China has stepped up its drive to lure overseas talent in its bid to become an innovation economy, less dependent on trade in manufactured goods. New measures include allowing foreign students to stay on in China after their degrees to take up jobs or internships and reducing red tape around residence permits.
President Xi Jinping’s main remarks during the just-ended annual session of the National People’s Congress or NPC, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, highlighted a need to attract back Chinese who left for a foreign education and never returned, causing a major brain drain in the past decades.
This was echoed by China’s Minister of Education Chen Baosheng last week. “We will surely work to provide more comprehensive and convenient conditions for returning students. This is our duty. As long as we do the job well, the returning wave of Chinese overseas students will be higher,” Chen told a press conference on 12 March at the NPC session in Beijing.
But the talent drive goes beyond that, to encourage more foreign students studying at Chinese universities to stay on in China after graduation.
The focus of inbound talent mobility “used to be the Chinese, either returnees or overseas Chinese”, says Qiang Zha, an associate professor at the faculty of education at York University, Canada, and an expert on China’s higher education. “But if they can open the door and attract non-Chinese, that will be great for China’s economy and industry and especially China’s innovation and it’s also good for trade.”
In addition China is hoping to benefit from the ’Trump effect’, as the United States attempts to curb immigration, as well as responding to technology companies in China urging China’s leadership to make it easier to hire top global talent who would otherwise head to Silicon Valley but may be 'put off' by US President Donald Trump's restrictive policies.
“China is now preparing for a trade war, with Donald Trump as president in the US always arguing about the imbalance in trade,” says Qiang.
Concerned about over-capacity in some of its manufacturing sectors, and keen to be less dependent on export-led manufacturing to markets such as the United States, China is more keen than ever to boost its technology and e-commerce sectors. But rapid expansion is being hindered by a skills gap.
Policies to attract more international students into the workforce on graduation were being put into place in the past year by several cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, particularly to attract more graduating students into the high-technology and burgeoning e-commerce sectors.
In February President Xi Jinping told a meeting in Beijing that China needed to reform its permanent residency regime. A State Council directive in 2016 relaxed residency rules for foreigners in a number of fields including those working at national laboratories, engineering research centres, technology centres of state-accredited high-technology companies, and foreign funded research and development centres.
Until then, only foreigners working in government departments laboratories involved in 'key national projects' could obtain permanent residency in China.
China’s ministries of foreign affairs, education, and human resources and social security released a joint document in January announcing moves to make it easier for international students to stay on under certain conditions, including special new rules for foreign postgraduates with a masters degree or above, obtained with good grades, even if they have no work experience.
Previously, only people of Chinese descent with a doctorate and extensive work experience in China were eligible. The rules had in fact become stricter over the years for those outside these criteria, said Jon Santangelo, a consultant to the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, who described the requirements as ridiculously "over-complicated".
The new system, he says “provides more incentives for foreign students to stay on after they graduate”.
A new national pilot programme unveiled by the ministry of public security earlier this year replaces the annual work permit renewal with a five-year permit once foreigners have been in China for two years. The trial will be rolled out in nine cities and regions, and 11 free trade zones – the latter will be allowed to process permanent residency applications, previously only the prerogative of provincial and regional governments.
The public security ministry, which handles residence permits for foreigners, clarified that under the new rules foreign students graduating from Chinese universities can apply for a residence permit valid for two to five years in order to gain work experience with companies in China.
Foreign nationals who graduate from universities outside China can also apply for the visa, to work for specific types of Chinese companies, in particular in the high-tech sector, the ministry said.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank linked to China’s State Council, has said the new policy “is ahead of many other countries by including foreign graduates from overseas universities”. He suggested that further relaxations in the rules might be possible, such as opening the scheme to foreign bachelor degree graduates.
In January the ministry of public security also announced that from 1 March, foreign students will be permitted to undertake short-term internships, and international students studying in universities in Beijing can take part-time jobs or launch start-ups in the high-tech sector in the capital.
Guangdong province was among the first to simplify residence rules for skilled foreigners, from August last year, including support for foreign students’ start-up companies, to facilitate an “urgent demand for high-calibre foreign talent, overseas Chinese returning to start businesses, young foreign students and investors, to realise innovation-driven development of the zone", according to the ministry of public security.
The city of Shanghai said at the end of last year it will publish a list of internships open for foreign students at universities in the city. Ding Xiaodong, vice-director of the Shanghai Education Commission, said this was to retain more foreign talent in Shanghai.
“We asked the universities and colleges to share information about companies that are already hiring interns among their international students, and we encourage those companies to offer more opportunities,” Ding said.
The Shanghai commission revealed that in 2016 some 1,500 international students in Shanghai interned at some 850 companies and institutions, although it acknowledges this is a small number compared to the 56,000 international students in the city’s universities.
The number of foreign students enrolled in Chinese universities increased some 11% last year, to 443,000 according to the education ministry, but many of these were on short, non-degree courses.
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