Whitney Foard Small loved China and her job as a regional director of communications for a top automaker. However, after air pollution led to several stays in hospital and finally a written warning from her doctor telling her she needed to leave, Small packed up and left for Thailand.
In doing so, the Ford Motor Co executive became another expatriate to leave China because of the country’s notoriously bad air. Other top executives whose careers would be boosted by a stint in the world’s second-largest economy and most populous consumer market are put off when considering the move.
There is no official data on the numbers leaving because of pollution, but executive recruitment companies say it is becoming harder to attract top talent to China — both expats and Chinese nationals educated abroad. The European Chamber of Commerce in China says foreign managers leave for many different reasons, but pollution is almost always cited as one of the factors and is becoming a larger concern.
If the polluted skies continue, companies may have to fork out more for salaries or settle for less qualified candidates. Failure to attract the best talent to crucial roles could result in missed commercial opportunities and other missteps.
Poor air quality has also added to the complaints that foreign companies have about operating in China. Even though China’s commercial potential remains vast, groups representing foreign companies say doing business is getting tougher due to slowing though still robust economic growth, strict Internet censorship, limits on market access and intellectual property theft.
China’s rapid economic development over the last three decades has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but also ravaged the environment as heavy industry burgeoned, electricity demand soared and car ownership became a badge of status for the newly affluent in big cities. Health risks from pollution of air, water and soil have become a source of discontent with Communist Party rule among ordinary Chinese.
Foreigners regularly check the air quality readings put out by the US Embassy and consulates on their Twitter feeds when deciding whether to go out for a run or let their children play outside.
The pollution has become even more of a hot topic since January, when the readings in Beijing went off the scale and beyond what is considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency. On the worst days, skyscrapers disappeared into the capital’s murky skyline and masks multiplied on the streets and sold out at convenience stores. At the same time, China’s state media gave unprecedented coverage to the pollution following months of growing pressure from a Chinese middle class that has become more vocal about the quality of its air.
“January was probably the worst,” said Australian Andrew Moffatt, who worked for nine months in Beijing as regional manager for a chain of language schools before the pollution pushed him to return to Brisbane in March with his wife and five-year-old son.
“Back in November I had been sick and then we went on holiday to the beach in Hainan and it just reminded me of Australia and I just thought we could be breathing this quality air every single day rather than polluted air in Beijing,” he said.
And it’s not only Beijing where the air pollution is driving expats away.