leave by the authorities. She didn't travel back to France to celebrate Christmas with her family just to avoid the mandatory quarantine upon returning. All of this exhaustion has made her want to leave China. Indeed, she's already applied to other jobs in the UK and Australia; she's only waiting for an opportunity to leave. She's worried that other countries will impose travel bans on China that will sabotage her plans to move.

Another French expat, Thibault, a computer scientist in his late 20s, still wants to remain in China despite having experienced the same stress as Jeanne. Actually, when he took a trip back to Europe in the summer of 2022, he hesitated about returning to the country. But he finally took a leap of faith and returned. When the government announced the lifting of the restrictions, he was so excited that he went partying with friends and walking around Shanghai – even if the streets were still quite empty because many residents were Covid-positive. Even if he found the empty streets depressing and knows many expats left last year, he still wants to stay “to get back to everything we love about living in China” and contribute to the country's economic recovery.

Other expats have been forced to live in another country for 3 years. They happened to be abroad when China's borders closed in March 2020, they couldn't renew their visa over the course of 2020-2022, or they had to return home because of pressing family or health matters. 

In the magazine Sixth Tone, a former American expat in Shanghai, Alex Shoer, talks about why he's unlikely to return. He had been living in Shanghai for a decade and had even set up his own business there. He was traveling abroad in March 2020 and decided to return to the US temporarily until he could re-enter China. But that plan kept getting postponed, and in the meantime, he got into a serious relationship in the US. While he is still working remotely for his Shanghai-based company, he says that it's unlikely that he'll abandon the life he built over 3 years in the US. He also thinks that the golden era for expats in China is over, as they are being outcompeted by locals in a “more mature market.”

Expats or even citizens stuck abroad might also not be planning on returning soon because of the scarcity of flights and sky-high ticket prices. In the French newspaper Le Figaro, Zoé says that she's scared that any expensive flight back to China that she books might get canceled if a positive case is detected on one of the airline's planes. Shan, a Chinese citizen living in France, says that a two-way trip between France and China currently costs an astounding 2000-3000 euros. Others are waiting for the current Covid spike in China to be over. Chloé says that she won't return immediately because she's scared of not getting a bed in overwhelmed hospitals in case she gets sick.

The economic prospects of expats in China remain uncertain

Some expats' fears about the economy are not unfounded. Indeed, as reported by The New York Times, the Chinese economy has grown by only 2.9% in 2022, or less than half of the 8.1% growth of 2021. The economic situation hasn't been this bad since 1976 – the year Mao Zedong died. China's economic growth had been slowing down since the 2010s – from a yearly growth of around 10% to around 6-8%, but it had never been as bad as 3% before the full blow of the pandemic.

Expats are suffering from a double blow because not only is the overall state of the economy bad at the moment, but companies have also started prioritizing the hiring of locals over the past 3 years. The state has also cracked down on sectors where many expats work, notably education and technology, and immigration reforms have stalled. 

In late 2021, the Chinese government banned private tutoring in order to place less academic stress on children. Previously, tutoring English or other foreign languages was a relatively easy way through which expats could get a work and residence permit in China. In Sixth Tone, Sid, a former expat from Russia, talks about how he lost his English tutoring job in 2021. When he tried to renew his work visa for other jobs, his application was rejected and he was forced to return home.

While China was on the path to easing its immigration laws before the pandemic, it has backtracked on this since 2020. In 2018, the National Immigration Administration (NIA) was created, and in February 2020, just a month before Covid officially became a pandemic, the NIA had reworked its rules to make more foreigners eligible for work permits, permanent residency and social benefits. These new draft rules were indefinitely suspended once the pandemic hit.

Immigration laws are not the only hurdle. During these 3 years when foreigners could barely enter the country, companies based in China, including multinationals, have grown used to hiring local talent instead. Expat talent, even for managerial and highly technical positions, is no longer valued more than local talent. 

In another Sixth Tone article about the localization of the Chinese workforce, experts talk about how companies were forced to retrain local workers and adjust their operations in the absence of foreign staff. The manager of an expat job platform, Majdi Alhmah, mentions that managers in the northeastern auto hub of Changchun are now mostly locals. 

Even office documents and language have tended to become monolingually Chinese (rather than bilingually Chinese and English) over the course of the last 3 years. So, even if expats are now able to re-enter China, they will be dealing with a very different labor market in 2023 than the one they were used to before.