BEIJING – Whitney Foard Small loved China and her job as a regional director of communications for a top automaker. But after air pollution led to several stays in hospital and finally a written warning from her doctor telling her she needed to leave the country, she packed up and moved to Thailand.
In doing so, the Ford Motor Co. executive became another expatriate to leave China because of its notoriously bad air. Other top executives whose careers would be boosted by a stint in the world’s second-largest economy and most populous consumer market are put off when considering the move.
Executive recruitment firms say it is becoming harder to attract top talent to China — both expats and Chinese nationals educated abroad. The European Chamber of Commerce in China says foreign managers leave for many different reasons, but that pollution is almost always cited as one of the factors — and is becoming a larger concern.
If the polluted skies continue, firms may have to fork out more for salaries or settle for less qualified candidates. Failure to attract the best talent to crucial roles could result in lost commercial opportunities and other missteps.
Poor air quality has also added to the existing complaints foreign companies have about operating in China. Even though the country’s commercial potential remains vast, groups representing foreign firms say doing business is getting tougher due to slowing though still robust economic growth, limits on market access and intellectual property theft.
China’s rapid economic development over the last three decades has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty but also ravaged the environment as heavy industry burgeoned and car ownership became a badge of status for the newly affluent. Health risks from pollution of air, water and soil have become a source of discontent with Communist Party rule.
Foreigners regularly check the air quality readings put out by the U.S. Embassy and consulates on their Twitter feeds when deciding whether to go out for a run or let their children play outside.
The pollution has become even more of a hot topic since January, when the readings in Beijing went off the scale and beyond what is considered hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
At the same time, China’s state media gave unprecedented coverage to the pollution following months of growing pressure from a Chinese middle class that has become more vocal about the quality of its air.
“January was probably the worst,” said Australian Andrew Moffatt, who worked in Beijing before the pollution pushed him to return to Brisbane in March with his wife and 5-year-old son. “Back in November I had been sick and then we went on holiday to the beach in Hainan, and it just reminded me of Australia and I just thought we could be breathing this quality air every single day rather than polluted air in Beijing.”
And it’s not only in the capital where the air pollution is driving expats away.
Ford transferred its regional headquarters from Bangkok to Shanghai in 2009. Four months after the move, Small had her first major asthma attack. “I had never had asthma in my life, never ever had asthma before China,” said Small, who quit the country in May last year.
Her asthma was exacerbated by an allergy to coal, which is the source of about 70 percent of China’s energy. In Shanghai, the problem resurfaced. “Three hospitalizations later, my doctor said it was time to call it quits,” she said.
Her frequent treatments — involving inhalers, steroids and a nebulizer in the mornings and evenings to get medication deep into her lungs — meant the medication became less effective. “I actually got a written warning from my pulmonary doctor and it said you need to reconsider for your life’s sake what you’re doing and so that was it. I didn’t really have a choice, my doctor made it for me,” she said.
Ivo Hahn, the CEO of the China office of executive search consultants Stanton Chase, said that in the last six months, air pollution has become an issue for candidates they approach. “It pops up increasingly that people say, ‘Well, we don’t want to move to Beijing’ or ‘I can’t convince my family to move to Beijing,’ ” he said.
Hahn thinks this trend will only strengthen over the next one or two years because the highest-level executives generally “are not working primarily for their survival.” Such employees, he said, “normally get a decent pay, they are generally reasonably well taken care of, so the quality of life actually does matter, particularly when they have children.”
Some, however, say that China has become too important economically for up-and-coming corporate executives to ignore. It generates a large and growing share of profits for global companies while still offering a vast untapped potential.
“It’s increasingly important for people who want to have careers as managers in multinational companies to have international experience, and as part of their career path and in terms of international experience, China is one of the most desirable places because of the size of the market and growth and dynamism of the market,” said Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
Hahn said the effects of expats refusing to relocate to China aren’t going to be felt overnight, but eventually “either companies will have to pay a higher price overall because maybe candidates may have to commute, as an example, or they may lower their standards or they may offer the position to somebody who may actually not be quite as qualified.”
If the trend worsens, it would have some economic impact, said Alistair Thornton, senior China economist at IHS in Beijing.
“Expats contribute almost nothing to China’s growth because the numbers are just tiny, but intangibly they contribute quite a significant amount” by introducing foreign technology, best practices and Western management techniques “that Chinese companies are harnessing and using to drive growth,” said Thornton.
He is leaving Beijing in June, citing air pollution as one of the factors.