China gradually started opening to restricted forms of movement from abroad in 2022. In 2022, 4.47 million foreigners (excluding residents of Hong Kong (China), Macau (China), and Chinese Taipei) crossed the border (exit and entry) in China, down from 97.68 million in 2019. Most entry was severely restricted in 2021 and into 2022. On 15 March 2023, China resumed issuing all categories of visa.

In 2022, 477 000 residence permits were issued to foreigners coming to China, of which 216 000 (45%) were for work, 115 000 for family reunion (24%), 76 000 for private affairs (16%), and 70 000 for study (15%).

In terms of temporary immigration, in 2022 there were 93 200 arrivals for employment, 76% more than in 2021, 38 900 for study, seven times more than in 2021, and 88 900 for “visiting relatives and friends”, almost triple the figure for 2021. For these categories, the main nationalities of foreigners were Japan (16%), Korea (15%), the United States (12%) and Canada (7%).

International student enrolment had been increasing prior to 2020 but was interrupted by pandemic-related closures and cancellation of visas. There were only 93 000 new enrolments for 2020/21 compared with 172 000 in 2019/20. Enrolment fell sharply from 333 000 to 256 000 and fell further in 2022. China reopened partially to degree-programme students in mid-2022 and more broadly in early 2023. Some effort is being made to attract back foreign students whose visas had been cancelled during the pandemic.

The increase in foreign residents which occurred during the 2010s have been reversed. While no figures are available on the stock of foreign residents, the pandemic closures led to an outflow of foreigners from China and made it difficult for multinational firms to attract foreigners to employment in China.

In the face of loss of attractiveness for international placement, China extended a preferential tax policy for foreigners – including treatment of housing rental and children’s education expenses – which had been scheduled to expire at the start of 2022. The benefits will now expire at the end of 2023.

Regulations for labour migration – separate work and residence permits – are designated at the city level and vary across China. Some regions have introduced facilitations for foreign talents of different categories. For example, in March 2023 Beijing allowed joint applications to be filed, rather than requiring work permits to be issued before residence permits could be requested. Shanghai also offers this through a one-stop shop which reopened in 2022. The regional systems means that work in a different city is not allowed without a new work and residence permit. However, some cities have taken steps to simplify movement: from April 2022, Guangzhou issues work permits to foreigners who hold a work permit in another mainland city in the Greater Bay Area.

Work permit eligibility depends on strict criteria. In April 2023, the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security launched a pilot expansion of work permit eligibility. The two-year pilot is running in a number of large cities (including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Foreign experts included in the pilot are those with internationally recognised achievements, senior managers and technicians. Each pilot city also identifies shortage occupations for eligibility. No consolidated statistics are available on work permit issuance by different cities.

China sends workers abroad through international labour dispatch, mainly for construction projects. In 2022, it dispatched 259 000 workers, half the pre-pandemic level. The stock of Chinese workers dispatched abroad stood at 543 000 in December 2022, the lowest level in recent history.

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