In a recent development that could either spell great news or a reason for fear for foreign workers in China, on September 9, 2016, China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (“SAFEA”), one of two Chinese government agencies currently charged with administering China’s visa program for foreign workers, announced major changes to China’s visa system for foreign workers.  SAFEA announced that China’s existing Foreign Expert Permit and Alien Employment License systems will be merged into a single permit.  The new visa program will take effect, first in a pilot system to be rolled out in Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Anhui, Shandong, Guangdong, Sichuan and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on November 1, 2016 and then throughout the rest of China on April 1, 2017.  The new permit process will introduce a tiered classification system for foreign workers as well as a streamlined online application and tracking system in an effort to attract more high-level foreign talent to China.  Under the new work visa rules, foreign workers are classified into one of three categories, A, B or C with the classification largely dependent upon the foreign worker’s skill level as well as the industry in which he or she is employed.  It will heavily favor those who are employed in the technology or technical industries while making it more difficult for those in non-technical industries or applying for seasonal or temporary work to obtain a visa.  The new regime could also make it more difficult for existing foreign workers in China who are working, but without any government authorization.

 China’s Current Work Visa Regime for Foreign Workers

China’s current visa program for foreign workers includes two different types of visas for foreign workers administered by two different Chinese government agencies.  The two permits are issued by different government entities, with China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security managing the Z visa program and SAFEA managing the R visa program.  While the Alien Employment Permit, or Z visa, is issued for general employment by foreign workers, the Foreign Expert Permit, or R visa, is issued to more high-level talent such as executives in the technology industry or candidates whose skills are deemed by the SAFEA to be urgently needed in China’s labor market, such as software engineers.

China’s New Visa Regime for Foreign Workers

The new visa scheme announced by SAFEA will replace the current, largely-paper based system of issuing work visas to foreigners with an online system that will require less supporting documentation.  The new online tracking system that will be instituted as a part of China’s new work visa program will likely result in lesser waiting for visa applications to be processed, as the system will be largely electronic with reduced documentation requirements for applicants.  Applicants will be scored on a points scale by SAFEA employees, with points awarded to applicants based upon their educational background, salary, age, how long they have been working in China, and their proficiency in the Chinese language.  In addition, applicants can receive extra points if they are applying to work in a less developed part of the country.  Based upon how many points the applicant receives, he or she will be placed in one of three categories: A, B or C.

Category A will consist of those foreign workers who have received 85 points or higher.  Applicants who are classified as being in this group will be lucky enough to qualify for a pre-entry visa, paperless verification in addition to expedited approval of their visa application.  Category B will consist of those who receive between 61 and 84 points and will consistent largely of professionals in non-technology or technical industries.  Finally, Category C will consist of anyone who receives fewer than 60 points and will consist largely of temporary and seasonal foreign workers in service industries or non-technical roles.

What Does This Change Mean for Foreign Workers in China

The new visa scheme announced by SAFEA should generally mean positive results for foreign workers in China in the technology and technical industries.  It will make applying for a visa much easier and more of a streamlined, paperless process.  SAFEA estimates that the new, more streamlined process will shave five days off the current visa application review and approval process, cutting in half the amount of time needed to review and approve a foreign worker’s visa application.  It no doubt will make it more difficult for foreign workers who seek to come to China to work in temporary or seasonal jobs or industries like retail positions. Nevertheless, it also may make it more difficult for foreign workers who are seeking to come to more developed areas with higher concentrations of skilled foreign workers, such as Beijing, Shanghai and several of China’s other coastal cities.

Additionally, one of the questions that arise is what happens if an applicant applies and is placed in a Category C or does not receive a visa.  Although there are no provisions in the regulations which address the issue, there is nothing to stop the foreign worker from obtaining additional credentials and then re-applying or re-applying to a different (and perhaps less desirable with less stringent requirements for obtaining a visa) city, for example.  Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that there are ways to strengthen the application by, for instance, choosing to apply outside the most popular areas like Beijing and Shanghai or by increasing one’s command of the Chinese language by engaging a private tutor in the event of an unfavorable application.

What Does This Change Mean for Foreign Workers Currently Working in China Without Authorization?

This new visa regime for foreign workers could mean difficulties for foreign workers who are currently working in China without authorization.  First, the streamlining of the foreign worker visa program into administration by a single Chinese government bureau, SAFEA, will make it easier for SAFEA to monitor both applicants for visas as well as those whose visas have expired.  Second, and more importantly, those foreign workers who come to the attention of SAFEA who decide to apply for a visa through the new program could face more intense scrutiny of their applications.  Accompanying this new program will be a lifetime code for the storage of personal information for each applicant, which will create a permanent record of the foreign worker’s work experience, service and credits.

Therefore, it may become difficult for workers currently in China who are working without a visa to continue to do so.  However, this assumes that they will apply for a visa.  In the event they choose not to, they would still be subject to the same requirements as any other foreign worker in China and would face the same punishment as any other unauthorized foreign worker.

In addition, although SAFEA has not announced what the consequences of staying in China past the expiration date of a visa would be, the agency would theoretically have a better way to track foreign workers under the newly announced program.  Therefore, the agency will be able to better police workers who over-stay their visas.  Nonetheless, few of these details were spelled out in the details SAFEA has released regarding the program, therefore there are many open questions regarding enforcement, potential penalties for violating the new via program, etc.

To sum up: work on your CV, take Chinese classes and touch wood!

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