Fears grow that hard green card rules turning foreigners away from China

US citizen Eunice Moe Brock, who spent her childhood in Liaocheng, Shandong Province, receives a Chinese "green card" in 2009 from the Shandong government. Photo: CFP



"It was extremely difficult, even ridiculous," the Belgium national said in a telephone interview.

Van Kerckhove, managing director of Beijing Global Strategy Consulting Co, not only helped China brought in the first soft loans from a foreign government but also worked as a senior economic advisor to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Over the years, he has won multiple government awards for his contributions.

Threshold too high

Despite his achievements, getting a permanent resident card was not easy. After submitting numerous documents and attending multiple interviews, Van Kerckhove finally obtained the equivalent of a "green card," four years after the government introduced such a policy.

"I always say, jokingly, if I can't get a green card, nobody in China should get one," he said, who now lives in what he describes as his hometown of Beijing.

Van Kerckhove may have seen his wish fulfilled but many other expats applying for the same identification may not be so lucky. Experts are calling the requirements to get the green card "extremely difficult." This high threshold has hindered China from bringing in more expertise from overseas, observers said.

Not traditionally an immigration destination, China did not have a permanent resident card system until 2004, which grants successful applicants with benefits ranging from visa-free entry to equal employment conditions.

As of last year, some 4,700 expats have received this card, a small portion of over 600,000 foreigners who have been living in China for over six months. The US, on the other hand, issued over 1 million green cards last year alone.

According to some of the requirements, candidates must have worked for four consecutive years as associate professors or researchers in institutions affiliated to the State Council or provincial governments, in addition to having a taxation record for three consecutive years.

"This article alone would disqualify 90 percent of applicants," said Liu Guofu, a professor and an immigration law expert with the Beijing Institute of Technology. He added that small and medium-sized enterprises or lower-level institutions are in particular need of foreign experts.

"Since it was introduced, China's 'green card' system has not done its share of attracting overseas talents due to its extremely high threshold," Liu said to the Global Times.

Unlike other countries, China's mechanism for selecting "green card" holders is more randomized with authorities having too much freedom in determining who is qualified. This differs from more objective rating systems used internationally, according to Liu.

Policy change needed

With the number of foreigners in China growing along with the demand for overseas expertise, the government has taken notice of the shortcomings in policies governing foreigners.

A People's Daily commentary published last week said that some overseas Chinese students who acquired a foreign nationality found it hard to start their career back in China. They had to leave again due to difficulty in obtaining a Chinese "green card."

"Without a doubt, China's 'green card' system is an important factor in determining whether overseas students leave or stay," it said, adding that without a permanent resident card, those who set up companies in China would be considered as foreign investors and may encounter unfavorable treatment in areas such as market access and government procurement.

In the meantime, senior government officials recently have also been talking about relaxing rules for the "green card."

Yang Huaning, vice minister of public security, said when delivering a report to the nation's legislator last week that China would issue more green cards and ease visa restrictions to encourage qualified individuals from overseas to come to work here.

Yin Weimin, the minister of human resources and social security, has also said on several occasions that China would lower the threshold for foreigners seeking to obtain permanent residence and establish a green card system in line with international practices.

However, until now, details on how much the quota would be expanded by and how the threshold would be altered have not been disclosed.

Illegal alien crackdown

While China is opening more doors to high-end overseas personals, the country is also tightening the cap on foreign labor workers.

To regulate the employment of workers, China upholds the principle of bringing high-end talents and strictly restricting regular workers, said Yang.

Yang revealed last week that China would strengthen oversight of foreigners illegally entering, living or working in China. This would include strengthening border control, repatriating illegal aliens and setting up repatriation locations in regions that have large numbers of foreigners.

Police last year investigated more than 20,000 incidents in which foreigners illegally entered, lived or worked in China, double the number seen in 1995.

Zhang Xiangqian, a professor of human resources study with Huaqiao University in Xiamen, said that China still needs a minimum threshold for resident card applicants, suggesting that it should target applicants in areas that the country is most in need of.

After obtaining a green card, Van Kerckhove said his life has become much easier. However, unfortunate incidents still occur, as he was once held up at an airport as authorities had never seen a Chinese "green card."

"We want to be treated more like Chinese people," he said.

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