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

Beijing: From Hardship Post To Plum Assignment And Back Again

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As Beijing's notorious air pollution continues to take a toll on people's health, it's also making it much harder for foreign firms to attract staff there these days. Some companies are now offering more money, more vacation and shorter stints to lure people to China's capital. What was once a plum assignment for expatriates is increasingly seen as a hardship post.

Ask Micah Truman. He came to Beijing in 1994 and thought he'd never leave. Truman had built businesses and a family in a city that has art galleries, great restaurants, centuries of rich history — even the Great Wall.

This week, though, after two decades, Truman and his Chinese wife will move their family to Seattle.

Over a recent sushi lunch downtown, Truman explained his change of heart.

"The environment obviously has degraded, the business is cutthroat, traffic is at an absolute standstill," says Truman of his adopted hometown. "Everything has just gotten emotionally, financially, environmentally so extreme, and at a certain point, you have to say, 'no more.' "

Truman says most of his longtime expatriate friends plan to leave within the next two years.

The biggest reason is air pollution.

"I think most of them are in a similar boat to me," says Truman, a partner in AsiaWise, which helps connect American development projects with Chinese citizens seeking EB-5 investor visas to emigrate to the U.S.

"I'm in my early 40s, I have kids, they are 10 and 11, and I think many of us are saying, we want a life for our kids in a physically healthy environment."

There are no comprehensive numbers on the flow of expatriates in and out of Beijing, but anecdotally, there appears to be a slow exodus. Three Beijing relocation companies told NPR more expats are leaving than coming and said air quality was a driving factor.

"I think we're seeing an emerging trend," says Angie Eagan, managing director of MRI China Group, a recruiting and human resource consulting company. Eagan works with hundreds of firms in Asia. She says 20 to 30 percent of those she has talked to recognize that any of China's heavily polluted cities now qualify as hardship posts. She recently spoke with a Japanese technology company.

"They are having a horrible time getting people to go into Beijing," Eagan says. "Oftentimes, people are requesting that their families don't move to Beijing and that the company provides airplane tickets to fly back and forth to be with their families."

In addition, some firms will offer hardship allowance, fixed-term contracts, even — on occasion — two residences, Eagan says.

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