US immigration reform a challenge for China

Updated: 2013-02-08 07:40

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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US immigration reform a challenge for ChinaThe proposed immigration reform, which has sparked a heated debate across the United States, has not only raised hopes for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, it has also thrilled Chinese students now studying in American colleges and universities.

According to the proposals put forward by some Democrat and Republican senators as well as President Barack Obama, the US will offer more work visas and green cards to high-level professionals and foreign students with advanced degrees, especially STEM students, that is, those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Washington has been tightening its immigration policy since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, making it more difficult for foreign professionals and students to find jobs and live in the US. But the policy has been criticized by many and described by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as "national suicide".

In his inaugural speech for his second term as US president, Obama said: "Our journey is not complete ... until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country." While Republicans and Democrats are still divided on several aspects of immigration reform, it seems that loosening restrictions on professionals and STEM students are among the less controversial. If such restrictions are lifted, it would pose a huge challenge for China, which has been making great efforts to attract and retain talent.

According to the Open Door report of US-based Institute of International Education, 194,029 Chinese students were studying in the US in 2011-12, up 23 percent from the previous academic year and the highest from one country for the third year in a row. Of those, 45.6 percent were graduate students.

According to a Congressional Research Service report issued in November, the 29,490 Chinese students pursuing doctoral degrees in STEM in 2009 represented 35 percent of all foreign students doing PhD in the US. They were followed by students from India (19 percent) and South Korea (9 percent). In fact, Chinese doctoral students accounted for almost half of all foreign nationals in mathematics and physical sciences.

Does that mean an immigration reform in the US, granting more H1B work visas or lawful permanent resident quota, will result in fewer Chinese graduates, especially STEM graduates, returning home? Will that undermine the numerous talent programs started by the central and local governments over the past few years? And will that also undermine the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) blueprint that aims to build China into an innovative society?

Immigration reform in the US may be welcome. But then China has to work even harder to attract and retain talent to staff its universities and research and development centers, and help move the economy up the value chain.

China has to scrutinize whether its wide range of government programs to attract and retain talent has been effective, or some government officials have used the programs as a symbolic gesture to just enhance their profile and achievements on paper.

China also should examine why many local governments fail to provide talents the right environment and fully utilize their skills despite promising an attractive package of high salaries, housing and other benefits. The right environment for such talents includes the rule of law, a free academic atmosphere and probably dual citizenship, which is a hot topic of discussion among many professionals.

The tendency of Chinese officials to seek quick results and immediate returns, too, has deterred many Chinese talents from returning home. Will we tolerate failures like the one in Silicon Valley, where some years ago I listened to entrepreneurs talking about their success stories even after many disasters?

The impending US immigration reform compels China to reflect, and to reflect now, on its talent policy.

The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail:

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