China Starts to Encounter Economic Migrants

China, with 33 million of its ethnic brethren living outside its borders, is starting to turn around and draw migrants as its surging economy attracts people from overseas, according to a new report by The Migration Source, a Washington, DC-based NGO.

The report,"China: An Emerging Destination for Economic Migration," was written by Ronald Skeldon of the University of Sussex. Although overseas workers have been trickling into China in increasing numbers for several years, the report in large measure reverses the image of a China whose citizens are willing to lock themselves into shipping containers or dare deserts and outlaws to get into countries where they have more economic opportunity.

"China, with its vibrant economy, is now clearly a major participant in the global migration system and has become an emergent destination for migration, the report notes. Overall, according to Skeldon’s study, 2.85 million of the 26.11 million foreigners who entered China in 2007 came looking for jobs. Of those about 500,000 were employed in joint ventures or wholly foreign-owned firms, with the majority likely to have been skilled migrants from the developed world, including overseas Chinese from Europe, North America, and Australasia.

"The driving force behind the recent trend of immigration to China…has been the country’s rapid economic growth, compounded by its passage through a demographic transition," Skeldon writes. Although large numbers of emigrants continue to leave in search of opportunities elsewhere, China’s labor force growth is slowing rapidly as the effects of the country’s one-child policy and other demographic factors kick in.

The picture may be more optimistic than Skeldon paints it. China still has more than of its population – more than the entire population of the Eurozone or the United States – living on less than US$2 per day. Tens of millions are stills internal migrants searching for jobs in the country’s cities. It still has 8.3 million Chinese citizens living outside its borders, and there are considerable numbers willing to dare the inhospitable deserts of Mexico to get into the US.

However, As Asia Sentinel reported on May 27, an estimated 150,000 skilled workers have returned to China from the United States over the last decade to form a new class of entrepreneurs trained in Silicon Valley and other US technology hot spots. And, as Skeldon points out, the 33 million Han Chinese living overseas represent only 2.5 percent of a population nearing 1.34 billion.

The full impact of these demographic and economic changes on immigration remains to be seen. It is too early to see any evidence of an emerging turnaround in which net emigration gives way to net immigration, as has occurred in other rapidly growing Asia economies. Also, as he says, a select few provinces – Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang have dominated the diaspora, the world’s biggest.

Today, Skeldon writes, fertility for Chinese women has fallen to 1.8 children per woman, below replacement level, with a population that is aging at a relatively fast pace. The number of people over 60 has risen from 10.4 percent at the turn of the century to 13.3 percent today, an indication that the era of surplus labor in China is coming to an end. Those numbers have been dramatized over the last year by a wave of strikes and other labor actions in Chinese factories as workers increasingly are able to assert their rights without fear of being replaced by new waves of migrants from the poorer provinces.

"Two million job vacancies were reported in the southeast coastal region of China in 2004, and labor shortages spread north into the Yangtze River and the north coastal region in 2005. To an extent, these shortages reflected bottlenecks in the labor market for certain types of workers within China, but more recent evidence suggests that the shortages may be as much structural as cyclical," Skeldon writes.

That has sparked pressure to import cheap labor from neighboring countries, including Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. The average Chinese worker earns three times the annual wage in Vietnam. Although Skeldon writes that the majority of these smuggled workers is "almost certainly of Chinese ancestry who speak Chinese," that may not be true. Ethnic Chinese continue to dominate the economy of Vietnam as well as most other Southeast Asian nations, providing jobs for their own.

Migrants, the report notes, are also coming from the Korean peninsula "in two distinct flows: the legal migration of entrepreneurs and industrialists to northern cities, and irregular flows of refuges from North Korea. China doesn’t recognize North Korean claims for asylum, although as many as 75,000 North Koreans made a run for it in 1998. That number diminished to around 10,000 in 2009 although reports of severe famine have resurfaced in North Korea in recent months, pointing to an impression of dreadful deprivation in a population already facing years of starvation and disaster and raising the possibility that the numbers of fleeing North Koreans will increase again. The report may be overstating their numbers in China as well, since Chinese Koreans are leaving for other parts of the world.

Africans as well have begun to move into China, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Mali. The majority appears to be traders, and their presence is the result of China's increasing involvement in Africa. In a trend that has been noted in other parts of the developed world, China is now experiencing immigration from areas where it has economic and political interests, Skeldon notes.

Beijing is now seeking to draft an immigration law to seek to attract the kinds of people that it needs to support its development. Many formerly developed nations, particularly Canada, the United States and Australia, have drafted immigration-friendly laws that seek to attract skilled immigrants. The US in particular lived off the skills such immigrants until 9/11, when the country drastically tightened its laws in a misguided attempt to filter out potential jihadis.

"Whatever the challenges," Skeldon writes, "it is a major sea-change for a country that has traditionally been concerned with emigration to begin dealing with immigration issues with which the developed world has been wrestling for some time."

As China develops economically and ages, perhaps the greatest consequence for migration and the West will be that China will contribute to an increasing competition for labor within the global system as it, too, must seek out workers for its labor market.

Looking Ahead: Towards Another Migration Transition?

Despite the changing flow of migrants into China, it appears that many ethnic Chinese will continue to seek opportunity outside the country.

"After a long period of little international migration, people from China began moving overseas in increasing numbers after the economic reforms of 1979," the report says "There appears to be little evidence to indicate a slowing of these migrations in the near future."

While the developed countries continue to be concerned that China could come to dominate the global migration system and change the character of destination societies, the image of an imminent wave of migration out of China may be predicated more on fear than a calculated assessment of the evidence. The sharp increase in migration over the past few decades is likely, at least partially, to have been the result of years of enforced control of international movement.

"The more likely scenario, of course, is that China will increasingly compete for migrant workers to fill gaps in its labor markets as the country’s working age population shrinks and the elderly, dependent population grows. China has truly emerged as a destination country for economic migration, and the world will be watching when China is ready to introduce and implement its new immigration policy."