It’s About Time Foreigners in China Were Given ID Cards

Carrying a passport everywhere is a nuisance for individuals and for the state. In a nation obsessed with convenience, giving resident foreigners local ID would solve a lot of problems

When I arrived in Hong Kong for a 3 month long internship, one of the first things I was told to do was register for an ID card. A stern immigration officer told me, once and then again to make sure I had understood the information’s importance, that since I was staying for longer than 30 days, the government required me to have a card so that they could keep track of me.

I nodded, and the next day I obediently trotted over to the ID card office to register. My card was ready for pickup a few days later, and I still have it today tucked into my wallet; a shiny green reminder of my time there, as a logged, known and accepted resident – albeit temporary – of Hong Kong.

After living in China for more than 6 years, speaking fluent Mandarin and having paid thousands of renminbi in taxes, I have nothing of the sort.

China has a similar system for their citizens – the Chinese mainland ID card, or shenfenzheng, is a crucial document carried by everyone, used to board trains and flights, to be treated at hospitals, to take exams, to check into hotels. It’s a brilliant and convenient concept, and makes life incredibly efficient. Yet any non-Chinese resident of China can’t get one. We have to use our passports instead.

This leads to a whole host of irritating problems with which any foreigner living in China will be painfully familiar. Hotels often refuse to accommodate you because their service person doesn’t know how to read your information. You can’t use many forms of online booking, because they are only designed to accept the format and length of numbers used on a shenfenzheng, or only recognise names written in Chinese characters. Bank clerks need to ask their supervisors how to input your passport information, making any trip to the bank an hours-long affair. And these problems are outside of the fact that most people would rather not carry such a valuable and difficult to replace document around in their pocket.

So why don’t foreigners get ID cards?

For years I thought it made perfect sense that non-citizens and citizens should require different forms of ID. Arrivals in the UK don’t get a UK passport, after all. But after seeing the system work so well in Hong Kong – a territory that is within China’s own borders – the current approach used in mainland China makes much less sense. A passport is used in far fewer situations than an ID card, and often has alternatives that can be used. Without a shenfenzheng, the result in almost all cases is a large delay; sometimes being completely stonewalled.

Modern China is a nation obsessed with convenience and technology. It would not be an enormous challenge to create an ID card that would give foreigners a China-compatible name and number, while maintaining some kind of marking to show that we are not citizens. 

The benefits of this would be multiple, saving large amounts of time and frustration for individuals and surely also for the many businesses and government institutions which, as it stands, have to acquaint frontline employees with potentially hundreds of different passport formats and languages. Take the high speed rail, for example. A wave a celebration recently passed through foreigner communities as stations became equipped with “passport readers”, meaning that foreigners could suddenly simply scan their way through to their train just like Chinese travelers, rather than having to wait for 20 minutes in line for a paper ticket. 

As welcome as this development was, the passport scanner is still a separate machine in a separate lane, and the suspiciously quick scanning times lead some to speculate that they don’t actually do any scanning at all. Why bother designing, installing and maintaining thousands of new machines in every train station when you could just assign cards that fit the present system instead? Resident foreign passport holders make up just 0.0005% of China’s overall population. It would hardly be a draw on manpower.

The cynical answer is, of course, that the government works hard to keep foreigners and citizens separate. Residents who have been navigating the visa and residence permit system for decades speculate that it is deliberately and maliciously rigged against outsiders, creating small everyday frustrations that remind you that you do not belong. 

The reality is probably the more boring fact of bureaucratic habituality. Wariness of outsiders is a trait common to societies across the world, as fierce debates about immigration show with depressing regularity. This is even more the case in China, which as a modern nation has only been open to foreign nationals at all for about 35 years, and whose culture typically emphasizes a clear separation of outer and inner circles.

Changes are happening, slowly; regular updates to visa regulations, for example, are gradually chipping away at the arduousness of many processes. 

But there is still a long way to go. The official tendency to see foreigners as a completely different category, requiring different rules, different documents, stripped-down “international” websites and separate university dorms or even entire campuses, often leads to accidental second-rate treatment or even outright discrimination, exacerbated by negative coverage of the western world in the media during the coronavirus pandemic and Trump era.

As the #StopAsianHate hashtag reverberates around the world, and China tries harder and harder to prove itself as a global leader in technology and governance, it would be fitting to lead by example and eliminate one all-too-common form of discrimination that the mirror image group – non-Chinese in China – face daily. 

2 comments

    • Absolutely! It’s been a pleasure to see green cards being made more and more accessible, but they’re still very difficult to get hold of, and don’t cover anyone who is here for less than about 5 years I believe. There are minimum stays in China requirements; minimum taxes paid requirements (around 800,000rmb if I remember correctly) and the application process is lengthy and in many cases confusing. So it still doesn’t solve the problem for most foreigners ~

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