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Employment in Shanghai

The city’s economic boom is slightly ironic, given its more recent past as a hotbed of Maoist ideology. During the “Cultural Revolution”, hundreds of thousands of locals were forcibly removed to toil in remote rural areas. Nowadays, however, the city seems to have returned to its roots as a trading port and international hub of commerce and finance in East Asia.

Economic Development

In the early 20th century, thousands of lǎowài (foreigners) were working in Shanghai’s numerous concessions, extraterritorial areas controlled by colonial powers. Today, Shanghai is the spearhead of China’s rapidly growing and expanding economy. Once again, the “Gateway to the World” is attracting numerous foreigners, who want to move their career forward or to immerse themselves in Chinese culture.

Indeed, Shanghai’s status as a boomtown is now so powerful that in 2010, Hong Kong, its biggest rival, begun working on an updated image campaign. Hong Kong intended to promote its reputation as a financial center that focuses on international asset management and offshore trading. As one can see from this example of “location branding”, Hong Kong appears to be concerned enough with Shanghai’s development to consider the expense and effort well worth it.

On the other hand, in 2012, China’s economy only expanded by 7.7%, the lowest expansion rate in 13 years. In 2013, a free-trade zone was launched in Shanghai; however it is debatable whether or not it is having an impact on China’s economy.

Shanghai’s Economy

During 2013, pharmaceutical, automobile, and petrochemical industries experienced significant growth. On the other hand, steel products, electronics, and large machinery industries declined. This was due to less international demand and industrial restructuring, as Shanghai worked to phase out some labor-intensive industries. Founders, investors, executives, and employees are attaching more and more importance to future growth areas, such as financial services and high tech.

The entire district of Pudong, where lots of expatriates are currently employed, was declared a Special Economic Region in 1993. Both the Lùjiāzuǐ Finance and Trade Zone and the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park are located in Pudong – a popular destination for foreigners working in Shanghai.

One aspect of Shanghai’s economy has remained a constant over the course of centuries: the port. It became one of China’s most important harbors under the early Qing Dynasty in the late 1600s. Shanghai is both China’s largest comprehensive port and the biggest container port worldwide. The fast movement of goods and the resulting abundance of commerce is another great reason for working in Shanghai.

Finding a Job in Shanghai

Many expatriates in Shanghai are asked to move overseas by their employers. However, trying to find a job in Shanghai on your own can be difficult. Nowadays, being able to speak English is not enough; you must also have some Chinese language skills as well as knowledge of the culture. More often than not, you must also be a specialist in your field. If you don’t have a personal expat network in China yet, which could help you with working in Shanghai by word-of-mouth advertising, there are other useful strategies for job hunting in Shanghai.

In addition to commercial online marketplaces such as, Jobsin Shanghai or JobChinaNet, the websites of many Chambers of Industry and Commerce based in Shanghai have their own classifieds sections with local job offers. They often advertise jobs that require some experience with doing business in your home country, interest in the Chinese market, some knowledge of Mandarin (more on that later), and specific sets of hard skills for working in Shanghai.

Business in Shanghai: Required Skills

Skills and Qualifications

For example, recent job offers posted on the homepages of the AmCham and the German AHK Shanghai include financial controller; plant operations manager; supply quality engineer, sales manager, and professional interpreter.

Judging from this random selection, you can see that it’s better to have specialized knowledge in technology or business administration and then polish it up with Chinese language skills and cultural competency, rather than the other way round. “Hard skills” in marketing, sales, finance, consulting, IT, engineering, and new technology, as well as good to excellent professional qualifications, are probably preferable to more academic degrees in Chinese Studies or Intercultural Communications.

Language Requirements

Many foreign-invested enterprises and multi-nationals use English as a lingua franca in the workplace. Thus proficiency in Chinese can be limited to specific job descriptions; however it is best to have at least a basic knowledge of the language.

Language skills may give you a huge advantage over your competitors even if they aren’t mentioned in the job ad itself. Although you might not need them to go about your daily business, they will make for smoother dealings with your Chinese colleagues and business contacts. Moreover, the better you speak Chinese, the more jobs you will be able to choose from.

Chinese Dialects

Actually, the Chinese variety spoken in Shanghai is the most common dialect from the Wu Chinese language group. As such, it is not mutually intelligible with other Chinese languages, such as the Cantonese (Guangzhou, Hong Kong), Min Dong (Fujian), or Mandarin (Beijing) dialects.

With the foundation of the PRC in 1949, the central government in Beijing declared Standard Mandarin the official language in the entire country. At first, this lead to diglossia (i.e. the coexistent use of two languages) among the inhabitants of Shanghai. Later on, with the influx of both migrants from other Chinese provinces and foreign nationals from overseas, Shanghainese was all but neglected. However, in recent years, there has been renewed interest in preserving and promoting the local Wu dialect, and you might pick up the odd regional colloquialism in the street.

Learning the Language

For business purposes, you should acquire some knowledge of Standard Mandarin. While Mandarin lacks complicated inflection and complex syntax, it does require certain other skills: The tonal properties make good listening comprehension and subtle differences in pronunciation invaluable. Moreover, the many Chinese charactersmake reading and especially writing more difficult than in languages with alphabetic systems.

Unless your job requires actual fluency in Mandarin, you shouldn’t worry too much about the potential difficulties in studying this language. The honest attempt alone demonstrates open-mindedness, good will, respect of and interest in another culture. Therefore, even speaking Mandarin badly may win your hosts’, coworkers’ or contact person’s favor as they will notice your obvious effort to speak their language.

We highly recommend you to start taking classes in business Chinese, which may even be tailored to a certain field of employment, before you leave. The modern technology available to businesspeople can also help you with your language studies: for example, tonal listening and pronunciation exercises and Mandarin podcasts for your MP3 player, Chinese vocabulary trainers or character dictionaries as a smartphone app (e.g. iChinese), orhànzì drawing software for graphic tablets.

Business Etiquette in Shanghai

Everyday Etiquette

Just like you may do without fluent Chinese language skills to s쳮d in Shanghai’s business world, most Chinese will not expect you to be familiar with all subtleties and nuances of their behavior.

You should, however, take care that you know some basic etiquette rules that will prevent you from putting your foot into your mouth and committing a huge intercultural faux-pas in your professional life. Depending on where you come from, some of these concepts may be well known to you, or they might require a conscious effort to remember.

First of all, try not to forget these fundamental values that are often held in high esteem in Chinese culture, in business life and beyond:

  • punctuality
  • ceremony
  • formality
  • hierarchy
  • seniority
  • indirectness


While you may wonder at the crowds in Shanghai’s streets shoving you rudely aside, jumping the (barely existent) line everywhere, or spitting on the street, a meeting in a business environment will be dictated by courtesy and politeness.

  • Make sure to dress yourself neatly, in formal conservative attire.
  • Don’t slouch, but try to keep yourself upright and alert. 
  • Avoid staring too directly or pointing at somebody else with your fingers, even if you are simply curious who this person might be.
  • Use a none-too-firm handshake accompanied by a slight bow as the standard greeting.
  • Respect the concept of seniority during the introductory round.
  • Try not to confuse given names and family names. If your Chinese contact has a traditional Chinese name like Yang Tao, you should address him as Mr. Yang. However, he might also have assumed a Westernized name such as Tim Yang. Note that Yang is still the surname, but the order of the names now follows Western conventions. Despite the Western influence, you shouldn’t call him “Tim”, though. Many Chinese people do not like being on a first-name basis that quickly.
  • During introductions, you are likely to receive business cards from your Chinese contacts. Always take them with both your hands, study them carefully for a moment, and thank the owner with a verbal acknowledgment and a bow of your head. When introductions are over, put them gingerly in your wallet without folding them or using them to doodle.
  • You might get a round of applause as an official greeting or welcome from the group. Applause is relatively common in such situations, and you should thank your hosts and return the applause if appropriate.

Business Meetings

Once you have mastered the art of polite introductions, you can progress to actually establishing a business-related conversation with Shanghainese businesspeople. Here are some more ground rules to consider:

  • Don’t interrupt anybody while they are still talking.
  • Don’t talk over silences, either, even if they start feeling uncomfortable to you.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Avoid small talk during the official part of the meeting and politics during small talk. Your Chinese hosts may be very interested in your family and personal life at home, though. Don’t mistake their curiosity for impolite intrusiveness.
  • Don’t ask for direct opinions and get used to reading between the lines.For example, “we’ll study the matter” or “it’s not very convenient” very often means that your Chinese contacts are not interested in pursuing the matter any further. Don’t wait for an outspoken “no”.

Business invitations, toast-giving, and gift-giving are other essential aspects of business culture in Shanghai and other Chinese cities. They, too, are characterized by many intricacies. You might want to take a class in intercultural skills for China before your departure or read up on such customs in publications such as Culture Shock! China or Doing Business in China for Dummies.

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