China has a comprehensive immigration policy.     

Frans Vandenbosch 方腾波 03.09.2023 .

What is illegal immigration ?

Every healthy scientific contradictory debate starts with a clear definition. Illegal immigration is defined as the migration of people across national borders in a way that violates the immigration laws of the destination country. 
The most common but informal term for “foreigner” in China is 老外 (lǎowài)  It usually is respectful or neutral but sometimes, in certain circumstances, it can be impolite.

Scientific research on immigration in China

Prof. 续聆毓Xù Língyù (Anhui University in Hefei) wrote: In China, there’s a variety of official words that can signify ‘foreigner’ (Wàiqiáo alien, Wàiguórén foreigner, Yímín migrant), yet each word has another connotation. Wàiqiáo suggests that China regards foreigners from an ethnic and cultural perspective, revealing an ethnic orientation of the policy makers in Chinese immigration policies in the 1950s. Wàiguórén has a slightly political undertone and strengthens the administrative orientation of immigration policies after the 1960s. While, as a more recent phenomenon, the use of Yimin is a sign for the turn of integration-oriented policies. Further details about the legal significance of “foreigner” in China in this paper: Lost in translation: how comparing the uses of the term ‘foreigner’ can help explain China’s immigration policy shift.  [1] 

Another interesting consideration in this regard is The Evolution of China’s Foreign Talent Policy: the Case Study of Beijing. [2]  After 1949 and more particularly after 1983, China’s policy on attracting foreign talent has changed significantly. As of 2010, China has successfully started actively encouraging the Chinese diaspora, the 华裔 Huáyì  / 华人 Huárén, to return to China.

In the 2020 census, all people living in China without a Chinese citizenship were regarded as Wàiguórén – foreigners.  For the Chinese administration, there’s no concept of “expatriate”. As per the common western definition, an expat is someone living and working abroad, usually with a good salary and a compensation for housing, transport, health insurance, education for the children, etc. Up to about 2010, most of them also had a private driver and private secretary/translator. In Chinese there’s the expression 外国专家 (Wàiguó zhuānjiā – foreign expert) for these people.
As per that definition, most western top managers and university professors in China are “expats”, but English language students or teachers are not. Obviously, the Chinese legal system doesn’t make that distinction. They’re all foreigners. Whether they’re from Germany, Japan, New Zealand or from Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam or South Korea.

A comprehensive overview of China’s new immigration policies is in the doctoral study by Xù Língyù at the VUB University in Brussels.[3]

The 2020 census

As per the 2020 census, there were 845 697 foreigners legally residing in China:

Myanmar351 248
Vietnam79 212
South Korea59 242
United States55 226
Japan36 838
Canada21 309
Australia12 777
United Kingdom12 513
Germany11 236
Laos9 496
Other countries236 600
Total845 697

That’s   0.06 % of the Chinese population

Keep in mind that the lion’s share of the 55 226 figure for the United States are ABC’s, American born Chinese; Chinese people with an American passport part of the large Chinese diaspora, who recently returned to their homeland. Many of these second of third generation people, born in the USA, are in the process of Chinese naturalisation.

The 2020 census also counted the following (legally Chinese) people, residing in mainland China:

Hong Kong371 380
Macau55 732
Taiwan157 886
Other locations (see the table here above)845 697
Total1 430 695


As it turns out, the vast majority of foreigners in China are from Myanmar.

Border cities in Yunnan, China, have become attractive destinations among Myanmar migrants. Using Ruili as a case study, a paper by Li Cansong and Su Xiaobo analysed China’s border control upon Myanmar migrants. It finds that the Chinese government is testing a flexible model of border control by allowing Myanmar migrants to cross the border with relative ease and integrate into the local labour market, without providing them a Chinese hukou.
This model promotes and regulates the movement of Myanmar migrant workers, constituting a pragmatic order to facilitate the logic of capital accumulation. The cross-border division of labour in production between Ruili and northern Myanmar articulates a spatially uneven structure of capitalist production that creates incentive and hinderance to low-end workers’ transnational migration and, moreover, reflects the Chinese state’s efforts to encourage industrial relocation from the affluent coast to the hinterland to address regional disparity.[4]

The returning Chinese diaspora

There are 40 million 华裔 Huáyì, people of Chinese origin, living outside China. In most of the South East Asian countries, the countries bordering the South China Sea, this migration is dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty. The Chinese immigrants in the USA came to there in the 19th century.
In Europe, the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived during the Republican era; then there were waves of immigration during the Cultural Revolution and after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up. Most of them obtained a foreign passport, others are still living abroad with their Chinese citizenship. For the Chinese legal system, everybody without a Chinese passport or citizenship is a foreigner.
During the past two decades, many thousands of these diaspora归侨  Guīqiáo (Returned Oversees Chinese) moved back to China. Before they get their naturalisation, they are living in China on temporary residence visas. In the 2020 census they were counted as foreigners.

The government is making serious efforts for the re-integration of the returning Chinese people in the society. ACFROC (All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese)[5] and its affiliated organizations are helping them at local level. 
In the presence of the entire PBSC (Politburo Standing Committee), 1200 returnees and 600 special guests of 100 countries, a congress was held on 31.08.2023 on how to further improve the assistance to the returning Chinese diaspora. [6]  whether they have foreign or Chinese citizenship.

Hong Kong

Traditionally, there used to be significant illegal immigration in Hong Kong, particularly during the British rule in Hong Kong. Most of the illegal immigrants came from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.  After the return of Hong Kong to China the situation gradually came under control.

But then, there were the 2020 demonstrations (actually a colour revolution) with thousands of Hongkongers, indirectly sponsored by various UK and US intelligence organisations, engaging in hostile activities against the People’s Republic of China and the HKSAR and incitement to secession advocating the separation of HKSAR from the PRC.

Right after the uproar, when the social situation was under control again, a new migration problem popped up. First, there were about 300 000 of the 7.5 million people in Hong Kong with a BNO (British Oversees Nationality) passport. They can move freely between the UK and HK. After the implementation of new laws in Hong Kong, the British government opened a fast-track visa BNO application for another 5.4 million Hongkongers.  Of them, only 123 800 (2 %) applied and moved to the UK. Through the same fast-track channel, Britain also approved 28 758 visas of Hongkongers, already residing in the UK, making a total of 152 558 people, born in Hong Kong that are now legally living in the United Kingdom. Almost all the visa applications were approved within 5 days and without any background checks.  
As per a recent online survey by the University of Liverpool, 80% of these people have a university degree. But only 30% of them have a regular job in the UK. [7]
A large majority is involved in political agitation, drug trade, prostitution or other illegal activities. Many of them want but can’t return to Hong Kong or China because then, their background will be checked.
At least 2000 of them are living in hiding. The newly elected Hong Kong Magistrate’s Court has set a reward of 1 million HKD leading to the arrest of 8 criminals, involved in treason.[8]  

Meanwhile, the parents of Hong Kong students realized that universities had become hotbeds of US/UK agitation. Today, a large majority of the Hong Kong university students go to one of the many universities in China mainland. Many young people from Hong Kong moved to Shenzhen or elsewhere in China because of the higher salaries and better living conditions.

Hong Kong has lost its young generation to the UK (the brainwashed demonstrators) and to China PRC (those who realised that their future is in cooperation with China)

The United States

More than 10 years ago, already in the years 2012, I wrote that there was something wrong with the attitude of many Americans living in China. Most of them were trying to manage their business in China as if they were in the USA. Several times, I have told them to adapt their style to the Chinese business culture. “Look at the many German companies here, they are flourishing”.  To no avail, it was pouring water upon a duck’s back.

Years before the trade war, the sales figures and market share of American big corporations were already collapsing. Coca-Cola, General motors, Ford and others were bracing for collapse in China. Still, they were unable to adapt to the Chinese consumers and business environment.

Then, at the end of 2017, the Trade War gave another blow to US companies in China. I remember that I wrote “all Americans have left China”  Obviously, not all Americans in China were in manufacturing or trade business. Many of them are in other, more obscure activities. They didn’t leave China. The big-steak restaurants, Jazz clubs and other American entertainment establishments closed.

The final blow were the pandemic travel restrictions from mid-2020 to end 2022. Many Germans and other European expats stayed in China, but almost all Americans left. When I last checked in May and June 2023, I could only find a few Americans. And yes, indeed: involved in very obscure activities.

Chinese students abroad

China is by far the largest country of origin for international students in the world. The number of Chinese students going abroad for study kept increasing until 2019. That year, around 703 500 Chinese students left China to pursue overseas studies. But then, due to the pandemic and the very hostile attitude in the USA towards Chinese students, numbers have roughly halved in 2020.[9]

In 2021, due to the pandemic, the declining quality of the American higher education and most of all because of the hostilities of the American society towards Chinese people, the number of students dropped to 348 992.  In 2023, the total number of students outside China returned to pre-pandemic levels. The new class no longer goes to the USA; they prefer a large number of universities in more than 50 countries. [10]At UK universities, there were 143 800 students. Some 40 122 Chinese students went to Germany. South Korea, Russia, Singapore, Thailand and India were other popular destinations.

Before 2010, many Chinese students applied for a job or married in the country where they finished their studies. Today, almost all Chinese students return to their motherland as soon as they get their diploma.  The Chinese government should pay some more attention on the re-integration of these students because some of them are brainwashed by the western propaganda, believing in “values” as political correctness, woke, genderfluidity, cancel culture or even drug abuse.

Chinese internal migration

Internal migration in China is one of the most extensive in the world according to the International Labour Organization.[11]   As per the 2020 census, more than 400 million people are living and working in another place than their hùkǒu. In spite of all that massive internal migration, there are no slums and there’s no pervasive homelessness as we see almost everywhere in the rest of the world. [12]

Why would someone want to move to China ?

The average standard of living in China are better than anywhere else. An average family in Shanghai (the whole of Shanghai 24 million people, including the “poor” outskirt districts)  has on average double as much spendable income compared to an average family in the United States. [13]
Other Chinese provinces as Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Guangdong … also have a higher average disposable income than an average family in the USA.

The reason China has (almost) no illegal immigration is by all means not because people do not want to go to China. China is in many ways very attractive for immigrants.

Quoting Godfree Roberts from his book “Why China leads the world”:

Adjusted for productivity, regulations, rising wages and benefits, Chinese workers now cost employers as much as their American cousins but, despite tough labour laws, favourable courts and rising wages, China is no Scandinavian workers’ paradise. After resisting for two years, Apple’s Taiwanese-owned manufacturer, Foxconn, allowed employees to unionize after media exposed its practice of forcing them to stand for illegal, twelve-hour shifts. Nine years after Walmart promised a union, employees were still struggling to establish one and only three quarters of all workers reported receiving paid annual leave and one quarter said they have neither paid days off nor union representation. Fed up with employers’ foot-dragging, in 2018, Qingdao city government sent state-appointed cadres to act as “labour union chiefs” into 92 local private enterprises–to add muscle to frustrated employees’ efforts to unionize.

By 2018 the average Chinese was making over 1 800 EUR monthly, enough to provide a comfortable, middle-class life for a family of three. Since education is free through university, graduates carry no student loans and basic health care is inexpensive and most employers provide supplemental coverage. Mid-level managers have modest expense accounts and occasional use of a company car and big-city software engineers out-earned colleagues in London and Singapore. Says economist Zhang Weiwei [14] The China Wave, “Shanghai’s life expectancy is already higher than New York’s, its level of education is the highest in the world and its overall scientific and technological power suggests a healthy economic future. The average wealth, and even the living standard, of most Shanghai residents is higher than the Swiss, while urban housing is better than Japan’s or Hong Kong’s”. Shanghai’s high-speed trains, subways, airports, wharves, commercial facilities and public safety comfortably outperform New York’s, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman[15] attested, “Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 420 km per hour magnetic levitation train to get to town in a blink. Then ask yourself: Who’s living in the third world country?”


Visa overstay is the most common cause of illegal residence in China. People who are overstaying their visa are obviously known by the authorities. They get a visit of the local police, assisting them to extend their visa or to leave the country. Mostly they get a temporarily 2 week “humanitarian visa” and then if they haven’t left guided to the airport.

It’s not that neighbouring country locals don’t want to become refugee and sneak into China, it is they simply can’t get into China. China has a comprehensive system of border controls. Even at the inhospitable areas of the southern and western borders, the PRC has a sealed border, often with 3 step security zones. Border guards are assisted with all kinds of technological resources and tools, drones and cameras.

Vietnamese immigrants sneaking into China, often through human trafficking, mostly go into hiding in Chinese border villages, living there among former countrymen, speaking their own local language. Mostly they are regularized many years later. The same scenario applies to illegal immigrants from the DPRK / North Korea. 
African illegal immigrants in Guangdong province are almost all visa overstayers.

Before 2010 there were Westerners living and working in China with consecutive tourist visas, which was already at that time illegal. Today, with more than a dozen different types of visas, this is no longer possible.  

China has a comprehensive system in place to keep the illegal immigration under control. There are no NGO’s in China who are actively encouraging illegal immigration.

[1] Prof Xu Lingyu: Lost in translation: how comparing the uses of the term ‘foreigner’ can help explain China’s immigration policy shift.  23.04.2021

[2] Prof. Xu Lingyu:  The Evolution of China’s Foreign Talent Policy: the Case Study of Beijing: 28.03.2023

[3] Xù Língyù: China’s changing immigration policy. Which factors have driven China’s development of a more comprehensive policy approach ? 

Doctoral Study, VUB Brussels.  07.06.2021

[4] Li Cansong and Su Xiaobo:  Cross-border division of labour and China’s border control upon Myanmar migrants. Volume 40, Issue 8.  03.06.2022

[5] ACFROC (All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese)

[6] People’s Daily: The 11th National Congress of Returned Overseas Chinese. 01.09.2023

[7] Laura Westbrook: Only a third of Hongkongers who recently moved to UK found full-time jobs, despite most being highly educated, survey reveals. SCMP 23.08.2023

[8] Hong Kong Police Force: Wanted Persons and Reward Notices of National Security Cases

[9] Statistica: Number of students from China going abroad for study from 2010 to 2020.  11.07.2023    

[10] Dragontail: Chinese Students Overseas: 2022 Roundup 01.06.2022

[11] Internal labour migration in China–en/index.htm

[12] Dongsheng News: Why are there no slums in China?  10.07.2023

[13] Justin Lin Yifu, former World Bank Chief Economist in 2019. 

[14] Zhang Weiwei: The China Wave 2011

[15] Thomas Friedman: Biblical seven years. 2008