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Finding the right place to live in China depends on many factors. There are practical considerations such as accommodation purchase and rental prices, the cost of living and availability of local amenities. Then there are emotional criteria, such as the desirability of a place – whether what you desire is happiness, safety, friendly locals or an active social life.
There are currently around 600,000 expats living in China. This is a very low proportion of China’s population and of the estimated 230 million expats in all the world’s countries. Most expats live in the most economically important cities, especially the capital Beijing and Shanghai, the main financial centre. Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy) and Shenzhen also contain significant expat populations.
As far as work is concerned, most of the business jobs are to be found in Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing, as it is the capital, has a multinational expat community. It is also the most important city for culture, replete with festivals, Peking operas and many other events. The architecture, including is the Forbidden City (or Palace Museum, as it is called now), the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, is also formidable. Though many have been demolished, there are also still some hutongs in Beijing, charming characterful alleyways which offer a glimpse of old China. On the downside, the locals can be unfriendly, and traffic jams and air pollution are some of the worst in the world.
Shanghai is a more cosmopolitan and welcoming city and has a reputation as a party town. There were 173,000 expats living there in 2012, just over a quarter of the total number of expats living in Mainland China. Shanghai feels more Western than the rest of Mainland China and contains many European-style buildings. It can certainly be considered the most capitalist of what is still nominally a Communist country. Opportunities for shopping, art, nightlife and other forms of entertainment abound.
Guangzhou, China’s third largest city, is also an important centre for expats, with about 30,000 living there. There are many business positions available here too, and the climate is generally pleasant, though it can be stiflingly hot in summer. The cost of accommodation can be very high in these major cities. Still, this may not be a factor if your accommodation is paid for by your employers, as it is in many cases.
Large cities recently given a high liveability rating include Qingdao (or Tsingtao) and Xiamen (Amoy). Hangzhou is regarded by the Chinese as China’s most beautiful city. There are many other large cities in China, such as Tianjin, Chongqing and Chengdu that are not quite as beautiful as Hangzhou. As far as ability to adapt and culture shock are concerned, the big cities are certainly a lot easier to live in than the smaller ones. Though it has increased in recent years, the cost of living in China is still low, especially if you are living in rural China.
Local food is cheap; very cheap in supermarkets and more modest restaurants. Conversely, a lot of Western staple foods, such as bread, milk and cheese are hard to find or expensive even in larger cities. Many such items will probably be unavailable in smaller cities. Similarly, you are less likely to find Western newspapers and other media. This means that, apart from the internet (which is, of course, protected by the Great Firewall of China), your only recourse to international news may be on CCTV9, the State English-language channel.
Whereas in the larger cities people won’t take much notice of you, in smaller places the locals may be very friendly, or alternatively may stare at you and treat you like some sort of novelty. Once you get used to this, and they get used to you, things should be fine.
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