Journal of International Affairs

Migration From China

By Ronald Skeldon *

Tradition holds that the Chinese were a non-migratory people:

Generally speaking, no Chinese will leave his home to seek his fortune at a distance unless he is in some way driven to do so ... No Chinese leaves his home not intending to return. His hope is always to come back rich, to die and be buried where his ancestors are buried. 1

Yet, the reality was different. Southward expansion is one of the great themes of Chinese history as the Han, over the centuries, progressively colonized beyond the Yangzi. 2 Warfare and famine led to complex patterns of expulsion and flight. In times of peace and prosperity, thousands moved to towns, as sojourners perhaps, with the intention of returning, but spending most of their lives away from their homes. The inhabitants of Southern China had broader horizons, as Sterling Seagrave has shown in a recent, somewhat swashbuckling book, and they established trading diasporas throughout what is now Southeast Asia and beyond into the Indian Ocean. 3 The Northern Chinese, on the other hand, rarely looked beyond the bounds of the Middle Kingdom -- until recently, when their leaders realized that if China was to regain the position it had held as the world's largest economy for so much of human history, it must come to some kind of accommodation with the increasingly interdependent global community.

Population migration is very much part of that accommodation as it is a clear physical link between China and the international economy. The recent evolution of movements, not just from China but also from the peripheral areas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which make up what can be called "Greater China," will be considered in this article. A major theme is that the recent patterns cannot be understood without some appreciation of past migration. While there are significant differences between present movement from China and past migrations, there are also important continuities, and these can best be appreciated within an evolutionary framework.

Three very broad periods are identified in the recent history of China. The first is the hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The middle of the nineteenth century is but an approximate time to start our considerations. Hong Kong was established as a British colony in 1841 and emigration began almost immediately thereafter. 4 The year 1860, however, is perhaps a more appropriate beginning point as in that year the late Qing restrictions on emigration were lifted and the Chinese accepted that their nationals had the right to go overseas. 5 Although migration from China had occurred before the mid-nineteenth century and trade was sponsored during the Ming dynasty, emigration was never officially encouraged and there were periods under the Qing when it was banned totally and returned migrants might pay with their lives. 6 The period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century was one of pronounced, if fluctuating, emigration to various destinations dominated by males who saw themselves going overseas temporarily. While there were those who settled permanently, this period, for a variety of reasons, was dominated by sojourners.

The second period covers the socialist economy of Mao Zedong and his immediate successors from the formation of the People's Republic in 1949 to the end of 1978. This was a period during which, as before 1850, there were times when migration in general was tightly controlled by the state and emigration was essentially prohibited.

In December 1978, at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, China shifted direction toward a more open economy through the road to "socialist modernization." Formal diplomatic links with the United States were established from 1 January 1979, formally representing the linking of China to the outside world. This third period, from the beginning of 1979, saw migration increase in volume, not to levels seen during the first period perhaps, but in terms of complexity and in the types of migrants involved. This article will focus primarily on this increasing complexity since 1979, but will first consider briefly the earlier periods to provide an essential backdrop against which more recent movements can be viewed.

The Emigration between 1850 and 1949  

Although the Chinese have been moving for centuries, it was only in the nineteenth century that the diaspora began in earnest. Discoveries of gold in the mountains of the Western United States from 1848, in Southern Australia from 1851, and in Western Canada from 1858 set in motion a flow of people from China that, over the next eight decades, would include millions of individuals. The vast majority of migrants were never involved in gold-mining and never reached the more distant destinations, but those returning in the earliest periods were instrumental in spreading information about a world beyond the confines of Chinese towns and villages. Some left China as free migrants, paying their own way. Many more left as indentured or contract laborers enlisted directly by governments or by labor recruiters. Yet others left on the "credit-ticket" system where their expenses were advanced to them and they were expected to pay off their debts after reaching their destination. 7 The vast majority of the migrants were males who expected to return home to their families or to marry after their time overseas. They were the sojourners, and the fact that many died outside of China or became trapped through indebtedness or inertia does not deny the essentially circular nature of this migration system. 8 However, Chinese did settle overseas, particularly where women also migrated, or were allowed to. Hence, large and fairly stable overseas communities had been established before the outbreak of the Second World War with between 8.5 and 9 million Chinese outside of China, the vast majority of whom were in Southeast Asia, or the Nanyang. 9 The network was, however, much more extensive, with communities established throughout Spanish America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, South Africa, North America and Australasia.

This emigration from China was highly localized and controlled through those parts of China annexed as colonies: Hong Kong, Macau and the "treaty ports," that is, the ports from which foreign merchants were allowed to trade. Hong Kong and Macau, on either side of the Pearl River Delta in South Central Guangdong Province, and Amoy and Shantou (Swatow) in Eastern Guangdong were the principal ports. In the hinterlands, the origins of the migrants were yet more localized. The movements to North America were almost entirely from four districts in the Western Pearl River Delta and mainly from one of these districts, Taishan (Toishan). Origins in Eastern Guangdong and Fujian were equally localized and the limited number of surnames among the overseas Chinese has been observed, reflecting the dominance of a small number of lineages and villages in the process. 10 The migration demonstrates a classic chain effect based upon areas of quite limited extent.

It has been estimated that, between the 1850s and 1939, over six million people moved from Hong Kong alone. Some individuals however, would have made several overseas trips in their lifetimes. 11 In the 1850s, the vast majority moved to North America and Australia while, from the 1870s onwards, Singapore and the Malay states emerged as the principal destinations. This switch in destination was brought about by two concurrent processes. First, the "great white walls" of the exclusion policies were progressively erected around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- policies specifically designed to keep Asians out. 12 Second, the colonial governments in Southeast Asia, primarily the British, were seeking labor to develop the economies of territories they were rapidly absorbing.

By the turn of the century, over 100,000 people a year were leaving both Hong Kong and Amoy for the Nanyang. The vast majority were almost certainly poor peasants from villages and small towns in Southern China who left to become laborers in both rural and urban activities, but migrants also included free settlers. They left an impoverished Southern China to work tin and develop market gardening in the Malay peninsula, to open up tobacco and rubber plantations in Sumatra and Sarawak respectively and to become rickshaw pullers and prostitutes in Singapore. 13 Also, a minority who had considerable urban experience, and some education and capital moved to extend trade and entrepreneurial activities. Perhaps of greatest significance, however, was that the destination areas provided opportunities for poorer migrants to become successful through hard work and personal contacts. There was thus considerable scope for economic and social mobility, resulting in a much greater range of Chinese migrants in terms of background and activities.

By the 1930s, with the recession in the capitalist world, Southeast Asian destinations were becoming restricted to further Chinese immigration. This was followed by 12 years of disruption caused by the Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War and the civil war between the Communist and Kuomintang armies. This period culminated with mass exoduses of two to three million people to Hong Kong and Taiwan upon the triumph of the Communist party in 1949. China subsequently isolated itself from the capitalist world and relatively few were able to leave. The great phase of migration that had formed the basis of a global network of overseas Chinese was over. That basis is fundamental for any analyses of current migration as, since the mid-1960s, Chinese have progressively been drawn into a new phase of emigration which clearly builds upon the global network established by earlier migrations.

Emigration between 1950 and 1978  

The period from 1950 to 1978 can be seen as one of restricted or controlled migration from China itself, but one of gradually increasing movements from the "peripheral" areas of Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is necessary to consider these two areas in any discussion of migration from China as the majority of those who left these areas had been born in China itself, having been part of the exodus of the late 1940s. Any distinction between China and Hong Kong or Taiwan thus becomes blurred, with the migration fields of the three areas being inextricably linked.

The main flow out of China during this period was to Hong Kong with around 40,000 persons a year entering the British colony during the 1950s. This figure dropped to 10,000 during the 1960s, except during the chaotic conditions in 1962 following the great famine when over 120,000 entered Hong Kong in over a six-week period, over half of whom were arrested and deported. 14 Rustification, or the "sending down" of urban dwellers to rural areas, was prominent in the early 1960s as China placed its development priority on the agricultural regions. This turning inwards of migration was intensified from 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution when movement overseas was prohibited in a way reminiscent of much earlier Qing policies. Excluding migrations to Hong Kong, movements from China during this period tended to be restricted to socialist bloc countries with, for example, more than 11,000 Chinese students and scholars being sent to the Soviet Union to study in the 1950s and over 13,000 engineers, technicians and support staff being sent to Tanzania to assist with railway construction in the early 1970s.

There were few destinations open to ethnic Chinese peoples in the 1950s, either for settlement or for work. One of these was the United Kingdom which, until 1962, allowed virtual free access to Commonwealth citizens to settle. Because villagers of the New Territories of Hong Kong were able to prove unequivocally that they had been born on what the British considered their territory, there developed a migration flow of rice farmers to set up Chinese restaurants throughout the United Kingdom. However, this migration slowed with progressive restrictions on immigrants into Britain from 1962 following a wave of immigration from new Commonwealth countries.

Meanwhile, major changes to the immigration policies of the countries of traditional European settlement in North America and Australasia were taking place from the mid-1960s. Although the infamous exclusion acts of the United States had been abolished from the end of the Second World War, no significant impact on immigration flows was felt until after implementation of the 1965 Immigration Act, which effectively removed all discriminatory quotas. Slightly earlier, in January 1962, Canada introduced revised immigration regulations that effectively terminated the White Canada policy, and Australia some 10 years later ended its own white immigration policies. Thus, over the decade beginning in the early 1960s, the three major countries of immigration radically adjusted their policies. This factor has been important in shifting the global migration system from one with origins in Europe to one with origins in Asia and Latin America. Migration from Asian countries accounted for only 7.8, 5.5 and 4.0 percent of the immigration in the early 1960s to the United States, Canada and Australia respectively. By the early 1990s, these proportions had increased to around 38, 50 and 40 percent respectively. This shift in the nature of the global migration system preceded but has reinforced the transformation that has occurred in the Chinese economy and society since December 1978. As China has opened to the outside world with its reform program, it has also been able to participate in a very different international context for transnational population mobility.

Emigration since 1979  

The momentous decisions taken in December 1978 to open the Chinese economy to the outside world implicitly and explicitly increased contact with foreigners, and thus migration. It is impossible to place any precise date after which population movements began to increase into and out of China. For example, Lynn White argues that the ability of the state to control internal population mobility was being eroded in the Shanghai region from as early as 1973. The implementation of the reforms from 1979 forms a more convenient date with the evolution of free markets and the accumulation of personal wealth, allowing more people greater freedom to move. Official recognition of the increasing migration did not come, however, until much later and in 1985 two significant developments occurred. First, in September of that year, the People's Congress enacted the issuing of identity cards to all residents of China, which meant that it became much easier for people to move around. Instead of having to obtain permission from their work unit and from other local authorities, people could now move and obtain employment simply by using their identity card. Second, in November 1985 the Emigration and Immigration Law was adopted which guaranteed the rights of China's citizens to travel outside China and allowed those who wished to leave the country for private reasons to do so.

The implementation of these laws, however, did not mean that there was complete freedom of movement. From a practical point of view, there are significant blockages in transport infrastructure that can make travel within, to and from China difficult at the best of times. More important, it is still a long and complex job to obtain a passport. Permission has to be sought from a variety of sources including current employer, foreign employer or overseas educational institution, and clearance has to be obtained from the Public Security Bureau. It is a procedure that may not be entirely free from abuse, and personal contact (guanxi ) is not an insignificant element in charting a course through the bureaucracy. Excluding diplomatic passports, there are two main types of Chinese passport. The passport for public uses (yìn gong ) is granted to businessmen and students and is valid for either two or five years. The passport for private uses (yìn sì ) is granted to those accompanying spouses or joining relatives overseas and is valid for five years. Also, travel permits and entry and exit passes are granted which can be used for movement to Hong Kong for business, pleasure or settlement.

The migrations since 1979 have been increasing in volume, but also in complexity. It is thus useful to subdivide the migrants into various types, even if no single typology in the social sciences can ever produce watertight divisions. The recent population migration from China can be divided into four major, if not entirely mutually exclusive, types: settlers, students, contract laborers and illegal migrants. These four types will be examined below with emphasis given to settlers and to students although, for reasons that will become clear, these two types need to be combined for some parts of the discussion.

Settler Migrants  

The Chinese have been an important participant in these new flows and the numbers of immigrants to the main settlement countries are shown in table 1.

Table 1. Chinese Settler Migration to the
Three Main Overseas Destination Countries, 1928-94
United States
passport for priva
1982-87 1987-92 1992-93 1993-94
China 79,385 116,057 57,761 47,694
Hong Kong 54,325 69,216 14,010 11,949
Taiwan 81,230 76,397 15,736 11,157
1982-87 1987-92 1992-93 1993-94
China 4,887 6,241 1,665 1,915
Hong Kong 21,635 61,881 8,111 4,075
Taiwan 2,315 12,300 1,389 779
1982-86 1987-91 1992 1993 1994
China 11,788 31,737 10,429 9,447 12,250
Hong Kong 34,221 110,960 38,910 36,510 43,651
Taiwan 2,782 15,211 7,456 9,842 7,328

United States: United States Department of Justice, S tatistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service : (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, various years). Immigrants admitted under IRCA legalization have been omitted from the figures in this table.

Canada: Immigration Statistics , Ottawa, (Canada: Employment and Immigration, various years).

Australia: Bureau of Immigration, Australian Immigration: Consolidated Statistics No. 18, 1993-94 , (Canberra: Multicultural and Population Research, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995).

Note: Canada compiles its immigration data for calendar years; the United States and Australia employ fiscal or financial years which are from different mid-year dates for the different countries.

The data cover only part, although the largest part, of ethnic Chinese migration. Much of the migration from Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam in particular has been made up of ethnic Chinese. The focus in this article is on the migration out of China itself rather than on ethnic Chinese migration but, as stressed above, Hong Kong and Taiwan cannot be excluded from the discussion. It is clear that there has been a marked increase in migration from China to the United States and Canada from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Some 57,761 people from China entered the United States during fiscal year 1992 to 1993 alone compared with just under 80,000 for the five year period 1982 to 1987. The longer and more established flows from Hong Kong and Taiwan show a more steady flow to the United States, although in both cases there had been a marked increase in movement to Canada and Australia over the same period. With the notable exception of migration from Hong Kong and China to Canada (for which there has been a considerable backlog in applications), there was a slowdown in migration during the most recent year for which there are available data, 1993 to 1994 over 1992 to 1993. This was partially due to exceptional circumstances in the migration from China to the United States during 1992 to 1993, discussed below, and partly due to the recession in the developed economies, particularly in Australia. A significant, if gradually declining, proportion of migrants leaving Hong Kong and Taiwan have been those who were born in China. This emphasizes the difficulty of attempting to separate a Hong Kong or Taiwan migration from that of China or, conversely, of excluding Hong Kong or Taiwan from any consideration of emigration from China. Around 70 percent of the 75,000 who entered the United States from Hong Kong during the decade of the 1960s had been born in China. By the early 1990s, this proportion has virtually reversed, with 62 to 65 percent of those admitted from Hong Kong being born in Hong Kong itself. Although data on migration from Taiwan and China were not recorded separately until 1982, we can be fairly certain that the vast majority of the 9,657 recorded as moving from China during the 1950s and the 34,764 moving during the 1960s were from Taiwan. How many of these had been born in China remains unknown. By 1982, about 82 percent of those admitted to the United States from Taiwan had been born in Taiwan, while this proportion had further increased to about 91 percent by 1993. A somewhat similar picture can be observed for the migration to Canada. For example, in the mid-1970s, around 60 percent of those admitted from Hong Kong had been born there while, by the early 1990s, this proportion had increased to over 70 percent. This pattern is what one would expect as the effects of the waves of migration from mainland China of the late 1940s have begun to fade, especially in the case of Taiwan, where there has been little population interaction with China since 1949.

Migration from China to Hong Kong has continued right through to the present. There was a significant wave of movement in the late 1970s, with the net addition of some 400,000 from China between calendar years 1976 and 1981 and the continued intake of around 27,000 every year during the 1980s. The latter figure was based upon an informal agreement between Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to limit the migration to 75 a day. 15 This was an attempt, which was largely successful, to control illegal migration from China. All those leaving must have permission from Chinese authorities to do so; all others are considered to be illegal immigrants and when caught in Hong Kong are repatriated. These migrants are primarily dependants of Hong Kong residents (wives and children), and their numbers have been steadily increased to 150 a day over the last two years to avoid a sudden influx once Hong Kong becomes part of China from 1 July 1997. This population flow of settlers has been the largest legal flow from China to a single destination. The actual number of immigrants from China admitted to the United States during fiscal year 1993 was larger than the flow to Hong Kong but that, as will be seen below, was an exceptional year for very specific reasons.

The data thus suggest that there has been substantial step migration from China to overseas destinations through Taiwan and Hong Kong, which has continued through to the present in the case of Hong Kong. That is, many of those who left China in the late 1940s for Taiwan and Hong Kong were among the first to move to North America and Australasia once immigration restrictions were removed. Unfortunately, the available data on immigration to the major destination countries do not allow us to disaggregate the flows from either Taiwan or Hong Kong on the basis of place of birth. Hence, we do not know if the characteristics of the China-born are in any way different from those of the Hong Kong-born or the Taiwan-born. Given that the majority of step movers have almost certainly spent considerable time in either Hong Kong or Taiwan and that Hong Kong's population in particular has been largely a creation of migration from China, any distinction based simply upon place of birth is likely to be spurious. Emigrants from China are also likely to figure among the well-educated and wealthy who make up so much of the emigrant flows from both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Not that these migrants are necessarily extremely rich, they are not, but the flows out of Hong Kong are heavily biased towards well-educated professionals -- the middle classes -- and migrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have together dominated the business migration programs of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. 16

Turning to direct emigration from China itself, we have already seen that family dependants make up the major part of the migration to Hong Kong. So, too, does family reunification make up a substantial part, probably the greater part, of the movement to the other major destinations. For example, in 1992, of the 10,429 immigrants from China admitted into Canada, 6,477 came under the family class and an additional 512 as "assisted relatives." 17 Up to fiscal year 1992, most of the immigrants admitted to the United States came under family-sponsored preferences or as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. However, there are exceptions to this pattern. In calendar year 1991 in Canada, and fiscal years 1993 and 1994 in the United States, there were substantial numbers of independent migrants and those coming under employment-based preferences respectively. The latter for the United States accounted for 37,131 of the 57,775 immigrants admitted from China in 1993 and 31,913 of the 47,964 admitted in 1994. Rather than indicating surges of an independent migration of professionals or skilled migrants directly from China, these figures indicate the granting of immigrant status to students who were in these countries around the time of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In the United States, the Students Protection Act of 1992 allowed thousands of students who had been living in the country continuously to adjust to permanent status. Canada and Australia made similar provisions. Hence, the distinction between the settlers and the student migration system in the case of movement from China is somewhat artificial.

Student Migrants  

The sending abroad of students for training is one important way to facilitate the transfer of technology. Sometimes, the ideas learned have much greater consequences than anticipated and returning students can have a profound impact on their home societies. For example, many of the early revolutionary leaders of China, including Sun Yat-sen (a student in Hong Kong and in Hawaii), Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (both students in Paris), absorbed revolutionary ideas in destination areas. A more recent generation of students was trained in the Soviet Union but, as the settler migration system has changed, so too has the student system. There were very few students from China in the United States in 1978; only 28 were recorded at American universities. 18 By the early 1990s, China was the leading source of foreign students in the United States, with some 44,360, or 10 percent, of all foreign students there in 1993 to 1994. This was clearly the result of China's open door policy "to promote international exchange." 19 Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose history of sending large numbers of students to the United States goes back several decades, together added over 51,000 more students to the U.S. in 1993 to 1994. China has also emerged as a leading source of students to Canada and Australia, with between four and five thousand sent to both countries in 1992 and 1994, although these amounts are far below the numbers of students from Hong Kong to those destinations. However, the definition of what constitutes a student differs among the three destination countries. If we limit the analyses to the highest levels of tertiary education, we find that China is a leading source of postgraduate students. Students from Hong Kong are often found at more junior levels, including high school. In the early 1990s, there were also over 12,500 students from China at post-secondary institutions in Japan.

Return Movements of Students and Settlers  

The essential question, primarily concerning students but also to some extent settlers, is the extent to which they will return to China. The experience of student migration from other East Asian countries indicates that the proportion of returnees tends to increase over time. 20 Very large numbers in the governments of Taiwan and Korea have been trained overseas and the trends towards more democratic systems and increasing rates of return migration are not simply coincidental. So far, according to official Chinese sources, only about one third of the 220,000 students from China who have gone overseas since 1979 have returned, and the proportion returning from the United States is only about one fifth. 21 China, ideally, wanted all the students to return versed in the ways of foreign technology, so that they could contribute to economic development and nation building. There are, however, differences between ideal plans and practical results. If students currently overseas return to China in substantial numbers, they may generate changes as radical as those wrought by their revolutionary predecessors. 22 This scenario is but one possible future consequence of this migration. For the moment, all we can say is that thousands have opted to become permanent residents of developed countries, but this need not necessarily imply permanent exile: The rate of return will depend upon directions taken in post-Deng China.

It is not only students who return. Movements back home have been an integral part of all settler migration systems, blurring any clear distinction between settlers and sojourners in European as well as Asian migration. However, interesting patterns are evolving among wealthy Chinese migrants to North America and Australasia, known as the "astronaut" syndrome and the "parachute kid" syndrome. In the former, a migrant, usually male, will leave his spouse and family at a destination while he returns to Hong Kong or Taiwan to continue his business. In the latter, both parents return to their place of origin after establishing their children with relatives or, if the children are old enough, on their own in their house in North America or Australia. Thus, families are established over long distances, incorporating at least two residences, sometimes more, with one or both parents commuting at regular intervals from one home to the other. The number of people participating in such trans-Pacific networks is not insignificant. Furthermore, the strongly female-biased cohorts in the 35 to 49 year-old age group observed among the Hong Kong-born in cities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand signify large numbers of female-headed "astronaut" households. 23 There are no data to indicate that migrants from China itself, as opposed to those who have been resident in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are engaging in this process. What is clear however, is that many of those who go back have done so to take advantage of the opening-up of the Chinese economy and have business links there. Thus, Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, North America, Australasia and China itself are linked through these circuits of human mobility.

Origins of Settler and Student Migration in China  

There are few data on place of origin of the migrants who leave China. However, given the importance of the flow to Hong Kong and of the family reunification that has played such an important part in the movement from China thus far, it would seem reasonable to assume that most of the emigration has come from the traditional areas of out-migration, that is, from around the Pearl River Delta, from Eastern Guangdong and from coastal parts of Fujian province. However, the importance of students in the overall movement from China also suggests that the areas of origin may be broadening. The premier universities in the country are in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in Guangzhou, and it would seem logical that many of the students going overseas are from these parts of the country. The Shanghai region was, in fact, a major source of students going overseas from pre-communist China. 24 One study of all recent emigration from China has suggested that over one quarter of those leaving originated in Shanghai, followed in importance by Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong. 25 These results were drawn from the number recorded in the 1990 population census whose permanent household registration system had been suspended because they were abroad at the time of the census. The total number of those falling into this category was 237,024, but whether this included students who might be away temporarily or whole families who might have moved to Hong Kong, for example, is not clear. What does seem clear is that the emigration fields have been extended northwards to the large cities of Shanghai and Beijing and that the students may be in the vanguard of this movement, which in the future may lead to family reunification from areas far beyond the traditional southern sources of emigration

Destinations of Settlers and Students  

The most important destinations for the legal migration of settlers and students are clearly in North America and Australasia. Migration from Hong Kong has been focused more on Canada, and more recently Australia, while that from China and Taiwan is more focused on the United States, even if the movements to the other countries are also important. For settlers, the specific destinations within these areas are highly focused on the major cities of each country: to Toronto and Vancouver in Canada; to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and also Seattle in the United States; to Sydney in Australia; and to Auckland in New Zealand. Over 70 percent of Hong Kong immigrants to Canada have gone to either Ontario (43 percent in 1993) or British Columbia (31 percent in 1993); 71 percent of the immigrants to Ontario went to Toronto and 90 percent of the immigrants to British Columbia went to Vancouver in 1993. 26 Recent immigrants from China to the United States have gone overwhelmingly to just three states, California, Washington and New York, and immigrants from Taiwan have gone primarily to California. Migration from China to these countries is primarily a migration to the largest urban areas. The distribution of students from China and Taiwan in the United States is, however, somewhat more widespread, even if the same general pattern can still be observed. 27 Apart from the migrations to the main settler societies in North America and Australasia, there are more minor, but nevertheless notable, flows from China to other destinations, particularly to Europe. These flows, quite apart from their size, are somewhat different from those to the major destinations in terms of their history and their origins. The majority of those who go to Europe appear to come from the province of Zhejiang, and primarily from the areas around Wenzhou and Qingtian, and the development of these flows illustrates very interesting aspects of migration from China. The British and French recruited nearly 100,000 laborers to fulfill noncombatant auxiliary or labor duties in France during the First World War. 28 Almost all of these men were recruited in the Shandong peninsula and transported through the ports of Weihaiwei and later Qingdao. After 1917, the ships transporting the laborers put in at Shanghai so that medical examinations could be carried out. As news of this stop-over spread locally, men from Qingtian were able to mingle with those from Shanghai and have themselves shipped to France. After the end of the war, almost all of the men from Shandong were repatriated but some from Qingtian stayed on. Once they had established themselves, a rise in chain migration from that area and from the provincial capital Wenzhou emerged in the mid-1920s, which set up Chinese communities not only in Paris, but in other continental European cities as well. 29 During the 1920s, perhaps 20,000 people from Qingtian were to be found in European cities, with Paris, Milan, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Marseilles being the main communities. 30 Thus, the almost accidental linking of the Qingtian migrants to the Shandong contract labor system gave rise to a diaspora from Zhejiang to Europe, yet the larger numbers of migrants from Shandong do not appear to have generated an equivalent later movement, reflecting the very different attitudes at the time among Southern and Northern Chinese towards migration. Movements to Europe continued with fluctuations from the mid-1920s, and many migrants returned to China. As with the major destinations of Chinese migration, the movements to Europe accelerated again from the late 1970s and in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, there were probably some 30,000 Chinese in Italy, 150,000 to 200,000 in Paris alone, and 40,000 to 50,000 in the Netherlands. 31 Migrants from Zhejiang made up 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese in Italy but, while they figured prominently among those in Paris and the Netherlands too, the Chinese communities there were much more diverse, with large numbers from Hong Kong and from Southeast Asian countries.

Contract Labor  

The importance of contract labor in the historical development of Chinese migration is apparent from the discussion earlier in the article. In the 1990s, contract labor from China continues to form a significant part of movement overseas. Again, these flows have only become important since 1979, although there were skilled migrants going to socialist African countries on contract in the 1970s. Now, China's vast population is seen by Chinese authorities to be a resource that can be used to generate foreign exchange. 32 By 1983, there were some 31,000 contract laborers overseas generating some $13 million. Ten years later, the number of laborers had increased to 173,000, generating over $6.8 billion. 33 Although there were Chinese laborers working in over one hundred countries, much of the increase had taken place since 1991, with the initiation of huge infrastructure projects in Macau and Hong Kong. Over 40,000 laborers were working in these two areas in 1991, 34 and these numbers have probably increased substantially since Hong Kong's massive airport and associated projects have moved into full construction phases. The majority of these laborers will have been recruited in neighboring Guangdong province although there are also some from Hunan and as far away as Shandong. Laborers recruited for projects in Japan, Singapore or the Middle East are likely to have come from more widespread origins. There also appear to be some 15,000 Chinese workers, mainly from Heilongjiang province, in the Russian Far East. 35

Illegal Migration  

Illegal flows from China to North America, in particular, have captured the attention of the media, although these represent, as should be clear from this article, only part of the total migration from China today. Illegal migration is, nevertheless, an important part of the total flow but, for obvious reasons, there are no accurate figures on volume and composition. Official sources from the United States have estimated that perhaps 100,000 people a year in the early 1990s were entering the United States illegally from China. Chinese sources estimate that, for the same period, there were up to half a million Chinese waiting for transit to the West from cities in Russia, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America. 36 The majority of these appeared to be heading towards the United States, although Australian and Western European cities were also among the preferred destinations. There have also been claims that there may be as many as one million Chinese living illegally in the Siberian border regions of Russia's Far East. 37 The significance of the illegal flow to Western countries lies as much with the nature of its organization as with sheer numbers. It is clearly linked to international criminal syndicates and the potential profits are as large as the punishments are derisory in the case of capture. The resurgence of crime in China has been an unfortunate outgrowth of reforms. Some of the new rich have been able to suborn local and regional government officials to further their own ends, and corrupt cadres, often at senior levels, have not been immune from direct participation in this activity. One lucrative activity is the smuggling of people who otherwise would not be able to negotiate successfully the long process to secure legal documents to emigrate. Individuals are reputedly charged between $30,000 and $50,000 to be smuggled into the United States. Clearly, few have these kinds of resources and the syndicates accept an initial advance payment of around 10 percent and a slightly larger payment at an intermediate point; the balance must be paid upon reaching the destination. 38 Many are kept as virtual slave laborers in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco until their debts are paid off. This system is reminiscent of the credit-ticket system of the last century and, again, most of the migrants are young males, even if there are also significant numbers of young women, both of whom presumably wish to return either to their families or to marry once they have made their fortunes in the New World. They are the new sojourners, although many tragically become trapped by criminal networks. Prostitution and drug smuggling are ways of repaying enormous debts into which the migrants have fallen in their wish to leave China.

The majority of illegal migrants come from Southern China, again fitting into traditional networks, with most coming from a small number of towns in coastal Fujian province, particularly in Changle County. While the numbers arriving off the coast of the United States, such as those aboard the Golden Venture,  capture the spotlight, it is likely that the majority of illegals leave by plane for Central American destinations via continental Europe for onward movement by land or small plane. There are also considerable illegal flows to Asian destinations. Apart from the booming ports in the Russian Far East and their network of criminal activities, there are continuous flows to Hong Kong, with around 38,000 being captured and repatriated during 1993 and again in 1994, and also to Taiwan, Japan and Thailand, although information on these flows is fragmentary. The money that can be earned from smuggling people both regionally and across the Pacific and the linkages to global networks of international crime mean that illegal migration from China is likely to continue as a major problem for destination countries in the years ahead, and as an important element in the activities of multinational criminal corporations.


The migration out of China that was truncated from the late nineteenth century through to the 1930s, depending on the destination, laid the basis for the present patterns of population movement. These began from Hong Kong and Taiwan from the 1950s and continued with changed immigration laws in the main potential destination areas from the 1960s. An acceleration has occurred since the opening up of China itself from 1979. It is, nevertheless, still difficult to leave China. There is still no real freedom of movement despite the increased numbers of migrants. Many who cannot obtain a passport and an exit visa attempt to leave illegally, although this option is expensive and can be dangerous. The numbers going legally and illegally are small relative to the size of China's population. Those leaving are still primarily from the provinces of Southern China, although there are signs that the migration fields are being extended further north, often pioneered by students from the main university centers. The vast majority of China's population is as yet untouched by international migration, either directly or indirectly, although given the upsurge in domestic movements since the early 1980s this cannot be said about internal migration. Though the consequences of migration are varied: whether rising aspirations brought about through the increasing numbers moving to towns and cities, even temporarily, will impel international moves; whether the student migrations that have led to settlement will later generate chain movements through family reunification; or whether the new sojourner migrations will give rise to more permanent settlement and later chain migration will all depend upon policies not only in destination societies, but primarily in the direction taken in post-Deng China. A steady continuation of current policies is likely to see a gradual acceleration of migration from China. A reversion to policies of the extreme left is likely to see an exodus of the new middle classes from the coastal cities to Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, which would have profound consequences for most parts of the world.

Such idle speculation on hypothetical future directions diverts attention from the essential fact that migration is not just about numbers, but about control over wealth and ideas. Although the numbers of migrants from China are relatively small compared with the great migrations out of Europe from a much smaller base population earlier this century, the composition of the migrant flows has been heavily biased towards the postgraduate-level student, the professionals and the wealthier groups. Many of these wealthier groups are from the peripheral areas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but they often maintain close links with their home areas in China, commuting regularly to them, and they have business interests there and among the wider networks of the overseas Chinese. Many of the students are indeed from China and their return, if it occurs, like the return of previous generations of students, is likely to have a major impact on the home society.

Although the numbers of migrants from China are relatively small, their potential impact on origin and destination areas can be great. The emigration is still primarily from areas with the longest contact with the outside world, emphasizing the historical legacy and continuities with the past, while the increasing complexity of emigration both reflects and reinforces the recent development of Southern China and the large coastal cities. Migration from China demonstrates continuities in spatial pattern and in certain types of migrants such as the new sojourners, both rich and poor. There are nevertheless important differences from past patterns in terms of wider participation from regions of origin and in terms of a greater range of migrant types as highly educated men and women, as well as poorer people, participate in population flows integrating China more fully into the world system. Whatever the future direction of political and economic change in China, population migration in and out of China is going to be a profound force for

Note *: I wish to thank my colleague Professor Ron Hill for his comments on parts of this paper and Dr. George Lin of the University of Hong Kong and Dr. Chan Kam Wing of the University of Washington for supplying information. Needless to say they cannot be held responsible for the interpretations made in the paper. Back.

Note 1: A.H. Smith cited in Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia  (London: Oxford University Press, 1965, 2nd ed.) p. 30. The Confucian ideal of the sedentary nature of Chinese life is outlined in Y.C. Wang, Chinese Intellectuals and the West 1879-1949 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966) p. 23. See also Rance Lee, "The Fading of Earthbound Compulsion in a Chinese Village: Population Mobility and Its Economic Implication," in Social Life and Development in Hong Kong,  eds. Ambrose King and Rance Lee (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1981). Back.

Note 2: C.P. FitzGerald, The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People: Southern Fields and Southern Ocean  (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972). Back.

Note 3: Sterling Seagrave, Lords of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese  (London: Bantam Press, 1995). Another good general introduction to the Chinese diaspora is Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: The Story of the Overseas Chinese (London: Seckeran Warburg, 1990). Back.

Note 4: Elizabeth Sinn, "Emigration from Hong Kong before 1941: General Trends," in Emigration from Hong Kong: Tendencies and Impacts , ed. Ronald Skeldon (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1995) p. 12. Back.

Note 5: The laws prohibiting emigration were not formally rescinded until 1893. The Qing and Ming attitudes towards emigration are summarized in Harley MacNair, The Chinese Abroad: Their Position and Protection  (Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1933). See also Purcell, chapter 3. Back.

Note 6: Robert Irick, Ch'ing Policy Toward the Coolie Trade, 1847-1878  (Taipei: Chinese Materials Center, 1982). Back.

Note 7: See Elizabeth Sinn, "Emigration from Hong Kong Before 1941: Organization and Impact," in Emigration from Hong Kong: Tendencies and Impacts , ed. Ronald Skeldon (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1995). Back.

Note 8: The contrast between sojourners and settlers, often in the context of comparing Asian, mainly Chinese, movements with European migration, can be overdrawn. Many Europeans were also sojourners and returned relatively quickly to their home countries. For an incisive discussion, see Chan Sucheng, "European and Asian Immigration Into the United States in Comparative Perspective," in Immigration Reconsidered: History, Society, and Policies , ed. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). Back.

Note 9: For estimates of the numbers of Chinese overseas at this time in Southeast Asia, see Purcell; for the United States, see Harry H.L. Kitano and Roger Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities  (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988); and for Canada, see Edgar Wickberg, ed., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982). Back.

Note 10: Pan, p. 18. Back.

Note 11: Sinn, p. 12. Back.

Note 12: The best account of these policies remains Charles Price, The Great White Walls Are Built: Restrictive Immigration to North America and Australasia 1836-1888  (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1974). Back.

Note 13: See James Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (1880-1940) (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986). See also Ron Hill, "Notes on Chinese Agricultural Colonization in Southeast Asia" Erdkunde , 42 (1988) pp. 123-35. Back.

Note 14: David Podmore, "The Population of Hong Kong," in Hong Kong: The Industrial Colony, ed. Keith Hopkins (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1971). Back.

Note 15: An overview of migration to Hong Kong up to the early 1980's is given in Ronald Skeldon, "Hong Kong and its Hinterland: A Case of International Rural-to-Urban Migration?" Asian Geographer , 5, no. 1 (1986) pp. 1-24. Back.

Note 16: The issue of emigration from Hong Kong is discussed fully in Ronald Skeldon, "Hong Kong in an International Migration System," in Reluctant Exiles? Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese  (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1994). Back.

Note 17: i>Immigration Statistics , (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1992). Back.

Note 18: Information on students in the United States comes from the biannual Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange  (New York: Institute of International Education). Back.

Note 19: Sugimoto, "Mass Migration", p. 26. Back.

Note 11

Note 20: See Ronald Skeldon, "International Migration Within and From the East and Southeast Asian Region: A Review Essay," Asian and Pacific Migration Journal , 1, no. 1 (1992) pp. 19-63. Back.

Note 21: Cited in Migration News  ( Davis: University of California, May 1995). Back.

Note 22: See Chong-Pin Lin, "China's Students Abroad: Rates of Return," The American Enterprise , 5, no. 6 (1994) pp. 12-14. Back.

Note 23: Kee Pookong and Ronald Skeldon, "The Migration and Settlement of Hong Kong Chinese in Australia," in Reluctant Exiles? Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese , ed. Ronald Skeldon (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1994); and Ronald Skeldon, "The Chinese in Pacific Rim Development," in Global-Local Relations in Pacific Rim Development,  eds. Peter Rimmer and Sophie Watson (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, forthcoming). Back.

Note 24: Wang I-chü, Chinese Intellectuals and the West, 1872-1949  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966). Back.

Note 25: Miao Jian Hua, "International Migration in China: A Survey of Emigrants from Shanghai,"Asian and Pacific Migration Journal , 3, no. 2-3 (1994) pp. 445-63. Back.

Note 26: Diana Lary, "Regional Variations in Settlement of Hong Kong Immigrants," Canada and Hong Kong Update , no. 12 (Spring 1994) pp. 5-6. Back.

Note 27: Maps on distributions are provided in Open Doors 1993-1994: Report on International Educational Exchange  (New York: Institute of International Education, 1994). Back.

Note 28: The fullest account of this incident is given in Michael Summerskill, China on the Western Front  (London: Michael Summerskill, 1982). Back.

Note 29: Charles Archaimbault, "En Marge du Quartier Chinois de Paris," Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Indochinoises , 27, no. 3 (1952) pp. 275-94. Back.

Note 30: From Chinese sources cited in Mette Thuno, "Diversity and Diffusion: The Chinese Community in Denmark," paper presented at the Conference on The Last Half Cen- tury of Chinese Overseas: Comparative Perspectives (The University of Hong Kong, 19-21 December 1994). Back.

Note 31: The figures for Italy come from Aliza Wong, "Il Quartiere Cinese: The Emerging Chinese Community in Milan, Italy," paper presented at the Conference on the Last Half Century of Chinese Overseas: Comparative Perspectives (The University of Hong Kong, 19-21 December 1994); the figures for Paris from Yu-Sion Live "Les Chinois de Paris Depuis le Début du Siècle: Présence Urbaine et Activités Iconomiques," Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 8, no. 3 (1992) pp. 155-173; and for the Netherlands from Frank Pieke, "Immigration et Entreprenariat: Les Chinois aux Pays-Bas," Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales , 8, no. 3 (1992) pp. 33-50. Back.

Note 32: Fang Shan, "Mainland China's Overseas Construction Contracts and Export of Labour," Issues and Studies , 27, no. 2 (1991) pp. 65-75. Back.

Note 33: Figures from the China Yearbook  of Foreign Relations and Trade  (Beijing). Back.

Note 34: Zhang Jixun, "The Chinese Labour Export Market," paper presented at the Conference on Migration and the Labour Market in Asia in the Year 2000, OECD and Japan Institute of Labour (Tokyo: 19-20 January 1995). Back.

Note 35: Hiroshi Kakazu, "Northeast Asian Regional Economic Cooperation," in Growth Triangles in Asia: A New Approach to Regional Economic Cooperation , eds. Myo Thant, Min Tang and Hiroshi Kakazu (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994). Back.

Note 36: Chinese sources cited in Migration News  (Davis: University of California, November 1994); see also Willard Myers, "Statement to the Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, November 4, 1993," The Center for the Study of Asian Organized Crime (Philadelphia). Back.

Note 37: Asia Yearbook 1994  (Hong Kong: Far Eastern Economic Review) p. 199. Back.

Note 38: The organization of illegal migration is given fuller treatment in Ronald Skeldon, "East Asian Migration and the Changing World Order," in Population Migration and the Changing World Order , eds. William Gould and Allan Findlay (London: Wiley, 1994). Back.