China and Overseas Migration

On July 14, writing for the Yale Centre on Globalization in a story printed in Asia Sentinel, author Bruce Stokes pointed to a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey that said nine of 10 Chinese are happy with their country's direction, feel good about the current state of their economy and are optimistic about China's economic future – a higher percentage than almost any other country.

In the survey of the populations in 31 nations, majorities or pluralities in eight countries picked China as the world's leading economic power, compared with people in only two who felt that way in 2009. Half the Germans, Jordanians, Japanese, French and Americans now assign the top spot to China.

But at the same time, more Chinese want to get out of their country than the citizens of almost any other, according to statistics contained in a report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last week. It is the 34th Report of the OECD's Continuous Reporting System on Migration. While the main thrust of the report is concern over the effect of the global economic crisis on migrants, hidden in the statistics are some fascinating numbers about China.

Chinese immigrants rank among the top ten in at least 15 of the countries that make up the 31 countries of the OECD. To be sure, part of the reason is that China, with a population of 1.3 billion, is so big. On a per-capita basis, immigration flows per 10,000 inhabitants in the country of origin amount to only a fraction of the population.

Nonetheless, the Chinese have a long history of out-migration, from the time they colonized much of Southeast Asia and peopled the gold mines of California in the 1850s. To this day, the word in Chinese for California is "Gold Mountain." In 2008, according to the OECD report, Chinese citizens in the US were the fourth-largest group of foreign-born residents after Mexicans, Filipinos and Indians. They were second in Canada and sixth as well if Hong Kong Chinese are counted; second in New Zealand; third in Australia, eighth in Ireland, and sixth in Hungary and in Finland.

"The essential question, primarily concerning students but also to some extent settlers, is the extent to which they will return to China," Ronald Skeddon wrote in a report for the journal of International Affairs. "The experience of student migration from other East Asian countries indicates that the proportion of returnees tends to increase over time. 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."

For the moment, Skeddon wrote, "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."

Actually, even as the Chinese economy has improved so dramatically, the numbers of those seeking to get out of the country is rising, not falling. China was among low-income economies until 1997, when it moved into the group of lower-middle-income economies. Chinese migrants now account for 10 percent of all the émigrés into the OECD. Among the top 20 countries providing migrants, Colombians, Chinese, Moroccans and Romanians have seen the highest rates of increase in migrant flows since 1995. While 144,000 emigrated from China annually between 1995 and 1999, by 2008 that figure had nearly quadrupled to 539,000 annually. As a percentage of total émigrés, the figure had risen from 4.9 percent in 1995 to 1999 to 9.8 percent in 2008.

And they are tenacious. A New York Times article in January of 2010 reported that the number of Chinese immigrants arrested while illegally crossing the border into Arizona through the US's busiest smuggling corridor had increased tenfold and appeared to be on a record-breaking pace. Agents arrested 281 illegal Chinese immigrants between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2009. The Chinese, according to the story, are willing to pay upwards of US$40,000 while illegal immigrants from Mexico commonly pay US$1,500. These kinds of smuggling stories can be found all the way across the OECD.

In Asia itself, half of Chinese migrants went to Japan or Korea. Another 20 percent to Europe, 15 percent went to the United States and 11 percent to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. More than half the foreign residents in South Korea were Chinese in 2008, according to the report.

Chinese were the top ethnic group migrating to Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and Canada and second to New Zealand in 2008. Remarkably, they were the second-largest migrant group into the United States, topped only by Mexico, a dirt-poor, crime-ridden country with contiguous borders with the US.. They were the fourth-largest group to Australia and Hungary, the third to Finland, fifth to Italy, sixth to France and seven to Spain and Sweden.

Nor are they economic migrants only. Chinese asylum-seekers represented the largest single group seeking refuge in the United States, ahead of such war-torn or poverty stricken countries as El Salvador (second), Haiti (fifth), Iraq (ninth), or Russia (13th). Along with Sri Lankans and Indians, Chinese represented the largest number of asylum seekers to Australia. Iraqi nationals, caught in the coils of a brutal civil war, lodged some 45,000 requests for asylum in OECD countries in 2008, "followed by nationals of Serbia, Afghanistan, Russia, Somalia and China, with close to half the total for Iraq for each country," the report says.