Working in China

One of the world’s largest economies, China offers expats high earning potential. In our 2018 Expat Explorer Survey over half of expats agreed that it is a good place for career progression, making it a good choice for expats who want to climb the corporate ladder.

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Doing business

China is brimming with opportunities, but its business culture is vastly different from what most expats are used to – so you may have difficulty integrating.

An imposing government and challenging language barrier can be a lot to cope with. Many expats invest in cross-cultural training or end up leaving within a few years. Working here is made even more difficult by an increasingly strict visa system and a lingering distrust of the West, despite the fact that many Chinese companies are eager to do business with foreigners.

All these factors contribute to the country’s overall ranking of 78th out of 190 countries in The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2018.

Despite the downsides, the number of expats working in China has increased every year since 2000. This is partly because Western companies have become more involved in China’s economy, creating many opportunities for people to move there for work.

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Business culture

In a country where personal relationships are essential for professional advancement, one of the best ways to get ahead in business is to understand the local business culture. Being able to speak Mandarin also goes a long way in securing a high-paid job.

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Chinese business culture revolves around guanxi (关系). Acting both as a noun and a verb, this refers to the relationships that business people form with one another, as well as the process of establishing and maintaining these connections.

A central feature of guanxi is that both parties can call on each other for support. If someone does a favour for you, you’re expected to return it. Guanxi is maintained by exchanging gifts, making allowances in negotiations or inviting business associates to dinner.


A significant portion of preliminary business dealings is devoted to building meaningful connections. Be patient and avoid rushing negotiations. This is a vital part of doing business in China and the long-term benefits often greatly outweigh any short-term frustrations.


‘Saving face’ is a concept closely associated with guanxi. In Chinese culture the idea of ‘face’ is divided into two concepts – mianzi, which relates to reputation and success, and lian, which concerns integrity and moral character. Take care not to publicly embarrass anyone and conduct yourself in a dignified way that respects Chinese society. Losing face or causing someone else to lose face will negatively affect your business relations.


Hierarchy and seniority are key elements of Chinese business culture – so always show respect to elders and senior associates. You can do this by avoiding prolonged eye contact and showing deference at meetings.

Fast facts

Business Language

Mandarin is the official business language, but Cantonese is spoken widely in the south. English isn’t spoken by many people, even in the cities.

Business hours

Usually from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with a lunch break between 12pm and 2pm.


Business attire is formal, bright colours are inappropriate and modesty is key. Flat shoes are advisable for foreign women who are taller than their local counterparts.


When you greet Chinese businesspeople, use their title and family name. This can be confusing as names are traditionally reversed from the Western order. A simple nod will often suffice, and wait for the other person to initiate a handshake.


Gift giving is common, but traditions are changing. Official government policy forbids bribery, so gifts may be declined. A good approach is to give a token gift - something small and inexpensive, such as a pen with your company logo on it.

Gender equality

There’s a growing number of women in managerial roles, but they aren’t always treated equally by their male counterparts. Women are also less likely to be hired and are often the first to be laid off.

Expat salaries

Teachers are at the lower end of the pay scale, while expats working for international companies earn highly competitive salaries. Many large companies also provide benefits like housing allowances and private health insurance.

Challenging, fast paced, rewarding, sometimes stressful, China has opened up my horizons, increased opportunities available to me, and has helped me to advance personally and professionally.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

View more hints and tips for China

Making life easier for expats

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  • We believe that choosing to live abroad has the power to enrich your life. It can be a journey that leads to new experiences and opportunities. But it can also be complicated. That’s why we’re here to help manage your finances and make planning for the future simple.

Achieve your ambitions at HSBC

HSBC is one of the world’s leading international banks, with a network covering over 70 countries and territories. Our global reach and values-led high performing culture fosters continuous professional development, flexible working and opportunities for you to grow within an inclusive and diverse environment.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in June 2018. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you are aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.