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I am doing a PhD in EU. Given the high competition for academic jobs in the EU, I am considering moving to China to seek an assistant professorship after finishing my degree. My intention is to have immediate employment and build a teaching and research portfolio. Then move back to the EU again.

I had two classmates from China. Both of them said that they hated living and working in China because their lives were too bound by government regulations and free speech was nonexistent. By free speech, they meant the liberty of using Facebook, which is banned in China.

My supervisor said that one of his research mates was under arrest for a year because he searched "free Tibet" in a Chinese search engine.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of professors working at various Chinese top-ranking universities which seems to be counterintuitive.

What problems do non-Chinese people face while working as research professors in China?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 16:05

2 Answers 2

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First, about my own background (and therefore qualification to answer this question): I'm a member of the Chinese diaspora, and fluent in the language. I've visited China many times, but I don't have direct experience with academia in China. However, I have had plenty of contact with Chinese colleagues (PhD students/postdocs), many of whom either plan to return to or have already returned to China.

Living in China can be difficult, but not for the reasons you think.

Any concerns relating to lack of freedom of speech/government oppression/censorship are wildly overblown. Unless your hobby is organizing large protests, life in China is just like life in any other country. You work, eat, sleep, play. You can think and say whatever you want and practice whatever religion you want. You won't be voting in local elections, but then again, this applies to living in any foreign country.

The Chinese government has its flaws, and there is certainly authoritarianism in China. But for 99.9% of middle class citizens and white collar expats (such as researchers) the presence of the “authoritarian” government has no practical effect on day-to-day life.

In addition, I find the OP's story with his Chinese classmates to be highly unusual. Of the Chinese people that I have encountered working in academia in the west, most wanted to return to China eventually (whether due to job opportunities, or to be closer to their family, or because they actually find the quality of life (i.e. food, infrastructure, public safety) to be better in China than in the west), and of those who preferred to stay in the west, for not a single one was it due to political reasons or "lack of freedom".


The real challenge is simply living in a foreign country with a different language, different culture, and different systems for everything. And realize that "foreign" is relative—to a western person, east Asia will be far more foreign than another western country. The level of English proficiency among the population (even among educated people) is quite low, and if you can't read the script, you won't even be able to read signs in the street. The culture shock can be huge. The answers to this academia.se question are a good resource.

In addition, moving to China comes with its own extra difficulties, since in many ways China is like a separate universe. If you go to Japan, for example, you'll experience the same level of culture shock, but at least you can pay with your credit cards/get money from an ATM, and use a lot of the same apps and websites (Google maps, etc.). Not in China. In China there is a different Chinese equivalent of everything that you are used to in the west. The great firewall is not a problem, as it is easily bypassed with a VPN (anyone who says that using a VPN is banned is misinformed). But even if you can access it, Google maps is basically useless in China, for example. Setting up payment systems is another headache, as most places don't even accept cash, so you need wechat or alipay, but first you need a Chinese phone number and bank account to register for those apps. It can often feel like one is in a chicken-and-egg situation.

Finally, something else that was a problem until recently, is the fact that China was a developing country with all the usual developing-country-problems (pollution, filthy public toilets, food safety, poor infrastructure, etc.) This is not much of a problem anymore, as in most first-tier cities in China today, the infrastructure, cleanliness, and general quality of life are on par with developed countries (except for the undrinkable tap water).

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  • How is the pay level as compared to the EU in general? Do they pay according to the international standard or according to the Chinese standard? If the latter one, will I be able to migrating back to the EU in future?
    – user366312
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 20:07
  • Another question is, how is the working hour? In the EU no one works more tha 40 hours per week unless you they in multiple jobs.
    – user366312
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 20:08
  • In terms of salary, in very broad-brush terms, probably slightly lower than in Europe, but not by much. But also remember that today in Shanghai/Beijing/Shenzhen the salaries and cost of living are basically the same as in Europe (although second tier cities will be much cheaper). Working hours will be long--that's a cultural thing in east asia. But working long hours is also a thing in academia. I would guess that the difference in working hours in east asia vs the west in academia is nowhere near as dramatic as in companies.
    – Aqualone
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 21:12
  • I heard traveling between big cities in China by high speed rail is much easier than in other countries, probably expensive though, is it true ?
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 12:47
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    @Kimball the angle of discussion that is getting lost in translation here is that there is a tendency for Westerners to evaluate China according to a different set of criteria than other countries and to have a greater number of misconceptions about the population and its daily life there. There is the particular notion that censorship is 'instakill' and that you will be jailed for life at the first mistake, as evidenced by some comments in this thread.
    – Qwokker
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 13:05
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Although I was not a research professor and merely a Master's student, I had the opportunity to work alongside many such researchers at a nationally top-ranked university, and will use this experience as a basis for my answer.

There are a number of misconceptions about China that highly influence how foreigners view the country when initially choosing to live there or not.

Free speech and authoritarianism

Yes, there is obvious and heavy censorship at every level, and it has become worse in the past few years. However, the sophistication and ruthlessness of it is highly variable. It's hard to encapsulate the reality without direct experience, but I will leave a few examples here to provide a representative sample.

  • You could pay extra to get uncensored 'Western' internet at the university. Yes, it was officially provided and just slightly more expensive than the normal internet. No VPN needed.
  • Some Chinese professors regularly criticized various aspects of the government and Chinese history in class and in public, and no one cared.
  • Foreign students regularly posted opinions that sounded dangerous to a person inexperienced with China but nobody cared
  • There is a tendency for foreigners to think that the Chinese authorities care about them quite a bit, but in reality you are just another foreigner among many. Unless you are an actually important or wealthy person, nobody cares. You are far more likely to have your belongings searched and your electronics scanned at an American airport than at a Chinese one, in my experience. There is a line that is crossed when you actually agitate for political gatherings, but you actually have to seek out trouble for it to meet you.
  • I knew a Chinese diaspora student (who was not a citizen) who was hilariously enough asked to tone down his dissertation, not because it was too critical of China, but because it was too uncritically supportive and hardline against the West

General difficulties of life in China

Regulations and bureaucratic aspects are annoying, but there is often a way to resolve problems if you ask nicely. And no, I'm not referring to bribes, just general social skills and learning to navigate the system. Overall, your biggest enemy is isolation. If you don't learn a bit of Chinese and just hang out with the same foreigners every day, it can leave you alienated and bored, which will magnify your distaste for other daily issues such as pollution and whatnot. It can be genuinely hard to adapt to Chinese culture, and you have no alternative. But if you manage to cross that hurdle, you can unlock a ton of experiences across a vast country. Chinese students and professors are very welcoming and collaborative if you make an effort, closed off and wary if you are boorish and unreflective. It all hinges on whether you have sufficient social skills to read the room and understand what is going on, and whether you can show initiative in taking advantage of what the country has to offer, which isn't a trivial skill either.

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  • How is the pay level as compared to the EU in general?
    – user366312
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 17:21
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    The overall impression I got from broaching this topic a few times during my stay: 1) Pay will tend to be lower than in the West, but it still earns you a very good living locally 2) Salaries can be extremely variable as some universities won't balk at giving high salaries to attract certain types of Westerners. It's difficult to answer your question because I was not a paid worker myself (financed through other means) and lack detailed insight and also because salaries in the EU are also very variable, often dismal.
    – Qwokker
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 17:43

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