Jobs in China: 9 Things to Know

jobs in china

Photo Credit: Benoit Cezard

When it comes to landing a job in China, you have three options:

  • Go to China and look for a job once there.
  • Go to China as an intern or as a student, work hard and network aggressively, and at the end of 3 or 6 months there is a good chance you’ll have a full-time job offer somewhere.
  • Try to get a job in your home country that will send you to China. This approach has the highest possible upside in that you would earn a western wage while in China, but it’s also the most unlikely of the three options if you lack prior work experience.

Whatever approach you are considering, my guess is that you are experiencing a fair bit of anxiety and trepidation about it.

At least, I know I was when I first came to China in 2008.

I spent hours pouring over message boards trying to understand how to get a working visa (convoluted), how to get a job teaching English (easy), and how to find an apartment. Add in the message board scam stories I kept coming across, plus the fact that I didn't speak any Chinese whatsoever and didn't know a soul in China, and you'll understand why I had some nerves about my new adventure.

If you are looking for a job in China, the below post should provide an overview of some of the challenges and opportunities that working in China presents, and leave you with some solid tactics that you can implement in your job hunt. 

The Challenges

challenges of working in china

Challenge #1: The Visa

There is a good chance that you are going to be in either Shanghai or Beijing. Or maybe a blossoming city in China's interior like Chengdu or Chongqing. 

Wherever you are, until you get your Z-visa and residence permit, you are going to have to plan for regular "visa runs" where you leave the country. From a city like Shenzhen, this is easy. From Shanghai or Beijing it's still relatively easy, but it will take some time (a day) and money (1-2K RMB each time you fly to Hong Kong). 

Whether you have to leave every 30, 60, or 90 days depends on you and your individual situation. 

If you are unlucky, as I was when I first moved to Shanghai, you'll be stuck with a 30 day stay visa and have to take a flight down to Hong Kong every month until you find that job. 

Then, once you do have the job the process of getting a health check, Z-visa, and residence permit begins.

That said, I promise you MUCH bigger headaches in life than getting a China visa. It's a minor inconvenience and you should take it into account when budgeting, that's all. 

Challenge #2: Your Expectations

You've heard me say this one before, right? ;)

In China, there is a saying of "吃苦" (chiku), which loosely translated means "eating bitterness". For long-term success in China, you should be prepared to "chiku" in the short-term. This difference in short-term thinking (get rich quick teaching English) and long-term thinking (sacrifice pay for 6 months to learn the ropes at a great company) is often what separates successful young professionals in Shanghai from those who return home prematurely. 

All this is to say, be prepared to make sacrifices for the right things. And like I wrote about in my last post, unless you have managed to snag an offer from a large multinational, and even then, you probably aren't going to get an employer matched 401K. You might not even get a fully stocked office fridge. (The Horror!)

Also, be immensely skeptical of any job offer that promises equity in exchange for a below-market salary. You'll never see that equity.

Challenge #3: The Parties

Seriously, too much cheap QingDao could be harmful to more than just your health.

The truth is that it's really easy NOT to make the right sacrifices in China. It can be easy to tread water here.

I see a lot of people come to China as English teachers, which they do for six months or a year before branching into teaching private lessons. 

These aren't people who would consider themselves career teachers. They have aspirations outside of teaching but they get complacent and never get around to pursuing those opportunities. 

3 years turns to 4 turns to 5 (it's easier than you might think!) and then one day they wake up, hungover from a Sunday Shanghai brunch, and realize:

"This isn't real life. I've been coasting down Easy Street these past 4 years. I never did get that job in finance/start that company/learn Chinese."

Cue the late-20s expat crisis: a few months of soul-searching, a farewell party, and a one-way ticket back home. The sad thing is that a lot of recent graduates come to China with great ambitions and leave feeling exhausted, depleted, and like the products of a failed experiment.

It's sad.

Of course, most expats will leave Shanghai eventually.

But to have to completely amputate yourself from a city where you have spent x years building a life doesn't have to be the only way. 

With the right level of focus and levelheaded decision making, these same people could have found themselves in a much better position. A position where they could negotiate with their employer to work remotely, or one in which they built a sustainable location independent business.

To do that requires self-sacrifice, discipline, and focus, which can be easy to forget when you feel like you are living large teaching English in {insert Tier 2 city here}.

Keep your eyes on the prize my friends.

The Opportunities

jobs in china

Opportunity #1: Get paid for walking through the entrepreneurial Ring of Fire

China is full of entrepreneurial energy, and there is a good chance that you will work for an SME (small to medium size enterprise) while you are here.

And even if you are working for a big company, you'll be forced to think like an intra-preneur.

Shanghai runs on SMEs, and if you get a job at the right company you will gain unparalleled insight into running a business. And you'll even get paid a salary for doing it. How cool is that?!

Getting firsthand insight into the operations of a business in a Shanghai SME can give you all the confidence and knowledge you need before beginning your own business.

Everywhere you go you’ll see examples of successful entrepreneurs, from the proprietors of the corner noodle shop to the traders to the digital nomads who call Shanghai and Beijing home. It's full of challenges, but China is an outstanding place to hone your business chops in.

Opportunity #2: Learn the language

If you are like me, you came to China to learn Mandarin and leverage that into some amazing six figure job because you heard that "Mandarin was the language of the future".

Or something like that.

I'm not going to tell you that learning Mandarin is the key to your future. In truth, it probably isn't.

In fact, you will probably never be truly "fluent" in it.

According to this estimation, it will take 2200 study hours, with the second year of study coming in-country in order to reach fluency in Mandarin. 

2200 hours is A LOT of time.

2200 hours is 55 40-hour work weeks. You could spend over a year building a business with that time.

Or you could spend that year learning how to code. From a return on investment (ROI) perspective, learning Chinese is probably a complete waste of time for most people.

That said, I absolutely recommend learning it. Yes, there are more valuable skills than Mandarin that take less time to develop, but learning a new language is an enriching experience on so many levels. And it has the bonus of being an in-demand language that you can use to communicate with people the world over. 

There is a huge community of Chinese diaspora, and you'll start to notice just how widespread Mandarin speakers are once you start studying the language. 

Chinese is also a highly logical language that will shape your understanding of the world around you in a new way.

It also has very straightforward grammar, meaning you get to focus on studying the fun stuff (vocabulary and conversation) and not the boring stuff (grammar) that you would need to focus on with a language like French.

Opportunity #3: Learn to Be Like Water

I'll keep this one short. Living overseas, especially in a country as rapidly-changing as China, will test you. 

It will be psychology challenging during the best of times, but if you can figure out how to operate effectively in a country where you can't even read off the menu, you can figure out most any situation.

The Tactics

tactics for finding the right job

So those are some of the challenges and opportunities that I believe China presents. Now I want to leave you with a few tactics that you can implement in your own job search in China.

Tip #1: Avoid the HR Department!

HR is not going to hire you- your future manager is. Get in touch with him or her. HR will only act as a gatekeeper, and your goal should be to avoid making contact with them completely.

Think of the HR department as a mostly indiscriminate filter. This filter might be a person or persons who are manually screening resumes, but it's equally likely that your resume is being screened by software that is searching for keywords and discarding any resumes that lack them. 

Instead of submitting your resume to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. what you should really be doing is try to connect with the owner of the company or senior managers in the department where you would like to work. Reach out to them LinkedIn (though perhaps not as aggressively as this company and ALWAYS with a personalized invitation to connect) and try find out a way to bring the relationship offline. Keep in mind that the person you are attempting fto get in touch with probably gets a lot of coffee requests, so try to make yourself stand out by offering something of value. If you are an aspiring marketer, freely give them ten ways they can improve their website. Provide value generously instead of asking to take.

This is a more time consuming approach than the scattershot tactic of submitting your resume to every company posting an opening on local jobs boards, but you will get a better response rate and it will make you really you think through the type of role and company you want to work for.

 Tip #2: Network Offline

The great thing about living in China is that the expat community is a relatively "flat" social structure. While China is a very hierarchical society, among expats at least, you'll find that you can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. That stranger you buy a beer for at the bar might turn out to be Vice President of a major telecom firm. 

Try a run with the Shanghai Hash House Harriers or volunteer with a group like Bean, you will be surprised at the movers and shakers who you bump up against. And as people who have once been in your situation- new and in very a foreign country- they tend to be sympathetic and willing to help.

You might also consider the following groups:

  • Internations
  • FC Club
  • Chambers of Commerce- Google"{your country name} chamber of commerce china" or "{your country name} board of trade china" to see what membership options are available. Membership in one of these organizations costs money, but it is well worth it, as most members are senior executives and entrepreneurs with strong knowledge of the local market.

I’d also recommend getting involved on LinkedIn by starting relevant discussions in groups like China Networking Group, and compiling a list of networking events that you can attend. I started doing this when I first moved to Shanghai and continue doing it to this day. If you want to the template I use to organize events, along with some events (some of which have passed already, some of which are ongoing in Shanghai) just visit the spreadsheet here.

Pro-tip: No matter whether you are employed, unemployed, self-employed, whatever- you need to get a set of good business cards made. I use this company for mine.

Tip #3: Brand Yourself

Set up a LinkedIn profile and follow our best practices, which you can get by signing up for our newsletter here.

Depending on the industry in which you are hoping to work, you might set up a portfolio showcasing some of your past work on WordPress. You can geek out and build it yourself or outsource the development on oDesk.

Get yourself set up with a proper email address. Ideally its using your own domain name, but Gmail works well too. Nobody is going to take a resume sent from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. seriously.

Finally, be sure that you are sending out a resume in PDF format, not Word.

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About the Author
Author: Brandon

Hi, I'm Brandon! I'm SmartIntern's co-founder and a native of California. I'm interested in all things tech, emerging markets, and writing. When I'm not working on SmartIntern, I like to skateboard through the streets of Shanghai and uncover the city's best hole-in-the-wall noodle joints.

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