E.g., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024
Here, There, and Back Again: A New Zealand Case Study of Chinese Circulatory Transmigration

Here, There, and Back Again: A New Zealand Case Study of Chinese Circulatory Transmigration

There have been significant outflows and returns of Chinese migrants from various homelands in the past two to three decades, and they have generated media attention, sparked policy debate, and prompted academic researchers in new directions of investigations.

First it was the exodus of highly educated professionals with transferable skills leaving their Chinese homelands (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China [PRC]) for various new destinations in the Pacific Rim. For example, between the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Agreement in Hong Kong and its reversion to China in 1997, an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong citizens left, voting with their feet.

Similar to their Hong Kong counterparts, the Taiwanese emigrated in large numbers in the late 1990s when the home government ended military rule, relaxed the right of travel, and allowed the Taiwanese to take liquid assets abroad. Migrants from the PRC were comparatively the most recent group to emigrate, but quickly made up for lost time with their overwhelming numbers.

As a result, little Chinatowns and distinctive ethnoburbs sprang up in various Pacific Rim cities like Vancouver, Sydney, and Auckland. The comparatively affluent Chinese migrants bought up prime real estate and built opulent houses in hitherto quiet, leafy suburbs, visibly changing the physical look of those cities and raising anxiety among local residents.

Then, equally spectacularly, the wave of immigration seemed to suddenly turn to homeward flights. According to Hong Kong government statistics, over 300,000 Hong Kong citizen emigrants had returned by 2007. Of the returnees, 35 percent came from Canada, 24 percent from Australia and New Zealand, 12 percent from the United Kingdom, and 11 percent from the United States.

This return migration flow has attracted a great deal of scholarly research and has become a special topic within migration studies. However, as time has progressed, it has become evident that those who returned to their countries of origin after a stint of overseas experience quite often did not really stay put for prolonged periods. Instead of resettling in their countries of origin as they were expected to do, many kept on moving, either to a third country or back again to the initial destination country.

This new trend of mobility, characterized by frequent commutes, short-term visits and sojourns of various family members in both the country of origin and destination, and sometimes relocation to a third country, is what I call "circulatory transmigration."

This article examines the contemporary transmigration of Chinese migrants who arrived in New Zealand during the last two decades. It includes a brief discussion of Chinese migration to New Zealand and the current literature on transnationalism, as well as an analysis of empirical data derived from multisite interviews and focus group meetings conducted in New Zealand, in the countries of origin of new Chinese migrants and their relatives, and in Australia, the most popular third country for these migrants.

This article is based on the book chapter, "Rethinking Contemporary Chinese Circulatory Transmigration: The New Zealand Case," which was originally published in the 2011 book Transmigration and the New Chinese, published by the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and edited by Manying Ip.

Chinese Migrants in New Zealand

Contemporary Chinese migration to New Zealand can be dated neatly and precisely to 1987, when New Zealand's new immigration policy removed the special "traditional source countries" preference (i.e., preference for British citizens) and announced a universal criteria favoring "quality migrants" who qualify for entry based on personal factors like youth, education, skills, work experience, and financial capital. This policy change was prompted by a landmark realization, albeit belated, that immigration policy based on race and color had become, by the late 20th century, increasingly hard to justify.

Ever since the implementation of the 1987 immigration policy, Chinese immigrants from various countries of origin have arrived in New Zealand in sizeable numbers. Initially, most of the attention was focused on arrivals from Hong Kong. Their sudden and dramatic exodus from the former British colony was largely triggered by the fear of an uncertain future related to the impending reversion of Hong Kong to Communist Chinese rule. They earned the label "reluctant exiles" because they were actually unwilling to leave prosperous Hong Kong, but needed to have a foreign passport in case the "one country, two systems" promise by China did not work out. To this cohort of Hong Kong migrants, the countries of destination were treated very much like emergency exits and temporary refuge.

In New Zealand, the 1987 policy change was unfavorably hyped as an "opening of the floodgates" that brought about an "Asian invasion," partly because of New Zealand's hitherto racial homogeneity and society's lack of experience in encountering migrants from Asia. The uneasy feelings gave rise to periodic anti-immigrant backlash and recurrent xenophobia.

Populist politicians seized the opportunity by playing the race card during general election times, and immigration has remained a hot topic in New Zealand consciousness ever since. In spite of popular outcry of "too many Asians" and sporadic attempts by the government to tweak immigration policies to achieve a more ideal racial mix in the name of social cohesion, there is little likelihood of New Zealand ever closing its doors again.

Although the adoption of a colorblind universal immigration policy was rather tentative and lacking in long-term planning, it was propelled by a clear realization that New Zealand needed to reposition itself from being on the Pacific fringe to being a more active participant in an increasingly globalized world. The first step toward global participation was engagement with Asia as a close neighbor. It is against this policy background that Chinese immigration to New Zealand should be examined.

Within two decades of the new immigration policy's enactment, New Zealand, which had a largely homogeneous population in 1986, had become a remarkably multiethnic nation. Between the census of 1986 and that of 2006, New Zealand's Asian-born resident population increased eightfold, from around 30,000 to 250,000 (close to 6.5 percent of the total population).

The ethnic Chinese population grew from just below 20,000 in 1986 to 150,000 in 2006, an increase of more than seven-fold, again largely the result of immigration. The scale of such an influx was understandably a challenge to the dominant groups of the country, both Maori (the indigenous population of New Zealand) and Pakeha (a widely used Maori-language term for New Zealanders of European descent).

High Mobility among the Chinese in New Zealand

New Zealand is a small country, with a largely homogeneous population, that officially espouses a bicultural policy. The frequent movements of the new Chinese migrants, who are neither Pakeha nor Maori, are therefore highly conspicuous.

It may be of interest to note that local-born New Zealanders of all races are highly mobile. With a base population of 4 million, there are over 1 million New Zealanders residing overseas. To many young graduating students, the overseas experience has long been a rite of passage. Yet instead of thinking that the Asians in New Zealand have taken on Kiwi habits, or recognizing that macro-level economic and political factors within the country might be at work encouraging various populations to adopt similar mobility patterns, the new Chinese migrants have attracted special criticism of disloyalty.

The widespread perception that Asian migrants are often absent from New Zealand is supported by New Zealand Immigration Department Statistics. For over a decade (1997-2007), new Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan ranked first and second on the list of immigrants with the highest rate of long-term absences from New Zealand, as shown in Table 1.


Table 1: Rates of Long-Term Absence by Source Country as of June 20, 2009 for Migrants Approved for Residence between 1997-98 and 2007-08
Source Country Number of Approved for Residence Long-Term Absent % Long-Term Absent
Taiwan 5,394 2,679 50
Hong Kong 2,864 1,132 40
Singapore 2,978 1,107 37
Indonesia 3,759 1,160 31
Canada 4,031 1,204 30
Malaysia 8,902 2,593 29
United States 12,078 3,511 29
Pakistan 2,006 527 26
China 58,415 14,868 25
Somalia 2,090 519 25
Source: New Zealand Department of Labor (2009). Migration trends & outlook, Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Department of Labor.


In 2009, the rate of long-term absence (calculated by comparing the number of immigrants who entered New Zealand on residence visas and the number who were absent for more than six months per year) for the Taiwanese stood close to 50 percent. The long-term absence rate for their Hong Kong counterparts was close to 40 percent. The rate of PRC migrant absenteeism stood at 25 percent.

Furthermore, the rates of long-term absence have shown a steady increase of between 3 to 5 percentage points since 2005. This increasing rate of absence is particularly prominent among the Taiwanese and those from Hong Kong, but is also present among migrants from the PRC (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Rates of Long-Term Absence over the Years (PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan)
Sources: *Migration Trends and Outlook 2006/07; **Migration Trends and Outlook 2007/08; ***Migration Trends and Outlook 2008/09. New Zealand Department of Labor. Wellington, New Zealand.


Selected Literature Informing the Present Research

In New Zealand, the hypermobility of new Chinese migrants has commonly been characterized as a phenomenon of return to the homelands, or a process of step-migration to a third country – more specifically, a "backdoor migration" trend using New Zealand as a revolving door to Australia. While it is not inaccurate to depict contemporary Chinese transmigration in these ways, these descriptions can be said to be typical of snapshot approaches, overly focused on short-term, superficial, and piecemeal manifestations.

Broader debates should seek a comprehensive understanding of migrants' life choices and family needs over a longer period of time. Contemporary migrants no longer live and function within the particular national borders of the country of origin or country of destination. Questions should be asked about why and how migrants distribute their loyalty and energy between these far-flung regions. How do nation-states and global economic and political dynamics shape migrants' choices and mobility trajectories? Instead of looking at the outward manifestations of transnationalism, we could try to explore the motivating forces of this hypermobility.

Cultural anthropologists like Nina Glick Schiller and Linda Basch have pointed out that migrant networks, social relations, and cultural ties traverse both home and host societies. Their national boundaries "are brought together into a single social field." In the case of the new Chinese migrants, the origin-country governments' encouragement of long-distance nationalism is also a factor that should be recognized. In his study of Asians in Australia, demographer Graeme Hugo has noted, for example, "In Asia, Taiwan has had one of the most comprehensive reverse brain drain programs."

Sociologist Alejandro Portes has posited that migrants with higher social capital are most skillful in forging transnational linkages, assisted by factors such as their familiarity with the salience of country-of-origin issues and the support rendered by origin-country governments towards expatriate communities.

In her study of young Hong Kong transnationals, Janet Salaff asserted that it is too limiting to speak of "to remain or to return," just as it is futile and arbitrary to label the cross-border movement of the educated in terms of brain drain or brain gain. The two terms essentially depict the same movement, they are merely labels applied from different vantage points. In this project, we therefore start with the standpoint that remaining and returning are different points on the same big circle of transmigration.

In the destination country, there is the consideration of the "1.5 generation" – young immigrants and local-born children of recent Chinese immigrant parents. Would members of this younger generation be progressively absorbed and acculturated into the destination country, or would they also engage in transnational behavior like their parents? According to Peggy Levitt and Michael Jones-Correa, children of immigrants are socialized predominantly by influences from within their destination country. However, we should also explore whether children of immigrants are simultaneously influenced by transnational forces. Modern technological advancements have made origin-country norms much more accessible, making it important to consider the transnational social space as being molded by intertwining economic, social, and religious networks linking both the countries of origin and destination.

Regarding integration, Levitt also questions whether assimilation is incompatible with transnational membership. Her question is at once bold and radical. For the Chinese in New Zealand can arguably be proud New Zealanders, fully acculturated and pursuing the "Kiwi lifestyle" in their land of adoption, and simultaneously feel strong identification with a rising China. Transnational behavior does not mean unsuccessful integration or lack of acculturation, as maintaining strong homeland identity and enjoying successful destination-country integration are not mutually exclusive.


If it is ever possible to have a clean slate for intergroup social relationships to be studied, New Zealand is probably the most ideal choice. New Zealand is like a well-set-up social laboratory in terms of the analysis of Chinese migration for three reasons:

1. The country's base population is small and relatively homogenous — just over 4 million made up of mainly Pakeha and Maori. Within this bicultural population, any new addition of a culturally different immigrant minority will have clearly discernible repercussions in a way that would not have been as noticeable in larger and more racially diverse nations.

2. The great majority of the country's immigrants can only enter by qualifying under one of the clearly stated and openly administered immigration criteria.

3. New Zealand's remoteness from China has rendered the country largely inaccessible to any clandestine migrants; strategically unimportant to China except for diplomacy; and relatively free of the bitter anti-Chinese history and severe racial tension that plagued some countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, or even Australia.

The empirical data used in this article were generated from interviews and focus groups conducted with 90 study participants from the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong between 2007 and 2009, carried out in New Zealand, China, Australia, and Hong Kong. We decided to conduct multisite interviews because our focus was on transmigration families, which usually have their members scattered in different regions. In addition, a further nine multigenerational family interviews were conducted to delve deeper into notions of family needs and kinship as a transmigration factor.

Note: An extended discussion of these interviews, including selected quotes from the migrants themselves, is available in the book chapter from which this article is derived. See sidebar, above.

Study Findings and Discussions

For ease of discussion, I shall divide the respondents into three broad groups according to the manifestation of their mobility characteristics and their stated plans at the time of their respective interviews. The first group consists of 39 respondents labeled "stayers." These are individuals whose migration trajectory shows no record of prolonged absences from the country of origin. The second group is the 41 participants called "returnees." These are people who were once immigrants in New Zealand but who have since returned to live and work in their country of origin with the intention of staying long-term. The third group is the ten individuals who have frequent multi-local movements (more than two times a year traveling between origin, initial destination, and third countries), called "transnationals/commuters."

It should be noted that it is extremely rare for all members of the family to permanently relocate. For example, even in cases where the principal migrant might decide to become a returnee, he or she might send any children back to New Zealand for further education. Periodic visits for business and for visiting relatives and friends are even more common. It should be clearly pointed out here that the three categories of stayers, returnees, and commuters are quite artificial, and that migrants easily convert themselves from one category to the other.

Finding 1: Sense of Identity

In our project, we posed in-depth questions to probe the migrants' sense of belonging and identity. We started by asking interviewees who they think they are and why. We then asked to which country or place they feel they belong. If they chose a single country, we then asked whether they also feel they somehow belong to another as well.

Even among the respondents who have taken up New Zealand citizenship, identification with New Zealand is rather weak compared to identification with the country of origin. Over 50 percent of the respondents identified themselves with the country of origin, although a significant minority (23 percent) claimed a hybrid identity, saying that they were both a New Zealander and Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Konger. Among those who have New Zealand permanent resident status but not New Zealand citizenship, identification with the native country was even stronger. An overwhelming 94 percent stated that they were Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Konger, while only 5.5 percent said they somehow felt they belonged to both New Zealand and their country of origin (Figures 2a and 2b).


Figures 2a and 2b: Sense of Identity



Our findings echo the trend highlighted in an earlier study that Chinese immigrants with country-of-origin citizenship status have a significantly higher percentage of picking an adopted identity, or at least a hybrid identity.

Here it should be pointed out that New Zealand permanent resident status offers similar rights to those enjoyed by New Zealand citizens. While Taiwan and Hong Kong allow their citizens to have dual nationality, the PRC does not. A sizeable number of PRC nationals therefore may resist destination-country citizenship, as that would automatically mean giving up their Chinese passports and might cause considerable inconvenience in terms of accessing public services, especially education entitlements for their children should they wish to return to their homeland for a longer-term stay.

Finding 2: The Contrast between Younger and Older Migrants

In our project, Chinese migrants in the younger age group (ages 15 to 44) were found to be significantly more attached to their homeland identity than their older counterparts who are 45 and older. Over 66 percent of the younger persons reported that they were Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Konger, while only 45 percent of the older group claimed country-of-origin identity in a similar way.

This finding apparently contradicts a classical assumption in migration studies that older migrants are more conservative, set in their attachment to their native homeland, and find it harder to adapt to new environments. Younger migrants, on the other hand, are expected to acquire destination-country values more easily — especially if they are educated there.

The findings of this study, however, indicate that the younger cohort are more attached than their older counterparts to their native homeland and feel that their identity is more Chinese than anything else. The different percentages claiming a hybrid identity (25.8 percent in the younger group, 33 percent in the older group) are also significant (see Figure 3).

This finding is surprising in that it contravenes accepted migration and acculturation theories. It also carries significant implications for future interpretation of the migrants' sense of allegiance and their acculturation process.


Figure 3: Sense of Identity by Age Group


Although the younger group might have a shorter history in the destination country, most of them are either children of principal migrants or young skilled migrants themselves (international students and other temporary permit holders were not recruited into the pool of participants for this project). This younger age group should therefore theoretically feel equally committed to their settlement in New Zealand as their older counterparts.

The fact that younger Chinese migrants are more attached to their Chinese identity than older immigrants could be due to the resurgence of overseas Chinese nationalism in recent years. China's rising international status as an emergent world power would likely impress young patriotic Chinese much more than it would their older compatriots, as many of the latter might have had negative first-hand experiences during the early decades of the PRC.

Based on this finding, it is likely that younger Chinese migrants would be more likely to succumb to the strong pull of China, whereas the older group might be more cautious towards China and find New Zealand's relaxed lifestyle and politically tolerant society more appealing. This difference in the sense of identity might likely impact the future migration trajectories of the two groups.

Finding 3: Possible Effect of Education

It is often assumed that migrants who received education in the destination country will feel more attached to that country. This widely popular assumption was supported by our findings.

Among those with origin-country qualifications, 65 percent claimed homeland identity. In comparison, only 44 percent of those with New Zealand degrees said so. A New Zealand education also significantly increases the percentage of those who claimed a hybrid identity. While 44 percent of those educated in New Zealand felt they belonged to both New Zealand and their country of origin, only 24 percent of homeland-educated persons felt that way (Figures 4a and 4b).


Figures 4a and 4b: Possible Effect of Host Country Education



It follows that those with a New Zealand degree would be more likely to stay, whereas those with a Chinese degree would be more likely to leave, either to return to China or to move to another country.

In our findings, however, a New Zealand degree is looked upon as a useful overseas credential and an asset that has considerable value in origin-country job markets. Therefore, if the migrants' original intention was largely utilitarian, they might consider the completion of their degree as "mission accomplished" and decide to leave. The behavior of leaving is therefore not necessarily linked to the sense of belonging.

Finding 4: Time of Arrival

When we break down the figures according to the period of arrival, we find that more migrants who arrived after 2000 identify strongly with their country of origin, while the trend is significantly less pronounced among those who arrived before 2000.

If we think in terms of the length of the settlement period in the destination country, we could assume that the longer migrants spend in the destination society, the less attached they will become to their country of origin. Furthermore, the specific time when the migrants left the country of origin might be an additional factor that can explain the post-2000 migrants' attachment to the homeland.

As outlined in the discussion on Finding 3, the fact that China is fast becoming a global power could be a strong stimulant of overseas Chinese allegiance. In fact, China's growing prominence on the global stage featured prominently in the in-depth interviews of not just the PRC group, but among the Taiwan and Hong Kong groups as well.

Quite often, the interviewees mentioned "China is so strong and offers good opportunities" without any prompting at all, usually when they were asked where they considered they belonged to ("I used to be rather embarrassed to be identified with China, but now China is strong … and I feel proud of being Chinese"), and even more often when they were asked about their possible future movements ("I can't say for sure where we want to be in ten years' time, but for our children, there are many more opportunities in China.").


Figures 5a and 5b: Time of Arrival



Finding 5: The Transnationals — Ambiguous Identities and Fluid Plans

Of the ten Chinese migrants who were initially in New Zealand but subsequently moved to Australia, all identified themselves with their country of origin (PRC, Taiwan, or Hong Kong). They went to New Zealand between 1995 and 2001 and moved to Australia between 2000 and 2008. Interestingly, each stated that they considered themselves Chinese, though over half of them considered Australia their home. This is a clear case of the separation of the sense of identity from the sense of home.


Figure 6: Sense of Home (Transnational Interviewees)


When asked about their likely future movements, eight of them planned to stay on in Australia for the next five years, with two of them saying that they would like to return to New Zealand for long-term residence. When asked about their longer term plan ("Where would you be in ten years' time?"), six of them showed uncertainty, while three had clear plans to leave Australia – to go to the United States or return to New Zealand – and only one said he would remain in Australia.

There is some evidence that the so-called step-migration to Australia is intended to be an impermanent goal. Very often, the onward move to Australia was made because of further education or a career opportunity. In at least four cases, parents followed their children who initiated their own educational or career move. All maintained that they had not planned to move to Australia when they first migrated to New Zealand.


To summarize the above findings, the most salient feature is the interviewees' strong sense of Chinese identity, regardless of whether they hold a New Zealand passport or have New Zealand permanent residency. Even more significant is the fact that this Chinese identity is in fact stronger among the younger age group. On the other hand, the sense of home is more flexible and ambiguous than the sense of identity. Interviewees often felt that they had two homes, claiming that they felt "at home" in both the Chinese home regions and in New Zealand.

It is also useful to highlight that interviewees quite often delinked their sense of identity and sense of home. They could feel strongly Chinese but not necessarily see their home as being in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. As for what factors might influence greater allegiance to the destination country, the length of the settlement period and the education received in that country are established as important factors – both unsurprising outcomes.

The most remarkable and noteworthy finding is that none of the factors above has any direct bearing on whether the migrants will stay on or move back to the country of origin. No matter how attached a respondent feels towards New Zealand, and no matter which place is considered "home," the migrant's life trajectory is likely to be highly mobile and dynamic. The deciding factor is not the sense of identity or the image of home, but likely the pragmatic consideration of changing family needs.

Conclusion: Transmigrants Never Uprooted

Based on the empirical data, it is safe to argue that the contemporary migration process is circulatory and continuous, and that migrant families move and relocate according to the specific needs of their members at various stages of their life cycle. As a unit, Chinese families are particularly flexible and highly resilient.

Migration trajectories are highly fluid and volatile. Migrants who claimed to be settlers might well become returnees and eventually transmigrants. There were also cases of returnees who did a loop and relocated to New Zealand again. Such mobility decisions are affected by a mixture of micro and macro factors: individual family circumstances as well as the socioeconomic forces affecting the place of abode at any given time.

The weighing of going and staying is a continual process. Young Chinese families, for example, prefer to have their children educated in New Zealand so that they may enjoy a carefree, less pressurized childhood. After the children finish their education, the timing often happens to be close to the period when grandparents suffer from declining health, and the family might need to make contingency plans for returning.

We found that long-distance separation seldom disrupts family ties, as there is likely to be a clear plan of reunion and convergence for family members separated by migration. Strategic onward movements are often based on considerations of career developments, educational needs, childcare support, or providing for aging or ailing parents.

The state of being a stayer or settler may well be a preparation stage for embarking on the returnee journey. Very often, returnees are only trying to maximize their earning power for a decade or so, putting up with the demands of high-powered careers and working towards the eventual circulatory route back to the country of first destination and the lifestyle that they planned for when they made their original migration plan.

Labels like "settler" and "transmigrant" are chosen only to advance the debate and denote progressive steps of the same bigger phenomenon of constant relocation. Such labels are artificial and, in reality, quite interchangeable. Terms like "return migration" (to the country of origin) and "backdoor migration" (from New Zealand to Australia) are only meaningful when they are used as temporary labels applied to the different stages of the transnational movements of highly qualified skilled migrants.

Metaphorically, assimilation has been associated with the image of the "uprooted," and cultural pluralism with the "transplanted." Using this analogy, I would suggest that transmigrants are never really totally uprooted, and therefore do not need to be transplanted. If one must pick an image, then transmigrants are like hydroponic plants. Such plants grow and flourish without soil. Their roots take in nutrients dissolved in a liquid culture. In this case, transmigrants need only to be supported by their transnational social network, their own cultural toolkit, their bilingual fluency, and their familiarity with both homeland and host country culture and economic opportunities.

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