US v. China: Immigration edition

Immigration is a tricky subject. The U.S. and China, which have not touched their immigration laws since the 1980s, have both tried to tackle this issue recently. The U.S. is notorious for being one of the most difficult countries to get into, which is pretty sad given its legacy as a country built by immigrants. But last week, the Senate managed to pass, with wide support, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would fortify the southern border, expand and create programs for special work visas, and provide a new path to citizenship. The House may kill the bill, but save for the ridiculous wall, it still offers hope for millions of residents who have been living and working in the U.S. for years, as well as people who still hope to move there.

China faces a different kind of immigration problem. About 5,000 people have permanent resident status in China, and it’s practically impossible to ever become a citizen. Instead, the issue is the influx of foreign visitors and workers who, though here temporarily, often find themselves staying for longer than their visas will allow or for purposes other than their visa is intended for. It is in this context that China’s newly revised Entry-Exit Law goes into effect today. The law has been much talked about among expat circles since it was passed by the National People’s Congress on June 30, 2012, but even a year later, the practical rules — which were to be hammered out by national agencies and local governments — remain vague. Moreover, new requirements are being implemented with little to no notice. For example, last August, the Chinese embassy and consulates in the U.S. began requiring additional documents for tourist visas, such as an invitation letter from a “duly authorized tourism unit”. Having dealt with China for a while now, I have a vague idea of what that is, but the millions of people who have never encountered Chinese bureaucracy were thrown for a loop. At the beginning of the year, it was no longer possible to obtain an F visa through a visa agent — an authorized work unit had to sponsor you. Then, in May, I discovered just a few days before my visa was about to expire that it was no longer possible to even renew or extend a visa beyond a year. The last time I obtained a visa outside of China, in Hong Kong in December 2011, China allowed visas to be extended up to two years. Moreover, visas had to be obtained in a person’s home country. As I said, these new regulations crop up with little warning and are implemented with no grace period for people caught in the middle.

Where the new law isn’t vague is where it imposes harsher sanctions for people who illegally enter, work and/or live, as well as businesses that illegally employ them. In this respect, taken at face value, the law makes total sense. Plenty of people are living and working here on extended tourist and business visas, and as late as March, it was still possible to get a tourist visa in Hong Kong. However, the reason so many people are working here illegally is because it’s damn hard to get a proper work visa. Companies must be authorized to hire foreigners, and depending on the kind of business they are involved in, companies may be restricted to hiring only foreigners with certain qualifications — regardless whether the company believes they are qualified or not. In Beijing, there is also an unpublished policy where companies can only hire a certain number of foreigners, if they can hire any at all. How the authorities determine this number is unknown, but it is likely based on the company’s registered capital and staff size.

This leads me back to my surprise visa run at the end of May, at a point when the new Entry-Exit Law hadn’t come into effect. A few weeks before, word was that starting today, there would be loads of new visa types to complicate things even more. Among them was the M visa for “commercial”-related visits and the R1 and R2 visas for “talented” people. How these differ from the already existing F business visas and Z work visas (for “foreign experts”, among others) is unclear still. And as far as I can tell, there are no details on who can/should apply for them or which companies can offer them. As such, it’s unclear whether the law is actually being implemented or not.

With all the new visa types, it would seem as if China were making it more easy to obtain a valid visa for foreigners to work and live in China. But absent any rules on who can get one for which activities, getting the right visa is harder than ever. In Beijing, the municipal government has gone so far as requiring a criminal background check — as of today, foreigners applying for a work permit will need to submit a certificate from their local police department indicating that they do not have any criminal record, as well as an official translation of it, both of which also need to be authenticated by the Chinese embassy. It’s clear that China is trying to force out “undesirable” foreigners; what it wants are the highly skilled, senior management types (who the R visas are presumably for). China is also facing a job shortage among college graduates, and the new visa law may be trying to help with that as well. The folly of trying to force companies to hire a local instead of a foreigner for a particular position, though, is that the local, as educated as he may be, may still not be qualified. If he were, companies would hire him even without a new visa policy simply because it would be cheaper than hiring a foreigner.

The last time China touched the Entry-Exit Law was 1985. The number of foreigners it admits each year is growing by 10% annually. Obviously it’s time for an overhaul to restore some balance. Like the U.S., China imposes bureaucratic requirements that seem overly burdensome to the point of insanity. On top of that, complicating matters through poorly defined laws and new requirements implemented on a whim — I would expect nothing less from China. But as I grow older, all I want is some stability and for things to stay the same.

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