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Foreigners face hurdles if they want to say long term
By Doug Young

SHANGHAI has won kudos for hosting a major regional summit these past few days, but the situation was far more somber in the newsroom at the Shanghai Daily, publisher of my weekly Street View column. That’s because after more than eight years in China, one of my longtime editors and a personal friend was spending her final week at the newspaper, including her last day yesterday.

This editor, whose name I’m not disclosing to protect her privacy, didn’t really want to leave Shanghai Daily, which also wanted to keep her for her wealth of experience as a former AP reporter for 22 years.

But the problem was her age, which was above the national mandatory retirement age of 65. As a result, she will be leaving for a new job as training editor in Kenya, representing a big loss not only for the Shanghai Daily but also for China.

Her situation casts a spotlight on the broader problem facing foreigners who want to live and work in China over the longer term, much the way that hundreds of thousands of non-Americans choose to live and work in the US each year.

China’s tricky and often inflexible immigration laws mean that most foreigners working here have very limited options, even though there are theoretically many possibilities.

The situation probably owes to the fact that until recently, China wasn’t really an attractive place for most expatriates to work over the long term, and it didn’t actively try to attract foreigners.

But as China has shed its traditional status as a hardship post and Shanghai and Beijing have emerged as modern major cities, a growing number of people like myself have considered coming here for longer periods.

That’s a problem if you’re a foreigner and reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. In order to paint a more complete picture, I did some research to try to compare the situations in the United States and China. That’s when I discovered how complex immigration law really is, which explains why some lawyers can make a comfortable living exclusively advising people on such matters.

As a nation of immigrants, the US is relatively open in many of its policies. The country issues 140,000 work visas each year, and anyone with a permanent long-term job can apply for a green card that entitles them to permanent US residency.

Anti-discrimination laws allow US employers to hire any foreigner they want regardless of age, and no mandatory retirement age, like the one China, exists.

China also has several programs for foreigners who want to work in the country over the longer-term, though most are highly limited and place major restrictions on who can apply and get accepted. The country has its own green card, though it’s so difficult to get that as of last October only 5,000 of the more than 600,000 foreigners legally residing in China had one.

China also has its own Recruitment Program of Foreign Experts, which was launched in 2008, and is often cited to show the country’s commitment to becoming more expat-friendly. But the program had an extremely low target of 2,000 experts when it was launched, and in all my time in China I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was here under that status.

Work visas rare after 65

I’ve also heard of 2-year and 5-year visas available to certain groups of people working in China. But any foreigner who lives here will tell you those visas are also extremely difficult to get, with the result that the vast majority of expats are all here on visas that must be renewed each year. That renewal process isn’t too burdensome, though it’s certainly a hassle and reflects the bureaucratic state of China’s immigration laws.

Then there’s the issue of retirement. I’m still a few years away from 65 and haven’t really even thought about whether I might want to stay in China after I’m forced to retire due to my age. But my Shanghai Daily friend and another friend in Beijing are both facing the same issue — no work visa — with the result that each may have to leave the country despite living here for years and considering China as their home.

As with many things in China, nothing is black and white and there are still a lot of gray areas, according to Gary Chodorow, the China-based immigration lawyer who advised me on the issue. It seems that local immigration officials have a certain amount of leeway, and can continue approving visas for people over 65 at their own discretion.

In fact, my Shanghai Daily editor got one such “exemption” in the first year after she turned 65, allowing her to stay up until now. But it seems that no new exemptions were coming this year, with the result that she’s set to leave in the next few weeks for Kenya.

I and many of people at Shanghai Daily will personally miss her, even more so because her departure seemed quite unnecessary and in the end will be a loss not only for the newspaper but also for the country.

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