Hong Kong Murders And Expatriate Psychological Issues in China

Posted by Reading Time: 4 minutes

The recent murder of two Indonesian women in Hong Kong by a young British banker working in the territory raises significant issues concerning the mental health of expatriates in China and the responsibility of company HR departments. Rurik Jutting, aged just 29, is alleged to have stabbed two prostitutes to death in his apartment, just days after resigning from his position at a top banking firm. Jutting had been working abroad for little over a year.

News concerning the mental condition of Jutting apparently reveals that he was suffering from depression after the breakup of a previous relationship. While quite likely true, the onus cannot purely be put on this as a trigger. Indeed, expatriates living and working in China can invariably become unhappy with the different pace and drastic change in lifestyle. Unable or unwilling to quit and return home, they can remain stuck. This may very well have been the fate that befell Jutting, just as it has many other foreigners who have moved to China.

However, as well as highlighting the issues that surround expatriate culture, the aftermath of Jutting’s actions also carries other far-reaching ramifications. Incidents like this inevitably have an impact on the reputation of an expat’s company, and also raise questions over how much legal culpability that companies can accept for such incidents. An expat will always have to be cleared by their employer’s HR department, and one cannot help but wonder if a company could or should accept some liability for bringing such employees to China.

The problem is that there are no mental health guidelines for expatriates in China. Most expats would be unwilling to voluntarily undergo a psychiatric evaluation unless forced to do so under the terms of their employment contract.

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A possible solution to this could be the introduction of psychiatric evaluations for expatriate positions in Asia, which could be further augmented by subsequent appraisals, initially every six months to a year. The banking and finance sectors can certainly afford to introduce psychological screening into their selection procedures.

Other larger companies should also be looking at their HR policies and seeing what can be done to assess the psychological status of their expatriate employees. This would not only prevent a tragic incident like the one in Hong Kong from occurring, but also safeguard the company against any possible legal action resulting from such an incident.

Being an expat in China is not, psychologically speaking, an easy posting. The country is significantly different from the West, and Hong Kong offers far more capabilities to ‘let ones’s hair down’ than London or New York. Beijing and Shanghai are not far behind in their ability to offer cheap booze, girls and drugs. Many expats can and do often resort to alcohol abuse, and with an array of other vices available to them, behave in ways they would not dream of back in their home country.

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Depression often manifests itself in a lifestyle that regularly include excessive drinking and promiscuity. At best such a lifestyle can be endured – at worst it can lead to burn out or a build-up of frustrations that can spill over into a horrifying conclusion such as Jutting’s. Expats reading this article will recognize these symptoms. Jutting’s case is unique only in its violent nature. Expat depression however remains an unspoken illness and receives both little recognition or support.

HR departments back home may not be aware, or may regard their Asian vacancies as eminently suitable for young men of talent. But the reality is that there are many lonely expats living in Asia, and this can lead to a variety of medically identifiable conditions, including depression and alcoholism. Not everyone can cope, and when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the results can be as seedy and brutal as what occurred in Jutting’s case.

No company wants to have its expatriate culture examined as Merrill Lynch’s will now inevitably be in Hong Kong. Psychological screening should therefore be considered as routine for HR departments when assessing expatriates for positions throughout Asia in order to weed out those likely to react abnormally. 

Chris Devonshire-Ellis
 is the Founding Partner of Dezan Shira & Associates – a specialist foreign direct investment practice providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in emerging Asia. Since its establishment in 1992, the firm has grown into one of Asia’s most versatile full-service consultancies with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Vietnam, in addition to alliances in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, as well as liaison offices in Italy, Germany and the United States. For further information, please email china@dezshira.com or visit www.dezshira.com.

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