International Migration By Ethnic Chinese Research Paper

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The mass international Chinese migration began in the middle of the nineteenth century and today makes up 30 million people. It has evolved towards a diasporic configuration characterized by a multipolarity of migration and an interpolarity of relations in which networks play an important role and explain the economic efficiency of this diaspora.

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1. The Migration From China

For centuries, or even millenniums, there has been a migration from China to Southeast Asia. These migrations mainly comprise an economic, political, or military urban elite. The Chinese migration really reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century when the combination of several factors made people leave. It was the result of the two Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the abolition of slavery, and the colonial enhancement of Southeast Asia by the English, the Dutch, and the French.

The two Opium Wars (1840–42 and 1856–60) and the Taiping Rebellion (1860–65) provoked tremendous social change and terrible famines, especially in the southern provinces, which are principal centers of departure even today. The progressive abolition of slavery during the first half of the nineteenth century brought about a demand for cheap labor in order to replace slave work in former slavery countries. But above all, the colonization of Southeast Asia and the development of new English, French, and Dutch colonies (Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and so on) also created a demand for workers in plantations (hevea, pepper plant, sugar cane, tobacco, and others) and in mines, a demand that was no longer filled by slavers or by local labor.

From then on, the geography of international Chinese migration was maintained for a long time, almost exclusively affecting the southern provinces of continental China and mainly spreading into Southeast Asia and into former slavery areas. This geography still plays a fundamental role in the general distribution of migration today, although there have also been substantial modifications. As a result of the treaties of the Opium Wars, the creation of the ‘coolie trade’ allowed colonial powers to hire workers in order to develop their dependent territories. The coolie trade produced flows of departure towards the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean islands, and Polynesia, but especially towards Southeast Asia. These workers were, for the most part, landless peasants. They were among the poorest and saw in these contracts, however miserable, the possibility for them and for their families to survive. The large majority of workers came from the southern provinces of China (Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan).

Within 25 years, from 1876 to 1901, 4,850,000 emigrants, a considerable figure, are assumed to have passed in transit through ports in southern China. During that time, the number of people belonging to the Chinese diaspora was estimated at 8 million, most of whom were found in the Nan Yang areas (South China Sea) of Asia. Moreover, several dozens of thousands of people were scattered over the insular constellations of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some hundreds of thousands went to the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean, from Canada to Chile, and also to the Caribbean islands, in particular to Cuba and Jamaica.

1.1 Chinese International Migration Today

The ancientness of the migration, interracial marriages, the constant flow of migration and the fact that the ethnic Chinese usually take the nationality of their receiving countries make an accurate measure of the extent of the diaspora difficult because it is hard to determine what an ‘ethnic Chinese’ is. What differentiates ethnic identity from other social identities (professional, religious, and so on) is, as Max Weber states, the shared belief in a common origin, whether it is real or imagined. Ethnic identity is, therefore, a social construction not a natural one. It is still a valid criterion for defining a population because this belief strongly configures the relationships among individuals themselves and thus determines specific social behaviors with important effects on economic, political, and cultural patterns.

Bearing these considerations in mind, one can use the extensive study and evaluation of data made by Poston et al. (1994) from various sources: Overseas Chinese Economic Year Book, 1991, 1992; data from national censuses of different countries; data from Britannica Book of the Year and from a special issue of Re ue Europeenne des Migrations Internationales. Figures provided by Poston et al. concerning Hong Kong and Macao are not included in Table 1 because they cannot be considered places of settlement of international Chinese migrants, nor have we included figures for India (130,000) and Turkey (60,000) because these populations are mostly Tibetan refugees (India) and Khazakhs refugees (Turkey). From these numerous and diverse estimates, one can consider the number of ethnic Chinese in the world to be around 30 million (not including Hong Kong and Macao).

International Migration By Ethnic Chinese Research Paper

Ethnic Chinese are present in nearly every part of the world, ranging from nine individuals in Finland to more than 7 million in Indonesia. One can note the presence of more than 1,000 ethnic Chinese groups in almost 80 countries, exceeding 10,000 individuals in more than 40 countries, 100,000 in nearly 20 countries, and a million individuals in at least five countries (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States). The majority (85 percent) live in Asia, but their presence there is proportionally less important than it was 40 years ago (96 percent). There is now a redeployment of the diaspora, notably towards the non-Asian Pacific (North America, Australia) and towards Europe.

1.2 Main Places Of Origin

One can distinguish several categories of places of origin, namely continental China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and the other zones where a Chinese presence can be found, corresponding to the different poles of the diaspora.

In continental China, the main zones of origin remain the southern provinces: Fujian and Guangdong, to which one can add Zhejiang (north of Fujian). As usual migration relies on already existing migratory networks, which most often turns migrants towards North America, Australia, and Europe. Migration towards Southeast Asia still continues, but is no longer dominant, and migration to the countries of former Indochina had stopped for obvious reasons during the 1970s. These ‘proletarian’ migrations are often the result of people living in modest conditions who leave to join their compatriots (close and distant relatives, acquaintances), who have already established themselves abroad. For this reason, they are not very different from the labor migration of other populations. Given the more and more restrictive laws of immigration in the receiving countries, part of these migrations are illegal (at least from the point of view of the receiving countries), and produce a lucrative form of trafficking for those who organize them. The cost of such a move can reach the equivalent of US$20,000 to US$25,000.

Migration from Hong Kong appears to be different. It has been caused by the uncertainty concerning the future of Hong Kong and the fears about its rejoining China in July 1997. This migration is either illegal ‘proletarian’ migration or migration of individuals and families with British nationality who are able to migrate to the countries of the Commonwealth. Otherwise, many entrepreneurs and businessmen are able to immigrate into Canada, for example, because of the financial investments they can make in this country. (The candidates must be able to make an investment of $150,000.) Such migration can also be possible towards Southeast Asia. In fact, the inclusion of Hong Kong into China does not seem to have caused a massive flow of departures, contrary to what was expected.

Migration from Taiwan is not the result of a fear of the future. It is often due to the local bourgeoisie having the financial means to be accepted in the receiving countries. Such migration is notably directed towards the west coast of North America, and has produced a strong presence in Los Angeles (Monterey), in San Francisco, and to a more modest extent in Vancouver and in Seattle (Waldinger and Tseng 1992). There is also a notable migration of entrepreneurs to Southeast Asia. In recent years, a number of them have established themselves in Vietnam.

In addition to the migration from the various parts of China, there are the moves, between the various poles of the diaspora. It consists of persons already established (or born) in one of these poles who move to another country. In this context, all combinations between poles are possible. This interpolar migration also includes the flow of people during the 1970s and 1980s, provoked by the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. A large part of the populations with a Chinese origin in these countries were forced to flee under terrible conditions, and they settled in other countries of Southeast Asia or in Europe and North America, where they joined already established compatriots. This exodus, whose size it is difficult to measure because it was not only composed of persons of Chinese origin, may have mobilized three to four million people. It has, thus, deeply modified the geographical distribution in the Chinese diaspora.

Among all this overseas migration, one needs to add a new phenomenon for which there is little hard information, namely Chinese migration towards the territories of the former Soviet Union along the border of China, migration towards Central Asia, Siberia, and the far east of the former Soviet Union. It seems mainly to be a question of business migration, and includes people who have set up small businesses specializing in the distribution of products made in China. Labor migration to South Korea and a flow of people to Japan should also be mentioned.

2. The Chinese Diaspora

The multipolarity of the migration and the interpolarity of relations are two morphological factors that define the international migration of ethnic Chinese as a diaspora (Ma Mung 1998). The multipolarity of the migration corresponds to the diaspora in the original sense of dispersal (from Greek, speiro, to sow), and the interpolarity of the relations refers to the existence of relations between the different settling poles of the Chinese diaspora.

2.1 Multipolarity Of The Migration

Since the nineteenth century, Chinese migration has had a pronounced multipolar feature because of its direction towards many territories in Southeast Asia, the American continent, Polynesia, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, South Africa and, in a more modest way, in Europe (Thuno 1996). Throughout the twentieth century, a change in the destinations and a reinforcement of the Chinese presence was noticeable. As previously stated, the presence of more than 10,000 overseas Chinese in each of more than 40 countries is recorded, with more than one million people in at least five countries. One of the main features of this distribution is therefore a strong multipolarity of the migration. The other feature of the international Chinese migration is a strong interpolarity of relations.

2.2 Interpolarity Of Relations

Interpolar migrations are often linked to major geographical trouble. The wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the political take-over by totalitarian regimes that followed them, caused the departure of more than three million people, most of whom where first or later generations of Chinese origin. For the most part, they joined already established communities in Europe, North America or Asia by means of diverse itineraries, sometimes passing through various receiving countries. More recently, in Indonesia, where more than 7 million ethnic Chinese are recorded, demonstrations against the government and President Suharto have at times degenerated into anti-Chinese pogroms. During the first half of 1998, some 1,200 individuals of Chinese origin are believed to have been killed by rioters in the city of Jakarta alone, and other deadly anti-Chinese riots took place in other towns, in particular in Medan, in the north of Sumatra. From 100,000 to 125,000 ethnic Chinese are thought to have left Indonesia within 1 year, for the most part heading towards Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, or even Hong Kong (Strait Times, Singapore, July 18, 1999), where 38,300 Indonesians of Chinese origin were recorded in February 1999 (AFP, Hong Kong, May 21, 1999). More modest flows of people headed for Thailand, the United States, and other destinations where there were overseas Chinese already. Fortunately, all migration is not due to dramatic events, but is rather a search for better opportunities elsewhere. This is the case for the Chinese who settled in Italy (Campani 1994) or even in Spain (Beltran 1997), among whom a good part came from France in the 1980s and 1990s because the French government immigration laws became ever stricter, and because of the relatively greater freedom in the new receiving countries. It is worth noting that these Chinese also came to join small communities that had already been settled for several decades. This also happened between France and the Netherlands during the period between the two world wars (Pieke 1992).

The diversity of the national origins of the Chinese within the receiving countries is a good indicator of the interpolarity of the migrations. In France, and today also in Spain (Beltran 1997) and possibly in Great Britain, more than 20 different national origins are recorded among the ethnic Chinese, with even a greater number in North America: nearly 30 in Montreal alone (Chan 1991) for instance and 40 in the United States.

These interpolar migrations are the basis of relations between the different settling poles. They represent the networks of movement of persons, materials and non-material values (goods, money, information, social norms and codes, cultural models).

The classic example is the establishment of trading networks between China and the different receiving countries of the diaspora. These networks have been strengthened considerably since the opening of the Chinese economy. On a more subtle scale, such migration represents an extension of distributional networks in the various areas of settlement in a given country, as long as the migration spreads. The most interesting point is the growth of trading networks among the different receiving countries. The way a diaspora works, it induces a diversification of the geographical areas of supply and distribution. In grocery stores, to take a simple example, specialized products came from several dozen different countries in addition to continental China, namely from Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong, Hawaii, Thailand, Brazil, and even Spain and California. A study made out in an Asian supermarket in Paris in 1998 revealed that the products came from 37 different countries that had an ethnic Chinese population. A similar study from a Chinese supermarket in San Diego (California) in 1999 revealed more than 40 different countries of origin.

The existence of interpolar relations can allow people engaged in business to move from one country to another when working conditions worsen. This explains why Sino-Indonesian capital was particularly withdrawn from Singapore and Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the reason why today there is a shift in capital from Southeast Asia to the American west coast in order to take advantage of economic opportunities (financial flow from Taiwan or Singapore) and/or anticipated difficulties (flow from Hong Kong in connection with its retrocession into continental China). Lin (1992) underlines the role of a Chinatown in attracting investors.

2.3 Decisive Economic Effects

Southeast Asia makes up 85 percent of the number of individuals in the Chinese diaspora. The presence of these immigrants has asserted itself in the nineteenth century already, and it has been reinforced constantly ever since. At first, this immigration included labor force for mines and plantations, but it shifted quickly to small shop-keepers, craftsmen, and sometimes to manufacturers and businessmen. Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, the rice business and commercial distribution were operated by these immigrants or their descendants even in the most remote villages. Since then, their presence in economic activities has constantly been reinforced. In order to appreciate the economic weight of the Chinese diaspora in this area of the world, one can note that the ethnic Chinese control 81 percent of the market value of listed companies; in Indonesia, they control 73 percent of such capital (KPMG International, July 1996), and 61 percent in Malaysia. As far as their banking power is concerned, more than 100 banks are entirely or partially controlled by Chinese in the diaspora; 45 of them are in Indonesia, 19 in Malaysia, 14 in Singapore, 14 in Thailand, and 13 in the Philippines (Trolliet 1994). The Economist (July 18, 1992) notes that ‘Worldwide, the overseas Chinese (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) probably hold liquid assets worth US$1.5–2 trillion.’

Since 1979, the Chinese diaspora has increasingly had important economical relations with continental China. This has contributed in a very decisive way to the spectacular development of this country since the mid-1980s. Numerous authors agree that 70 to 80 percent of foreign investments (US$10 billion in 1995) was due to the Chinese diaspora. They also play a role in the creation of businesses, and in this way contributed to more than 100,000 joint ventures in 1994, totalling US$17 billion (Lever-Tracy et al. 1996).

3. Conclusion

The international migration of ethnic Chinese, which started in the mid-nineteenth century, has evolved into a diaspora-type configuration. Today, this migration constitutes the most important population in a diaspora (30 million people). Networks play an essential role in such a diaspora. Even if today it seems too powerful and rich, one should remember that originally it was composed of labor migration, and that this remains an element to this day. Current migrants are still mainly proletarians.

This migration, like other migrations, form new social groups—the diasporas—settled on transnational territory. A diaspora is based on an identity of ethnic features. This ethnic consideration does not exclude other elements. Studies of the Chinese diaspora constantly remind the investigator of the singularities of the individuals who have different national and/or geographical origins and speak many different languages. Zheng (1995) found that no less than eight languages were spoken among the staff of a famous Chinese restaurant in Paris, French and English included. Therefore, an ‘internal’ cosmopolitanism is at work even within a single diaspora, which guarantees multiple allegiances across the different countries where the diaspora has been established, as well as with China.


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