Is China Mulling a Points System for Work Visas?

points systemThere are signs that China is considering adopting a points system for foreigners applying for work visas. Zhang Jianguo, head of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, in a June speech, said SAFEA may introduce a points system to evaluate applicants for foreign expert licenses. Similar proposals have circulated regarding the separate employment license track for foreigners.

Under a points-based system, such as used in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, applicants for permanent resident status accrue points for meeting criteria in categories such as education, work experience, occupation, language ability and age. Some categories are weighted more heavily than others. Often, these systems have not placed heavy emphasis on whether the applicant is sponsored by a local employer, meaning that they needn’t have a job waiting.

China appears to be considering adopting a points system for applicants for temporary work visas, as opposed to permanent resident status. Updates are needed because the new Exit-Entry Administration Law requires various departments to cooperatively formulate and periodically adjust a guidance list regarding special need / shortage occupations. The list should be based on economic and social development needs, as well as the supply of and demand for human resources. (Art. 42). No such list has been published yet.

A points system may make sense in the Chinese legal context. First, the Chinese government issued proposals this July to loosen restrictions on the nationwide household registration (hukou) system. This is a key promise for reform proposed by President Xi Jinping. Reform would facilitate rural to urban migration and migration among cities. Currently hukou restrictions tie a person’s eligibility for government entitlements–such as health care, pension, housing benefits, and public education–to a person’s official residence, even if that person has long since moved away, protecting big cities like Beijing. Reportedly, for the biggest cities, with urban populations of five million or more, to control the number of newcomers, a points system will be used to ration household registration opportunities. Some cities, including Shanghai, have already experimented with such policies. This may be precedent to employing a ponts system for work visas.

Second, the objectivity (or at least the appearance of objectivity) of a points system fits well with Chinese legal culture. For example, the national university entrance examination (gaokao) is a high-stakes test that determines college admissions. Grades and recommendation letters play no role. The gaokao was originally envisioned as a meritocratic system to remove subjectivity from the system, but more importantly to remove the influence of political patronage or guanxi (relationships). While critics say that the system creates test-taking robots instead of well-rounded critical thinkers, popular support for the gaokao remains strong. By analogy, a points system for work visas may be seen as a straight-forward way to achieve the policy goals of importing the best and brightest foreigners and globalize Chinese businesses while protecting the domestic labor force from undue foreign competition–all while reducing the opportunities for corruption in the system.

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