Could a Foreigner Ever Call China Home?

China is all over the news, it’s omnipresent and inescapable. Chances are you’ve seen at least one piece contemplating its boiling economy just in the past hour, and there are more to come no matter what your local radio-station is saying. Foreign skeptics have been gloating over the Chinese economic slowdown for at least nine years now, publishing repetitive titles about the end of the economic miracle, yet the end is still nowhere to be seen.

Behind all this hustle and bustle there are actual people who are not only contributing to China’s rise but also savoring its fruits. An average local now earns twice as much as he did in 2010, and eight in ten Chinese students prefer to return home after studying abroad, a staggering improvement over one in ten just some 20 years ago. China is a land of opportunities, similar to what the U.S. were in the beginning of the previous century. However, while America was built by immigrants, and still owes its global success to talent from all over the world, the Chinese triumph is predominantly an inside job pulled off by a billion of workaholics who, it seems, couldn’t care less about sharing the moment with outsiders.

There are currently somewhere around a million foreigners living and working in China and over 500,000 studying in local universities. These figures have been surging with more people choosing Chinese mega cities as their ultimate career destinations. While over 70 percent of those fail to demonstrate at least basic knowledge of Chinese and are here merely to make a quick buck off of teaching English or some other menial but high-paying job generally reserved for foreigners, there are at least the remaining 30 percent that see the Middle Kingdom as more than a cash cow.

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Beijing has made huge strides in putting its name out there. China is in the headlines of the leading media, it’s on the internet, it’s in Hollywood and it’s on people’s minds. After years of oblivion, foreigners are finally curious to know what the real China is like. Authentic Chinese restaurants are popping up all around the world, leaving behind the westernized food staples like Chow Mein. And, believe it or not, Americans are second to only Koreans as the biggest expat group in China. Westerners are growing more aware of the East’s goings-on and, naturally, there are more people who wish to call China home someday. Nevertheless, despite what you were taught in your introductory economics class, demand is not always followed by immediate supply.

The number of foreign nationals trying to get naturalized in Mainland China is on the rise. The majority of those are overseas Chinese who seek to reconnect with the motherland, which speaks into the PRC’s efforts to attract diasporas’ participation in the country’s economic doings. China has already issued special five-year visas available to foreigners of Chinese descent and allows these people to apply for a residence permit and eventually a citizenship in the PRC just based on their heritage. Yet, if none of your parents are Chinese, getting that red passport might be next to impossible.

Technically, anyone can be Chinese. According to the Chinese nationality law to get naturalized one would need to have close relatives who are Chinese nationals, have settled in a part of China (have steady high-income job, own a house, contribute to the community, etc.) or have other legitimate reasons for applying for citizenship, – all of which, except the first one, sound rather vague. In reality to get a Mainland Chinese passport one is first required to become a permanent resident of the state, an infeasible task in and of itself (especially outside Hong Kong).

According to China Daily roughly 10,000 people were granted Chinese “green cards” from 2004, (when the card was first introduced) to 2016, a ludicrous figure if compared to China’s total population of over 1.3 billion. It is also just a small fraction of the total number of foreigners currently residing in the Middle Kingdom. The US, by contrast, currently have over 34 million people living in the country as lawful immigrants, meaning they hold proper residence permits.

China is no longer the hermit kingdom it was 40 years ago, it’s a global power and an increasingly attractive work and life destination. Only recently an American from Florida that goes under Brent “W” broke news by announcing that he loves China so much that he would denounce his US citizenship in return for a Chinese one. In another notable case a scholar who’s lived in China for over two decades argued in a WSJ piece that anyone should be able to identify as Chinese. And, while we agree with most Chinese netizens, that his statement was a bit insensitive and over the top, the mere fact that his piece exists is proof that foreigners are drawn to China in a way never known before. But the prospects of China fully opening up to outsiders are still rather hazy.

Chris, 37, an American who has been in Beijing for over three years seems despondent when talking about his future in the country: “I’ve been here for a long time, and I’m getting married soon, my girlfriend is Chinese, she’s great, she’s like one of the boys. But after the wedding I would still need to wait for several years before I could get the permanent residence permit. One of my friends waited for over 5 years.” And there are still no guarantees that after the long wait a citizenship will follow.

There are, however, shortcuts that could accelerate the bureaucratic machine. One of them is to win a Nobel Prize, another one, to become an NBA star, and it’s up to you to decide which goal is more attainable. China has been crystal clear in what sort of foreigners it wants in the country. As of 2018 there were 3 Nobel Prize laureates, one NBA all-star and many other renowned scientists and businessmen and women who were granted Chinese “green cards”. The aspiration to attract the world’s best talent, people, who could contribute to the local economy, is understandable. Yet, what about the ordinary folks who fell in love with Chinese nationals or just feel like China is the perfect place for them and their children?

A popular answer among middlebrow policy experts is that China doesn’t need new people, it has a huge population of its own. But we beg to differ. China’s population is aging and by many estimates this might be the biggest problem its economy is about to face. By 2050 over 330 million people in the PRC will be over the age of 65, and if the current trend persists, the local population is expected to start rapidly declining after 2029 when it will peak at about 1.44 billion. Chinese authorities have already pulled the plug on the notorious one child policy, but more measures will need to be taken, since the marriage rates in the country have been going down for the past 7 years. This trend cannot help but have a deteriorating effect on demographics. Even though the number of families who had a second child increased, the overall birthrate has been plummeting, with most younger urban Chinese choosing career over family.

China’s working population is shrinking and there is a dire labor shortage looming over the country. One way to deal with it would be to let in more foreigners. Japan, another major Asian power somewhat similar to China in its mistrust towards outsiders has recently introduced a new type of a visa that will allow low-skilled migrants to come to Japan and help it deal with its own labor shortage. Foreigners will now be allowed to slog on construction sites, work as nurses, janitors, waiters and do other jobs that many young Japanese are reluctant to take up.

The new policy is definitely a big step for Japan, but it is still not completely clear in which direction. While welcoming low-skilled foreign workers, Japan has not changed anything in its immigration laws, implying that after their contracts expire laborers have to return home. This dynamic has reminded some of the shaky situation Germany put itself into upon the end of WWII by inviting hordes of Turkish migrants to help rebuild the country. Once their mission was completed Germany demanded that everyone went back to Turkey, yet barely anyone complied, creating one of the least integrated and turbulent diasporas that to this day has a hard time assimilating with the majority population.

China, as one of the biggest world powers, has no choice but to embrace the reality. The world is getting more globalized and intertwined, people are looking for new opportunities and fresh experiences. And it’s only a matter of time until crowds of foreigners start knocking on China’s doors. And while it can still afford to flirt with Nobel Prize winners and celebrated athletes, soon enough every new foreigner willing to work hard for the good of the country will have to be taken into account. And mind our words, there will be tons of those. The hardest challenge in letting foreigners become “Chinese” would be integration, but this is a task China could definitely handle. Introducing compulsory language and history tests could be one part of the solution.

Featured photo : An American man watches the customary ceremony of lowering flag at Tiananmen Square on May 11, 2011 in Beijing, China. Credit: Feng Li