Foreign workers in China hold mixed opinions about new work permit system

Mark Levin gets a photo taken by the side of “Serving the people” monument at Zhongnanhai, the headquarters for the Communist Party of China and the State Council (Central government) of the People's Republic of China. Photo: provided to sino-us.com by Mark Levin 
 
Foreigners in China or those who are planning to get some working experience in the country may easily be drawn to a recent New York Times report that said that the Chinese government is implementing a new nationwide work permit system that will rank foreign workers by A, B, and C grades. Starting on November 1, the new policy would begin trial run in nine cities or provinces including Beijing and Shanghai.

The new system, according to state news media, intends to promote an “innovation-driven economy” through “encouraging individuals at the top, control those in the middle and limit the people at the bottom.” 
 
Considering the extremely limited issuance of Chinese green card, it is commonly anticipated that the A grade would also be difficult for foreign workers to achieve. The sino-us.com reporter talked with foreigners, including two top professionals who have been given green card, only to find it is really not easy to be welcomed by the Chinese government. 
 
Chinese green card—hardest to get in the world   
 
Gilbert Van Kerckhove has a big chance to gain A grade once the new policy is implemented.  
 
In May, 2012, the Beijing police department held a ceremony to award three foreigners Chinese green card, and Van Kerckhove was one of the lucky guys. His photo holding the valuable small card in front of his chest made into some daily newspapers. Actually, before obtaining the green card, Van Kerckhove had lived in China for over 30 years. 
 
In his view, the Chinese green card seems more like an honorary membership certificate than immigration approval. By the time he was given it, there were only around 7,300 foreigners holding the Chinese green card, including Yang Zhenning (杨振宁), the famous Chinese-born American physicist who received the 1957 Nobel Prize. 
 
Van Kerckhove had held high positions in three of the world's top 500 companies: Siemens, Alcatel and Alstom. Meanwhile, he has been working as a senior consultant for Beijing’s Municipal Government since the late 1990s. And he was closely involved in the negotiation work of many world-known construction projects in China, like Shanghai’s Jinmao Tower and Beijing’s Birds Nest and Water Cube. 
 
As a special advisor to the Belgian ministry of foreign trade, Van Kerckhove has also been highly appraised back home. In 2004, he was awarded a knighthood by the Belgian prince on behalf of the king. In the same year, China began to grant green card to international talents who’d like to live in China permanently. Although Van Kerckhove had lived in China for 24 years by then and has been working as a top professional, he had no idea there was still a long way ahead. 
 

A recent photo Photo: provided to sino-us.com by Gilbert Van Kerckhove 
 
Several years later, when the foreign expert got ready to apply, he was troubled by various inconveniences. “For example, I was asked to provide all kinds of certificates. So, I brought there a big suitcase to carry all my trophies and certificates,” he said. He is still upset with the torturous process.
 
In fact, such hard-to-get Chinese green cards are not as useful as people may expect. “It’s not like the American green card. The one I got only has a validity of 10 years. With no electronic chip embedded, I could not use it on machine or online,” he complained. And many local police officers have no idea what they are. In most cases, Van Kerckhove would still be required to show his passport. 
 
Compared with Van Kerckhove, the road to green card was much smoother for American Mark Levin. This April, after living in China for 11 years, the hard-working college teacher and musician gained his green card. Having a doctor’s degree in sociology, Levin worked for charity groups in the US in the first three decades after graduation. In 2005, he came to China to work as an English teacher out of curiosity about the remote nation. 
 
Over the past 11 years, he has taught English and Western literature in college while traveling to over 20 Chinese provinces and composing around 60 songs to record his love for the land. Now, Levin works as a teacher, columnist, singer and also charity organizer. He loves all his different identities and regards them as constituting his colorful life in China. 
 
In September 2014, Levin obtained the China Friendship Award, which is the highest honor bestowed on foreign experts by the Chinese government. At the award ceremony, a government official promised to create more transparent, open and predictable environment to make it easier for foreigners to achieve Chinese green cards and come to China for academic research and investment. 
 
Although Levin was initially informed by the police department that the award was of no use to his application for green card, events took a positive turn soon. The State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), the government agency responsible for granting the friendship award and certifying foreign experts to work in China, brought him good news—his application was approved by the Ministry of Public Security thanks to the friendship award.  
 
Levin was more understanding of China’s immigration policy. “China already has a population of 1.4 billion, so its discreet work permit system could be fully understood,” he said, with a belief that the Chinese government would continue to actively import foreign talents to fill the country’s human resources gap.  
 
Lack of decent jobs
 
Last year, the incident of “Beijing Police ‘kill warriors of Sparta’” triggered interest of international media and drew public attention to the status of foreign workers in China. Last July, dozens of muscular and handsome Russian models dressed up as Spartan warriors in the epic film 300 strolled Beijing’s CBD area for an advertisement of a western snack shop.
 
The eye-catching promotion ended up in an unexpected way with the whole group dispelled by the local police and several resistant ‘warriors’ even being subdued and pinned to the ground. Pictures of such scenes soon made rounds on social media, prompting many netizens to argue the foreigners involved must be those illegally working in China while they could not find employment at all at home. 
 
Photo: vicai.cdm
 
“In the US, some businesses would also use cultural phenomenon or movie ideas for advocacy. As long as they pose no threat to others, the police would not step in,” Douglas Young, an American teacher at the Fudan Journalism School said. He paid his first visit to China back in 1987 when foreigners would always bring the shock of novelty. 
 
Young is now working on an oral history, documenting lives of multinational executives in China back in the 1980s and 1990s. He shared an interesting idea—the generation of China experts would become “extinct” soon. “Now foreigners have more and more channels to learn about China, and most foreign visitors coming to China have one clear purpose—gaining leverage for their career development,” he explained, adding new comers to the country may value more about economic opportunities than history and culture. 
 
Recent years have seen many foreigners from developing countries come to China, only to find out that it is not easy to land a decent job. 
 
“Only a few of my friends could find a formal job in China,” Yousaf from Pakistan said. He graduated with a master’s degree in International Communications from one of Beijing’s top universities, although he soon realized his major fails to give him the edge to find a job in Beijing as majors like IT or engineering. 
 
China’s government intends to draw only elites, so its green card policy features extremely high threshold and is sometimes described as “the hardest to get in the world”. The regulation on permanent residence of foreigners took effect in 2004. It clearly regulates the qualifications for skilled migration—the applicants are required to act as high-ranking executives or being at least associate professor. And they have to hold the high positions in China for no less than four years with a good record of tax payment. 
 
While applying for a work permit, foreign workers’ Chinese employers are supposed to present reasons why only foreign workers could fit in the position. Different standards apply in different provinces. For example, in Zhejiang, the related guidelines divide all positions into three categories for foreign workers, which are “encouraged, controlled and prohibited”. For the eastern coastal province known to maintain higher level of openness, only 30 kinds of positions, mostly senior manager or experts, are on offer to foreigners, while for mid-level positions, foreigners are only recommended when there are no suitable local workers. Positions like attendants or laborers are not even open to foreign workers. 
 
Shang Weidong is a veteran headhunter targeting foreign talents. He said Chinese companies have begun to seek those that are indeed “useful, instead of just a foreign face” these years. In many specific industries, foreign workers are asked to possess three to five years of practical experience. Even for hiring English teachers, a Caucasian face might be useful several years ago, but not now. “They would usually ask for practical teaching experience from English speaking countries,” said Matthieu, a French English teacher who have been in China for 10 years to work as an English teacher. 
 
Professor Li Zhigang, from the School of Geography and Planning, Sun Yat-Sen University, has been studying the black communities in Guangzhou. His research proves the change in foreign worker composition is especially obvious for the immigrant black people in the southern city. Doudou, a young man from Niger, is a good example. He arrived in Guangzhou three years ago and earned some good money from the clothing and floor board business. Now, his business is not going well and so he’s ready to go. 
 
He barely goes out to entertain himself except for watching movies and do some shopping sometimes, so he knows little about the city and its local residents. For Doudou, it doesn’t matter if a country is good or bad, the only thing that matters is the business. “If you’ve got a good business, then it’s a good place, or vice versa.  
 
Li has defined and documented transition of black communities in Guangzhou—from 1990 to 2003, there was rise, from 2004 to 2007, stability and then from 2008 onwards there has been a decline. The downturn is closely related to China’s slowing economic development. 
 
According to official statistics, the number of foreign visitors increased from 10.16 million in 2000 to 26.37 million in 2014. However, based on data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the number of foreigners with work permit in China has declined somewhat from 2012 to 242,000 by the end of 2014.  
 
Besides the slowing economy, environmental pollution has also become a factor forcing international talents to leave. Young explained that when executives of multinational companies are assigned to a foreign country, they usually bring their whole family there. So, the people care about the impact of environment on their families, especially their kids. The Shanghai-based researcher has noticed that many foreigners are now leaving Shanghai.  
 
B-class not good enough 
 
Ten years ago, an average foreigner teaching English in China could afford better life than most local people. Now, under the new policy, English teachers, the most popular career choice for foreign nationals in China, would fall into the B category. They would be just a little bit better than temporary laborers.
 
White, a foreigner from the US who only gave his family name, has worked in China for 15 years. In his words, he’s not as well treated as he used to be. 
 
In 2001, White graduated with a master’s degree in literature and he decided to travel abroad for a while. After spending some time in China, Japan, Russia and India, he finally decided to settle in China. “I chose China because of the unprecedented sense of identity,” he said. 
 
At the time, although China had gone through 20 years of opening up with ever-growing international exchange, foreigners were still seen as novel and were regarded highly in some small and medium-sized cities. 
 
“All people around you were curious, they loved to talk with you and you felt being respected,” White calls the time “dream age”, it’s like “coming to a nation in your dream or becoming the leading actor on the stage.” 
 
So, White started his career as an English teacher in south China’s Hangzhou. He was given special treatment at the school. As the only foreign teacher, he enjoyed popularity among his students and attention from the management. “I would only teach some special classes, and I knew students from those classes were charged much more than the common ones,” he said. White even featured in an advertising video of the school. 
 
Due to the convenience in finding jobs, White has been to over 10 cities in China for short-term stay. He came to Beijing five years ago and then settled here. 
 
These days, White sometimes sighs that the good old days have gone and there are more and more foreign workers coming. “We’re not rare species anymore and we’ve got more competition,” he said. 
 
About the new policy, White regards it as a turning point. “If we were privileged foreigners in the past, then we’re now going to be common workers in China.” 
 
Although he’s a little bit upset about being classified B level because of his teaching career, White believes previous working experiences in China would at least guarantee him a stable job here in China. “I’ve gained more edge here than those who cannot speak Chinese,” he concluded. 
 
Ukrainian Vera failed to catch the “dream age”. The 22-year-old girl arrived in China two years, and as she said, she is still adapting to the life here. 
 
Vera works in modeling, a flourishing industry. From the late 1990s, foreign models are ubiquitous in all media in China, especially those advertising brochures of Chinese companies. A majority of the country’s clothing brands prefer to use foreign models. With the rise of online retailers, there is growing need for foreign models. 
 
Modeling is also a challenging industry in China. According to Vera, most foreign models would not stay for long in the country because of the fierce competition here. “There are always newcomers in increasing number by year.” 
 
Vera received professional modeling training in Ukraine and was brought to China by her agent two years ago. “There is little demand for models there and so we basically all go abroad for career development. Many Ukrainian models would choose to come to China because they’re highly paid with more opportunities,” said Vera. 
 
The job may seem colorful but is virtually a road full of thorns. Despite being busy with the modeling work, Vera is also learning Chinese and film editing. “Modeling would not last for long and I hope to get involved in the entertainment business,” she said. 
  
Knowing that she would be graded B due to working in cultural and entertainment industry, Vera gets confused, “Even if I work hard and succeed in what I do, I would still get a B status. That sounds unfair.” She is concerned the new policy would affect her life and success in China. 
 
Neil, a drama teacher from Australia also feels unhappy about the reform. In his view, he’s teaching specialized knowledge and skills instead of just English, and so it doesn’t make sense for him to be recognized as just teachers. 
 
Neil made it clear that he’s not against the grading system but considering concrete information about the new policy still missing, he’s concerned about its impact on his life in China. “We actually have also rules on foreign workers in Australia. I think it’s a good thing for the new policy to aim at simplifying visa applications, although it is still contentious to grade people by different industries,” he said.
 
“The classification could work as a signpost. If I was graded A, then I know China need talents like me, If I fell into the B category, I know that I need to compete with local people,” IT engineer Rod told the sino-us.com, believing the new policy would not affect really capable people. 
 
It used to be a fact that Chinese technological talents could hardly compete with their international counterparts. When Hong Kong was still governed by the UK, there was this common saying among professionals in the city—Failed in London, Try Hong Kong, abbreviated as “FILTH”. 
 
Now, China is no heaven for western losers anymore. 
 
As Rob said, if the law of supply and demand determines specific grading, lower levels will indeed feel pressure in the Chinese market. 
 
“Chinese Internet companies used to prefer foreign Android system developers, while now there are few foreign workers in my department,” said Rob. Based on the fact, he predicts that there is a big chance for IT engineers to be given B grade too. 
 
He has developed a sober recognition about foreign workers’ status. “With the same level technical skills, Chinese workers familiar with the local environment apparently are more advantageous than their foreign co-workers. So, we need to work even harder to maintain our positions,” he said.  
 
The article is translated and edited by Rebecca Lin. 

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