E.g., 03/02/2024
E.g., 03/02/2024
China: From Exceptional Case to Global Participant

China: From Exceptional Case to Global Participant

China has been and continues to be one of the great sources of international migration, so much so that Chinese people live in virtually every country of the world today. Towards the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were some 33 million ethnic Chinese living outside China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Large though this figure might appear, it is small compared with the total population of China itself, representing only 2.5 percent of a figure that presently exceeds 1.3 billion.

However, any simple correlation between the total population of China and the number of Chinese overseas is deceptive, because the majority of the latter trace their roots to a very few regions within China. The three southern coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang have dominated the emigration, and within those provinces, a limited number of districts and even villages. These areas were marginal to the Chinese state and weak in terms of their resource base. However, most importantly, these areas were the earliest and most intensively affected by the seaborne expansion of European colonial powers, which linked them to a wider global system. Furthermore, in contrasting numbers of Chinese overseas with the base population of China, Chinese ethnicity must not be confused with Chinese migration, because many of the Chinese overseas were born outside China in the lands chosen by their parents and grandparents.

Migration of Chinese from China has, nevertheless, been significant. It is a growing phenomenon, one that is often included under the rubric "the Chinese diaspora." The 33 million estimate at the end of the 20th century for the number of Chinese overseas had increased from around 22 million in 1985, and from 12.7 million in the early 1960s. Given the generally low fertility of overseas Chinese populations, this suggests a significant role for migration from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) over the second half of the 20th century.

In the past and until the 1960s, China was characterized by high fertility that generated a "surplus" population that was available to migrate from certain parts of the country. As China has moved through a demographic transition to a situation today where its fertility is below replacement level (around 1.8 compared with a replacement level of 2.1 children per woman) it is not too far-fetched to envisage a future stage when, given its rapid economic development, China will need to import labor. This is not to suggest that migration is caused by demographic factors, only that an understanding of the demographic background is important for an appreciation of shifting patterns of migration from China.

Early Chinese Migrations

Traditionally, the Chinese heartland turned its back on overseas expansion, and only the southern Chinese engaged in widespread trade throughout Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. Imperial governments on occasion banned movement overseas and contact with foreign powers. Even though these laws were perhaps more honored in the breach than the observance, the result of centuries of Chinese economic and cultural dominance in eastern Asia was not a series of overseas colonies but a loose network of trading posts. There, the Chinese were either marginalized or absorbed by indigenous populations, depending upon local conditions. This situation was quite distinct from that of expansionary Europe from the 16th century.

Perhaps significantly, it was not until the consolidation of European colonies in Asia from the mid-19th century that the Chinese moved overseas in large numbers, and then they did so in Western ships. Some 6.3 million Chinese were estimated to have left Hong Kong alone between 1868 and 1939, and large numbers also left Xiamen (Amoy) and Shantou (Swatow). It was a movement dominated by men going overseas to work as indentured laborers, the infamous coolie trade, although others traveled more independently to seek their fortunes in the gold fields of Australia and the west coasts of North America and New Zealand. Some five million of the 6.3 million who left through Hong Kong were men. The majority moved to the economies in Southeast Asia that were being opened up by British and French colonial interests.

These Chinese migrants were sojourners—people who left home with the intention of returning rich, marrying, and settling down. The fact that many died overseas or decided to remain does not deny the essentially circular nature of this system, which was quite different from the migrations from Europe that were supposedly of settlers. We now know that many of those who left Europe also did so with the intention of returning, and so both European and Chinese systems had a significant component of circular movement. The critical difference is that the Europeans were seen to be settlers, while the Chinese were both viewed as, and saw themselves, as sojourners.

This particular identity of the early Chinese migration system was reinforced by the marginal position of the migrants in destination societies. With some notable exceptions, e.g., in the Philippines and Thailand, they were not allowed to assimilate, even if they wanted to. This was because they were racially and culturally different, or because they were feared for their business acumen. Not that most Chinese migrants were rich merchants. The vast majority were poor and engaged in menial activities in both rural and urban areas, but a few entrepreneurs came to exert economic dominance within Southeast Asian societies out of all proportion to their numbers. This influence remains, with some modifications, to this day.

The marginalization of most Chinese extended to their virtual exclusion from entry into the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from the 1880s, because of racist legislation that was not rescinded until after World War II. Migration from China from the late 19th century until the late 1940s was therefore, with some notable periods of interruption, directed primarily towards the then European colonies of Southeast Asia. Male dominance, sojourner mentality, exclusion, and marginality gave this early Chinese migration an "exceptional" character, one that was important for the migrations that were to come later.

Post-World War II Migrations

With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, emigration from China became strictly controlled, almost a return to Qing policies of the 16th century. The migration from China that did occur was primarily of students to the then Soviet Union and of specialist workers to certain developing countries such as Tanzania. Any remaining migration was within the Chinese sphere. Over one million migrants, mainly supporters of the defeated nationalist Guomindang Party, fled to Taiwan around the time of the formation of the People's Republic. An equal number of migrants went to Hong Kong at the same time, followed by a continuous, if fluctuating, flow to the British colony over the subsequent three decades. Almost half a million entered Hong Kong between 1977 and 1982, for example.

However, the most significant migrations of the Chinese in the post-war period were from the peripheral parts of the Chinese world, not only from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also ethnic Chinese from the independent countries of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Indonesia. At first, these migrations were mainly from the villages of the New Territories of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. They seemed simply a variation on those that had gone before, to the extent that they involved, initially at least, uneducated men going to engage in unskilled work. Later, and particularly with the opening up of Canada and the United States from the mid-1960s, and Australia and New Zealand from the 1970s, a new type of migration began to emerge: the movement of families and educated and skilled people.

Two factors account for the shift in the migration patterns of the Chinese peoples. First, there were changes in the immigration policies of the potential destination countries that finally swept away the legacy of racist policies based on regions of origin. Second, the Chinese became increasingly capable of taking advantage of opportunities overseas. Policies of destination countries, and particularly Australia and Canada, had come to target particular categories of applicants. Today, the majority of principal applicants to both of these countries are highly educated or possess specialized skills selected through a "points" system. Policy shifts in the country of origin, however, were also critical to the way migration was to develop. Once China began to open up after the economic reforms implemented from 1979, increasing numbers of Chinese began to go overseas, in small numbers at first, but in significant numbers from the mid-1990s. The process had begun, however, four decades earlier from the marginal parts of China, as well as from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese ethnic communities of Southeast Asia.

Clearly, the Chinese were not the only ones to avail themselves of these opportunities, but they were (and continue to be) in the forefront of new immigration to North America and Australasia. Hong Kong pioneered these new Chinese migrations but China, by the turn of the new century, had become a major source of migrants. In the case of Canada, China became the principal source of landed immigrants from 1998. For example, in 2001 and 2002, 40,315 and 33,231 landed immigrants from China entered the country, accounting for 16.1 and 14.5 percent, respectively, of the annual immigration to that country. This was up from just two percent of the intake in the late 1980s. The proportional increase in China's contribution to immigration to the United States has not been as spectacular, just marginally faster than the growth of immigration as a whole. The absolute annual numbers of immigrants from China increased from 14,421 in 1977 to 56,426 in 2001. From just a few hundred entering Australia each year as settlers from China in the early 1980s, numbers rose to over 6,700 in 2001-2002.

The figures on Chinese going overseas as immigrants provide only part of the picture. Large numbers go abroad temporarily as students or skilled workers. Students from China make up the most important group of foreign students in Canada and the second most important group in the United States in the early 21st century. From 215 foreign students from China in Canada in 1980, the number increased to 11,138 in 2001. In the United States in 2002-2003, there were some 64,757 students from China in degree-granting institutions. Students from China have also been going to Japan for a considerable time, accounting for about half of the 64,000 foreign students in that country in 2000. Some 17,000 skilled workers from China entered the United States in 2002-2003 under the H-1B visa program, almost half of them going into computer-related occupations. In total, 861,930 Chinese citizens entered the United States as some type of temporary entrant in 2001, still a long way behind the leading Asian source, Japan, at over five million. This category includes tourists.

Thus, the opening up of China after the economic reforms implemented from 1979 has been accompanied by increased international population movements, some of which have led to longer-term and more permanent settlement. The China-born populations in the principal countries of destination have risen markedly in recent decades. Those born in China and living in the United States increased from just 170,132 in 1970 to 286,120 in 1980, and on to 1,518,652 in 2000. By 2000, the Chinese population as a whole in the United States, at 2.7 million, had emerged as the largest Asian ethnic group and one that was increasing at a rate between four and five times faster than the growth rate of the total population of the country.

Other countries saw marked increases. In Canada, some 345,520 people were recorded with a birthplace in China in the 2001 census, up from 168,355 in 1996. In Australia in 2001, 142,781 people with a birthplace in China were recorded, up from 111,009 in 1996 and 78,835 in 1991. Interestingly, the populations born in Hong Kong living in both Canada and Australia declined between 1996 and 2001, perhaps indicating migration back to their city of origin.

Continuities and Discontinuities

The current migrations maintain both continuity and differences when compared with the previous migrations. The more balanced sex ratios and high skill levels have already been emphasized. Clearly, too, the destinations differ. Very little legal migration takes place to the traditional destinations in Southeast Asia; the settler societies of North America and Australasia are now the preferred choice. In Southeast Asia, although there have been a variety of outcomes, the Chinese still play a key role in the economies of the region. However, they appear to have emerged as but one ethnic group in multicultural societies rather than Chinese sojourners looking back to China. The majority, while identifying themselves as Thai or Malay Chinese and proud of their heritage, may neither speak nor read Chinese and see themselves as Southeast Asians first and Chinese second.

One regional flow that does continue is to Hong Kong, where around 150 persons a day, mainly the wives and children of permanent Hong Kong residents, are allowed into the Special Administrative Region. Although this migration might be seen as legally internal to China, it does provide one of the very few examples of immigration for settlement in Asia.

Another important difference from previous migrations has been the recent emergence of Europe as a significant destination. Although hardly "new," since Chinese have been going to European countries for well over 100 years, the numbers involved were fairly small until recently. In addition to migrants from Fujian and some from Guangdong provinces, migrants from Zhejiang and, increasingly, from provinces in the northeast figure prominently in the flows to Europe. Estimates of the number of Chinese in Europe around the year 2000 vary enormously, owing to the importance of irregular migration, from a low of 200,000 to one million or more, but all appear to agree on the recentness and rapidity of the migration. For example, numbers of Chinese residents more than doubled in Italy and increased more than sixfold in Spain over the last decade of the 20th century.

The migrants headed for Europe appear to be less skilled than those going to Australasia and North America, with large numbers moving into low-order services and trading and manufacturing. Large numbers of Chinese are also moving into Japan, the Russian Far East, and in smaller numbers, to other destinations as widely dispersed as the islands of the Pacific and countries in Latin America.

All of these migrants appear to be influenced by the global distribution of the Chinese as established by previous migrations. One element of continuity with the "old" Chinese migrations is that the movement of unskilled men on short-term labor contracts still occurs, although today it is normally controlled by central or provincial government organizations. For example, at the end of 2001, it was estimated that some 460,000 workers from China were overseas on labor contracts and, over the previous 20 years, Chinese workers had served in about 180 countries and economies on contracts worth about $120 billion. Most of those contracts were in Eastern Asia, but the Chinese have also expanded to the Middle East and beyond.

Irregular Migration

One aspect of Chinese migration that has captured considerable attention has been the numbers of Chinese entering counties illegally as so-called "irregular migrants" (see related article by Frank Laczko) The Golden Venture episode off the coast of New York in June 1993, in which 10 Chinese died trying to reach shore, and the incident at Dover, England, in June 2000 in which 58 Chinese died in a cargo container, alerted authorities in both America and Europe to the magnitude of the problem.

Nevertheless, the Chinese represent a minority group among those smuggled into both the United States and Europe. The term "smuggled" is used in preference to "trafficked," as the majority of Chinese appear to enter willingly into illegal arrangements in order to facilitate their passage to the West, paying up to $50,000 or more for the privilege, depending upon the destination and means of transfer. Within the smuggling networks considerable exploitation exists, particularly when the irregular migrants reach their destination and the smugglers are waiting to collect the balance of the agreed payment. In some ways, too, these irregular flows represent continuity with the 19th century migrations. The majority of those smuggled are young men, although women are also represented in the flows. Most, though not all, of the irregular migrants come from Fujian Province. This province, paradoxically, is one of China's richer areas. Its relative openness to the outside world, as well as its residents' ability to pay the considerable fees charged by human smugglers, has facilitated this type of migration.

Some evidence exists to suggest that the locus of the smuggling of the Chinese is shifting from North America towards Europe, and also Japan, which may reflect the success of increased surveillance around the United States, particularly after September 11. A more likely explanation is that the labor markets in New York and San Francisco are saturated, even as new markets are opening in Europe. Europe and Japan, too, are areas that have yet to come to terms with the fact that they have changed from net-emigration to net-immigration states, and these countries have yet to develop immigration policies comparable to those of Australasia and North America. The opening of more and broader channels for legal immigration may go some way towards managing the flows of migration, leading to a reduction in the number of expensive and hazardous irregular channels. Government-to-government agreements have also proved effective, demonstrating that if the Chinese government is convinced that there is international capital to be made through the reduction of trafficking, it can respond accordingly. Its reaction is thus one of geopolitical realism.

Smuggling routes are many and constantly changing, and Europe is easier to reach than North America. The majority of smuggled Chinese appear to go through Southeast Asia and then into Russia or eastern Europe by air before crossing the long and porous land borders into western or southern Europe. Even though the sea route to North America captured so much public attention in the late 1990s, it was likely that the majority of those smuggled reached Chinese diaspora communities in South and Central America and the Caribbean by air for onward movement to the United States by sea or land. Although criminal networks are involved, smuggling appears to be based on flexible networks linking a multitude of small concerns, in contrast to the monolithic organizations common in the trafficking of narcotics.

Looking Ahead

After a long period of little international migration, people from China began moving overseas in increasing numbers after the economic reforms of 1979. They primarily went to the most developed parts of the world in Australasia, North America, Europe, and East Asia. There appears to be little evidence to indicate a slowing of these migrations in the near future. One concern in developed countries—particularly, perhaps, in Europe—is that with a base population of 1.3 billion, China could come to dominate the global migration system and change the character of destination societies.

However, the image of an imminent tidal wave of migration out of China may be predicated more on fear than a calculated assessment of the evidence. The sharp increase in migration is likely, partially at least, to have been the result of the years of enforced control of international movement. China is presently going through one of the most dramatic phases of economic development in its history, one that is associated with a rapid transition to low fertility. A vibrant economy exists to which migrants and students can return. It may be significant that the migration from Hong Kong has reversed and that from Taiwan has stabilized. China, too, may progress through the migration "hump" or transition from emigration to immigration. As China develops economically and ages, perhaps the greatest consequence for migration and the West will be to contribute to an increasing competition for labor within the global system as it, too, must seek out workers for its economy. Whatever the outcome, China is now clearly a major participant in the global migration system and has moved away from its exceptional and marginal phase of international migration.


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