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Top 10 Chinese Cities For Expats

By Edited Jan 8, 2014 4 8

Why China?

Because of its economy and fantastic job prospects, China becomes a more and more attractive option for many different nationalities to consider if they are planning to relocate overseas. A national annual survey is held amongst the expat community here to find out what they consider to be the most attractive cities in China. This takes into account - policy performance, administration and working and living environment for foreign expats who choose to stay in the "middle kingdom". Last year the survey was conducted from September 2012 - December 2012. To be considered, the cities must be prefecture level or above and not include Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan. For anyone considering a move to China for work or study, or even planning a vacation here, this makes for an interesting read. Why is this survey important? You won't find a much more foreign country than China and living here for expats is not always the easiest path to travel. So here are the results and some extra information for you about what you can expect from what the expat community ranks as the "top 10 most livable cities in China 2012".



#10 Qingdao, Shandong Province

Famous for hosting the Olympic sailing competitions, during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, Qingdao is a coastal city with a temperate climate. Over looking the Yellow sea you can enjoy activities such as swimming, surfing and sailing. It is also the home of the Tsingtao brewery which is probably the most famous internationally known Chinese beer. An abundance of fresh air and even fresher seafood, it makes you wonder a little why this city is listed at 10 and not within the top 5, but apparently it falls short on expectations when it comes to the city's administration, children's education and level of globalization. Another cool aspect of Qingdao which can be seen are the remaining signs from the period in which Qingdao was controlled by Germany, making the architecture in parts of this city, a unique German/Chinese mix. Interestingly, being a main port, there are actually ferries running from Qingdao to Japan and South Korea.

#9 Xiamen, Fujian Province

Another major seaport coastal town, but located on the south-east coast, Xiamen was actually ranked as China's most romantic leisure city in 2001. Long hot and humid summers and short mild dry winters, beaches and fresh coastal air are a big plus for Xiamen, that is if you like hot and sticky. Tree lined beaches, botanical gardens, a weekend getaway island called Gulangyu and a ferry to Taiwan also add to its appeal. I have to say on my visit to Xiamen, I found the Chinese style seafood tasted a little strange, but I'm well and truly used to hot and spicy. In this top 10 list for its "high quality living environment" and so said openings for entrepreneurial endeavors, Xiamen's downside is that expat salaries seem low compared to other cities in China. Well, C'mon...you can't have it all!

#8 Tianjin

The fourth largest city in China and yet another coastal city, Tianjin is known as the gateway to Beijing as it is located only 120km away from China's capital city. The pro's and con's for this city seem a little contradictive, saying that a big benefit in Tianjin is its healthcare and working environment, but that the cities policy environment needs improving?  The weather outlook in Tianjin seems to forecast a lot of "dry and windy" whether it be hot or cold, even reporting sandstorms during spring, that blow in from the Gobi Desert and that are capable of lasting a few days at a time. It seems to have more of the big city mod cons than Qingdao or Xiamen, but possibly not the same amount of real coastal atmosphere? Its big plus... living in Beijing, whilst you're not living in Beijing.

#7 Nanjing, Jiangsu

Moving away from the coast line now, we come to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. Of course many of us know of this city already, from the horrific atrocities that occurred here during 1937, when Japanese troops carried out the systematic and  brutal "Nanjing Massacre" also known as "The Rape Of Nanjing". These days Nanjing is known as the national centre of education, research, transportation and tourism. Part of the Yangtze River Delta, Nanjing experiences cold damp winters and unfortunately is known as one of China's famous three "furnace cities", meaning it can be unbearably humid and hot during summer. Nanjing was a former capital city of China... throughout a whole 6 dynasties, so it stands to reason that this city is chock-a-block full of history. It is also known for being a cultural and art hub, which is not exactly an easy thing to find in China. The downsides of living in Nanjing? Low expat salaries and unsatisfactory city administration.

#6 Hangzhou, Zhejiang

West Lake, Hangzhou
Another Yangtze River Delta city, Hangzhou is often said to be China's most beautiful city. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage site "West Lake" and it is also the capital and largest city in Zhejiang Province. This is the place that has been referred to as "heaven on earth" and the obvious pros of living in Hangzhou are that you will be surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, whichever direction you care to look. Tea museums, silk museums and botanical gardens are just some of the relaxing surroundings you could easily become accustomed to. The con's unfortunately are that being surrounded by such natural beauty, makes for not such a good working environment... just an exceptionally good lazing around environment. Salaries are low, but that doesn't stop many expat's settling in Hangzhou for obvious reasons.

#5 Kunming, Yunnan Province

Coming in at the half way mark, is the capital and largest city in arguable the most beautiful province of China, Yunnan...That city is Kunming. With many universities, museums and galleries, it has a wonderful cultural feel that attracts many visitors. The fact that the province of Yunnan is full of wonderful places to visit like Dali and Lijiang also adds much appeal, as these are highlighted as some of the most interesting and pretty places to see in China. Kunming has a large and thriving expat community. Known for having the mildest climate in China, you can expect short, cool, dry winters and mild, warm and humid summers. Because of its favourable weather it is known as the main horticultural centre in this huge country. Many parklands, a huge flower industry, fruit, vegetables, crops and trees can be found throughout Kunming. Pro's of living here are of course being surrounded by nature and a cruisey lifestyle, con's are apparently not such a good health care or education system and Kunming is lacking in cohesive policies to attract and hire new talent to the city. 

#4 Suzhou, Jiangsu

Sujzhou by Night
A town very distinctively split into old and new, Suzhou offers that distinct Chinese vibe, having no shortage of canals, temples and gardens, it is nicknamed "The Venice Of The Orient". It also has a serious business face, with the modern half of the city offering all the regular facilities that make an expat's life that little bit easier. Suzhou has hot and humid summers and cold and damp winters...sometimes with snow. For me I think its biggest feature is its close proximity to Shanghai (100 km west) and Nanjing (200 km east). A train ride to Nanjing is less than 2 hours and the new high-speed train to Shanghai...only 25 minutes. Whilst this city is rated highly at number 4 and the only downside to living here is stated as "the administration environment could be improved", I myself found the city a little disorienting and the many gardens seemed to me like little tourist traps, having to pay money to walk through their round gates. The vibe of this city wasn't for me, but many people do love Suzhou.

#3 Shenzhen, Guangdong

Situated immediately north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a major city in China's southern Guangdong province. A vibrant economy and modern city scape attract many business minded expats to move to this city. Shenzhen is part of the Pearl River Delta and is only 60 km away from the provincial capital Guangzhou. Living in Shenzhen is great for people seeking high salaries and attractive working environments, in stark contrast to someone who would prefer the more laid back lifestyle of somewhere such as Hangzhou or Kunming or a beach lifestyle such as Xiamen or Qingdao. So the bad points of Shenzhen are obviously concerned with living environment. There are also supposed to be issues with less than desirable health care and education systems. The climate is fairly moderate across the board...mild dry winters, sometimes humid and hot in summer and somewhat rainy in spring. If you are moving to the Guangdong region and looking at learning the language of Chinese, you should gear yourself up to speak Cantonese and not the standard Mandarin spoken throughout most of China. A fairly big plus that should be mentioned, is that Shenzhen has fast ferries that run to  Zhuhai, Macau and Hong Kong.

#2 Beijing

Great Wall
The capital city of China is of course Beijing. China's political, cultural, transport and education centre. Many expats flock to Beijing to live because it's a place that gives them some familiarity. It's a safe option with everything they are going to need, right at their fingertips. You have added advantages of all the big historical sights...the Great Wall, The Summer Palace, so many temples and tea rooms. Administrative and policy environment, health care and children’s education is all said to be outstanding;  however, living in such a massive city is obviously going to give you poor environmental conditions. Air quality in China is a big problem and big cities like Beijing struggle to remedy the situation. Traffic is said to be chaotic, although on my visit here, I found it was very acceptable and considering the population, I would even stretch to good. Hot, humid, dry summers and cold, windy, dry winters...with the emphasis on the word WINDY are what you need to be prepared for. My experience with the Beijing wind was during a winter, and no matter how much clothing I put on, the wind cut through me like a knife. Like neighbouring Tianjin, Beijing has a frequent problem of dust storms. In April 2002, one dust storm alone dumped nearly 50,000 tons of dust onto the city before moving on to Japan and Korea. Something that I feel is worth mentioning from the point of view of someone who has visited many of the city's on this list including Beijing and the following #1 city, is that I found the people of Beijing almost seemed to think that they are better than others, they came across as quite aloof. I'm not the only person to notice this, and many Chinese people say the same thing, as if it's a well known fact. All that aside, I guess living in a city like Beijing is "China" without the difficulties you will find in many other cities here.

#1 Shanghai

It's absolutely no surprise to me that Shanghai comes in at number one. Whilst I have never lived there, I have visited on many occasions and even amongst the hustle and bustle of big city life, always find it friendly, beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do. Shanghai is the most international of all the cities in China. It has a multicultural atmosphere that stems from its history brought about by the merging of different countries and cultures, that till this day still holds strong. Health care and education are rated highly here, the big downside is the same as all major Chinese cities, and that is the environment. Obviously the most populated city in the world is not going to have the best quality when it comes to natural surroundings and air quality. Shanghai is also said to have a few administrative issues. The weather is...ok, experiencing cold damp winters and hot and humid summers. It can be susceptible to the odd freakish weather such as winds blowing in from Siberia or thunderous downpours of rain, but living in Shanghai would give you the luxury of experiencing spring and autumn, which are mostly sunny, pleasant and dry times of the year... You may laugh, but many places in China feel as if they only experience summer and winter. There is plenty to see and do in Shanghai and being a major transportation hub, you can get to pretty much anywhere you wish with ease. Shanghai is a fashionable and modern metropolis and one of the worlds biggest financial centres. There is plenty of work available for expats with good wages being offered, however, Shanghai is not a cheap place to live. The cost of living is high compared to most other cities. I guess the pros of Shanghai are that it has to be the easiest place for an expat to fit in, a big disadvantage is if you only stick to Shanghai, you will never experience what real China is all about. 
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May 10, 2013 8:34am
I nearly went to Beijing a few years ago for a work conference but it was cancelled at the last minute. Was so bummed but not because of the conference ;-)
May 10, 2013 5:48pm
Oh what a shame for you! Beijing is super interesting because of all the famous places that we have all heard about...and I have to say that I wasn't expecting the "The Great Wall" to amount to much more than a lot of tourist hype, but it was the contrary...One of the most special places I have seen here in China AND I was lucky enough to experience it with my mum, which made it even more cool. Has a real specific vibe about the place, climbing and absorbing the atmosphere. I hope you get to experience it one day :-)
May 28, 2013 12:17pm
Interesting post, I think more people each year are considering china as an alternative place to live.
May 28, 2013 5:28pm
Yep it's becoming a popular alternative to the norm', however, If people are not prepared for "China challenges", many can find it difficult.
Jun 13, 2013 9:27pm
Hong Kong, although a separate region of China, should be number 1! Low income tax and is more free than the USA.
Jun 14, 2013 12:52am
Cheers for the comment. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao are not part of "Mainland China". In fact, choosing to go and live in Hong Kong (at a guess) would probably not be much like "China living", so if people are looking for an easy option, yeah Hong Kong would be a choice. I would expect that foreigners going to Hong Kong may not get the same perks as foreigners going to the mainland, because they wouldn't face the same difficulties. So it really depends what someone is looking for. Saying that...I know nothing for sure about Hong Kong...It's really just what I perceive from what I have heard.
Jan 2, 2014 7:06pm
Interesting. I lived in Shanghai for 4 years. Of the cities I visited, Nanjing seemed the most livable. It was smaller, relatively unpolluted, but still had a lot of great amenities.
Jan 2, 2014 7:29pm
I've not been to Nanjing, but it does seem to have an appeal of a different nature to many other places here. Especially if you're into art's and music!
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  1. "Qingdao." Wikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  2. "Top 10 Attractive Cities For China Expats -1012 Edition." Lost Laowai. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  3. "Top 10 attractive Chinese cities for foreigners 2012 (2)." Peoples Daily. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  4. "Tianjin." Wikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  5. "Nanjing." Wikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  6. "Kunming." Weikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  7. "Shenzhen." wikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >
  8. "Beijing." Wikipedia. 7/05/2013 <Web >

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