Why Leave Job in Beijing? To Breathe

April 12, 2013, 4:55 p.m. ET

Why Leave Job in Beijing? To Breathe



As China struggles with air pollution s, some believe the air inside may not be cleaner. Louie Cheng president of PureLiving China, an indoor environmental consulting firm, talks about toxic pollutants, your home and what you can do to get rid of them.

BEIJING—After Beijing’s air-pollution readings soared in January, local executives for German auto maker BMW AG BMW.XE -2.36% received bad news: several candidates for midlevel expatriate jobs withdrew their applications.

“They called and said they no longer had the support of their families,” said Kirk Cordill, managing director and CEO of BMW Group Financial Services China.BMW isn’t alone. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China says air pollution is a key challenge facing companies here, and is an underlying reason why many expatriate workers choose to leave. Soaring levels of pollution are driving expatriates out of Chinese cities, and dissuading others from coming. That is a problem for many multinationals who need to attract some of their brightest and most experienced executives to China at a time when the Chinese market is becoming central to their global success. Volkswagen AG, VOW3.XE -3.30% for instance, is managed in China by Jochem Heizmann, a member of VW’s global management board.

Over the years, Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become magnets for global entrepreneurs and adventurous young M.B.A. graduates seeking opportunities in China’s booming economy. Among them was Marc van der Chijs, who arrived 13 years ago and co-founded leading Chinese online video site Tudou. In March, he packed up and left Shanghai, and headed for Vancouver.

“I was looking for a place where my kids can grow up in a healthy environment,” he said.

In January, levels of fine particulate matter measured by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reached a level 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard. Off-the-charts pollution has added to other drawbacks of life in Chinese cities for expatriates: Internet censorship that slows online speeds and blocks access to sites likeFacebookFB -2.21% Twitter andGoogle GOOG -0.04% Drive; and concerns over food safety and water quality.

Incidents such as the recent discovery of more than 6,000 dead pigs in Shanghai’s Huangpu River, which supplies much of the city’s tap water, make China a particularly hard sell, said Doreen Jaeger-Soong, managing director of legal recruitment firm Hughes-Castell. Among the top concerns for people considering relocation to China is food safety, said Ms. Jaeger-Soong, adding, “Anyone coming from the West is concerned about food and quality of life.”

The impact of high air-pollution levels on long-term health weighs on Chinese and foreigners alike. A recent analysis led by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute estimated outdoor particulate matter in China was responsible for roughly 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, ranking it just behind tobacco smoking.

Even in Hong Kong, which is considered to be far cleaner than Beijing, pollution blowing in from China’s mainland has caused some to flee. Petteri Piirinen, the head of Asia sales at Finland-based technology company OkmeticOKM1V.HE +0.22%moved his family of four from Hong Kong when his toddler developed asthma after living there for a year. “Most babies can play for hours without getting tired, but our son was easily fatigued, struggling to breathe,” Mr. Piirinen said, noting that his son’s condition has improved since they’ve moved back to Finland.

Headhunters say that requests for corporate departures to lesser-polluted cities outside China have snowballed in recent months. Recruiting has become an uphill challenge, said Carl Hopkins, Asia managing partner of legal recruitment firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, noting that pollution is compounding a long-existing obstacle of high taxation rates.

“The mere decibel level of response when you ask people if they will live here [in China] is telling,” said Mr. Hopkins, who is based in Hong Kong. “They all say ‘you have to be joking.’ ”

To be sure, the exodus of expatriates fleeing pollution hasn’t reached the point where it is threatening the operations of global companies. But it is a worrying trend. China relies on foreign investment for technology, management know-how and jobs. Roughly $112 billion in foreign-direct investment flowed into China in 2012, down 3.7% from a year earlier.


International schools are racing to buy sealed domes that cover playgrounds, enabling children to play on days when it is unsafe to run outside, said Mary Ren, product director at the Beijing division of Yeadon, which makes bubblelike domes that purify and pressurize air. Yeadon installed a $650,000, 18,000-square-foot dome at international school Dulwich College Beijing in 2011, Ms. Ren said.

Dulwich sends children into the dome, equipped with basketball courts and special lighting, when the air quality index hits 250, said Cynthia Maclean, head of external relations at Dulwich. By comparison, New York’s air quality index was 30 on Friday morning.

Pollution has also spurred concern among China’s domestic workers. Some local executives are looking to relocate to cleaner cities said Louisa Wong, founder of Asia-focused executive search firm Bó Lè Associates, noting that people think the grass is greener elsewhere. Those in Beijing want to go to Shanghai, those in Shanghai want to go to Hong Kong, and in Hong Kong they want out, Ms. Wong said.

Headhunters say many foreign executives are still keen to move to the mainland to tap opportunities unavailable in the U.S. or Europe. There are around 600,000 foreigners across China according to China’s 2010 census. Long-term expatriates in Beijing and Shanghai say life in China in most ways got progressively easier in recent years, with top-notch international schools, specialty import grocery stores and American-themed suburban subdivisions.

“Many people are aware that this is where the growth is, so some are willing to make the trade-off,” said Mr. Cordill of BMW. He said BMW is boosting recruitment of Chinese nationals who have been educated abroad and may be willing to return home for opportunities or even family. The world’s No. 1 luxury-car manufacturer by sales has also purchased air purifiers for its offices and is helping employees get discounts on purifiers for their homes.

Louie Cheng, president of PureLiving China, which advises clients on cleaning up indoor environments, said the company has done more projects at schools in the past three months than it had in the previous three years combined. Mr. Cheng said properly outfitting an office space in a modern office tower in China with air purifiers can top $100,000.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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