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Society & Culture

More than Just Bureaucracy: the Status of Foreigners in China-US Relations

Jun 03, 2019

With little fanfare, China recently revoked the right for foreigners to marry in China, as announced by the Ministry of Civil Affairs Notice 456 on March 29, 2019. Detailed alongside a temporary ban on marriages between foreigners and Chinese amid administrative and bureaucratic restructuring, the sudden change confused diplomats and civilians alike. While the temporary ban on marriages between foreign citizens and Chinese residents was addressed as part of a transition period to decentralize marriage registration from previous central government dictated structures, the direct ban on foreign marriage in China was neither elucidated nor explained. 

The foreign marriage ban is not inconsistent with other realities faced by foreign citizens living in China. With few pathways towards long term legal residence or PRC citizenship, life for foreigners residing in China has always had challenging legal limits. From 2004 to 2014 in the ten years following the introduction of China’s green card policy, 7,356 foreigners were granted permanent residency, despite being home to approximately 600,000 foreign residents. In contrast, the United States awarded approximately 1 million green cards in 2017, about half of which went to longtime U.S. residents. Although changes to the green card policy were announced to the public, including revisions that allow foreign students with advanced degrees from Chinese universities to work more easily, the Chinese regulatory landscape has by and large grown less receptive to foreign involvement. Even with these procedural changes, China is not designed to serve as an immigrant nation or one where outside influence can flow freely and without regulation. 

These restrictions are evidenced in areas ranging from increasing control over foreign media imports to regulatory instability for foreign businesses operating in China. In the context of direct and measurable impacts on China’s foreign affairs, regulatory burdens and uncertainty for foreign businesses are a sticking point that has received widespread attention throughout the US-China trade war and negotiations. 

While these fluctuations in macro policies may hold more headline appeal, social policy changes are an equally useful bellwether both for the status of legal rights protection and for attitudes towards foreign affairs. Sudden revocation of the right for foreign citizens to marry in China with little attention or scrutiny typifies the hierarchy of current challenges faced by non-PRC residents in China. Amidst a business climate with increasing burdensome compliance measures and penalties for both companies and individuals, outcry to the inconvenience caused by denying this civil right are necessarily more muted. 

When China was focusing primarily on domestic economic development, treatment of foreign citizens within its borders had limited international relevance. As recently evidenced by high-profile international engagement including trade talks in Beijing and the much scrutinized Belt and Road Forum (BARF), that reality is long past. Beijing will continue to increase its presence as a global standard setter, both through long term infrastructure building and through its approach to influential bilateral relationships. As China expands the degree to which its norms and practices are exported through an uptick in international engagement, its domestic treatment of both citizens and foreigners deserves additional scrutiny. Discussion of human rights has traditionally been included as a component of China-U.S. discussion and engagement, but amidst trade concerns this topic was noticeably absent from the reports of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Beijing visit. 

Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative is expansive, with infrastructure, investment, and educational initiatives spanning 66 countries (and counting). At the recent Belt and Road Forum President Xi embarked on a rebranding mission for elements of the Belt and Road Initiative’s engagement, emphasizing “high quality” projects with green practices and zero tolerance on corruption. Undergirding this broad vision is clear messaging about a new vision for global governance: a system where China, not the US, is the defender of multilateralism and globalization. A range of messaging since BRI’s inception supports this idealistic vision, including ritualized and regular use of phrases including “win-win cooperation” and a “new type of big-power relations.” Regardless of recent BRI branding adjustments, the structure of BRI itself presents China as the beneficial and vital vehicle for facilitating global growth and good governance.  

Beneath the rhetoric of “win-win cooperation,” there is a complex narrative surrounding how Beijing’s policies impact foreign nationals within its borders, particularly through regulatory instability that impacts foreign businesses and individuals alike. Substantiating Beijing’s BRI claims of harmonious international cooperation should start with attention and consistency in China’s domestic policies. As Chinese leaders move to evaluate best practices in areas ranging sustainable infrastructure construction to fair labor practices, the need for domestic consistency grows ever more important. 

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