June 23,2008

The Great Green Card Debate in Greater China

By Ma Wenluo

A huge and virulent dispute over foreign residency permits for officials has spread across the straight from Taiwan to Hong Kong and mainland China, and from politicians to businessmen, becoming increasingly hot in Chinese society.

Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s newly elected president, has a PHD from Harvard, but was much attacked by his rivals for the permanent residency permit (green card) he holds from the US. A month after his inauguration, members of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are still questioning government officials in the Ma administration about whether they have obtained US green cards. Although KMT officials deny holding green cards or claim their cards were invalid, and declare that many DPP former officials have green cards in the US and Japan, it hasn’t stopped National Security Council (NSC) Secretary General Su Chi and two Examination Yuan nominees from being severely criticized by DPP legislators.

The green card issue in Taiwan soon had a Hong Kong replay. Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, was much criticized by the press for dual nationality and for paying excessively high salaries to a newly appointed vice director, two political assistants, and 17 officials.  The public outcry forced Mr. Tsang to apologize, and the newly appointed and current vice directors had to give up their foreign residency cards.

The green card issue has spread from politics to business. The war between French food group Danone and Chinese beverage giant Wahaha Group for the Wahaha brand still continues. An immigration lawyer in California told a Chinese reporter that Zong Qinghou, founder of Wahaha, was a US green card holder. By registering two companies, Wahaha (USA) Group Corp. and Wahaha (USA) International Inc., he was issued an E18 visa in the US on May 1, 1999. His wife holds a green card and daughter a US passport. Those who originally and fiercely supported Zong Qinghou are now taking a second look.

The democratic system is in early stages in Chinese societies, and the governments have not formulated effective laws to regulate green card holders. But officials and public figures holding green cards can be questioned for their loyalty and personal reputation by the public and their political rivals.

Now there’s no written law in Taiwan that prohibits a Taiwan citizen, politician or not, from applying for overseas residency. The current Nationality Law only bars government officials from holding dual citizenship. There are no regulations governing officials who posses foreign residency cards. According to the Hong Kong Basic Law, only Hong Kong permanent residents with Chinese nationality and without foreign residency in the past 14 years can be appointed as major officials in the Hong Kong government. As vice director and political assistant are not "major officials", there is no restraint for their foreign residency and nationality. But for senior government officials, giving up foreign residency helps to eliminate political doubts and gain support from voters. Li Jiaquan, a senior researcher at the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said when commenting about the green card issue that governments could solve this problem by legislation, while considering personal histories.

Western countries such as the US have developed social welfare systems and the ability to attract global talent, and many mainland residents as well as those from Hong Kong and Taiwan who go there to study or work hold on to their green cards even after they have returned to China because of the great convenience the green card confers upon them. But if senior government officials or other important persons are found to hold green cards, it triggers doubts about national loyalty and stirs opposition from the public. After the green card issue in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, support for both governments slid. In his two-year dispute against Danone, Zong Qinghou gained wide support as he acted the wise Chinese entrepreneur fighting against a transnational monster seeking to eat up Chinese companies. But now it is known he’s holding US green card, perceptions have changed. His reputation is damaged. What’s more, he may have been concealing his income in order to avoid paying taxes.

The situation exists partially because of the distrust of riches in Chinese society. In Hong Kong, residents were outraged by the very high pay of senior officials. In Taiwan, DPP members say that KMT children have received education and residency in foreign countries with wealth their parents looted from Taiwan people, and fleeing mainland officials also helped their relatives to their studies and residency cards with funds illegally obtained. Many ordinary Chinese people are angry at famous entertainers who have residency in the US, UK, Japan, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, where they can avoid China’s "one child" policy while singing patriotic songs at official activities and making a big fortune in China. 

But economic development in mainland China is still lower than in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the middle class and citizen awareness has not fully developed. The Chinese government has not set limits for green card holders, and Chinese law says only that government officials should be Chinese citizens, without mentioning limits for people with foreign residency. The Chinese government, as well as Chinese schools and companies, spare no effort in the economic development, and all encourage students to study overseas. With foreign residency of not, many come back to China and are appointed to important positions. China receives rich returns from such citizens. Overseas Chinese and Chinese students were totally on its side when western media criticized China for the Tibetan issue and during the torch relay.


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