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Foreigners in China: a fleeting minority?

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Just the other day, the president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, Jörg Wuttke, told me how he travelled through China 44 times on domestic flights in the pandemic year of 2020. The frequent flyer noticed that almost all passengers were Chinese, “Only once I walked by a foreigner at an airport. That was so unusual that I turned around to look at him.” To Wuttke, it felt like stepping back in time to the 1980s, when China was opening up and foreigners were a rare sight. Back then, hope resonated that foreigner policies would soon change: “They needed us for their reforms, and they wanted us in China.” Now, however, he senses the opposite trend: “Worst of all, no one seems to mind if there are fewer foreigners.”

Wuttke estimates that in some areas, half of all expats have already left China since 2019. Among Germans, this is less drastic than with other nations. But everyone is noticing the effects, he says, be it in housing estates once favored by foreigners, or in the occupancy of foreign schools. Of course, the main reasons for this are the pandemic and China’s radical defense measures since 28 March 2020, halt to foreign tourism, the difficulties in entering and leaving the country, and the weeks-long quarantine for anyone seeking to enter China.

The nationalistic mood in society, bureaucratic hurdles, and newly planned taxes also had a frustrating effect. As early as 2016, major foreign chambers warned that the majority of their members no longer felt welcome in the People’s Republic. Wuttke has been dreading this for a long time. He also plans to comment on this at the presentation of the new position paper of his EU chamber of commerce, which will be published on 23 September.

Numbers in Beijing and Shanghai decline

China’s disappearing proportion of foreigners appears inconsistent with its claim to be a globalized world power. According to the analysis of its latest census – conducted every ten years – released on May 11, 2021, only 845,697 foreigners lived among 1.41 billion Chinese as of November 1, 2020. They make up 0.06 percent of the population. All foreigners who had been living in the country for more than three months were counted.

At first glance, it was just under a quarter of a million more people in 2020 than the 593,832 foreigners last counted in 2010. But after the outbreak of the pandemic and due to the deteriorating sociopolitical atmosphere with its patriotic to nationalistic undertones, the numbers are stagnating. In the apparent world metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing, they are even decreasing in absolute terms. In the 24 million megacity of Shanghai, 163,955 resident foreigners were still counted, whilst in the capital Beijing only 62,812.

Even if one adds the 585,000 citizens of Hong Kong (371,380), Macao (55,732) and Taiwan (157,886) who are recorded by the census as neither foreigners nor mainland Chinese, the total number rises to only 1,430,695 individuals of international origin. Of these, most now live in South China’s coastal province of Guangdong (418,509). This is the result of the relocation of mainly Hong Kong Chinese, as well as the economic role of the newly expanded Pearl River Delta and Guangdong’s more relaxed admission policies in contrast to the rest of China. It reconnects with its historical role as a foreign gateway of entry for China.

The People’s Republic is currently not a country of immigration

Even added up, 1.43 million people also account for only 0.1 percent of the population. In 2019, the United Nations ranked the People’s Republic – now the world’s second-largest economy – last in international migration in its statistics on global immigration.

These numbers underline once again that the People’s Republic is currently not a country of immigration. And China demonstrates that it doesn’t plan to become one either, de jure or de facto. This was not always the case: In their first 2018 Beijing Annual Report on International Migration, (中国国际移民报告 2018), migration researchers and reformers were still hopeful that, thanks to globalization policies and the Silk Road Initiative, the modern People’s Republic was “gradually evolving from a source country for global emigration to a destination country for immigration.” Due to an influx of foreigners coming to China to “follow the Chinese dream, administrative and governmental measures would also improve more and more for them.”

China’s path leads elsewhere, as the farce in its green-card issuance shows. Beijing introduced the ten-year residence permit on August 15, 2004, after its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). But its bureaucracy balked at liberalized admission rules. In the 15 years until 2019, only just under 20,000 green cards were issued to foreigners in the whole of China.

By comparison, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S., which considers itself a country of immigration, grants up to one million green cards annually. In 2019, the U.S. counted 13.9 million green card holders, 9.1 million of whom were eligible to become U.S. citizens.

Friends should stay abroad

China’s Ministry of Justice failed when it tried to push through at least an improved green card acquisition bill via a public hearing on February 29, 2020. The plan sparked protests on social media. Bloggers spouted that China did not need more foreigners. Because of the pandemic, the draft was put on hold for the time being.

In 2016, the US Chamber of Commerce had already complained in its annual Beijing report about the deteriorating business climate in the People’s Republic. 77 percent of US companies surveyed claimed they felt less and less welcome in China. They were plagued by more bureaucratic obstacles and harassment. Other foreign chambers of commerce also hear similar complaints from their member companies.

Beijing’s old propaganda slogan, “Our friends are all over the world” (我们的朋友遍天下), also flies off the tongue as a slogan for China’s globalization. Only their friends are best kept abroad.


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