China wants to lure more skilled migrants, including tech industry professionals, to help achieve its goal of becoming a self-reliant “technology power”.
The policy was set out in the next five-year plan for the nation’s social and economic development that was tabled at the annual legislative sessions under way in Beijing.
It calls for more talent to be brought in from overseas to help push forward key areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, life sciences, space and aviation, and deep-sea exploration.
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“The nation will improve its policy for overseas high-end talent and professionals to work, carry out scientific research and exchanges in China, and improve the permanent residency mechanism,” the plan to 2025 says.
“The nation will explore a skilled migrant programme … and provide an environment that has a global competitive edge and is attractive to foreigners.”
It also says international technology organisations will be set up and foreigners will be allowed to work in the country’s tech institutes.
Becoming a global leader in tech and innovation is a focus of China’s development ambitions and is key to the leadership’s new emphasis on the quality rather than quantity of growth.
At the legislative meeting, some National People’s Congress deputies also called for rules to be relaxed more broadly for foreigners. Hang Yingwei, deputy secretary general of Shanghai’s municipal government, said in a panel discussion that special permits could be given to foreigners that made it easier for them to live and work in the city.
The Chinese leadership has been pushing for more home-grown technology to be developed to reduce reliance on foreign nations, especially the US, after Washington cut off access to critical components needed by Chinese tech firms such as Huawei Technologies.
Wang Huiyao, head of Beijing-based think tank the Centre for China and Globalisation, said the pandemic and tensions with Washington had affected efforts to recruit overseas talent.
“Facing an intensifying tech race and decoupling of China and the US, China has an urgent need to step up technology research – and it needs a lot of highly skilled experts from overseas,” he said. “There are many areas where help is needed, including aviation, clean energy and chips.”
Wang said Beijing could learn from other nations to set up a skilled migrant programme, giving the example of the European Union’s blue cards that allow highly skilled people from outside the EU to work in 25 of its 27 member countries.
China’s last campaign to bring in overseas professionals has been controversial. The Thousand Talents Plan offers cash grants for the research and living costs of scientists and engineers recruited from abroad. But concerns were raised in the US, Canada and elsewhere that they were being used to obtain new technologies and expertise or for espionage, and Beijing has sought to play down the plan.
According to Zhang Yitian, a research fellow on artificial intelligence at Tsinghua University’s Centre for International Security and Strategy, the research funding and facilities available in China made it an appealing prospect for foreign professionals.
But he said some could be concerned that working in China could make them a target if they later went to the US. “They may be worried that the US could investigate them on national security grounds after working in China,” he said. “Chinese academics who have a green card would be worried.”
The State Immigration Administration was set up in 2018 to deal with border control and foreigners living in China. Immigration rules were relaxed the following year, allowing people with in-demand skills and those whose annual income or taxes reached the specified threshold to apply for permanent residency along with their spouses and children.
Anyone who has held a job in China for four years, living in the country for at least six months of the year, with an annual wage six times the local average and who has paid at least 20 per cent of their income in taxes can apply for permanent residency. In Beijing, the average annual salary last year was 94,258 yuan (US$14,500), meaning a foreigner would have to earn 565,548 yuan (US$86,800) to be eligible.
In 2019, the authorities said more than 133,000 visas and permanent residency permits had been issued to foreign entrepreneurs, investors, technology and business executives in the past four years.
Sun Wenkai, a research fellow with Renmin University of China’s National Academy of Development and Strategy, said bringing in more talent from outside was not just about reducing reliance on other countries but because China needed to move up the global value chain.
“If China stays at the low end of manufacturing it will not get much added value,” Sun said. “The focus [of the policy] could be on bringing in overseas Chinese and retaining the top foreigners studying in China who would find it easier to adjust to working and living here,” he added.
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