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China dangles green cards to entice foreign science talent

Hoping to entice more foreign scientists to work in China, the Chinese government has unveiled regulations that greatly expand the number of talent programs, the recipients of which are eligible for favorable immigration status. But the research culture in China would deter many potential recruits, experts say.

Previously, permanent resident permits were limited to applicants to the Thousand Talents plan, a scheme launched in 2008 by the Communist Party of China directed at attracting highly skilled scientists and entrepreneurs, and a handful of other cases. Other researchers largely enter under annual work permits or even on tourist visas; the bulk of recruits are Chinese educated overseas who had relinquished their passports upon obtaining foreign citizenship. Under the new regulation, awardees in an additional 55 programs will now be eligible to obtain permanent resident permits, or so-called Chinese green cards. Most of the programs affected are province- or city-level talent plans. Also included are a few Chinese Academy of Sciences programs, including the well-known One Hundred Talents plan.

“Setting up a talent visa category under the law shows that our talent policy is more open and more clearly directed at attracting talent,” former Chinese Academy of Personnel Science President Wu Jiang told People’s Daily in a 25 January news report. But others say that immigration policy is only one in a long list of considerations for researchers contemplating a post in China.

Cong Cao, an expert on Chinese science policy at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, says that it’s unclear how much time awardees would need to spend in China to maintain a Chinese green card under the new regulation. Many returnee and foreign researchers in China hold concurrent posts, shuttling back and forth from countries like the United States and United Kingdom. Tax concerns could be another thorny issue, Cao says: China taxes long-term residents on worldwide income.

Another potential obstacle to recruitment is China’s research culture, which is shaped by personal and political connections and a lack of tenure at most Chinese institutions. Even with favorable immigration policies, the Thousand Talents plan has struggled. That program has brought in more than 4100 scientists and entrepreneurs since 2008, according to People’s Daily. But experts have argued that the Thousand Talents program is more successful at recruiting top-notch businesspeople than scientists, and the Chinese government hasn’t revealed how many scientists who do come are on part-time posts.

“I don’t think that the visa is a critical issue,” says a U.S.-based scientist who spends summers as a visiting professor in China. Senior scientists “really value tenured positions and are used to the system here,” he said of the United States. “I would feel very insecure if I were to take a professorship in China and give up my professorship here."