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Mystery Solved and Unsolved: How many Foreigners have Joined Chinese Nationality?

Updated: Mar 25

It has long been rumored that it is hard for foreigners to join Chinese nationality. Some sources rank China as one of the countries where it's hardest to become a citizen. Others note that joining Chinese nationality is "theoretically possible but in practical terms extremely difficult.” But how many, in exact number, foreign nationals have joined Chinese nationality? This article summarizes the most recent statistics on this issue.



Mainland China: No Reliable Statistics


A common mistake made by many authors is to estimate the number of foreigners joining Chinese nationality using data from China's population census. The Wall Street Journal claimed with certainty that by 2000 China had only 941 naturalized citizens based on the 2000 census. The Economist relied on the 2010 census and concluded that by 2010 there were only 1,448 naturalized Chinese in total. But they are probably wrong.


These authors are wrong for three reasons. First and foremost, the number cited above is the number of residents registered as "Naturalized" in the "ethnicity" section of their household record. According to the 2010 national census guideline, when a foreigner who possesses the same ethnicity as one of the fifty-six recognized ethnicities in China joins Chinese nationality, he will be registered as that ethnicity. He will only be registered as "Naturalized" if he does not belong to any recognized ethnicity in China.


As a result, most foreigners with Chinese descent are registered as "Han" rather than "Naturalized" when they join Chinese nationality. The former South Korean, Mongolian and Russian nationals will be registered as of "Korean", "Mongolian" and "Russian" ethnicity (these three are among the officially recognized ethnicities in China), and so on. Apparently, these people with Chinese descent are not counted in the "Naturalized" section of the census.


Second, the every-ten-year population census in China only takes into account those who have Chinese nationality AND habitually reside in mainland China. A former foreign citizen who had joined Chinese nationality in Mainland China and later moved abroad as an overseas Chinese citizen is not counted in.


Finally, as discussed below, thousands of foreigners have joined Chinese nationality in Hong Kong and Macau. These people are not reflected in the national census.


To sum up, we know that at least 1,448 forefingers who do not have Chinese descent have joined Chinese nationality as of 2010. The actual number of all naturalized foreigners may be far bigger. There is not a reliable number so far. The author plans to work on requesting more information disclosure from the China National Immigration Administration.



Joining Chinese Nationality as a Hong Kong Permanent Resident


The most convenient (or the least non-convenient) way to join Chinese nationality is to apply by virtual of your status as a Hong Kong permanent resident (HKPR). Foreigners (persons not of Chinese nationality) who have lived in Hong Kong lawfully for 7 years and have taken Hong Kong as their permanent place of residence can become an HKPR.


But being an HKPR does not necessarily mean being a Chinese national. An HKPR can be either of Chinese nationality, foreign nationality, or stateless. In order to join Chinese nationality, you will need to submit an application to the Hong Kong Immigration Department (HKIMMD), which is authorized by the central government in Beijing to deal with nationality applications in Hong Kong. You will also need to relinquish your foreign nationality if your application is approved.


Partial Data is Better than None: Put the Puzzle Together


Over the years, on numerous occasions, HKIMMD officials have disclosed part of the statistics on application to acquire Chinese nationality in Hong Kong. Now let's put the puzzle together.


The earliest disclose happened in December 2012. During a hearing at the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the then Director of HKIMMD, Lai Tung-kwok disclosed that from July 1997 to January 2012, HKIMMD received in total 15,518 applications to join Chinese nationality. Among them 12,658 were approved, 1,293 were rejected and 193 were withdrawn (Author note: these numbers include both ethnically Chinese and non-Chinese applicants). He also said that the primary country of origin of these applicants include Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Philippines.


HKIMMD made some disclosure on the government website. They received 1,631, 1,534, 1,805 and 1,638 application respectively from 2016 to 2019.


We could also learn a lot from a report by EJ Insight in 2016. According to the spokesman of HKIMMD, between January 2012 and November 2015, HKIMMD received 5,736 applications from non-Chinese, and 4,201 applications were approved. HKIMMD also disclosed that about 73% of the Hong Kong-based non-Chinese who applied for naturalization as Chinese nationals since 2012 have received approval.


In addition, according to a quasi-governmental media in Hong Kong, the Bauhinia, from 2009 to 2018, HKIMMD received 14,645 applications to join Chinese nationality from non-ethnic Chinese individuals, and 10,844 of these applications are approved.


A Rough and Bold estimate


A rough estimate combining the data from 1997 to 2012 and from 2016 to 2019 shows that around 1,134 applications are received per year, with an approval rate of about 81.6%. Under this presumption, from 1997 to the end of 2020 (covering twenty three and a half years), HKIMMD would have received about 26,649 applications and approved 21,745 of them. Again, these are just rough estimates, but they still shed light on what it is like to join Chinese nationality in Hong Kong.



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