Caixin
Sep 19, 2018 10:18 AM
DOING BUSINESS IN CHINA

China Green Cards Require Major Cultivation, Patience

I’ve focused in the past on the nuts-and-bolts of doing day-to-day business in China, but this week will turn to a bigger issue facing people who want to make this country their primary place of business and residence. That concept is embodied in China, and pretty much any country, in the notion of a green card that gives its holder the right to live and work somewhere indefinitely with no additional documentation required.

The concept certainly sounds simple on the surface, and in my native U.S. it’s relatively straightforward. There are very specific requirements for green card eligibility, usually involving one’s work status or having relatives already living in the country. If someone meets the requirements, they can apply and ultimately go into a lottery for a fixed allocation of green cards given out each year.

China has similar guidelines, which my HR conveniently directed me to on the internet (link in Chinese). I quickly discovered the list was in Chinese, which should have been the first clue that perhaps China wasn’t the friendliest place for foreigners to apply for green cards.

Of course I’m being slightly facetious, since as a long-time China resident I’m well aware just how difficult it is to get a China green card. Attaining such status is nearly the equivalent of winning the lottery, as one quickly learns if and when he or she embarks on the process. I personally have such experience, which I’ll detail shortly. I also managed to find two other foreigners who received such status, and will share some of their experiences as well.

But the bottom line is that getting a China green card, at least for those of us without relatives here and who haven’t made major investments, is something akin to winning a beauty pageant. Sure, you may meet all the requirements on paper, giving you the false impression that your application is sure to be approved. But the real story is that China places huge emphasis on a person’s “achievements” and contributions to China-foreign friendship, something that seems more like a throwback to Soviet-era practices than any kind of modern-era immigration policy.

The fact of the matter is that Chinese green card policies are constantly evolving, just like most of the nation’s immigration policies. I’ve written about those policies in a previous column about work visas, and how new policies are often trumpeted for their foreign-friendliness, even though things are often far different. The reality is that China, like most of Asia, is not a land of immigrants, and makes obtaining permanent residency quite difficult for foreigners. The two notable exceptions in the region are Hong Kong and Singapore, which as former colonies populated by migrants are both quite international.

Long slog

With that background in mind, let’s return to the China green card topic, starting with experiences of the two people I found who got such status. One was an English teacher who didn’t qualify through his academic status but managed to find gold by winning a national Friendship Award given out each year to 100 foreigners. He got that award after a long lobbying effort that included winning a similar prize given out by Beijing, and also by writing books and songs about his China experience, and appearing on Chinese TV and in newspapers to tell his story.

The other case I found was a top executive at a major public relations firm, who has also lived in the region for more than two decades. Notably, he spearheaded an award-winning “Pambassador” campaign for the city of Chengdu, and was also closely involved with another campaign that ultimately brought a major global event to China where it is now held annually.

That brings us to my own experience, which came when my former university employer approached me three years ago about applying for a green card. I was informed that I met the eligibility requirements due to my status as an associate professor with at least four years in that position. After some thought, I decided to give it a try and said ok. But after some queries, my employer quickly learned my application was unlikely to get approved.

I was told my chances might improve significantly if I received a Silver Magnolia Award, the honor given out each year by the city of Shanghai to about 50 foreigners for their achievements. I went ahead and completed an application, including an essay boasting of all my achievements. But it wasn’t meant to be, and I ultimately lost out to the likes of a woman who headed a major regional development bank that had provided a multimillion-dollar loan to help clean up Shanghai’s local Suzhou Creek.

Anyone sensing just a little cynicism from my experience is certainly not imagining things. I later heard that one often needs to apply several times before receiving such awards. I do imagine that if I had stayed at the university and tried again several times in the following years perhaps I could have succeeded. The other two people I surveyed confirmed that multiple attempts are often required, and so are long waits and lots of lobbying and paperwork — efforts I wasn’t prepared to make.

The bottom line is that I was never a big fan of beauty pageants, and am equally tepid on self-promotion, both of which appear to be critical elements of getting a China green card. At the end of the day, most of us who have lived in China for years should probably resign ourselves to the fact that Chinese green cards will remain off limits for the foreseeable future, regardless of how much “easier” we’re told it has become.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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