As an American, I’ve grown up with the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” buzz words of our immigration nation. But when I lived in Beijing from 2013 to 2018, everyday interactions made it clear that China does not have the same history or tradition of immigration as the U.S.. So I turned to a favorite, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) to learn more. Their report, How immigration is shaping Chinese society, lays out some of the key themes of China’s uncertain journey to becoming an immigration country.
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to immigration. In 10 pages, the report touches on talent and demographics, integration and discrimination, and geopolitics and policy. Mercator provides some recommendations throughout the report, but given the breadth of topics covered, the report is setting out broad contours rather than building up a case based on evidence. This report was a great way to whet the appetite, but a satisfying exploration requires a deeper excavation, and more data.
Why are immigrants coming to China, and does China need them? The report never fully answers these questions.
MERICS mentions that foreign residence in China is fueled by rising demand for labor and skills, but states that the Chinese government does not view immigration as the answer to population aging or a shrinking workforce. For the most part, the Chinese government is reactively absorbing immigrants.
In contrast to countries like Singapore (“multiracial society”) and the United States (“a nation of immigrants”), there is “no structural position for immigrant groups in the Chinese nation” (9). Interestingly, immigration in China is an incidental means to an end, not the outcome of, or stepping stone towards, a common ideal.
The Chinese government also does not strive towards long term diversity and multiculturalism for immigrant populations, or even integration: “Both before and after 1949 China’s reception and treatment of diversity has not been predicted on ideas of shared rights. The aim was not to incorporate foreigners and other non-Chinese, but to insulate Chinese society from them.” (4)
To better understand the role of immigration in China, we need more information. Where do immigrants to China come from, in what numbers, and for what reasons?
Perhaps this type of data is hard to come by. MERICS cites China’s 2010 census (for a total foreign population of 1 million) and a 2018 statistic on the number of border crossings in and out of China by foreign nationals (95 million). And though the report mentions multiple immigrant types (high earning expats, students, low-skilled labor, marriage migrants, Koreans, Africans), it does not provide precise numbers, an analysis of the motivations behind these waves of migration, or the rationale for why China has accepted these groups into its borders. It also does not mention that, in practice, there is no real path to citizenship in China.
A more conclusive description of today’s immigrant groups in China, might help us discern whether there is a long term place for immigrants in China’s societal structure.
“Chinese” by race, ethnicity, or nationality
The Chinese government views immigration through a race and ethnicity lens. This can be seen in their treatment of the diaspora population which is considered to include Chinese citizens living abroad, as well as racial and ethnic Chinese, who are not Chinese citizens.
Many observers claim that the Chinese government (and Party) conceive of racial/ethnic Chinese as a single group that transcends national borders (for one rebuttal see Peking University professor Wu Xiaoan’s op-ed on ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia). This contrasts with the hyphenated identities of immigrants who become citizens (or are second or third generation immigrants) in the U.S. In the U.S. mental model, once you become a citizen you are no longer “Chinese” but “Chinese-American”.
MERICS gives a few examples of Chinese government policies designed to attract racial/ethnic Chinese regardless of their nationality (the reader is to assume that Chinese means Han Chinese). For example, when the government began allowing permanent residents in the early 2000s, it prioritized ethnic Chinese (5). President Xi Jinping has also consistently emphasized the importance of “overseas Chinese” as a “key resource in advancing China’s position in the world” (6).
The Chinese government has created preferential policies and talent plans that form a call to a racial/ethnic imperative, and assume that even second and third generation overseas Chinese might feel affinity to the motherland.
Even as China’s immigration framework evolves, this racial/ethnic lens will continue to be an underlying principle, creating a potentially poisonous nexus of questioned loyalties of Chinese (citizens and non citizens) outside of China, and stoked nationalist fervor at home.
African residents in Guangzhou, South Asia textile traders in Zhejiang Province, Koreans in Beijing, and Western school teachers, business executives, and young professionals in first-tier cities all face different perceptions and treatment in China — in part based on their race/ethnicity.
But there is no guiding principle either in policy or practice for how local communities should absorb them. In fact, the report argues, there is a trend toward intolerance to ethnic and racial difference, fed by increasing nationalism and ethnic chauvinism (2).
One of the more forceful recommendations the MERICS report makes is the need for “a more fundamental approach to social inclusion of foreign residents,” which is “indispensable for social harmony”. The report then argues that this will make China “a much more diverse society” (10).
It might be in China’s own best interest to conceive of a more sustainable and tolerant means of absorbing immigrant groups. But given the country’s lack of experience with immigration, and the government’s assumption that citizenship has an inherently racial component, China’s relationship with immigration will unfold in its own unique way.
Furthermore, immigrants in China step into an already complicated and shifting ethnic landscape, home to 56 ethnic groups. The government has not always known what to do with these ethnic groups, and in recent years has taken a more aggressive assimilationist approach.
I would bet that China’s immigration story does not necessarily mirror the path towards a “diverse society” that other countries have sought.
The geopolitical dimension
Finally, though the Chinese government lacks a fully evolved policy framework for immigration, there have been efforts to surgically use immigration for specific policy goals.
The report mentions China’s Thousand Talents Plan, where funding and other incentives are used to attract high-level scientists and researchers to work and conduct research in China. You can also point to the ongoing, tit-for-tat around journalist visas for foreign reporters.
As MERICS states, immigration and immigrants are “ increasingly turned into a weapon in the contestation between China and the U.S.” (10). The Thousand Talents Plan flew under the radar until recently, where political backlash in the US has led law enforcement and politicians to accuse the program of facilitating corporate espionage and IP theft.
With the end of the U.S.-China tensions nowhere in sight (and likely to intensify in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election) there will continue to be retaliatory actions from both governments.
MERICS is right to highlight Chinese-Americans, and foreign nationals in China, as potential collateral.
Does China need immigration?
The MERICS report supports its claim that the Chinese government’s immigration policy does not address long term challenges, nor China’s emerging demographic transition. But it scrapes the surface of a larger, more interesting, question: how much does China really need immigration?
China has proven successful in pursuing its own style of economic and industry development within the WTO-based trading system, and has managed to build and sustain its own “sovereign internet”.
It is possible that the Chinese Communist Party and government will pursue a similarly closed off attitude when it comes to the long-term structural role of immigrants in China.
What are the factors that will determine whether the Chinese government decides to embrace immigration, or to further clamp down its borders? Does this change in a post-Covid19 world, where foreign investment and mobility are increasingly precious?
While the Chinese government might not want immigration, and all its attendant complications, it might end up needing it.
This is a report on a report, or Report Squared. In this series I react to a research report on a topic related to technology and business, China, or innovation. All opinions are my own.