For the first time, Beijing is mulling the introduction of an immigration law. It is a historic step. Traditionally, the mainland has been a huge source of economic migrants to other nations. Now, according to the experts advising the government on the new law, China's buoyant economy means it has become increasingly attractive to foreigners since the onset of the global financial crisis.
There are many on the mainland who will welcome a law on immigration, perhaps for the wrong reasons. Distrust of foreigners remains a widespread, if mostly understated, phenomenon and one frequently motivated by racism. It's the reason the African community in Guangzhou attracts so much media attention despite numbering less than 10,000, although alarmist reports in the Guangzhou Daily like to put the figure at 100,000.
The reality is that the number of long-term foreign workers remains tiny compared to the vast local population. In Beijing, there are just 110,000; in Shanghai, 152,000. According to the Ministry of Public Security, fewer than 600,000 foreigners stayed to work for longer than six months in 2007, the last year for which figures are available. To put it into perspective, that's roughly the population of a county-level city on the mainland.
Compared with European Union countries, which allow a free flow of citizens from member states and see annual movements of hundreds of thousands of people from one nation to another, the idea that the mainland is being swamped by immigrants is laughable. Why, then, do authorities feel the need to introduce an immigration law? The answer lies in Beijing's deep-seated urge for control. That's why, in November, foreign residents will be included in the next national census for the first time.
While there is no timetable for the introduction of the law, it has already been reported by Xinhua that it will divide potential immigrants into categories such as skilled and unskilled labour. It will also distinguish between those who plan to come to the mainland purely to work, and the ones who are planning to invest in the country.
Those divisions seem wholly unnecessary given the current pattern of legal immigration. Overwhelmingly, the foreigners who come to the mainland are those whose skills are needed, or who establish businesses that provide tax revenue and employment for the locals. Even the English teachers - the traditional job for those who arrive without employment - are providing a valuable service.
Nor are the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants a drain on society. The much-cited, and normally inaccurate, cliche in the West of idle foreign scroungers living off state benefits hardly applies in China. On the contrary, the people crossing the borders illegally from neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and North Korea do so because they know there is work for them. Vietnamese are highly valued by Pearl River Delta factory owners because of their willingness to work for less than half the pay the locals want, as well as the ease with which they can assimilate into society. The wives of the factory bosses, in turn, are increasingly turning to Filipinos as housemaids and nannies, both because of the shortage of natives willing to do the job and their ability to speak English to the children. In the northeast, North Koreans can be found labouring on the farms depopulated by those who have gone to the cities to work.
Just as in the United States and Europe, the vast majority of immigrants to the mainland, whether legal or illegal, have a function in society. They do the jobs the locals can't - or don't want to - do. Already, the once huge pool of homegrown migrant workers is drying up, as rising standards of living mean they have higher expectations than just working seven days a week for 1,000 yuan (HK$1,130) a month in a Dongguan sweatshop. It's not unrealistic to envision a time when 'made in China by a foreign worker' becomes a global catchphrase.
Yet the details that have emerged so far about Beijing's proposed new immigration law talk only of ways to control immigrants. They say nothing about whether they will be accepted long term, as they are in the West, because they are essential to the country's future prosperity.
In fact, the mainland is so unwelcoming that even foreigners married to Chinese citizens face annual visa issues that send them the message that they are in the country on sufferance. Now, it seems that is to be reinforced by legislation that flies in the face of the reality of the globalised economy which China has benefited so much from.
Instead of making it harder for would-be immigrants, Beijing should acknowledge that, just as millions of mainland migrants go overseas to contribute to other countries' economies, so foreigners are increasingly going to be doing the same in China.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist