[China has generally issued a few hundred green cards per year, and the recent uptick illustrates how the authorities are seeking to attract more foreign investors and celebrities, even though most recipients are still ethnically Chinese, analysts said.]
By Mike Ives
Stephon Marbury, the former N.B.A. star who now plays for the Beijing Ducks,
during an all-star game in Beijing in January. Last year he was one of 1,576
foreigners granted permanent residency in China.
Credit Visual China Group, via Getty Images
HONG KONG — Stephon Marbury, a former N.B.A. point guard who has forged a second career in the Chinese Basketball Association, says he enjoys being a celebrity expatriate in Beijing.
“This is home away from home and I’m loving it,” he wrote in a recent Twitter message that accompanied a video of him eating at a Chinese hot pot restaurant.
Mr. Marbury, 40, is one of 1,576 foreigners to be granted permanent residency in China last year. That figure represents a 163 percent year-on-year increase in a so-called green card program that began in 2004, according to reports in the Chinese state news media.
China has generally issued a few hundred green cards per year, and the recent uptick illustrates how the authorities are seeking to attract more foreign investors and celebrities, even though most recipients are still ethnically Chinese, analysts said.
But for many other foreigners in China, they said, residency restrictions have increased since 2013, when a landmark immigration law took effect, and the green card program remains exceedingly small for a country of 1.3 billion people with about 600,000 foreign residents.
By contrast, the United States, with a population of about 324 million, granted more than a million green cards in 2015, according to government data.
China’s immigration policies are contradictory in that they prioritize attracting foreign talent to increase economic modernization, while reflecting a deep-rooted instinct to keep foreigners at arm’s length, said Frank Pieke, a professor of modern China studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
He said the policies, much like those of Japan and South Korea, were “predicated on a very strong nation state that defines itself as the home of a particular ethnic and cultural group that wants to maintain its purity and wants to let in only what it really, really desperately needs.”
China’s 2013 law was the first major overhaul of national immigration policy since 1985 and helped to lay the foundation for a raft of new residency rules in China’s major cities.
In Shanghai, a 2015 rule relaxed the criteria for green card eligibility for local foreign residents, said Becky Xia, a Shanghai-based partner at Fragomen, an international immigration law firm. Although applicants must still show four years of residency and a yearly salary of at least 600,000 renminbi, or about $87,000, she said, the new rule no longer requires them to be top executives.
Ms. Xia said that Fragomen had seen a 50 percent increase over the last year in clients seeking help with green card applications. Most, she said, were Europeans in the information technology sector who oversee manufacturing in China. She expected the number of green cards issued in China to rise, she added, partly because foreigners in business who have passed China’s retirement age — 60 for men and 55 for white-collar women — are not eligible for work visas and could apply for green cards instead.
From an employer’s perspective, “I would think there are more options for getting the talent you want,” she said of Shanghai’s new rules. She added that green cards, unlike work permits, were not tied to employment contracts and were valid for renewable 10-year terms.
But Chinese immigration and residency policies that have been enacted since 2013 have also become more restrictive toward less valued workers, especially the African traders and entrepreneurs who have settled in the southern city of Guangzhou since the early 2000s, often by overstaying their visas, experts said.
Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has studied communities of Nigerian traders in Guangzhou, said that the police there had cracked down on people who had overstayed their visas after dozens of Africans, mostly from Nigeria and Mali, were arrested in an August 2013 drug raid.
Mr. Mathews said that many African and Arab traders in Guangzhou overstayed their visas because the official limit on their stays — typically two weeks or a month — often did not provide enough time to commission a factory order and see it through to completion. But the government appears unwilling to loosen that rule, he added, and foreign traders who obtain legal residence permits are generally limited to one-year stays with no guarantee of renewal, even if they have Chinese spouses or children.
“The whole issue is: Can foreigners become Chinese?” he said. “Yes, I know there’s a green card system and so on. But on the ground, it appears doubtful.”
China also has a naturalization process for foreigners. This month, the state news media reported that two prominent Chinese-born scientists had given up their United States citizenship to become Chinese citizens: Chen Ning Yang, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, and Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, winner of the A. M. Turing Award for computer science in 2000. Both are professors at Tsinghua University in Beijing and members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
But successful cases are extremely rare. And a new work permit system has placed restrictions on which foreigners will be allowed to work in China.
The system, which came into effect in November in nine cities and provinces, aims to build an information-driven economy by “encouraging the top, controlling the middle and limiting the bottom” of the pool of foreign workers, the state news media reported. It is scheduled to go nationwide in April.
In practice, said Mimi Zou, an assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the law makes it extremely difficult for workers on the lowest tier to obtain work permits.
Demographers predict that China may eventually face widespread shortages of low-skilled workers and that a more liberal immigration policy could help stabilize its economy in the long term. But because so many domestic migrants are still seeking work across the country, Ms. Zou said, the government has not yet considered creating a guest worker program for foreigners, an approach many developed countries have embraced.
Ms. Zou said China could eventually address labor shortages by bolstering its fertility rate or raising its retirement age, or by investing in automation. Some of that investment is underway, she added, and Chinese companies are outsourcing some low-skilled production to other countries in Asia.
“But you obviously can’t outsource some jobs, such as domestic work,’’ she said in an email.
Follow Mike Ives on Twitter @mikeives.
Karoline Kan contributed research from Beijing.