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Migration Policies

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Migration Policies

Lan Diao Maren Opitz

/ 7 Minuten zu lesen

In the People's Republic of China the entry and exit conditions for foreigners are heavily regulated. Only a small number of foreigners live in China permanently. Since 2004 foreigners may apply for a 10-year permanent residence permit. Since 2008 China has been attempting to attract highly skilled foreigners and Overseas Chinese with various programs. However, Chinese legislation concerning the employment of foreigners is still very strict.

A tribute to worthy foreigners in Peking. Although Chinese labor law concerning the employment of foreigners is very strict, there is a growing number of foreign employees in China that settle preferably in the metropolises and the coastal regions in the east. (© picture alliance/ANN / China Daily)

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese leadership pursued restrictive visa policies as well as exit policies, which was due to general skepticism of “anti-communistic” western nationals. Foreigners were only allowed to enter China on a case-by-case basis and had to undergo a lengthy visa application process. Access to the Chinese labor market for foreigners was in no way taken into account in the political agenda in this period. Instead, the entry and exit policies for foreigners and for those ethnic Chinese living abroad (with or without Chinese citizenship) were strictly controlled and only permitted when a valid passport and visa or proof of governmental authorization was presented.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both entry into and exit from China was nearly impossible. Numerous foreigners who had already been living in China were denied permission to exit, many of whom were persecuted. In comparison to the foreign population of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the number of foreigners decreased drastically with the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949) until the year after the Cultural Revolution in 1977. For instance, in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin which, however, presents a special case due to the high number of Jewish refugees and refugees from the Russian revolution, there were still 136,000 foreigners from 28 nations in 1946. By 1976, this number had declined to 393 foreigners from 5 countries.

The Easing of Entry and Exit Conditions as of 1978

Reforms introduced in 1978 for the construction of a socialist market economy lightened the entry and exit conditions for foreigners, particularly for foreigners of Chinese ethnicity, who were assumed to be able to contribute to the development of China. The corresponding regulations from 1983 are still in effect today. The Chinese leadership reserves the right to refuse the immigration of citizens from certain countries. Stricter visa conditions are in place for people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nigeria than for citizens of other states who want to enter China. The entry regulations for citizens of these countries of Chinese descent are, however, less strict.

Worth noting is the group of Huaqiao, Chinese living abroad who possess Chinese citizenship. Despite their Chinese citizenship, they are treated in part as foreigners because they do not actively participate in the political or economic events in China. If the Huaqiao were to return to the People’s Republic for the purpose of seeking employment, they would have to, for instance, first apply for a kind of work permit with the responsible authority. However, in some areas they are treated preferentially to other foreigners. For example, Huaqiao who would like to return to the People’s Republic receive a special support, e.g. financial support, which was determined by law in the 1990s. Moreover, there is the possibility for them to claim pensions in China.

Central Laws for the Regulation of Entry and Exit of Foreigners

The Nationality Law of 1980 excluding dual citizenship that is still in effect today as well as the Law on the Control of Entry and Exit of Aliens in force since 1986 (hereafter Entry Law) decisively regulated the entry of foreigners and with it, indirectly, immigration into the People’s Republic until the reforms introduced in July 2013. In the 1980s the right to enter and exit was first conceded to Chinese citizens with the passing of the Law on the Control of Entry and Exit of Citizens. As a result, institutions were established that offer legal consultation and information for Chinese citizens who would like to take up residence abroad for education, work or other reasons. Both entry laws for foreigners and Chinese citizens were, however, formulated in a generalized and ambiguous way. Additionally passed directives did not clarify the matter; particularly since many provisions were not accessible to the public and led to lengthy and complicated procedures in practice.

Reforms since 2001

With China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the Chinese government made the decision to further ease the still strict controls on entry to and exit from the country. Thanks to this decision, Chinese citizens are no longer required to show e.g. permission from their employer when they want to travel abroad. Certain groups of people (for example government representatives), however, are still excluded from this regulation. The idea of granting foreigners long-term residence under certain circumstances was already introduced in the Entry Law of 1985-86. Vague formulations of the corresponding regulations and difficult to fulfill requirements led, however, to only around 3,000 foreigners being granted a permanent residence permit by 2004.

The Green Card System

In 2004, the official Green Card system came into force. Foreigners can now apply under certain requirements for a permanent residence permit (validity period of five years for minors, ten for adults). Green Cards can be given to people who hold high positions and whose work serves the economic, technological or scientific progress of China. Furthermore, it is also available for people who make sizeable investments in China and those who have come into the People’s Republic for the purpose of family reunification.

In comparison to countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the conditions for obtaining a Green Card are high, for example in reference to the required investment volume or regarding the required evidence of relevant work experience. As a result, few foreigners obtain a permanent residence permit. In 2011, the Chinese government issued 656 Green Cards, 53 percent of which were given to ethnic Chinese. In 2012, 1202 Green Cards were issued.

Chinese media specifically identify the Chinese overseas community as a potential target group of the Green Card. Chinese living abroad, together with the Chinese in Hong Kong and Macao, actually make the majority of foreign investments on the Chinese mainland.

The Thousand Talents Program

In addition to the Green Card system, China is attempting to attract highly skilled foreigners and ethnic Chinese with various programs, and since 2008 with the “Thousand Talents Program”. This program addresses people under 55 years of age who belong to one of the following groups:

  • Foreigners who possess a higher academic degree and have published an article in a well-known journal or periodical;

  • Senior managers in a prestigious company or bank;

  • People that develop key technologies and have registered patents that are important to China; and

  • People that have successfully founded a business abroad.

In practice, many applicants criticize the application process for its lack of transparency and unclear requirements for participants. Often which criteria actually applied to the specific applicant was only discovered during the application process.

In order to increase the attractiveness of the program, conditions for naturalization were lightened, among other things. Moreover, the central government provides successful applicants one million Yuan (about 116.918 euro) tax-free. They and their families are also entitled to receive social services like medical care and pensions. Their employers either provide free accommodation or a rent stipend. Successful applicants can apply for government funded support programs to e.g. receive funds for research projects.

With this program, the central government would like to accelerate long-term and sustainable growth of the Chinese scientific and technological sectors. The quota of candidates planned to be accepted into the program between 2004 and 2014 was set at 2,000, but by 2013, 3,000 people had already come to China.

Legal Labor Provisions for Foreigners

Foreigners are not permitted to take up self-employment in China. If they want to receive an employment contract in the People’s Republic, they need a visa as well as both residence and work permits. As for the employers, they have to request a license for the legal employment of foreigners. Potential employees must at least have a Bachelors degree and show not less than two years of work experience in their respective areas of employment. As a rule, foreigners and companies that do not have the sufficient evidence required are fined. It is up to the discretion of the responsible authorities though to classify a case as particularly severe and expel the foreign employee from the country.

Chinese legislation reserves the right to refuse entry from the outset. This right is applied, for example, when there is suspicion of support of terrorist activities or attempted coups, or of the AIDS virus.

The Reform of 1 July 2013

The entry laws for aliens and Chinese citizens were reformed on 1 July 2013 and incorporated into the Law on the Regulation of Entry and Exit. Among other things, the law led to the implementation of a new visa system that now contains its own visa category for highly skilled workers. These legal changes aim at a standardization of the process that is also of benefit to immigrants. In practice, however, reforms are implemented in a number of ways in the different Chinese regions and the relatively broad freedom of local authorities is appearing once again: A police clearance certificate for the issuance of a work permit does not have to be shown everywhere, and not all the authorities adhere to the extended processing time of 15 days for visa applications as proposed in the reform’s framework. In Shanghai, after increased criticism of the extended processing time by applicants, those responsible decided to reduce the period to seven days.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile China.



  1. Kojimo (2003), p. 101, Liu (2011), pp. 5-8, 155.

  2. Liu (2011), pp. 8, 10, 96f., Liu (2007), p. 220, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.

  3. Liu (2011), p. 11, Liu (2009), p. 317, Liu (2007), pp. 255f.

  4. Liu (2009), pp. 318f., Chung et al. (2010), p. 356.

  5. Chung et al. (2010), pp. 356f., Liu (2011), p. 68, Financial Channel (2013), Skrentny et al. (2007), p. 805.

  6. People's Daily Overseas Edition (2013), Liu (2011), pp. 103-105.

  7. Liu (2011), pp. 27, 155, 181.

  8. Zhang (2013), Lefkowitz (2013), Central Government of the People’s Republic of China (no date b), Matacic (2013).


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Lan Diao, Doctor of Educational Sciences in foreign language didactics with a focus on Chinese didactics, originally comes from Beijing and is currently a teacher for Chinese and German at a secondary school in Hamburg.

Maren Opitz has a master’s degree in International Migration and Intercultural Relations from the University of Osnabrück and is currently working for the German Youth for Understanding Committee in Hamburg. After completing her bachelor studies in Sinology, Civil Law and Language Acquisition Research she spent two years in China where she worked inter alia in the office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Shanghai.