China needs foreign workers. So why doesn’t he accept immigration?

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For hundreds For years China could boast that it has more people than any other country. The title became official in the 1950s, when the UN began to collect such data. Such a large population gave China bragging rights. A large supply of labor also helped to increase its annual output GDP growth, which has increased by an average of almost 9% over the last three decades.

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Last month the Chinese rule ended. India has overtaken it as the most populous country in the world. The demographic trends behind the move have a troubling effect on the second new number. China’s working-age population has been in decline for a decade (see chart). The total population declined last year – and it is aging rapidly. This is likely to hamper economic growth and create a significant care burden.

But when officials in Beijing toss out solutions, one seems to be largely absent from the discussion: immigration. China has very few foreign-born residents. Of the 1.4bn people there, around 1m, or just 0.1%, are immigrants. That compares with shares of 15% in America, 19% in Germany and 30% in Australia. Put it next to other Asian countries that are also avoiding immigration and China’s total still looks modest. Foreigners make up 2% of Japan’s population and 3% of South Korea’s population. North Korea even has a higher proportion of immigrants than China, according to the UN.

China’s future economic and social needs are similar to those that have forced other societies to employ inmates. In January the government released a list of 100 occupations, such as salesperson and cleaner, where there is a shortage of workers. More than 80% of manufacturers faced labor shortages in 2022, according to one study. Nearly half of China’s 400m blue-collar workers are over 40, a December study reported. That’s according to an official estimate that China will have trouble filling nearly 30m manufacturing jobs by 2025.

An abundance of young and free workers once filled these openings. But as China ages and declines, the supply of willing labor is drying up. Companies are complaining about a mismatch between the jobs young people are looking for, a growing number who have university degrees, and those available. Many young Chinese who do not want to work in factories, mourn Daily China, party lore. That helps to explain why almost 20% of 16 to 24 year olds in cities are unemployed.

China could make better use of its existing population. The country is suburban and rural residents are not adequately educated by the standards of an advanced economy. Higher pay and less loopholes on internal migration would definitely help. But even young migrants from rural areas seem less likely to travel to cities for blue-collar work than in the past.

In many other countries immigrants do the jobs that pay too little to attract local people. Immigrants have also helped ease the burden of aging populations. Japan, for example, has allowed foreign nurses to tend to the elderly. China faces an even bigger challenge in this regard. Unlike Japan, he doesn’t get rich before he gets old, and there will be high bills for health and social care.

China admits it needs more young people. The government has tried to trick citizens into having more babies – to little avail. On average, Chinese women have fewer than 1.2 children, well below the 2.1 needed to keep the population stable.

In contrast, the state made little effort to attract people from abroad. In 2016 it established a three-tier, points-based system for work visa applicants. The lowest level, class c, including those with little education and work experience. These permits are difficult to obtain. “Promote the top, control the middle and restrict the bottom,” was the state slogan at the time the system was introduced.

Even those at the top face significant obstacles, however. The country’s green card system, introduced in 2004, is restrictive and complex. It was intended to save wealthy or skilled foreign workers from having to reapply for visas every year. In practice, only 11,000 or so ten-year residence permits were issued from 2004 to 2016, the last year such data was published. In the same period, America, with a quarter of China’s population, issued nearly 12m green cards.

Since then China has established a national immigration agency and tried to make the application process for residency easier. But the threshold is still high: applicants must have invested at least $500,000 in a Chinese business for three consecutive years, be married to a Chinese citizen, have been making or contributing to the country, or have skills that are specifically needed. None of this will help Chinese manufacturers fill jobs.

Long live the relative

The simple truth is that China is not interested in being an immigrant melting pot. Part of this can be explained by foreign bullying in the country in the past. But opposition to multiculturalism is also fueled by claims of Chinese racial purity long advanced by nationalists. Officials boast of a single Chinese bloodline going back thousands of years. In 2017 Xi Jinping, the supreme leader of China, said to Donald Trump, who was the president of America at the time: “We are the original people, black hair, yellow skin, passed on. We call ourselves the descendants of the dragon.”

That informs immigration and nationality policy. A large proportion of China’s green cards go to foreigners of Chinese ancestry. Similarly, children of Chinese nationals born abroad receive special treatment when applying to Chinese universities. The Thousand Talents program to attract foreign educators enrolled nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 2008 to 2018. All but 390 were returnees from China, according to the Brookings Institution, an American think tank. .

Citizenship is virtually closed to foreigners, unless they are children of Chinese nationals. Chinese green cards, unlike American ones, do not offer a way. China only had a total of 16,595 naturalized citizens in 2020. Meanwhile, Japan naturalizes around 7,000 new citizens each year. In America the number is over 800,000.

Public opinion makes it difficult to be more open. In 2020 a proposal to ease the path to residency for wealthy or skilled foreigners faced populist backlash, with men pledging to protect Chinese women from immigrants. In general the state promotes a closed mind. A national security campaign warned Chinese women that their foreign boyfriends could be spies, while officials blamed perceived social ills on “foreign influences”.

Then there is the one-child policy, which was only scrapped in 2016. Couples can now have up to three children. Few want that. But it may be difficult to convince a generation raised on – and scarred by – population control that a high influx of immigrants is desirable.

That is a shame. Easier immigration policies would not only help employers with job shortages. They would also encourage innovation. Google, LinkedIn and Tesla were all co-founded by immigrants to America. But it is difficult for the bright young minds from abroad who study in China to get a visa after they graduate. At the same time, many Chinese students are studying in the West – and living there.

Oddly enough, sporting excellence seems to be the main route to Chinese citizenship. About a dozen soccer players, most of whom had no ancestral ties to China, were naturalized in 2019 and 2020 in a failed attempt to help the country reach the World Cup. Another handful of athletes, most with a Chinese-born parent, have been granted citizenship ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Labor’s shortage in less glamorous trades could prompt officials to consider ‘ soon to new comers who will never win a medal.

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