As is now known worldwide, China is a country enjoying a seemingly inexorable rise to the summit of geopolitics and economics: as the main creditor of the United States government, the PRC holds the whip hand in the G2, able to lecture the fading hyperpower seemingly at will. The country with the world’s largest population is seeing its infrastructure expand at an amazing rate, with high-speed rail connecting glittering metropolises which only two generations ago were characterised by immiseration; in these teeming cities, economic opportunities which could not be dreamt of until recently are the magnet for countless millions of newly-urbanised citizens.
Yet for a polity whose cityscapes are being Manhattanised on an incredible scale and which vaunts a number of settlements with a population of over one million that is itself in the hundreds, there is perhaps one rather curious absence: foreigners. As a recent report issued by the Shanghai Bureau of Statistics notes, just 208,300 of the c.23,000,000 persons that have been resident in Shanghai longer than three months hail from outside mainland China: a miniscule 0.009%. And of these, only 69% are actually from overseas, with Japanese, South Korean and American nationals predominant; most appear to be in China strictly for corporate reasons. By comparison not merely with cities that it would presumably like to see as its international rivals – London, Paris, New York and Tokyo spring to mind – but to even the likes of Malmö, Frankfurt and Zürich, Shanghai is basically monocultural. Moreover, Shanghai is China’s most cosmopolitan city.
There are, of course, some perfectly understandable reasons why major Chinese urban areas are not attracting significant numbers of overseas nationals, such as the historical lack of an overseas empire comparable to those of certain European states, and the fact that the PRC’s rapid economic development is such a recent phenomenon, stemming as it does from the late 1970s redefinition of socialism within a Chinese context by Deng Xiaoping and his fellow Communist Party of China (‘CCP’) reformers. China’s relatively inaccessible lingua franca is another. Yet this is not enough to explain the almost total lack of overseas nationals in China as the PRC looks to ascend to hyperpower status at a time when the world has arguably never been more connected, and international travel and resettlement so straightforward.
In the present era, a global giant without the ability to attract a noticeable number of foreign citizens is surely an oxymoron, and will be at a whole host of cultural and intellectual disadvantages vis à vis comparable nations boasting greater diversity. We at Mediolana believe that the Chinese authorities should consider the following moves towards internationalisation of the PRC:
1. Strengthen Human Rights. While adherence to human rights norms may not matter so much at the level of multinational companies, at the individual level it is a different matter entirely. When the global public sees even prominent, internationally renowned figures such as Ai Weiwei subject to apparently capricious and unusual punishments, it cannot feel reassured that the rights of an individual with a lower profile will be respected in mainland China. Respecting basic human rights would go a long way towards creating an atmosphere in which exotic talent can be drawn to Chinese shores.
2. Simplify Bureaucratic Procedures. Foreigners trying to make a life in China have to wade through acres of what are, even by international standards, highly complex forms to complete procedures such as obtaining permanent residency or purchasing real estate. Moreover, all kinds of restrictions which seem designed to discourage investment and immigration apply to foreigners: in both Shanghai and Beijing, non-Chinese nationals may only own a maximum of one property each, a risible regulation for cities with cosmopolitan pretentions.
3. Make Business a Pleasure. China’s breakneck economic expansion – like that of fellow Asian giant India – obscures a grim reality about doing business in the PRC: it is, more often than not, a headache for all involved. In the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom rankings, China ranks at 135/179 countries, below Zambia (91/179), Mongolia (94/179) and Bhutan (103/179). This is an indication of rampant corruption, non-existent property rights and gross bureaucratisation, a commercial environment which few individuals would choose to subject themselves to; Hong Kong, at the pinnacle of the same index, is certainly a model to aspire to in this context.