Editor’s Note (22 March): Mark Zuckerberg last week stirred up debate about Beijing’s air pollution with a jog through Tiananmen Square – and while it’s unlikely the media mogul will base himself in the smoggy city anytime soon, many people do consider it. With that in mind, we’ve brought back our expat guide to China's capital.

From bike rides through the city’s endless maze of narrow streets and alleys or ‘hutongs’ to hikes along The Great Wall, or a meal on top of the trendy Hyatt Tower, Beijing is a vibrant city of contrasts. 

In a single day the city offers a trip back in time past ancient temples, dusty streets and elderly men playing mahjong in pyjamas as well as a peek into the future where skyscrapers tower over busy shopping malls as bright pink Ferraris without number plates race past.

Love it or hate it, Beijing divides loyalties. But as the capital of the world’s second-largest economy it’s a magnet for professionals, particularly those working in finance and engineering.  A recent HSBC report named China as the best place to be an expatriate in the world, citing inexpensive childcare and a safe environment as significant advantages for families.

There are some significant downsides for anyone considering relocating, however, not least the worsening air pollution. If you are thinking about making the move, here’s how to get hired and settled.

Job hunt

While the jobs market may not be quite as buoyant as it was three years ago, Chinese and international companies are still actively recruiting.  Recruiters say the perfect candidate for work in Beijing is either totally immersed in Chinese culture or brings specific expertise with a background in research and development or sales.

International firms are increasingly looking for Chinese staff and Chinese firms — eager to branch out — want to draw in international people for public relations, marketing and sales roles because expats are believed to be able to get brands more exposure in the US and Europe. 

“In Beijing we have large demand for the service industry. We are also helping IT firms, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing [firms]” says Jennifer Sun, Operation General Manager & Managing Partner of Experis China with Manpower Group.

Other sectors hiring include retail, luxury goods and marketing.

The growing local talent pool includes two ‘tribes’: westerners who have lived in Beijing for many years and highly-qualified Chinese, usually with a western education. As a result companies are far less willing to bring in new expats from abroad and now prefer candidates with on-the-ground China experience and language skills.

“The people we are placing speak fluent Mandarin. That is a real driver”, said Rupert Forster, managing director for Michael Page, North China.

Firms also look at stability and consider how often how often a candidate has changed jobs, with an eye toward keeping employees as long as possible. “Retention is a really big problem”, added Forster.

Money, money, money

Salaries are typically lower than they would be in the west — but so is the cost of living. Exact amounts depend on demand, a candidate’s expertise and sector. A mid-level manager can expect between 150 000 RMB to 400 000 RMB a year ($24,000 to $64 000).

But there is ample room for negotiation on a total compensation package: a housing allowance, school fees, flights home. This is often a good combination for companies as these add-on costs are tax-deductible. The typical contract is now a local package with a few expat perks thrown in. Salaries generally rise in line with inflation, roughly 6% to 10% each year.

Full expat relocation packages, including luxury housing and school fees at expensive international schools are not as common as they were, say, five years ago, although they are still possible to secure.

The main growth areas for expats are consumer and retail, and to a lesser extent, healthcare and life sciences. Within those areas, “the jobs advertised are very high profile, such as Head of China or Asia Pacific," said George Huang, who is to head Heidrick & Struggles’ Beijing office from May. Westerners who write and speak Chinese are considered first, he added.

In other words high-value expat packages are only offered to very senior executives or to those with real technical expertise. In this case, salaries offered to candidates might actually be higher — up to 15% — than their counterparts in Europe or the US.

Getting settled

Moving house can be stressful. Moving to a city of 21 million people — the biggest in the world — can send blood pressure through the roof, especially if language remains a barrier.

However, once settled-in, expats will find that Beijing resembles any major international city. Its trendy Sanlitun nightlife area is a favourite hangout for expats and locals. The local Beijing people also have adopted the cafe culture as their own and the city is dotted with outdoor terraces.

The city also boasts a wide range of international schools and hospitals, though none of these come cheap. School fees vary from 186 000 RMB for primary school to 250 000 RMB for high school ($30,000 to $40,000). There is also the option of sending children to Chinese schools as some now have an international section with some subjects dispensed in English. Companies will typically cover all or most of private school fees as part of an expat package.

Housing and taxes

Finding a decent flat in Beijing is just as difficult as it is in any other major city. What’s more, going it alone can be tough since Chinese landlords don’t have the best reputation. Most relocation firms will take care of housing issues and make sure moving is as hassle-free as possible. Rents are rising an average of 10% to 15% a year and it is not unheard of for rent on a flat to triple in just a year. A two-bedroom apartment in the center will cost 10 000 RMB to 50 000 ($1,600 to $8,000) per month, depending on standing and location.

Taxes are in line with those in other developed countries. China has a progressive IIT (individual income tax) rate capped at 45% for salaries above 80 000 RMB.

A recent revision of the social security law has made contributions by foreigners compulsory. Part of this new social security tax is paid for by the employer with the rest covered by the employee, although in some cases companies take on all the additional costs. These costs are capped at 5400 RMB per month ($840) for the employer and 1600 RMB per month ($260) for the employee.

Getting a Visa

Regulations are constantly changing. As of 2013, getting a visa became slightly more complicated. Renewals can take up to three months. The very popular ‘F’ or business visa has been shortened to three months from six previously. Work visas for expats are called "Z" visas which typically allow you to enter the country and for your employer to help you apply for a residency permit for the duration of your contract, up to five years.

Authorities are now much more vigilant on resumes and work experience before stamping a passport, said Antoine de la Gatinais, lawyer for Gide Loyrette Nouel.

Renewing a visa takes much longer, too. The whole process takes a few months now as opposed to only about a week last year.

Pros and cons of daily life

Beijing has a lot to offer as an international city.  Families enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, good international schools and opportunities to travel across the rest of Asia. Thailand, Vietnam and Laos are popular getaways within a 6-to-8 hour flight. Japan is only 3 hours away.

Petrol, grocery shopping and small luxuries such as spa services and manicures still remain relatively cheap compared to other global cities. A huge pool of dedicated “ayis” or nannies makes child care affordable (expect to pay around 3000 RMB ($480) for a full-time aid. Most ayis come directly from the countryside. Word of mouth is the most reliable way to find qualified ayis.

But the rising cost of household bills such as heating and cooking gas means Beijing gradually is becoming as expensive as any other major city. For many, the worsening air quality makes the locale more of a short career stopover rather than a place to consider a long-term or permanent home.

Families are increasingly worried about impacts of foul air on their children and kit them out with face masks on every outing. The pollution index measuring 2.5 PM particulates is regularly over 200 and often peaks at 500, forcing schools to close playgrounds and cancel outdoor physical education. The World Health Organisation recommends an index of no more than 50.

“I enjoy the electricity in the air. There is always something to do in Beijing and the local people are very nice,” said Priscilla Visconti, 38, an Italian expectant mum, who moved to Beijing last December.  “But the first and main hassle is the pollution… Health is most important thing before everything else.”

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