Working in China

My first visit to China was in 2001, and from that time on, it was always my wish to live in that country for some longer time. Eventually from 2013 to 2014 that dream came true. The company I was working for at that time had decided to set up a new factory in some place not far from Shanghai. The new factory should be equipped with a data centre, and someone needed to do the job.

As soon as I learned of this, I knocked every which door, and since I had the necessary experience for the job as well as being able to convince my managers that I didn't need a big expat package, no driver, no translator and no mollycoddling, I was sent to China. In this page, I will describe in short which steps I needed to take and what my remarkable experiences were. Of course, I had time to travel around and to experience more of China, which I will describe in other pages. The information here is from my experiences, especially regulations etc. change more quickly than the weather in Ireland, so some things will almost certainly be different now.

Things to consider

Before moving to China, one needs to think what the goal is. Do you go there because it is beneficial for your career or because you are fascinated  to learn about another country? What is your lifestyle? Do you want or need to hang out in the expat bubble (e.g. because your children are with you who want to make some friends they can talk to) or would you want to live where you are the only foreigner? Do you have been to China before and do you know what you will be getting into?

After all, China is very different from Europe. It may not seem so at first, if you live in the expat circles in Shanghai. But the people are different, there will be things you love and things you will hate. The environment, the way people treat each other, the style of government, the way of doing business are all different.

Steps to take

To be able to work in China, you need a residence and a work permit. There are agencies to help with this, so I had to do only minor paperwork. But basically I needed a health test and the work contract from the Chinese entity. With this and tons of paper, I got the Z visa, which is a single-entry visa that must be converted into a residence permit within 30 days after arrival. There are some other important things I needed to consider: A health insurance with worldwide coverage is a must, and as I temporarily dropped out of the health insurance in Germany, I needed to arrange with the insurer that my policy would be revived after my final return.

Before my relocation, I made two scouting trips during which I had business negotiations, but the local agency had also arranged several apartment visits, so that I could pick where to live. Actually, that is an incredible one-stop service by the local government: there is just one office, one contact person, one authority that looks after everything. To sign the land lease, the building permit, to recruit local workers, to get the 10 kV electricity supply for the factory, the internet connection, the expatriates' work permits: that's one single office you deal with. And it was them who organized my field trip and the apartment visits. My thanks go out to the Changshu Economic & Technological Development Zone (CEDZ)

I had the choice to live in Shanghai or in Changshu which is closer to the factory. As I wanted to live in a place far away from the expat bubble, I chose Changshu - more about that town on a separate page.

Arrival in China

After arriving with two suitcases, I moved into my apartment and began exploring more of the town I would now live in for almost 1½ years.

As place to live, I had the choice between various apartments in high-rises, most of them furbished (which makes sense as I didn't want to buy a whole set of furniture which I'd then have to sell or throw away), and some serviced apartments, which basically are hotel suites. The good thing is that a serviced apartment is cleaned by the hotel staff, linens and towels are changed regularly, and you can also enjoy the hotel breakfast.

I had chosen a serviced apartment in a hotel right next to the pedestrian street: Once passing the intersection, I was in the centre of the old town. More of that on the Changshu page.

Of course, first priority was to work and to complete the remaining paperwork. I needed to have another blood sample drawn, and with the result and more papers, I went to the necessary police offices to handle my residence and work permits and to do my residential registration.

One thing to note is that whenever I arrived in China from outside of the mainland, I needed to get a declaration from the hotel that I still live there, and then go to the next police station to re-register. Usually the hotel would take care of that, I have no idea why in my case they didn't provide that service. Registering at the police station, though, is a straightforward and quick process, which took about five minutes each time. The next 45 minutes then were usually taken by the guard chatting me up, because as soon as I had told him that I liked his hometown, he opened his big heart to me and never let me go without a longer conversation.

Working in China

There are tons of books about how the business environment in China differs from that one in Germany, so I will only state some of my personal experiences here. As I had been doing business in China for 12 years before moving there, there were no real surprises for me. What is to note is that things are more flexible. We Germans have a clear distinction between work and leisure. Once you leave the office, making business phone calls or checking business emails is something that just doesn't happen. On the other hand, during working hours, you are expected to be fully dedicated to your work. Chatting with a colleague about private stuff for more than three minutes will get you stares and frowns -  you can do that during lunch break.

In China, when I sent an inquiry to a vendor at 9pm because I was sitting bored in my apartment, I often got a reply within 15 minutes. On the other hand, the vendor may also change things you have agreed upon within short notice.

When I arrived in China, the future data centre was just an empty room, only the the electricity supply and the internet cable had been installed (thank you China Telecom). Production start was due about three months later, so I had only this time to send out inquiries, receive offers, purchase hardware, install three racks full of IT systems, set up the servers, the workplace computers and the connection to the production machines.

So the most important thing was a careful planning and keeping a close relationship to the vendors to ensure that the quality and schedules are met.

Everybody who has heard about China, about Chinese work ethics, about Chinese quality, will have heard horror stories. And they are true. But, and it is important to note that, it is only a part of the story. I have seen both sides. Chinese immediately adapt to changed circumstances; where Germans would complain about having to change their plans, Chinese just deal with the new situation. The quality of goods and services I have received from my vendors was excellent.

There are many uneducated workers or people who just don't care. There is definitely a mentality of "if it looks like it's working, it's good enough".

However, the educated colleagues are very different. All the colleagues I shared my office with for 1½ years were hard workers, diligent and 100% professional in their work. I can also only say the best about the officials I met from the Changshu Economic Development Zone administration.

Misunderstandings might arise because Chinese usually expect a quite hierarchic management, so if you are in a management position, your decisions often won't be questioned or suggestions offered, even if you are about to make a mistake. Chinese also value modesty, and that might be mistaken for insecurity. I have experienced colleagues who looked and seemingly behaved like teenagers, but who were fully-fledged professionals, they just don't make a show of it. The biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate your Chinese partners or colleagues.

You will only be taken seriously if you either show authority, professional knowledge, or at best, both of that (I think that is what we call leadership capabilities). Just never play the card "I am from the West and therefore I know better". Chinese have run their country for thousands of years, and during most of history it was the world's most advanced country, also having the world's largest GDP. You don't know better.

If you antagonize your Chinese colleagues, you are lost. Imagine someone coming from a foreign country to your place and hinting that you all better work and behave differently - that won't work. You may search the Internet for the story about Walmart's miserable failure in Germany.

Another basis for misunderstandings is that Chinese often won't be blunt or exact in their statements, even if the facts are clear. A typical example is that my colleagues often began statements with the word "Maybe", e.g. "maybe the machine has no power". The German reaction would be to say "then go and have a look". What my Chinese colleague meant that he had already checked and made sure that there is no electricity. That is a consequence of the usually modest behaviour (see my page about Chinese culture).

Another typical example is that Chinese would seldom ask you to do something for them, they would rather begin a sentence with "can you help me?". In other words, if your Chinese colleague says "can you help me to send this package", he is not asking for your help, the meaning is "can you send the package for me?"

More working in China - The office environment

There were only two Germans in the factory - the factory manager and I, all the other staff was local. I shared office with the Chinese colleagues who did the administration, i.e. purchasing, accounting, and so on. It was lively and certainly the better option than having a separate office; but a shared office has its challenges everywhere.

There is the Chinese word rènào - 热闹, which translates to lively, but that doesn't catch the full meaning. The first character means "hot", and the second character can mean something like trouble, make trouble, noise, etc. Should you visit a large restaurant in China and notice large groups of people where everyone is shouting at the top of his voice to be heard among the noise, everyone is singing, drinking, smoking, eating (all at the same time) and apparently having great fun - that is rènào (and it can be fun - just forget about candle light dinners and bring your ear protection). It is not as bad in an office, but when more than one colleague makes a phone call at the same time, they increase the volume. One colleague often made calls to our Shanghai office which was about 100 km away, and once I gave him the advice to just open the window rather than using the phone to talk to the Shanghai office, because at his volume that would work, too.

What I can say is that my colleagues were hospitable and tried to make my life comfortable and my work easy. I was invited to private occasions, the colleague who wouldn't have needed a phone gave me his bicycle card which was really a great gift, as I couse use the public bicycles to explore my hometown while also getting some excercise, and all of them were very professional and supportive; I had nothing left to be desired.

Because Chinese love to have a good laugh, because they are modest and often downplay their skills, and have a thing for cuteness, it is easy to underestimate their professionalism. The girlish lady in the office probably is a hard-nosed purchasing agent. The colleagues I worked with all knew their stuff, and without their support I wouldn't have succeeded.

In some sentences above, did I sound as if I didn't like my working environment? Well, in some days I hated it, but that was a problem of me having the wrong attitude. It is their way of behaving, and as my rule no. 1 states, it is their country. I was a guest there so it was me who had to adjust. But it's not always easy, that is true.