I am always amazed by the misconceptions that circulate in Chinese society regarding the lives of the foreign experts who work in government units here. It used to be that we were regarded as talented people who had left our friends and comfortable life in the West to help China develop-a picture which is indeed true in many cases.But not all foreign experts fit the type. It is not easy for a work unit to find the foreign expert it needs. If a job is advertised on line, who knows who will apply for it? Questionnaires are sent by e-mail, but it is hard to discern the real character of the applicant, and mistakes in hiring are sometimes made. Still, most foreign experts are dedicated people who are delighted to play key roles in China's development.
Government units show great concern for their foreign experts' material life, providing them with housing, medical care and transportation to and from the workplace. But nowadays single foreign experts, or those without their family, are clearly preferred.Foreign-expert salaries in Beijing range from 2，500 to 4，500 yuan (not dollars!) a month, a level too low to allow experts to look for their own housing in a rental market that is still very restricted.
And such a salary makes bringing school-aged children to China very difficult. Beijing has only one Chinese primary school and two secondary schools that admit foreign children. The admission fee for these schools is 20，000 yuan, and tuition fees for primary-school children range from 7,000 to 9,000 yuan per semester. In middle school, each term costs 14,000 yuan. At the primary school, 900 yuan per term is charged for lunchtime supervision: foreign children, barred from playing outside or mixing with Chinese playmates, are obliged to remain in the classroom during the lunchbreak. Transportation costs must be added; for instance, the schoolbus from the Friendship Hotel is 200 yuan a month.
Why can't experts' children attend the schools founded by foreigners for foreigners?The cost! These schools are far beyond the means of someone on an expert's salary - up to US,000 per year, or about 140,000 yuan. And how could a foreign expert earning 4,000 yuan a month possibly pay for the other lessons and activities that are a part of the lives of most children of educated parents?
Back when I left Canada and first started working in China, my salary was 1,200 yuan, whereas my Chinese colleagues earned 300. In 1994 the foreign-expert pay scales were upped across the board, but the cost of living was also rising markedly. Since then the gap between what foreign experts receive and the average salary of educated Chinese has narrowed year by year.
Formerly it was the standard contractual arrangement to supply a plane ticket from our home country and back once a year. These days many units prefer to hire foreigners already in China so they can save on airfare. Nor are the spouse and children covered, and if the spouse is also in China, the foreign expert is not regarded as needing to visit his or her family abroad. In the past, anyone entitled to a plane ticket who chose not to use it could receive 80% of its cash value, and we also had an extra month of salary for holidays. All these provisions and many others besides have disappeared from the new contracts. Experts housed in the Friendship Hotel now have to pay for their gas and local phone calls (we always paid for long-distance calls). Living in a hotel, we have no choice but to pay much more for telephone service than what a private line in an ordinary house would cost.
Another change is that medical expenses are being covered less and less. Registration fees to see an ordinary doctor are a non-refundable 50 yuan minimum. To consult a specialist (in some departments like gynecology there are only specialists and professors) we pay 200-300 yuan.And in my experience, foreign experts in need of non-emergency surgery are usually invited to return home for it.
Lest I sound like a whiner, let me point out that there are compensations: at the Friendship Hotel,swheresa sizable community of foreign experts lives, central heating begins in October rather than on November 15, as it does for most northern Chinese, and it also stops later than the official date. Christmas is celebrated with a party, a basket of fruit and decorations.For May 1 and National Day we are treated to a gala concert or performance to which we are transported on special buses.
All this is very nice, but people from abroad do not come to work in China as foreign experts for the little perks.Without tenure here and with our expenses growing faster than our earnings, life is always a struggle. If the provisions for our life here continue to shrink while our tasks and responsibilities grow, government units may find that they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish:it will become increasingly difficult to recruit competent professionals for important jobs requiring foreign expertise.