Ford transferred its regional headquarters from Bangkok to Shanghai in 2009. Four months after the move, Small, the director of communications, had her first major asthma attack.
“I had never had asthma in my life, never ever had asthma before China,” said Small, who quit the country in May last year.
Her asthma was exacerbated by an allergy to coal, which is the source of about 70 percent of China’s energy. Her allergy was first identified in 2005 after a six-week assignment in Beijing ended with her being hospitalized for three days in Hong Kong with her lung function at about 30 percent.
In Shanghai, the asthma resurfaced.
“Three hospitalizations later, my doctor said it was time to call it quits,” she said.
Her frequent treatments — involving inhalers, steroids and a nebulizer in the mornings and evenings to get medication deep into her lungs — meant the medication became less effective.
“I actually got a written warning from my pulmonary doctor and it said you need to reconsider for your life’s sake what you’re doing and so that was it. I didn’t really have a choice, my doctor made it for me,” Small said.
Ivo Hahn, the chief executive officer of the China office of executive search consultants Stanton Chase, said that in the past six months, air pollution has become an issue for candidates they approach.
“It pops up increasingly that people say ‘well we don’t want to move to Beijing’ or ‘I can’t convince my family to move to Beijing,’” he said.
Two expats, one Western and one an overseas Chinese, recently turned down general manager and managing director positions because of the air pollution, he said.
Hahn thinks this trend will only strengthen over the next one or two years because the highest-level executives generally “are not working primarily for their survival.”
“They normally get a decent pay, they are generally reasonably well taken care of, so the quality of life actually it does matter, particularly when they have children,” he said.
Some, however, say that China has become too important economically for up-and-coming corporate executives to ignore. It generates a large and growing share of profits for global companies while still offering a vast untapped potential. Its auto industry, now the world’s largest by number of vehicles sold, is expected to outstrip the US and Europe combined by 2020 as car ownership rises from a low level of 50 vehicles per 1,000 people.
“It’s increasingly important for people who want to have careers as managers in multinational companies to have international experience and as part of their career path, and in terms of international experience, China is one of the most desirable places because of the size of the market and growth and dynamism of the market,” said Christian Murck, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
Carl Hopkins, Asia managing partner of legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said Chinese nationals who had studied abroad at top institutions were reluctant to return unless they had elderly family to take care of.
“There is an unwillingness for these people to return to China because they have got a better standard of living in the States or somewhere else than going to Beijing and Shanghai with its current issues with pollution,” Hopkins said, adding that this had become more prevalent over the last year.