Asia Program

Events

Greater China? Migration and Chinese Transnational Communities

April 14, 2010 // 3:30pm5:30pm
Webcast
Available
Watch

Philip Kuhn, Harvard University; Sara Friedman, Wilson Center Fellow, Indiana University; Vanessa Fong, Harvard University; Kenneth J. Guest, City University of New York

Chinese emigration has occurred in waves over the centuries, and there are currently some 30 million ethnic Chinese living outside of China. What has contributed to the historical migration patterns of Chinese emigrants? How has the growing influence of the People's Republic of China
(PRC) influenced emigration and migration? What factors have enabled expatriate Chinese communities to thrive, and how have communities in different parts of the world related to the homeland from abroad? And what effects do Chinese migrants have on their new places of residence? On Wednesday, April 14, the Asia Program hosted an event, co-sponsored by the Kissinger Institute for China and the United States, to discuss these related questions.

Philip Kuhn, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and professor emeritus at Harvard University, presented an historical overview of Chinese migration. According to Kuhn, land shortage encouraged members of large families to seek work outside of traditionally agricultural areas as early as the 16th century. There were no formal restrictions on emigration, but because the Chinese authorities viewed emigrants with suspicion, reentry into China was not permitted until 1754. The arrival of Western imperial powers in Asia encouraged emigration by creating jobs in colonial bureaucracies unattractive to Europeans due to heat, disease and other averse conditions. After 1945, emigration demographics changed, as more professional and educated Chinese began to seek employment and education in the United States and Western Europe. This accelerated after the late 1980s, when China adopted more open emigration policies.

Sara Friedman, Wilson Center Fellow, and associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, examined marriages between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, which made up roughly 20 percent of marriages registered in Taiwan in 2003, and 10 percent in 2009. Contrary to popular assumptions, both Taiwanese whose ancestors have lived in Taiwan for centuries, and those who fled to Taiwan during the revolution on the mainland, are significantly represented in the overall number of cross-strait marriages. Because the Taiwanese government does not recognize spouses from the PRC as either "foreigners" or "citizens," however, those spouses encounter an immigration regime "that treats them differently from all other categories of foreign spouses." Friedman argued that this "tiered immigration structure" replicates and reinforces
"Taiwan's own second-class status on the global stage." For example, many mainland spouses who never feel at home in Taiwan turn their thoughts to leaving the island in search of greater opportunity and happiness in the United States and elsewhere.

Greater opportunities also drive many Chinese to emigrate straight from the mainland to non-Chinese speaking nations. In 2000, Vanessa Fong, associate professor of education at Harvard University, began a longitudinal study of 2,273 middle class Chinese students. Fong stressed that she never expected many of her subjects to migrate to other countries, but 225 of the 1084 students with whom she remained in touch had spent time living overseas by 2010. According to Fong, the promise of lifestyle improvements was the main reason why Chinese students travelled overseas. However, visa regulations appeared to be the most important factor in their choice of destination. Thirty-four percent of Fong's sample went to Japan, where flexible regulations allow foreigners on student visas to work. Relatively loose visa regulations also made Ireland (14 percent) a popular choice amongst the students she followed.

For new Chinese immigrants to the United States, New York is often the first stop, and many pay exorbitant sums to get there. According to Kenneth J. Guest, the standard rate for the "snakeheads" who smuggle Chinese immigrants into the city is around US $70,000. However, New York is no longer simply a gateway city or a final destination in its own right; it has transformed into the hub of a network of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who travel back and forth across the United States to work in low paid jobs, often in Chinese restaurants. With its numerous remittance offices, immigration lawyers, job boards, employment consultants, wedding salons, temples, stores specializing in both fake and legitimate legal documents, and gambling parlors, New York's East Broadway neighborhood, in particular, reflects the complex array of economic activity that caters to Chinese immigrants travelling back and forth within the United States.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

Upcoming Events

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.