History of migration from and to China since 1949

The Migration Policy Institute wrote a 5,000 word essay on the history of Chinese internal and external migration. Here are excerpts. I have posted in the past on Chinese migration here.

The story of China’s mobility boom starts at home, with millions of internal migrants moving from the country’s rural interior to the coastal areas. In the 2020 census, nearly 376 million people lived someplace other than their household registration area, a group often referred to as the “floating population.”

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 followed prolonged war and poverty-driven population displacement, leading the new government to make a top priority of controlling migration. International arrivals and departures fell even lower in the late 1960s, when foreign ties became highly politicized during the Cultural Revolution. Emigration was difficult, as the government limited the issuance of passports and exit permits.

Migration management in the 1949-1979 period was characterized by strong ideological concerns and limited immigration governance experience. Ethnic Chinese return migrants and new arrivals from the diaspora were settled on state-owned farms without paths to full integration, leading to citizenship issues that lasted for generations. The state imported a Soviet-style system for international visitors aimed at hosting and controlling so-called “foreign friends.” This system was later expanded and adapted to the reform-era purposes of attracting foreign investment and technology while minimizing foreign interference. Chinese citizens were educated in how to engage foreigners while minimizing in-depth contact.

Post 1979

After China’s leaders in 1979 identified global economic integration as a key target, many of its citizens moved abroad in search of better economic opportunities. Previous decades had been marked by the state’s control of international movement, but global mobility gradually became more accessible in the late 20th century and the new millennium.

China experienced an “emigration craze” after the 1990s, during which millions of people moved abroad. An estimated 10.5 million Chinese citizens lived abroad as of 2020, according to United Nations estimates. The Chinese government has sought to maintain ties with these “new” migrants, as they are called to differentiate from those who emigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and has in recent years also emphasized linkages with the wider diaspora, which has been estimated at between 35 million and 50 million.

As it became possible for more citizens to obtain passports, emigration increased and diversified. China dispatched contract laborers abroad through government agencies at the request of countries with labor shortages, bringing sorely needed foreign currency to China. Other migrants left on their own to join relatives abroad. In the early 1990s, the largest ethnic Chinese populations outside China were in East and Southeast Asia, but the highest growth of Chinese migrants was in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Encouraging citizens to travel abroad was not only a source of foreign currency for China, but also a way to catch up with global developments in science and technology. During the first 20 years of reform policies, some 320,000 students went overseas. However, access to international education often led students to settle abroad permanently. Only about one-third of these students returned to China. In addition, a wave of activist students, workers, and intellectuals fled to the United States and Europe in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square rallies.

Since 2000

The percentage of Chinese citizens with a passport increased from around 2 percent of the population in 2010 to nearly 15 percent, or more than 200 million people, in 2019 (compared to 47 percent in the United States). As in the 1980s, Chinese nationals often move to Europe and North America for work and family reunification, however this mobility has decreased relative to other migration streams such as foreign study. In 2016, the number of Chinese students entering Europe surpassed those entering on work and family reunification visas. More than 700,000 Chinese higher education students went abroad in 2019, and about 500,000 international students attended higher education in China in 2018.

Many of these trends were put to the test during the COVID-19 outbreak. China set up especially stringent pandemic border restrictions as part of its “zero-COVID” strategy, bringing movement to and from the country to a near halt over 2020 and 2021. In the first half of 2021, border crossings stood at 10 percent of 2019 levels.

China’s central immigration law, the 2012 Exit-Entry Administration Law, was developed through multiple drafts over a decade. A system by which immigrants could obtain permanent residence was introduced in 2004, but has been implemented on a case-by-case basis. Only around 10,000 individuals received this status between 2004 and 2016. Naturalization figures are even lower.

However, enforcement has often been lenient in recent decades, as authorities have focused on how cross-border flows might aid China’s development. In line with the overall development focus, border regions and urban areas with high concentrations of immigrants have often developed local legislation and practices for managing migration, most notably for African trader communities in Guangzhou. The city responded by selectively increasing immigration enforcement; this marginalized many Africans, and their numbers subsequently dwindled, from an estimated 80,000 registered African migrants in 2005 to 13,652 in December 2019.

China’s footprint abroad is larger than ever. Emigrants have helped Chinese capital “go out” (zou chuqu) into a range of industries worldwide, including agriculture, mining, and retail. Since 2013, its investment has been boosted by the Belt and Road Initiative; backed by government financing, state-owned enterprises and companies have built ports, power stations, roads, skyscrapers, and other buildings around the world. In Africa official sources report there were nearly 183,000 Chinese workers in 2019 (precise data are lacking, but the total number of Chinese migrants in Africa is commonly estimated to be around 1 million), many of them working as project managers and technicians.

Recent years have also seen a rise of foreign-born spouses moving to China, highlighting a gender imbalance that is largely a product of years of family-planning policies and associated gender-selective abortions. Rural and poor men can have a difficult time finding suitable Chinese partners, creating a demand for wives from Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Russia, which in turn has led to trafficking of women. The gender imbalance and marriage-related expenses are also a major driver for men to work abroad.

Surveys show that anti-immigration sentiments became more pronounced in the 2010s compared to the previous decade, but most Chinese citizens nonetheless support maintaining or increasing immigration. However, some issues have resonated among portions of the Chinese public wary of immigration, who in some cases have demanded firmer, more selective policies. A 2020 draft law that would have expanded permanent residency rights for high-income immigrants stirred up a torrent of criticism. Authorities responded by swiftly shelving the law. For the same reason, media censorship of some migration-related topics has also increased in recent years.

The Xi Jinping administration has further prioritized the return of Chinese emigrants with foreign degrees, dubbed “sea turtles” (haigui), in a Chinese pun on “return” (haigui), as well as students and professionals of Chinese descent. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government has invested sizable resources to woo Chinese-born graduates in finance, science, and technology to limit brain drain. This became easier after the 2008 financial crisis, when tighter job markets in Europe and North America made China’s professional opportunities relatively more attractive for many. Return rates of Chinese students abroad have consistently increased since then, with around 80 percent returning between 2016 and 2019.

Improving domestic economic opportunities may lead to a plateauing of some types of emigration, such as student migration. Chinese emigrants increasingly see their time abroad as a temporary phase before the next stage of life back in China. In addition, overall outward mobility will likely continue to grow as more Chinese nationals are able to afford international travel.

The growth of the domestic workforce-age population peaked in 2000. it remains unclear to what extent China will embrace foreign workers to mitigate looming domestic demographic challenges. Replacing the shortfalls of low birthrates with immigrants would require a major change in the public conception of the Chinese nation, which has often been defined in ethnic terms. However, given the twists and turns in international mobility to and from the country over the last century, pragmatic shifts remain possible.

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