Is China’s Ability to Attract Foreign Talent Hindered by Confucianist Culture and Xenophobic Politics?

integrationThe State Council has made recruitment of foreign talent part of the national plan for reform and innovation. ” 中共中央 国务院关于深化体制机制改革加快实施创新驱动发展战略的若干意见 (Mar. 13, 2015). But recruitment isn’t enough. Retention is key.

So it’s relevant to consider whether China’s “political system … and Confucianist culture” hinder the integration of foreigners, as asserted by Professor Liu Guofu. Chinese Immigration Law ch. 1 (Ashgate 2011).

As to Confucianist culture, Professor Liu writes that “Loyalty is one of the five traditional elements of Confucianism and this has helped to create a close-knit society that is unfavourable to the integration of foreigners.” Id.

In contrast with Liu, Professor Sam Crane does find some evidence of a Confucian duty towards strangers:

Confucius himself was kind to strangers. When he encountered a person in mourning, made obvious by clothing and demeanor, “the Master would stand or humbly step aside” (Hinton, Analects, 9.10). He paid respect when respect was due, even to someone he did not know. Although he famously approved of fathers and sons shielding each other from the law when one stole a sheep (Analects, 13.18), suggesting a relativistic ethics, his followers discerned a universal aspect to his notion of humanity:

Sima Niu lamented, “Everyone has brothers except for me.”
Zixia said to him, “I have heard it said: Life and death are a matter of one’s lot; Wealth and honor lie with tian [heaven]. Since exemplary persons are respectful and impeccable in their conduct, are deferential to others and observe ritual propriety, everyone in the world is their brother. Why would exemplary persons worry over having no brothers?”

When the noble-minded exemplary person is doing the right thing, and that means, first and foremost, carrying out their family responsibilities, then he or she will naturally be kind toward others as well. All men are brothers: no strangers there, especially when ritual (li) is working smoothly.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life (2013).

As to politics, it’s been argued that China’s foreigner-related policies (外事 waishi) have two contradictory goals. One is to stimulate, encourage, and manage increased foreign investment and technology exchange, as well as to continue to build up China’s international prestige. The other is to control the Chinese population by maintaining a notion of the foreign threat to China. A 1993 handbook on waishi told Chinese citizens who have contact with foreigners to

guard against the corrosive influence of capitalist thinking and way of living. They must not voluntarily discuss our national’s internal matters, or divulge Party or state secrets to a foreigner…. It is forbidden to disseminate to foreigners expressions of discontent, or reactionary views that attack our Party or socialist system.

See Anne-Marie Brady, Treat Insiders and Outsiders Differently”: The Use and Control of Foreigners in the PRC 943, 958 China Quarterly (2000). The notion of  foreigners as a threat to China echoed in recent, dubious claims that “hostile foreign forces” were responsible for the Shanghai stock market’s plunge.

If the State Council is to accomplish its goal of attracting and retaining foreign talent to aid in reform and innovation, then integration of foreign talent into Chinese society is crucial. Wang Huiyao, Director of the Center for China and Globalization, writes that “In terms of competing on the global market for highly-skilled labour,” China has not fared well. It “has focused too much on short-term work and has neglected the long-term integration of foreign talent.” Demographic research shows that more successful integration of immigrants occurs when the immigration-policy regimes and institutions “admit and support immigrants who are authorized permanent newcomers eligible for citizenship, rather than newcomers who are unauthorized, temporary or otherwise not eligible for citizenship.” Frank D. Bean and Susan K. Brown, Demographic Analyses of Immigration, in Caroline B. Brettell and James F. Hollifield, Migration Theory: Talking across Disciplines ch. 2 (3d ed. 2015).

What’s needed is the promotion of Chinese language and civics lessons for foreign nationals in China, increased rights and opportunities to participate in Chinese civic life, and transparent paths towards permanent residence and eventually citizenship for those committed to remaining in and contributing to China for the long term. Instituting such policies may require interpretation or re-interpretation of Confucianism and politics in ways that promote integration.

You’re invited to add your thoughts in the comments section.

7 Replies to “Is China’s Ability to Attract Foreign Talent Hindered by Confucianist Culture and Xenophobic Politics?”

  1. The lack of proper PR is the deal-breaker for me. Live in the country for five to ten years, get PR, and then have almost identical rights to someone with a 身份证. Without that, it’s hard to make a stable plan for a future in China.

    The “promotion of Chinese language and civics lessons” won’t make a difference if there’s no stable long-term residence to look forward to at the end. I know people who could never bring themselves to learn Chinese, because they know they have no chance of a permanent life in China.

    Progress will have been made when an expat in China can, with no hassle, legally drive a car for Uber in the evenings, to earn some extra money for their family.

    1. Drone: I understand your point that one important motivation for some foreign nationals to seek permanent residence in China is to access employment on the free market without the need to obtain a visa or employer sponsorship.

      The example you give, though, of a foreigner seeking to drive part-time for Uber may not be the type of talent the State Council is seeking to, ahem, drive reform and innovation. In other words, that may be a job which China’s domestic labor force can easily fill. Shanghai’s new permanent residence policy hints more at the type of jobs the government wants foreigners to fill: Those with an annual income of 600,000 yuan ($96,700) or above and who have paid 120,000 yuan as individual income tax per year for four consecutive years are able to apply for a permanent residence permit. Also, there may not be many open positions for Uber drivers in the not too distant future. “Within 10 years, we will see Uber laying off most of its drivers as it switches to self-driving cars,” predicts Vivek Wadhwa.

      All of which brings us back to the topic of this article. A country’s desire to protect its domestic labor market is common. But are there political or Confucianist cultural reasons that hold the Chinese government back from integrating the very same foreign talent that the government wishes to attract?

      1. After a bit more thought about the “talent” I know, the main reasons I see for them leaving is loneliness (for them and their family), and general hassles with daily life.

        Confucianism might be cited here as a reason for their inability to integrate into Chinese society, but think about many foreigners in Western countries, or in South America – they often have a strong foreign community that helped them settle and feel comfortable. Going it alone in a foreign country, without people to meet, and places you can go, that offer a piece of home, is a huge undertaking. Support helps, whether you’re moving to China or Sweden.

        So to retain the “talent” – professors and chief engineers and so on – they need a community to help them settle and feel comfortable. But you can’t make much of a community with chief engineers. You need those who are not going to drive reform or innovation, but who can provide social support for the innovation drivers.

        You need chefs to open restaurants where you can eat your favourite dishes. You need grocers who can get the ingredients you need to cook your favourite dishes yourselves. You need hairdressers who know how to cut your hair. You might even need the odd taxi driver who can speak your language, at least for another couple of years yet.

        Of course you must be careful not to create a ghetto. It’s a difficult balance.

        I’ve seen people on 200w+/yr, and you could give them PR or citizenship or civic lessons or language lessons, and it wouldn’t help much. But give them the chance to have their favourite meal and a gossip in their native language, and they become a changed person.

  2. Forget it.

    A few special foreigners will be used to demonstrate “we’re opening up”. Foreign spouses of Chinese nationals are treated poorly; they don’t have any right to work in China without a work permit. I don’t expect any change to this.

    Forget PR. PR is just another type of PR…

  3. I have an interesting observation on this subject with regards to China vs. S. Korea. In China foreigners are merely tolerated by authorities but warmly accepted by people. In Korea it’s opposite. Foreigners are welcome by the system but only tolerated by the society. I spent a few years in both countries. So it would appear that culturally China is quite open while systemically it struggles.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post Gary.

    There does seems to be this love-hate attitude, not just with the Chinese government, but also with Chinese businesses, with regard to foreign expats. However in my experience it has never really been ideological, despite the worries of the Chinese government which you mention in several areas.

    On one hand the local businesses definitely need the experience of the foreign expatriates. However, differing cultures and communication styles seems to create a lot of friction in the workplace.

  5. I think it will be a long time before expats are really welcomed, and I’m not sure the Chinese government actually wants that. Integrating foreigners would challenge the party’s grip on power. Having spent 3 years working at a Chinese university, one of the main reasons I left was lack of tenure and equal benefits and constantly being told, ‘ you can’t do that / have that, you’re a foreigner’. At present in the university system there is little evidence that staff want to integrate or really value expat staff – ‘China is different’ is used as a excuse often to keep foreigners and foreign ideas at bay.

    I don’t mean to be negative but at present, certainly in education, there is little desire to integrate foreigners and until they have have permanent contracts, promotion, pensions, housing, drive easily, etc. – there will be little integration – but I think that’s how it’s wanted.

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