Chinese plans for Green Card stir domestic criticism

On Thursday 27 February, China’s Ministry of Justice published a draft ordinance on administering and managing permanent residence for foreigners in China on its home page for public comment.

China had issued the first official document in relation to approving permanent residence for foreigners in China in 2004 and has published other follow-up notices since then, but it appears that, due to millions of net users’ comments on the latest ordinance which should have been open for a month, the Ministry of Justice had to close down the comments facility early.

There are two main reasons why China has developed this ordinance. First, China aims to be more open to the world. Since the implementation of the open-door policy in 1978, China’s economy has become significantly more open to the outside world and it is now an important member of the global economy.

Although China has attracted more and more inbound international students, reaching approximately 500,000 in 2019, compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and even Japan, it has granted far fewer foreigners permanent residence than other countries.

For example, since 2004 when the first permanent residence was granted to a foreigner, less than 8,000 permanent residence permits have been awarded to foreigners. China thinks it important to compete for talent in the global labour market and enhance the level of internationalisation of higher education and research, boosting its global competitiveness partly by relying on the contribution of foreign talent.

Second, as the number of foreigners in China has continued to rise, an ordinance or rules have become necessary to regulate, administer and protect foreigners.

For example, the census of 2011 reveals that around 600,000 foreigners were living in China, with the number predicted to more or less double by the end of the decade. Clearly, the old documents or rules are not appropriate for such a rapid increase in the number of foreigners.

So the idea is that the implementation of a new ordinance could help more international talent stay in China and contribute to the construction of a strong China and a more diverse Chinese society.

New draft ordinance

Compared to some of the notices and announcements pertaining to administering foreigners in China which have come into effect since 2004, the new draft is different in certain respects. First, it was issued in the form of an ordinance, meaning that it is only one step removed from a law or act in China. This clearly indicates that the Chinese government has given this issue more attention and importance.

Second, it provides more specific requirements for foreigners to apply for permanent residence, for example, with regard to who is qualified to be granted permanent residence, what responsibilities foreigners with permanent residence should assume, and what rights they might enjoy.

While no fundamental changes have occurred with regard to attracting rich or expert foreigners since 2004, a wider variety of types of foreigners are qualified to apply for permanent residence under the ordinance.

Also, foreigners can be recommended to be granted permanent residence by key public departments or units affiliated to national government sectors and local authorities, key higher education institutions, research institutes and high and new tech enterprises.

Further, foreigners could obtain permanent residence by working for a required length of time in China and through being married to a Chinese national or becoming a child or relative of a Chinese citizen.

Third, more cooperative and coordinated mechanisms for sharing information on foreigners and administering them have been formulated, ranging from accepting inbound international students and hiring foreigners so they feel more supported in their studies, employment and application for permanent residence.

Finally, there are more detailed stipulations than in previous documents guaranteeing and protecting foreigners who have permanent residence with regard to their rights and legal interests, for instance, in relation to opening a bank account, buying a house, moving within China and education for their children.

Why so many negative comments?

First of all, it appears that the most important reason for the critical comments is that not all Chinese citizens who have criticised the draft have fully understood the importance or positive effects on China’s internationalisation and development of attracting foreigners and granting them permanent residence.

Partly this is because some of the points in the draft are too general and some are too ambiguous. Because some important items are not explicitly defined, many local people think that some government sectors or organisations may abuse the system or even seek to profit by recommending foreigners who do not meet the requirements to get permanent residence. For example, the definition of high-level talent and remarkable achievements made by foreigners are not as precisely interpreted as expected by many local people.

Second, a large number of people thought that the requirements for applying for and granting permanent residence were too loose and easy to meet. For example, the 19th item of the ordinance suggests that any foreigners can apply for permanent residence if they have an appropriate or acceptable reason to do so.

Third, in contrast to what happens in the US, the UK, Australia and even Japan or Hong Kong, China is not a country which has traditionally received a lot of immigrants. The proportion of foreigners is still lower than in any of these countries.

Moreover, most Chinese people do not know how to get along with foreigners because most local people do not have the opportunity to live or work with foreigners. Much of their information on foreigners comes from social media or electronic journals and newspapers, in which a massive amount of fake news is circulated.

Further, recent reports of supposed unrest and violent crimes involving immigrants in some European countries have made a lot of Chinese people anxious about the prospect of more immigrants, especially those from developing countries, being allowed to stay in China permanently.

Fourth, numerous reports about China’s generous policy of attracting inbound international students from the countries along the so-called New Silk Road initiative, especially those from some African countries, have worried more and more Chinese people who believe that limited resources which they should have enjoyed may be unfairly shared with these foreigners.

Finally, criticisms of the draft also include complaints that foreigners with permanent residence could enjoy extra privileges and might be exempted from being punished even if they violate Chinese laws. For example, they are allowed to move about much more freely within China than Chinese people and are more free to choose to live in well-developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

They do not have to conform to family planning rules and can give birth to as many children as they wish; and they do not face the same restrictions on purchasing houses in China as local people do.

Towards an effective Green Card

However, the number of complaints received against the new ordinance does not necessarily mean that all local people are against it. Many researchers and academics welcome the implementation of the ordinance because they believe it may help China attract the talent it needs and cannot produce domestically at the moment, facilitating China’s further development and improving the standing and impact of China at a global level.

For example, the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Personnel Science thinks highly of it and stated that the ordinance is an important part of a system to attract foreign talent. It is not copied from any foreign model, reflects Chinese realities and could satisfy national demand for high-level foreign talent.

Asking for public comments on the draft ordinance will definitely be beneficial to China in terms of producing a generally agreed rule with Chinese characteristics for granting a Chinese ‘Green Card’ for foreigners. It is also good to see millions of Chinese net users showing such a great interest in it and sharing their opinions on it frankly and publicly.

To some extent, it suggests that drafting the ordinance on attracting foreign talent, which constitutes an integral part of China’s internationalisation of higher education and research, is not solely determined by central government and a limited number of elites or researchers and that ordinary people’s opinions have also been taken into consideration.

Further, the discussion about the draft ordinance may have greatly aided communication between the government and net users and between different groups of people with different views about the ordinance and foreigners’ role and contribution in China. All these may provide a good basis for the government to develop a good Chinese ‘Green Card’ system.

It is impossible to forecast what a final version of this ordinance might be at this stage. However, it goes without saying that more foreigners could be granted permanent residence and be expected to play a more active role in China as Chinese society attempts to internationalise.

Professor Futao Huang is based at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan, and is also co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme.