The Case of Zhao C: What It Means for U.S. Immigrant Visa Applicants

Many Chinese have followed with interest the case of Zhao C. This young man had used “C” as his given name for his entire life, but when he needed to update his national ID card to a second-generation version, the local Public Security Bureau refused to use that name on the grounds that it was not a legal name and that PSB computers are not equipped to handle names with non-standard characters. Zhao took the PSB to court in what was heralded as China’s first name-rights lawsuit. The district court in Yingtan, Jiangxi Province, ruled in Zhao’s favor, but the PSB appealed. While the appeal was pending the case settled, Zhao agreeing to change his name and the PSB agreeing to waive the paperwork fee.

The legal provision at issue in the case was issue in the case was Article 4 of the PRC Citizens’ ID Law (身份证法), adopted by the National People’s Congress in 2003. It states that standard Chinese characters and numerals and symbols conforming to national standards shall be used in filling out a national ID card.  Article 3 of the regulations (pre-dating the law) further specifies that the name “shall be registered in the standard language used throughout the country.” Zhao argued that the letter C is part of Hanyu Pinyin, the PRC’s official Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese, while the PSB argued that C is a foreign language letter.

If Zhao can use one foreign letter in his name, the government’s concern is that other parents may give their children English names, potentially eroding Chinese language and culture.

The Zhao C case is relevant to U.S. immigration law because China’s policy on names determines what name will be used on an immigrant visa. The visa must follow the name in the Chinese passport (9 FAM 42.73 PN1.2-1), which in turn is based on the name in the national ID.

PRC clients applying for immigrant visas as the spouse or child of a U.S. citizen sometimes ask our firm if they can use the citizen’s western surname on their immigrant visas. The answer is no, since the western surname can’t be used in a PRC national ID or passport.

The solution, then, is to change one’s name after entering the U.S. This could be accomplished by (a) filing for a name change in state court, (b) re-marrying in the U.S., since every state will allow a wife to use her husband’s surname, or (c) changing names at the time of naturalization.

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