Moving to Beijing is probably the first choice for a considerable number of foreigners coming to live in mainland China. On the one hand, this location evidences the wealth of China’s cultural heritage to tourists and expatriates, but it also demonstrates the disadvantages of living and working in a contemporary Chinese mega-city: crowds, traffic congestions, air pollution, the occasional power shortage, and sometimes extreme weather conditions, with sweltering summers, freezing winters, and sandstorms in spring.
Nonetheless, expat life in the capital of the People’s Republic of China can be a fascinating opportunity. Below, you’ll find a few practical tips for moving to Beijing as an expat.
After being destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongolian army, Beijing was rebuilt in the late 13th century under Kublai Khan, and became the capital of the Great Mongolian Empire. The major enhancement in its status resulted in more people moving to Beijing; many came from the country to the city to work, live, and make a new home for themselves and a better life – much like today, though they were to face many more difficulties at such a feudal time. The 13th century was also the time when the travels of Marco Polo captured the European imagination. In his manuscripts, the Italian merchant described how he met the Great Khan himself.
Meanwhile, after the end of the rather short-lived Yuan Dynasty, many wars, and a lot of destruction, the historical city largely became what is recognized as the old town today. The Ming emperors decided to move to Beijing’s Forbidden City, and representatives from other East Asian nations came to Beijing in order to pay tribute to the influential and powerful regime.
Several centuries later, during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Anglo-French forces invaded the city. They forced the imperial government to grant the British, French, Russians, and US-Americans the right to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in the previously closed city of Beijing, as well as opening ports and the Yangtze River to international trade, and allowing foreigners to travel within China. Subsequently, the first diplomatic staff members from Western powers started moving to Beijing.
From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, war was in the air, and the city went through several of them: a nationalist rebellion, revolutionary upheavals, more invasions by foreign powers, and a full-blown civil war. Eventually, it became the capital of contemporary China in 1949.
Ever since then, migrant workers (míngōng), industrial laborers, employees, government officials, and expats have arrived in Beijing in a seemingly endless stream. At last count in 2014, the metropolitan population stood at approximately 21 million inhabitants.
In Maoist China, living in or even moving to Beijing from abroad was impossible due to the country’s isolationist politics. Even after the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s more liberal rule, it was mostly expats from diplomatic circles who were moving to Beijing. They had to live in designated foreigners’ quarters. Today, expats come to Beijing for a variety of reasons.
The universities and colleges in Haidian District attract visiting students, guest lecturers, and English as a Foreign Language teachers. Many foreign-invested enterprises and Chinese companies have a branch office with a permanent representative in Beijing, by which they seek to maintain their ties with Chinese government bureaucracy.
The city also has a flourishing “post-industrial” international business climate, so many new expats moving to Beijing work in finance, real estate, or in science and high-tech start-ups. Last but not least, its status as the home of China’s national institutions means that numerous foreign correspondents report about the latest developments in Chinese politics and in the Chinese economy from Beijing.
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