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Beijing: From Hardship Post To Plum Assignment And Back Again
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Beijing: From Hardship Post To Plum Assignment And Back Again

Asia

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Air pollution in Beijing has become notorious around the world and that's made it a lot harder for foreign firms to attract staff from elsewhere. Some companies are now offering more money, more vacation and shorter stints in Beijing to lure people to China's capital. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, what was once a plum assignment for expatriates is increasingly seen as a hardship post.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Micah Truman thought he would never leave Beijing. He'd built businesses and a family in a city that's exciting, historic and cultured. This week, though, after two decades, Truman and his Chinese wife will move their family to Seattle. Over sushi lunch downtown, Truman explained his change of heart.

MICAH TRUMAN: The environment, obviously, has degraded. The business is cut-throat. Traffic is at an absolute standstill. Everything has just gotten emotionally, financially, environmentally so extreme that at a certain point you have to say no more.

LANGFITT: Truman says most of his long-time expatriate friends plan to leave within the next two years. The biggest reason is air pollution.

TRUMAN: I think most of them are in a similar boat. To me, I'm in my early '40s. I have kids. They are 10 and 11. And I think many of us are saying that we want a life for our kids in a physically healthy environment.

LANGFITT: There aren't any comprehensive numbers on expatriates in Beijing, but anecdotally, there appears to be a slow exodus. Three Beijing relocation companies told NPR more expats are leaving than coming. They said air quality was a driving factor.

ANGIE EAGAN: I'd say we are seeing an emerging trend.

LANGFITT: Angie Eagan works for MRI China Group, a recruiting and human resource consulting company. She works with hundreds of firms in Asia.

EAGAN: Twenty to thirty percent of the company's with really key executive positions we're talking to have already swallowed the fact that going into heavily polluted cities is a hardship post.

LANGFITT: Eagan was recently talking with a Japanese technology company.

EAGAN: They're having a horrible time getting people to go into Beijing. Often times, people are requesting that their families don't move to Beijing and that the company provides them airplane tickets to fly back and forth to be with their family.

LANGFITT: Plus hardship allowance, fixed-term contracts, sometimes even two residences, Eagan says.

LEE QUANE: My name is Lee Quane. I'm the regional director of ECA International.

LANGFITT: ECA provides data and consulting on salary packages. Quane, who works in Hong Kong, estimates hundreds of ex-pat executives have left China in last several years because of the air. Others refuse to come, he says, no matter what perks companies dangle and are choosing more livable countries in the region.

QUANE: I think a lot of people are saying that we don't really need this. If there's an opportunity for me in Singapore and I can enjoy exactly the same career path in a location with a much better quality of living, I'm easily going to vote with my feet.

JAMES MCGREGOR: I've been in Beijing for 25 years, believe it or not.

LANGFITT: James McGregor is chairman of Greater China for APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm. He says Beijing's reemergence as a hardship post is a throw-back to the '90s. Back then, companies offered lavish perks - not because of pollution - but because Beijing was backward and navigating daily life was exhausting.

MCGREGOR: We had a full-time cook. We had a full-time maid. We had a full-time driver. But you needed all those because there wasn't grocery stores. You needed a cook to go out in the local markets and get stuff. In order to pay bills, your driver drove all over town and had to pay them in cash.

LANGFITT: Beijing is infinitely more efficient today. But earlier this month, McGregor called it quits and moved to Shanghai.

MCGREGOR: And probably 75 percent of the reason is the air.

LANGFITT: Shanghai's air quality has been significantly better than Beijing's in recent years. In part, because stiff winds from the East China Sea often clear out the smog. And that's made this business and financial hub even more attractive to ex-pats. But when it comes to air quality in China, nothing is certain. Last December, Shanghai suffered several days of crushing pollution. Foreigners who could, stayed home and blasted their air filters. Ken Jarrett runs the American Chamber of Commerce here.

KEN JARRETT: In Shanghai, perhaps we had been sort of lulled into a sense of confidence that this would not bother us in the future. But that is no longer the case. So it really was very much a wake-up call.

LANGFITT: Many ex-pats see Shanghai as a relative refuge from China's choking smog. They're just hoping and praying that the air here doesn't get any worse. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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