Leavening China

The Jingbao railway from Beijing to Inner Mongolia cuts across the eastern side of Beijing's Wudaokou subway station and the center of the city's student district, a cluttered hub of restaurants, Korean television rooms and clubs with names like "Propaganda."

As a train hauls past, Bang Yu Sun, a 28 year-old Korean student in her last year at Beijing Institute of Technology, waits with a motley group of Chinese students in PE uniforms, a pair Korean boys wearing tuxedo jackets turned into shirts, a street peddler and a blonde girl on a bicycle. Bang explains that she can tell the Korean boys by their black-rimmed glasses.

Bang, or Gloria, the English name her dad gave her, is one of some 200,000 foreign students pursuing international degrees and studying Mandarin on the outskirts of Beijing, an area home to China's prized universities Peking University and Tsinghua. She is also just one of perhaps a million South Koreans who have migrated to China, 50 years ago a deadly enemy and Cold War adversary for the next 30-odd.

Relations were normalized in 1992 between Seoul and Beijing (at the expense of Taiwan). Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the number of Koreans in China has increased 40 percent each year. In 2006, experts anticipated the Korean community to reach over 1 million.

In a xenophobic country where the Han Chinese consider themselves the favored inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom and those on the edges to be barbarians, the Korean influx is just a part of a profound and unsettling change. Professor Adams Bodomo of Hong Kong University, who studies the African diaspora in China, predicts that in two or three decades, we'll start to see the growth of a diverse, multicultural Chinese society as result of these foreign communities.

"Instead of Chinese-Americans, you'll have Korean Chinese, African Chinese, European Chinese and American Chinese," he says. "The lesson is that China is an attractive place. It's a success story and people want to be part of it. It's a lesson in globalization."

Nearly indistinguishable from the locals of their host country aside from a smarter dress sense, the Korean expatriates disperse themselves among cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao, the port city of China's favorite export, Tsingtao beer. Shenyang and Tianjin, Beijing's little brother to the southeast, are also home to growing Korean enclaves.

Although a weakening won and falling export sales have sent many home, that is expected to be temporary and hegira will turn to diaspora once again when the economic picture reverses. Bang and her family's friends living in Beijing's second Korean district of Wangjing represent one of the first examples of a foreign enclave really taking root. With Korean-serviced restaurants, hair salons, postal service and a park for old men to walk slowly with their hands clasped behind their backs, these insulated Koreatowns are not unlike the Chinatowns bringing dim sum and taijiquan to Western cities abroad.

The existence of communities like Koreatown is significant in a country with no recent history of immigration. As the economic downturn has deepened, other pockets of foreign communities are making themselves known as well. Westerners have been moving to cheaper, second-tier cities like Kunming in Yunnan province. Chris Horton, founder of the city's English-language portal for Kunming and Yunnan, GoKunming.com, said that the last two to three months have seen the largest upsurge in foreigner numbers since World War II. In February, Africans in Guangzhou figured into a New Yorker article by Beijing-based journalist Evan Osnos, who wrote that taxi drivers refer to the area populated by merchants mostly from Nigeria as "Chocolate City." Here you can buy mobile phones, second-hand appliances or an hour of sex, all in the Canaan market.

However, the possibility of China serving not only as the world's financial savior, but the next land of opportunity is hindered by an exclusive and ambiguous immigration policy. It was only recently that the government began to allow its own economic migrants to move around its own country, let alone come in from overseas. Visa restrictions that tightened around the Olympics have continued. Foreigners coming in to work must now have two years of experience after university, a measure that cuts out a large chunk of graduates looking to teach English right out of school. It was only 2003 that Beijing cancelled restrictions on where foreigners had to live.

In 2003, the Chinese government created a long-term "Alien Permanent Residence Permit,' a Chinese green card that grants foreigners multiple entry over 10 years, the right to work, lease a home, drive a car, send kids to Chinese schools or open a business. The goal was to bring in top talent to major cities and the approvals are highly selective. Eligible foreigners are senior advisors, scholars or top managers hired by state-related institutions (ministerial-level Chinese organizations, state companies or one of the top universities), internationally distinguished foreign-born Chinese, those who have made significant contributions to the city and high rollers who have invested more than US$500,000 in their Chinese city.

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Moreover, the option for naturalization is not available for most foreigners. Bokhee Stevenson, the Korean liaison at the International Academy of Beijing, is married to an American and has lived in Beijing since 1995. She says China is their home and that they have no plans to leave. She raised both her kids, now 17 and 13, in China but neither can be considered Chinese since citizenship is only available to those with immediate blood relatives or Chinese spouses.

"It won't be as easy to stay in China as it is in the US. I've been here for 18 years and still I can't stay [forever]," she says.

Indeed, many Koreans are going on 10, 20 years in China, bringing with them cash, culture and business, and their recent exodus has been felt. In March, the departure of at least 20,0000 Koreans from Beijing made the cover story of the Chinese magazine CBN Weekly. With tuition costs doubling, international schools whose Korean student populations were as high as 40 even 80 percent saw enrollment levels dip as Korean families pulled their kids out of schools to return home. Housing prices dropped 20 percent. Even prices of vegetables at the market have gone down, stall owners say, because of the departure of almost half their clientele.

In Shandong province where the densest Korean community is invested in the port city of Qingdao, home of China's favorite export Tsingtao beer, dozens of factories have closed in the night leaving unpaid landlords and workers at a loss.

Historically, immigration from one country to the next is led in huge part by trade. Indeed, Korea and China's trade relationship is close, a balancing act between competition and cooperation. On Monday, South Korea's Ministry of Strategy and Finance issued an eight-page memo worrying that China, with recent currency swap arrangements that enable the use of the yuan in international trade settlements, will edge Seoul out of export markets in Asia. Nonetheless, China is South Korea's largest trade partner and investment destination, with trade volume at $168 billion in 2008 and nearly 20,000 Korean companies operating in Shandong.

Looking ahead to an FTA agreement between the two countries slated for 2010, the number of Koreans moving to China from Korea should continue to swell. Already it's said to be the single biggest outmigration in Korean history.

Indeed, the Koreans may be able to incorporate into the already recognized minority group, the Korean Chinese or Chaoxianzu, descendents of Korean immigrants in northeast China. Because of their Asian appearance and common Confucian-based cultural values, they have been able slip into the Chinese community almost undetected. However, as more foreigners chase economic success to China, the extent that modern cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou will become multicultural hives is still uncertain.

Dr. James Leibold from LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia has been researching multiculturalism in China and writes for the popular blog China Beat.

"There's a tension going on in China where the state wants to create a more cosmopolitan, outward looking Chinese identity that can incorporate elements of Western modernity, "he says. "It's the image of a new global superpower. But there are narratives working against it like racism and how identity is regulated."

Leibold explains that Koreans or overseas Chinese may have an easier time being accepted into Chinese society or even becoming nationals. But white westerners like him, no matter how long his stay in China or if he raises a Chinese family, will probably never be considered Chinese. As a result of imperialism, he says, "There is still a strong ‘othering' that occurs between the Chinese and the West."

Even in regards to its own 56 minority groups, China has not created a melding society of languages and cultures blending together easily. Leibold calls China's acceptance of its minority groups a Leninist-style multiculturalism. He cites Beijing's Ethnic Minority Park, formerly mistranslated as "racist park," as an example of China's need to neatly categorize and separate its cultural groups. Some groups are still unrecognized, such as the Chinese Jews.

"I do not think China is a melting pot," Leibold said. "As China rises, it wants to include people. It needs them, but at the same time these racial tensions arise and will always be there. If you're talking about people that look different, speak different languages and living side by side, I think that type of global village is a long way off, not just in China but elsewhere too."