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Local Hotspots

Over the last 35 years, China’s economy has grown to an unprecedented degree. In another decade, it could become the largest in the entire world. Our overview briefly introduces several related topics: economic sectors, present challenges and opportunities, as well as the most important locations.
A sleepy fishing village till the 1980s, Shenzhen has now become one of China’s boomtowns.

In an introduction to the Chinese economy, it is unfortunately impossible to give an overview of all regions and boomtowns. However, we’d like to introduce several cities that are of particular interest as expat destinations.


Beijing is an obvious choice for potential expatriates who are planning to move to China for work. The Chinese capital is one of the country’s four autonomous municipalities: they have the same administrative status as entire provinces and are directly subordinate to the national government. (The other three are Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing in southwestern China.)

Out of a total 31 provinces, Beijing is #13 on a list according to their respective GDP in 2013, right after Shanghai. In that year, Beijing’s economy grew by 7.7% and created a regional GDP of 314 billion USD.

More than three-quarters of Beijing’s GDP are due to the strong tertiary sector. Services, especially in the fields of finance and insurance, real estate, wholesale and retail, research and development, as well as education, dominate the city’s post-industrial economy.

The manufacturing sector is still responsible for a fifth of the local GDP, but this share has been declining steadily. Some industries, such as steel production, have been relocated outside the metropolitan area in order to combat air pollution. Nonetheless, such industries as automotive engineering, aerospace, semi-conductors, food-processing, and the pharmaceutical sector continue to play an important role.

The contribution of agriculture is, however, negligible. And while lots of large state-controlled enterprises and the public sector offer plenty of employment opportunities in Beijing, this doesn’t necessarily apply to expats. Foreign nationals in Beijing should rather look into embassies, cultural organizations, foreign media, international schools, and language teaching.


Shanghai is an even more important expat destination than Beijing. The GDP of this 24-million megalopolis surpasses also that of Beijing Municipality. Since the 1990s, the city has undergone an intense economic redevelopment. It is now among the fastest-developing cities in the world.

Just like in Beijing, the primary sector barely makes a contribution to the urban economy. However, Shanghai’s manufacturing industry still accounts for 37% of its GDP.

The local industries are currently in a restructuring phase: the focus is shifting from low value-added manufacturing to more high-tech industries (e.g. computers and communication equipment, electrical machinery). But traditional heavy industries like steelmaking and ship-building remain part of Shanghai’s industrial landscape.

Above all, the city is famous for being the commercial and financial hub of mainland China. Seat of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, it has a firm place on the Global Financial Centres Index. It also forms the largest consumer market on the Chinese mainland, and its retail sector is booming.

Shipping and logistics in this transport hub, which also harbors the world’s busiest container port, contribute to its flourishing economy, and tourism – especially aimed at business travelers – is another major income source.

By establishing the large Shanghai Free Trade Zone in 2013, the municipal government hopes to gain even more foreign investment for a city that’s already home to numerous foreign-invested enterprises. Unsurprisingly, Shanghai continues to attract a rising number of expatriates.

The Pearl River Delta

The lion’s share of China’s GDP comes from one single province, though: Guangdong, especially the Pearl River Delta on the South China Sea coast. Guangdong Province is the largest economy in mainland China, with a GDP bigger than that of many sovereign nations.

The region houses several populous cities: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Foshan are the wealthiest places, while the rural hinterland is far less prosperous.

The manufacturing industry accounts for about 50% of Guangdong’s total GDP, particularly light industries that produce cheap consumer goods for the domestic market and the export trade (e.g. clothing, electrical appliances). But the ICT sector, producers of electronic equipment, metalworking, and the petrochemical industry are firmly established in Pearl River Delta, too.

Due to the proximity of Hong Kong, the province benefits from capital investment and technology transfer from the Special Administrative Region. The Pearl River Delta also attracts plenty of investors from abroad, especially from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Guangzhou and Shenzhen

Expats are most likely to settle in either Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong, or in Shenzhen, one of China’s first and most successful Special Economic Zones. When it comes to manufacturing, the automotive sector and the petrochemical industry are going strong in Guangzhou. Shenzhen is mostly known for its high-tech companies and start-up scene.

In the service industry, trade plays a significant role for both, with their bustling container ports and excellent transport connections. Guangzhou also organizes the annual Canton Fair, aka China Import and Export Fair, the country’s largest trade fair. Shenzhen, however, is a key location for China’s financial sector as it houses the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.  


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