China easing green card rules for foreign talent

BEIJING - When China launched its green card scheme in 2004, giving foreigners permanent resident status, Singaporean Teo Siong Seng's interest was piqued.

But the managing director of shipping and logistics firm Pacific International Lines, who spends at least a quarter of his time in China for work, did not meet the daunting criteria.

So when the Chinese authorities announced earlier this month that they would revise the criteria to be more "flexible and pragmatic" and thus open to more foreign talent, Mr Teo, who is a Nominated MP in Singapore, welcomed the news.

"I didn't try then because I saw that it was unlikely, but now I will reconsider giving it a shot," he told The Sunday Times.

A green card - renewable every five or 10 years - allows foreigners to enter and leave China freely without having to apply for annual residency permits.

The threshold to qualify is so high that in the decade since the card was introduced, only 4,752 have been issued among a foreign resident population of at least 800,000, according to a report this year by the Centre for China and Globalisation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Local media have termed it the hardest green card in the world to get.

But a new direction seems to have been set with a call last month from President Xi Jinping for an open policy to attract foreign talent. He said foreign experts have brought technology, management experience and new ideas to China.

The strict criteria include making an investment of at least US$500,000 (S$625,000) and producing a good return for at least three years afterwards.

Also eligible to apply are foreigners who have worked in China for at least four years and are in a position equal to or higher than assistant general manager, factory director, associate professor or assistant researcher.

China imposes more requirements on those applying for its green card than many other countries, including the United States, where almost all foreigners who have been living and working in the country for some time can apply for one.

Three experts were unanimous that the Chinese criteria's double whammy of being too strict and too blunt had to change.

"In developed countries, it's not about the job title. Their educational qualifications, language standard and job history are much more important," said Dr Wang Huiyao, director-general of the Centre for China and Globalisation. "In this aspect, China's system is not nimble."

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences migration expert Zhang Jijiao said revising the system was just the tip of the iceberg, as the overall immigration framework is too rigid and opaque. "China's history is as a country where immigrants come from, not where immigrants go to. So its framework for foreigners lags behind those of developed countries," he said.

Another reason is that the Chinese government has hitherto focused its foreign talent recruitment efforts on wooing back overseas Chinese.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, a ministry-level research unit, has a "thousand talents" programme that offers a tax-free one-million-yuan (S$200,000) per year position to overseas Chinese who hold a professorship in a "distinguished international university".

While there is no official breakdown in the profile of green card holders, local media reports suggest the majority has gone to overseas Chinese.

But even if the authorities were to liberalise the scheme, its green card is not necessarily the most coveted. The only benefit, say long-term foreign residents, is that the yearly visa renewal process can be avoided.

Although the Chinese green card gives the holder benefits similar to citizens such as subsidised health care and access to public schools, in practice, holders seldom take advantage of them as such infrastructure is inadequate to begin with.

Unlike in Europe or Canada, a green card in China does not give the holder access to free health care or top public schools.

Singaporean Tan Chong Ming, 44, started his application for China's green card in 2009, and finally received it in 2011.

It took eight months to gather the paperwork for his application, and over a year of waiting. The head of regional operations for telecommunications company Orange has been living and working in China since 2003.

"The only benefit I see is the ease of coming in and out of China," he said. "Banks, government bodies, they don't recognise the green card and insist on your passport. There are so few green card holders in existence that these organisations don't want to change the system to accommodate it."

For the married father of two, the green card is more a symbol of acceptance in a country that is still, in many ways, not too welcoming of foreigners. "I personally feel good in the sense that China recognises my contribution," he said.

This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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