Sep 25, 2019 04:39 PM

In Depth: What China’s Naturalized Athletes Reveal About Its Immigration Policy

Nico Yennaris, or Li Ke as he is known in China, drapes himself in the Chinese flag on Sept. 10 during a World Cup qualifier match in the Maldives.  Photo: VCG
Nico Yennaris, or Li Ke as he is known in China, drapes himself in the Chinese flag on Sept. 10 during a World Cup qualifier match in the Maldives. Photo: VCG

Wearing a crimson jersey featuring No. 25 alongside a Chinese flag, soccer player Nico Yennaris, or Li Ke as he is known in China, sang the national anthem. When he was 20, Yennaris had declared that were he not a professional athlete, he’d be a singer. These days, besides listening to Beyoncé, Drake and Miley Cyrus, he also had a recently downloaded copy of “March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national anthem, on his phone. Yennaris had been studying it in-between practices, waiting for this exact moment.

It was 7:30 p.m. on June 7. At the Tianhe Sports Center in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong province, China’s revamped national soccer team was making its first appearance in an exhibition match against the Philippines, led by its current manager and head coach, 71-year-old Italian Marcello Lippi, who had previously led the his own native country’s national team to win the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

At 26 years old, Yennaris visibly stood out from the team.

Around the same time, a man that had been sitting on the bleachers started to tear up — it was Yennaris’ dad, Harry, born in Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea. After migrating to England, the elder Yennaris met Ying, a London native whose Chinese ancestry traces back to South China’s Guangdong province. They married, settled in the Leytonstone district in London and had their daughter Athena, then Nico.

Leytonstone was also the birthplace of David Beckham among other famed British soccer players, but Yennaris’ dad was a diehard fan of the Arsenal Football Club on the other side of town. Every year, he’d buy season tickets to Arsenal’s games that retail for thousands of British pounds. He pushed his kids to play soccer. Athena became both a player and a coach, while his son joined the Arsenal Academy for training youth as a child, moving up to the senior squad at 18 years old.

In April last year, Beijing Sinobo Guoan Football Club reached out to Yennaris. But rather than ask him to be a so-called “foreign player” on the team, whose numbers have been restricted in recent years, they discussed other options. Nine months later, the Londoner took on Chinese citizenship and became Li Ke. What’s more, thanks to some deft playing, Yennaris was picked by Lippi to don the “China red” colors, becoming the first foreign face of the national team. The match with the Philippines, where his team managed a 2-0 win, wasn’t just the first time Yennaris represented the national team. It was also the first appearance of any naturalized player on the national team.

A fast track for some

China is not an immigrant country, in fact, naturalization is heavily restricted. For foreigners, even accessing permanent residency is very difficult, so much so that it has been described as “the hardest green card to obtain.” Yet in the 1950s and 60s, China took in a number of ethnic Chinese from overseas, among whom were many athletes.

Statistics show that between 1949 and 1966, the number of such athletes and coaches that joined national teams or provincial coaching squads totaled 83. China’s first national badminton team was made up almost entirely of ethnic Chinese from abroad.

People with knowledge of the matter say that back in Feb. 27, 2015, after a so-called central government leading small group on comprehensively deepening reforms passed the “General Plan of Chinese Football Reform and Development,” the Chinese Football Association (CFA) began mapping out naturalization for players, including implementation through its various clubs.

At the start of this year, amid the national soccer team’s efforts to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, news that naturalization was a go started to trickle in. On Aug. 22, the newly appointed head of the CFA disclosed that the organization was looking into naturalizing nine players, who would be distributed among several soccer clubs, including Beijing Sinobo Guoan Football Club, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC and Shandong Luneng Taishan Football Club.

Outside of soccer, 16-year-old Chinese-American freestyle skier Eileen Gu announced in June that she would take on Chinese citizenship leading up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, becoming China’s first naturalized winter sports athlete. American-Chinese Beverly Zhu and Canadian-Chinese Zachary Yuen have also indicated that they will represent China.

How many naturalized athletes can actually make national teams, as well as what kinds of changes they can bring remain unknown. Though some observers say these individuals can provide a channel with which to experiment with immigration policy, naturalization still poses problems for China’s systems because the laws governing citizenship are not clearly defined.

In one instance, when CFA Super League players Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso and Pedro Delgado, two athletes completely devoid of Chinese heritage, announced they had obtained Chinese citizenship, they stirred up heated public debate. The authorities have since taken a more cautious approach, shifting from referring to overseas ethnic Chinese in their naturalization terminology toward more impartial language.

Despite having 18 clauses, China’s Nationality Law is only several hundred words in length, and has not been updated since it was enacted in 1980. Article 7 discusses foreigners obtaining Chinese citizenship:

“Foreign nationals or stateless persons who are willing to abide by China's constitution and laws and who meet one of the following conditions may be naturalized upon approval of their applications:

1. They are near relatives of Chinese nationals;

2. They have settled in China; or

3. They have other legitimate reasons.”

“Some of the articles in the Nationality Law are completely inoperable,” according to Liu Guofu, a legal studies professor and immigration researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “The authorities have many internal evaluation criteria that they don’t disclose. The procedures aren’t transparent and foreigners have no idea how to apply.”

On the other hand, Beijing Guoan publicized that its foreign players must have “Chinese heritage.” Li Ming, its general manger, did not want to comment on the absence of this rule at other clubs, but “for Guoan, we’ll only consider those with Chinese blood.”

To Liu, the fast track used for these athletes amounts to preferential treatment that sports groups worked out with the government, rather than something widely applicable. Nevertheless, he said, departments studying changes to China’s nationality laws are making progress.

Easing “green card” restrictions

In order to settle in China, the vast majority of people can only hope to obtain a so-called “Chinese green card,” but its creation process has been long and arduous.

China’s permanent residency policies originated in the 1985 “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens” passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (now replaced by the “The Exit and Entry Administration Law”). It stipulates that eligibility for permanent residency includes investment in China, engaging in “cooperative projects” with Chinese companies or institutions in economic, scientific, technological and cultural fields or for “other purposes.”

The following year, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) clarified that residence permits can be issued for one to five years, though those with exceptional achievements can be granted permanent residence.

It wasn’t until 2004, three years after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), that the two ministries outlined application channels for the “Chinese green card,” namely via investment, employment, special talent and family reunion — more in line with international practice.

According to data from the Center for China and Globalization, in the decade between 2004 and 2014, about 7,300 foreigners obtained the “Chinese green card.” Meanwhile, the United Nations’ 2015 International Migration Report showed that there were 978,000 “international migrants” on the Chinese mainland, among whom the majority are ethnically Chinese, suggesting that most foreigners have difficulties obtaining permanent residence.

To Liu, the number of permanent residence permits that have been granted are far from sufficient.

“Other than for individuals like investors, skilled workers, foreign students and such, the green card should be completely liberalized,” he said. He suggested looking at international practice and immigrant-friendly countries, as well as to create a standalone immigration system that has quotas, guarantees and refugee settlement.

A country of immigrants?

As the most populous country in the world, China has been prudent in its immigration policies. But the government seemed to take on a different tone as of the 18th National Congress.

President Xi Jinping has said on several occasions that China should speed up the creation of a system to attract foreign talent. In 2016, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council published a position paper on permanent residence describing an urgent need to take a flexible and pragmatic approach as competition for talent heats up.

The number of “green cards” granted shot up. According to a report by the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, the MPS approved permanent residence for 1,576 foreigners in 2016, up 163% from the previous year.

As if to signal more changes, that same year, China officially joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a U.N.-linked migration consultancy, becoming its 165th member. Ma Zhaoxu, China’s then-permanent representative to the U.N. said that China was shifting from being solely a country of emigration to also one of transit and immigration.

In 2017, the MPS proposed more amendments to permanent residency, most noteworthy of which was renaming the permit to the “Permanent Residence ID Card,” using the same terminology as China’s ubiquitous and multipurpose identification carried by citizens, whose utility in day-to-day life has always been out of reach of foreigners.

Changes finally came last year when China’s National Immigration Administration (NIA) was established, a move long called for by various parts of society. “Previously there was no central administration [for immigration]. [Its creation] helps to bring together relevant roles and professionalize immigration services,” said Sun Rui, a researcher at the Chinese Human Resources Research Center.

But when it comes to naturalization, he says that there’s still no provisions for those with permanent residency to be able to apply for citizenship after a certain period — a major obstacle to attracting talent. He says that the next step is to draw up clear skill criteria, procedures and administration methods for obtaining citizenship, especially from the permanent residence stage onward.

According to the legislative agenda of the State Council, China’s cabinet, “Regulations on the Administration of Permanent Residence of Foreigners” should be drawn up in 2019. Caixin learned that the MPS had sought comment on the draft legislation starting in 2016.

Though officials haven’t released exact numbers, observers say the number of people that have obtained the “Chinese green card” continued to rise between 2017 and 2018.

According to Liu, a country’s immigration rules tend to loosen and tighten in relation to the state of its economy. Downward pressure on China’s economy, along with growing unfavorable global conditions, domestic employment issues and long-standing xenophobia mean an influx of immigrants is unlikely. The policy shifts in recent years have all been in the particulars, while fundamental changes have yet to come, he said.

“These policies should be tested as they are being revised, and piloting in the realm of soccer makes sense because their need is urgent and they are closely followed,” said Wang Dazhao, the former head of the CFA. “The association and the NIA are working together to come out with concrete methods and provisions.”

Neither body responded to a Caixin inquiry on naturalizing players.

A long ways to go

To athletes like Yennaris, naturalization, perhaps, isn’t so much the issue as the process has barely begun.

In March, the CFA released rules that say clubs need to cultivate patriotism among naturalized players and educate them in “traditional Chinese culture, history and current events.” Players, for example, need to be able to sing the national anthem.

Yennaris says that Beijing’s air pollution has improved in the last few years. Coming from the mild and humid London, however, he still has to adapt to its hot summers. The soccer player rides a scooter to deal with the congestion of Beijing’s north third ring road, and has even taken his parents around to all of Beijing’s best-known spots.

In pictures he recently shared on Chinese social media, he posed at a temple with a middle-aged woman with East Asian features, who looks to be his mother, Ying.

“Family over everything,” the caption read.

Contact reporter Dave Yin (, @yindavid)

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