Asia Europe Journal

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 25–43

China in the global migration order—historical perspectives and new trends


    • Centre for European Integration, École Supérieure des Sciences Commerciales d’Angers (ESSCA)
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10308-010-0246-y

Cite this article as:
Shen, W. Asia Eur J (2010) 8: 25. doi:10.1007/s10308-010-0246-y


China has a long history of internal and international migration and has a significant number of diasporas around the globe. From being predominately a country of emmigration, China has now witnessed growing rates of return migration, due to its rising economic status in the world. This article seeks to provide a historical review of international migration from China in different periods, from ancient China to after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It also examines the recent trends of new waves of Chinese migration such as student migration to Europe and touches on issues of government policy and the role of overseas diasporas in the course of Chinese history. By analysing a wide range of data, including published statistics and published papers, this paper illustrates the evolution of changing patterns of international migration from China and its impact for China on the rest of the world.


The presence of the Chinese population can be found at every corner of the world, from the dazzling Chinatown in San Francisco, to the busy traders’ market in Budapest, a college classroom in Sydney or on a construction site in Nairobi. Chinese migration is a large source for international migration (Skeldon 1992, 1996), and the internal migration in China is now considered to be ‘the largest migration in human history’ (New York Times 2007; Fishman 2005), with some hundreds of millions of people (mainly peasants) from rural China flooding into the urban areas—of China’s rapidly urbanising cities.

There has been a long history of Chinese migration, both internal and international. From early times in ancient China, the emperors sent citizens to explore neighbouring regions and develop trade links. Among earlier international migration waves, one notable outbound migration was led by the visit of Zheng He to South East Asia in the Ming Dynasty. The majority of the migrants from China in the nineteenth century were economic migrants under the colonial powers and usually worked as hard labourers—‘coolies’—in South East Asia and on the North American continent. Nowadays, South East Asia hosts the largest diaspora population from China. In some countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, ethnic Chinese form a substantial component of the total local population.

In the mid and late nineteenth century, migration from China became more diversified. Western Europe, Oceania and North America became popular destinations for Chinese migrants, in order to seek better economic and living opportunities. After World War II and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC), international migration from mainland China was largely disrupted because of PRC's isolation policy from the West, while migration from Hong Kong and Taiwan was not affected. After the deregulation of the PRC's restrictive policy on the movement of citizens, there have been more intensified migration waves from China, through both legal and illegal channels. Nowadays, China has become the largest migrant-sending country, according to the International Organisation for Migration. There are some 350 million Chinese living abroad—that is more than 18% of the total migrants globally, much higher than the other top two sending countries (India, 200 million, and the Philippines, 7 million). Compared to the earlier international migration from China, recent migration has a few new features: more diverse destinations and migration categories. The migration of skilled Chinese professionals, student migration (both publically and privately financed) and investment migration have become more pertinent. The choice of destination countries has also been extended from the traditional Western developed countries to even newer ‘frontier’ countries across the African continent.

Migration in ancient China

A recent report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a national think tank, in early 2007 on China as the victim of international migration stirred strong reaction from the global media coverage, including the BBC, Asia Times etc. In this report, according to CASS, China maintains a staggering diaspora population, spread out in more than 150 countries, thereby making China the world's largest source of emigrants. While most Western countries are worried about the influx of migrants, and their impact on local employment, social security and welfare system, the CASS report placed emphasis on China's brain drain and the loss of both intellectual and financial capital, which is phrased as the ‘backdrop’ of economic globalisation for China.

While the migration and diaspora communities are vast, there has been a lack of research into this phenomenon (Luo 2005; Pieke 2002). There is a need to analyse Chinese contemporary international migration systematically, and one must draw upon both the historical dimensions and recent emerging trends. What follows is a quick review of Chinese migration history. Migration in and out of China has taken place throughout the various dynasties, kingdoms, whether China was united or separated, during wartime or peaceful and prosperous eras. Chinese historical literature including Luo (2005) provides us with a concise summary of Chinese migration in the earlier period—from Qin and Han Dynasties to Ming and Qing Dynasties, there have been five major waves of migration.

Firstly, the Yong Jia Migration (307–312) resulted from the War of the Eight Princes and in the Southern and Northern Dynasties,1 as people from Northern and Central China were forced to move south which eventually led the development of agricultural production and economic centres in Southern China.

The An Shi Rebellion (755–763 A.D.) in Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.)2—this North–South migration in this period is considered by Professor Hu Huan-Yong3 as the fundamental change for the population allocation in ancient China; for the first time, the population in the South has exceeded that of the North, and the core population has also shifted from the Yangtze River area to further afield into the surrounding hinterlands of the river.

After the Jingkang Incident (1127 A.D.) and the fall of North Song Dynasty (960–1127 A.D.), part of the Royal Family of Song left for Southern China and established the South Dynasty (1127–1279 A.D.); many people escaped the siege of foreign intruders in the North and followed the royal family and moved south. The massive labour and advanced techniques from this migration resulted in a situation that by that time, the economic development in the South was now higher than in the North.

From these three early migration waves in ancient China, one can see that the main causes in these periods were domestic conflicts, civil wars and political instability. Compared to the current migration situation, migration at that time affected almost all social classes of society, from the highest within the royal family to the lowest peasants. Their impact on ancient China is also fundamental. It transformed the southern part, particularly around the Yangtze River, which benefited hugely from the influx of labour and advancement in agricultural production, as well as the integration of various cultures which changed the demography (population growth). The Yangtze River has also established its vital importance in Chinese society and its economy and challenged the Yellow River where Chinese civilisation had started and originally grown.

The latter two waves occurred in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.4 At the beginning of Ming Dynasty, the establishment of a new empire led to large-scale migration into the northern part of China, with the aim of stabilising post-war border areas and ensuring a demographic balance across the country.5 There were both urban and regional migrations. As the first capital of Ming Dynasty, Nanking (now Nanjing) benefited greatly from the urban migration of intellectuals, skilled workers and military staff etc., making it a huge metropolis with a population over one million. Later, Peking (now Beijing) experienced similar large incoming migration, when the city was chosen as the new capital of the Ming Dynasty. By that time, the city of Peking had over 800,000 inhabitants, among them, almost 90% military personnel and their family members. The rise of Peking unfortunately led to the decline of Nanking. There were also government-managed and self-organised regional migrations in the Ming Dynasty, which moved people from the south side of the Yangtze River to the north bank in areas like Sichuan (with less dense population).

China's tremendous population is said to reach an all-time high under the rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 A.D.).6 The distinguishing features of population distribution and migration in Qing times also serve as a link between the past and the present, according to Jian (2003)6 of the CASS. There were two major migration waves in the Qing Dynasty. One is to Taiwan after Koxinga7 freed the island from Dutch colonisation. Despite the anti-Qing movement in Taiwan and initial restrictions, Qing Government later supported this migration, partly because of the growing population pressure on Mainland China.

Another area which attracted migration is the border region of the Qing Empire. The northeast part of the Empire, Jilin and Heilongjiang and Liaoning are the so-called ‘Eastern Three Provinces’. Together with Inner Mongolia, they are a wide expanse of land with a thinly scattered population and attracted both domestic migrations and the attention of potential foreign invaders (Jian 2003)6. Therefore, the opening of this wide area for migration was perhaps inevitable, and the Qing government eventually lifted migration controls and allowed people to move to the Northeast China. This had a dramatic effect on the demography and economy of China. It released China's population density pressures, generated substantial revenues for the Qing Government and, at the same, this influx of Chinese migrants into these frontier areas helped strengthen the Empire's border defences against attempts of foreign intrusion. It is estimated that in 1910, the total population in the Northeast was around 1.8 million, over five times than that for the period around the year of 1840 (c.a. 300,000).8

Migrations in Chinese modern history (1840–1949 A.D.)

As we saw earlier, the early migration in China consisted of large-scale flows, mainly within the territories of different empires and surrounding border areas. There was no visible international migration until the year of 1578, when the Ming Dynasty terminated the ‘sea ban’.9 Following this, private overseas trading developed, which also resulted in an increasing migration of Chinese people to foreign countries. Qiu10 estimated that at the end of Ming Dynasty and the beginning of Qing Dynasty, there were only 100,000 Chinese migrants abroad, but 300 years later, before the Opium Wars, this number had increased to almost one million. Large international migration from China started at the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Qing Empire gradually fell apart and China became a semi-feudal and semi-colonised country with the invasion of foreign powers. Li (2007) estimated that between 1840 and 1941, every year, around 100,000 Chinese people went abroad, and there were ten million Chinese overseas in this decade.

Zhu (1994) outlined two types of international migration in China's modern history (1840–1949): the trade of hard labour—‘coolies’ to the colonisers in the earlier period and the later spontaneous migration of Chinese people because of the domestic political situation (civil wars, change of regime etc.) and international political and economic environments. There were both outbound and return migrations during these two periods.

The first period of international migration, which consists mainly of the recruitment and trade of ‘coolies’ started shortly after the First Opium War (1839–1842) following the establishment of Tait & Co in Amoy (now known as Xiamen) of Fujian, China. This trade in ‘indentured’ labourers replaced the slave trade and ran until 1920.11 The ‘coolie’ business soon attracted attention and interest from both British and American businessmen. However, the trading centre had to be moved to Shantou because of the protests of Chinese labourers in 1852. Zhu (1994) estimated that around 40,000 Chinese labourers were sent from Shantou to various coloniser countries. The trading centre was moved again to Guangzhou after the Second Opium War (1856–1860), and the ‘coolie trade’ was also legalised. Its trading network now comprised Guangzhou, Xiamen, Shantou, Macau, Hong Kong etc. Between 1864 and 1873, 1,477,700 Chinese ‘coolies’ were traded abroad from over 300 agencies in Macau alone, a peak period for the ‘coolie’ business. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, under the guidelines of the Republic of China led by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912, the ‘coolie’ trade was banned for its cruelty and consequent domestic pressure. Gradually, the trade diminished and was replaced by a freer migration period (Zhu 1994).

When speaking about the free migration era, it is compared to the ‘coolie’ pact trade from the two Opium Wars. The migration tides in this period were very much linked with the world political and economic situations, as well as domestic matters in China, including the two World Wars (WWI and WWII), civil wars, the anti-Japan war and the civil war of the Communist Party against the KMT (Kuomintang). It can be sub-divided into three timelines, as indicated in Table 1, from 1911 to 1929, 1929 to 1941 and 1941 to 1949, with reasons for both outbound and return migration explained.
Table 1

International migration in China between 1911 and 1949






Migration to Europe and the Soviet Union

Contracted labourers trade, students

Yes, for joining the revolutions in China


Very few migration

Domestic and anti-Japan wars in China

High return migration because of global economic recession


No migration during WWII

Global: World War II and Cold War

No migration activities during the WWII and some return migration after the war

Migration increased after the war

China: anti-Japan, civil (liberation) wars

Migration stopped after the birth of the PRC

Sources: summarised from Zhu 1994; Luo 2005

As we can see from Table 1, migration in this period is very diverse, both in terms of destinations, natures and sizes. Migration was greatly affected by the World Wars and wars in China. Outbound migration was accompanied by also large return migration, for example, many Chinese (including students) came back to China during the Xinhai Revolution (1911–1912) and during the global economic downtown in 1929; the Great Depression also resulted in the high return of overseas Chinese. Statistics showed that in 1931, 280,000 Chinese returned, and only around 140–150,000 went abroad; the same picture is indicated for 1932, where the returnees reached more than double outbound migration. Records from these port cities, Guangzhou, Shantou and Qiongzhou, also revealed the difference between return, and emigration was as much as 354,000 between 1930 and 1934. It was not until 1935 when this situation was reversed. After the establishment of the PRC on 1 October 1949, there was seldom emigration from China.

Like the previous period, there are no commonly defined statistics for the international migration from China. The main obstacle for this was the absence of official immigration records and statistics for emigration. Because of this, many Chinese researchers rely on the immigration data from overseas statistics (Luo 2005; Zhu 1994; Zhu 1994). An early historical research by Zhu (1994) used the data of foreign countries' migration statistical records on incoming Chinese migrants, and the archives of China's Customs and Trade Yearbooks, as well as other related publications, in order to formulate the following picture for Chinese migration between 1800 and 1925 as in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

International migration from China 1801–1825 (source: Zhu 1994)

Although Chen's estimation is based on various sources, it is the case that its reliability is still contested on a number of grounds. Firstly, the accuracy of overseas data may vary from country to country. Secondly, it only accounts for official migrants or legal migrations, and much of the ‘coolie’ trading were inevitably missing from these official statistics, because of the nature of the business. There have been much higher numbers than the ‘conservative’ estimation of Chen. Zhu (1994) lists a few examples by various Chinese scholars on Chinese records of emigration:


Five millions Chinese ‘coolies’ were transferred via Singapore to other countries (Peng et al. 1985)


3.84 million Chinese left Shantou and Hong Kong to go abroad


1.1 million Chinese left Fujian for Malaysia (50,000 p.a.)


330,000 Chinese left Fujian for India (15,000 pa)


180,000 Chinese left Xiamen (60,000 pa)


550,000 Chinese left Shandong, Hebei and other Northeast Chinese provinces to Soviet Union

Zhu also summarises a series of contradictions from overseas statistics on Chinese incoming migration in relation to Chen's record:


1.33 million Chinese migrants entered Thailand (95,000 pa)


470,000 Chinese migrants entered Thailand (33,380 pa)


270,000 Chinese migrants entered Thailand (26,800 pa)


Two million Chinese migrants entered Thailand


400,000 Chinese migrants entered Singapore

Zhu (1994) therefore has argued that the total number of international migration from China is much higher than Chen's number of three million people. In his 1994 estimation, Zhu suggested the total outbound emigration from China is around ten million between 1840 and 1941 for the first period and a smaller but also staggering number of not less than six million during the Free Migration Era, which makes a total of 16 million. However, it is still unclear regarding the total number of migrants in contemporary Chinese history. As suggested in the latest publication by Li (2007), she estimates that the total migration between 1840 and 1941 is ten million. That is on average more than 100,000 people emigrating every year. As Qiu commented, the Opium Wars knocked and opened the gates of the Forbidden City, and western products flooded into the Chinese market. At the same time, millions of Chinese migrants also left China and became labourers for the development of new colonies and global trade. He furthermore argued that Chinese migration is an important part of international migration, both the result and a causal factor for economic globalisation. It therefore should be noted that the Chinese and Chinese diasporas share critical and intrinsic connections with the globalisation of our economy.

Migration from the ‘New China’

Large-scale flow of international migration is a common phenomena in our modern history and contemporary world. Despite its large quantity, the first wave of emigration from China before WWII only accounts for roughly 10% of the total global migration. After WWII, Europe experienced one of the greatest population movements in history, both within and outside Europe. Whilst the Italians were moving to New York, ethnic Germans were expelled from Germany's lost Eastern provinces or when the French and British Governments were recruiting labourers from their former colonies, China on the contrary shut itself from the rest of the world (Pieke 2002).

The PRC was established on 1 October 1949. Rather than integrating into the global economy, the new government chose to close its doors to the outside world and concentrate on the ‘domestic construction’ and ‘self production’ of China, under the Communist ideology. China's isolation from the outside world resulted in emigration from China becoming strictly controlled, which was almost a return to Qing policies of the sixteenth century, as compared by Skeldon (1992, 1996). This worsened during the decade of the ‘Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)’. Population movement in and out of China was almost completely cut, which cost China hugely in both economic development and cultural/knowledge exchange (Luo 2005). There is also an external factor—for example, Pieke (2002) recognises timing as a critical factor: by stressing the impact of Chinese exclusion acts on making Chinese migrants impossible to enter North America after WWII.

These limited international migration activities during the early period of the New China and Chinese migrations from the periphery areas, like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia. Skeldon (1992, 1996) provides a good summary of these migratory flows:

The migration from China that did occur was primarily of students to the then Soviet Union and of specialist workers to certain developing countries such as Tanzania. Any remaining migration was within the Chinese sphere. Over one million migrants, mainly supporters of the defeated nationalist Guomindang Party, fled to Taiwan around the time of the formation of the People's Republic. An equal number of migrants went to Hong Kong at the same time, followed by a continuous, if fluctuating, flow to the British colony over the subsequent three decades. Almost half a million entered Hong Kong between 1977 and 1982, for example.

However, the most significant migrations of the Chinese in the post-war period were from the peripheral parts of the Chinese world, not only from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also ethnic Chinese from the independent countries of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Indonesia. At first, these migrations were mainly from the villages of the New Territories of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. They seemed simply a variation on those that had gone before, to the extent that they involved, initially at least, uneducated men going to engage in unskilled work. Later, and particularly with the opening up of Canada and the United States from the mid-1960s, and Australia and New Zealand from the 1970s, a new type of migration began to emerge: the movement of families and educated and skilled people.

Pieke (2002) and Watson (1976; 2004) also highlight the importance of emigration from Hong Kong's New Territories to Western Europe, arguing this as the ‘first major Chinese migration flow after the Second World War’ (Pieke 2002). The search for opportunities and employment led Hong Kong migrants spread across Europe and quickly develop their presence in different business sectors, such as catering sector. Watson (2004) commented on the transnationality of Hong Kong Chinese communities in Europe—‘a transnational community with almost seamlessly connections between the home communities in Hong Kong and a great number of European countries, while at the same time being the dominant core to settled local Chinese communities in almost every major city in Western Europe’.

Despite the visible emigration from the periphery of China, there is still virtually no migration from the mainland to the outside world. However, things were starting to change towards the end of the 1970s. One of the main drivers, argued by Pieke (2002), is the ‘gradual but fundamental’ relaxation of the country's emigration policy, which has shifted from a total ban on officially endorsed emigration during the most of 1960s to a more relaxed policy that allowed international trips and emigration. This deregulation of migration policy is part of the wider policy framework under the name of ‘Open-Door Policy’, adopted by Chinese leader, Deng Xiao-Ping in the late 1970s, as part of the effort to promote foreign trade and open the markets for economic investment.

After 1978, China saw a veritable heat wave of people going abroad for both private and business reasons. This emigration trend was further legally backed by the new ‘Law on the Control of the Exit and Entry of Citizens’, which took effective on 1 February 1986 and which explicitly confirms the legal rights of Chinese citizens for international migration. Its general provisions are listed below12:

Article 1

This law is formulated with a view to safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens with respect to their exit from and entry into China's territory and to promoting international exchange

Article 2

Chinese citizens may leave or enter the country with valid passports or other valid certificates issued by the competent departments of the State Council or other departments authorised by them. They shall not be required to apply for exit visas

Article 3

For exit and entry, Chinese citizens shall pass through open ports or other designated ports and shall be subject to inspection by the frontier inspection offices

Article 4

After leaving the country, Chinese citizens may not commit any act harmful to the security, honour or interests of their country

In addition to the legal and policy framework at the central level, economic incentives and local governments also play a role in the emigration wave. During the economic reforms and the transition from a central planning economy to a market led economy, there are considerable extra labour forces and a lay-off of workers due to the privatisation of state-owned companies. Therefore, Chinese migration part of the globalisation of migration, as argued by Pieke (2002)—‘driven by the commercialisation of emigration and more intense competition for opportunities abroad’. Xiang (2003) described this change in the government policy framework on migration as consisting of virtually all Chinese citizens who go out and in freely as long as he/she can produce a visa or other evidence of the right of legitimate entry to a foreign country.

Fujian, Zhejiang and Guangdong are some of the main migrant-sending provinces. Local governments in these provinces participated actively in the migration process. The involvement of local government in migration in China is not uncommon. At least for internal migration, the engagement of local governments can be traced back to the 1980s (Murphy 2002). They often play a key role in developing strategies to encourage migration, as Xiang (2003) observed, while central government tends to be more like a facilitator, reacting to developments which are already well underway. When studying Fujianese migration, Pieke (2004) found the export of labour to be a top priority for the local county authorities in Fujian—who are actively and self-consciously engaged in building up a ‘new overseas area’ on the model of the old overseas Chinese areas along the coast of Fujian. Recognition, public promotion/praise with regard to success stories of migrants/diasporas, support for emigrant family and training prior going abroad are typical tools used by local governments in these areas.

According to the official statistics of the Chinese Public Security Bureau (Office of the Entry and Exit Management), there has been steady increase of Chinese people cross the border (exit) of China.

As indicated in Fig. 2, there were only 210,000 people/times of border crossing in nearly two decades after the establishment of the PRC. However, merely 5 years after the ‘open-door’ policy, the border crossing has already overtaken previous 20 years' total. The 1990s and the first few years of the twenty-first century have become the golden period for the new order of Chinese migration. No doubt, the economic reforms are the most critical factor for such international population movements in China. However, there are special events which have also impacted on migration from China, for example, Li (2003) shows how the Tiananmen Square incident and its aftermath in 1989, as well as the impending return of Hong Kong to PRC, prompted large emigration from both the Mainland and Hong Kong to Canada.
Fig. 2

Chinese citizens border crossing from 1949 to 2003 (sources: Public Securities Bureau; Luo 2005)

In terms of the typologies of migration, the Public Security Bureau (in Luo 2005) estimates that nearly 600,000 Chinese emigrated abroad after the economic reform, up to 1996; among them, around 360,000 obtained permission of going abroad for settlement, and 200,000 were granted residency, following temporary settlement such as family reunification, study and employment, while some others acquired residencies via other legal migration channels. There are no standardised statistics for Chinese emigration. Many statistics with regard to overseas Chinese are done through surveys and the records of relevant Chinese ministries. For example, the Consular Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated that around one million Chinese have obtained residence permits around the globe from 1979 till 1996, while the numbers from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council suggested that two million people have emigrated abroad since the ‘Open-Door Policy’ was implemented in China (Luo 2005).

Nevertheless, from these intriguing figures, one can see the magnitude of Chinese migration in the past three decades. No wonder there have been recent forceful comments on Chinese migration, and rise of China in general, as echoing a ‘fear of the yellow peril’ within some Western media, mixed with the bitter experiences of mass migration in the past and the current migration and intense security debates. Therefore, it is very important to point out that Chinese migration is a part of the much wider and massive global population movements, which started after the post-war construction in Europe and elsewhere. Zhuang (2003) pointed out that, after the World War II till the early 1990s, there are 35 million migrants around the world, but Chinese migrants are only 12% of that, i.e. around four million, and moreover, only half of these four million are coming from Mainland China. From this, he argues, one can tell China is not a typical migration sending country, and thus any ‘yellow peril’ theory about Chinese migration does not have any valid basis.

China's continuous economic growth in the early years of the twenty-first century is also accompanied by a further expansion of Chinese communities across the world. Since 1978, more than 1.2 million students have left China to study abroad. As indicated in Table 1, in 2007 alone, China sent around 144,000 students abroad, 167 times of the 1978 figure (860) (Ministry of Education, 5 April 2008). This makes China the largest source country of international students in the world. Peter Li (2003) and Qiu estimate the total number of Chinese living abroad has now reached 33 million, spread over five continents and 151 countries. According to the International Organisation for Migration (2005), China is now the biggest sending country for overseas diasporas, which has roughly 35 million, followed by India and the Philippines, as is shown in Fig. 3.
Fig. 3

Top three migrant-sending countries (source: World Migration Report 2005)

Looking at the geographies of Chinese emigration, the most concentrated continent for overseas Chinese still remains Asia. Li (2000) explains this is due to the geographic proximity on top of earlier Chinese migration into Southeast Asia. Now, Asia accommodates around 28 million overseas Chinese, that is 80% of total Chinese diasporas in the world. There are significant Chinese communities in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. Traditional receiving countries for international migration such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Western Europe are still the most popular destinations for Chinese migrants. From 2003, the USA saw a new surge of Chinese migration, as the number of China-born population grows rapidly, as shown by the Migration Policy Institute's (MPI)13 latest data illustrated in Fig. 4.
Fig. 4

Inflow of Chinese-born population in the USA (sources: Migration Policy Institute; Data Hub 1986–2006)

There is similar picture in Canada. Before 1996, Hong Kong had always (except in 1991 when China was also number one) been the largest sending country for migrants to Canada. However, China rose to the top of the list on 1996 and has kept its number one position since, according to the MPI Global Data Hub (2007). Hong Kong did not enter top ten after 1998. Chinese migration to Oceania also has an impressive record, as China has been top three sending countries with the UK and New Zealand since 1996. Around 11,095 Chinese went to Australia in 2005, which is 1.26 times higher than the year before (8,784). China's neighbour, Japan, just reached a foreign population of two million, and among them, as Li (2007) reported, there are around 65,026 Chinese living in Japan, either legally or illegally. Europe is also a fast growing place for new forms of migration from China (Laczko 2003), for example, in the category of student migration alone, European countries such as the UK, Germany and France have seen a significant jump of incoming students from China. In the UK alone, Chinese students have become the largest group of non-EU students (Shen 2005). A Chatham House survey (2004) with 100 UK universities shows that in 2004, students from Mainland China contribute at least GBP 300 million in tuition fees alone. In some cases, the contribution by Chinese students amounts to 30% of the government grants that a university receives. Furthermore, Chinese students pay a staggering GDP 479 million in living expenses (Chatham House survey 2004: 9). A BBC news report (7 September 2005) about Chinese students in the UK concludes that international education yields more profit than export sales of arms and ammunition. It is therefore not surprising that a commentator in the New Statesman (Monro 2004) called the inflow of Chinese student ‘the migration that nobody objects to’ (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Chinese students in Europe (source: OECD)

There has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese students in France over the past decade as shown in Fig. 6. The Chinese student population increased more than tenfold between 1994 and 2002. Over 4,000 student visas were issued by the French consulates in China in 2003 (cf. Le Ministère de l'Éducation nationale, France 2004). The French statistics (see Fig. 6) also show a steady increase in the number of Chinese students enrolled in tertiary education, which reached its peak in 2004. The actual number of Chinese students in France is much higher than the official statistics show. In a People's Daily report on December 27 2005, the number of Chinese students registered with the Chinese Embassy in France had reached 20,471, an increase of 2,000 more than the previous year.14
Fig. 6

Chinese students in France (sources: OECD Education Database (1999–2006) and French Ministry of Education (2007))

According to the latest figure from the OECD and French Ministry for Higher Education and Research (2008),15 France ranks fourth among leading host countries in the OECD. With 261,000 foreign students in 2007, France is the base for 8.5% of international students in the OECD countries, behind the USA (20%), the UK (11%) and Germany (9%). Foreign national students account for 11.7% of total student numbers in France. Africa is the largest source for foreign students in France, while China has the second largest national representation, as nearly 22,500 Chinese students are studying in France in 2007, more than other industrialised countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and the USA.

The direct migration of Chinese professionals can now also be found in some other countries, as commented on by Pieke (2002), which ‘at the first sight seem strangely non-obvious, such as Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America’. As China is gaining prominence in international affairs, Chinese citizens abroad are also becoming the targets for terrorists or the victims of criminal offences (like kidnapping, robbery etc.). Media reports on Chinese victims abroad can now be frequently found in the Chinese media, especially incidents in some developing countries in Africa, Middle East and Asia, where security and political situations are not stable. Shao (2008), Deputy Head of the Consular Division, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Xinhua News16 (the State News Agency) that his division now has a total staff of 140 in Beijing, and there are more than 600 consular officers working at Chinese missions abroad, and in 2005, over 29,000 consular protection cases were handled.

Concluding remarks

According to Wei, more Chinese are leaving and coming back to China. The total number for entry and exit was 280,000 between 1949 and 1979, but already in 2005, the figure for Chinese citizens' border exit is already 3.1 million, over ten times that of the three earlier decades (1949–1979), and the figure is expected to grow more. As Wei indicates, to the end of 2004, there were already 8,000 Chinese invested companies abroad, and 1,900 Chinese organisations working in the construction, investment, project, labour, medical services, with a total personnel of 600,000 over 200 countries, many are in the developing world.

Latin America and the African sub-continent are now also hot grounds for Chinese migration. There are considerable numbers of Chinese living in Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Costa Rica. According to Li (2007) and the Peruvian Immigration and Naturalisation Bureau, Chinese have become the second largest ethnic group after the Americans. There are 4,187 Chinese in Peru, out of 36,700 foreigners living in the country. African countries like South Africa are not new destinations for Chinese migrants. The earliest Chinese arrived in South Africa in 1904 to work in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. In recent years, more Chinese from mainland China started immigrating into South Africa, increasing the Chinese population there to possibly 100,000, including illegal immigrants. There is already a visible Chinatown presence in Johannesburg (Yap and Man 1996). China's huge appetite for oil and natural resources has also led to a Chinese presence in Africa, in order to provide resource development assistance and explore business opportunities. Pioneering research has already been done by Hsu (2005) on Chinese medical practitioners in East Africa.

The migration of Chinese people is indeed a clear sign and the human face of China's accelerating globalisation and integration into the world economy. In Kerry Brown's latest publication—Struggling Giant, China in the 21st Century (2007)—he argues that when talking about China, in fact we are speaking about multiple Chinas, different faces and phases of a changing country. This is indeed applicable when studying Chinese migration, where migration itself is a fluid and changing social phenomenon. Wang Gungwu (2004), the guru on overseas Chinese studies, once commented that ‘one should carefully avoid projecting the image of a single Chinese diaspora’. In the new order of Chinese migration, there are more diverse flows than ever. Among them, the proliferation of Chinese education migration (Pieke 2004; Shen 2005, 2006) is especially significant, simply in terms of sheer numbers and the impact for both China and the hosting countries of Chinese students (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

Outgoing Chinese students and return migration, incoming foreign students (source: Chinese Statistical Yearbook (2009))

China's growing wealth and employment opportunities have attracted increasing numbers of Chinese returnees (mainly highly skilled graduates and professionals) and foreign students, marriage migrants from neighbouring countries, African businessmen in Guangzhou, Arab tradesmen in Yiwu, all gradually making China a new destination country for different forms international migration. As illustrated in Fig. 5, already in 2004, there have been more foreign students coming to China than Chinese students going abroad, whilst the return migration of Chinese students and professionals is also on the rise. As the consequences of China's ageing population and impact of ‘One Child Policy takes hold, China may face the prospect of becoming a net immigration country and will compete for labour force, at both high and low ends of the migration spectrum. This change of migration flows and patterns will not only have an impact on the Chinese economy. It will also bring challenges and opportunities to Chinese society and issues of ethnicity.


Southern and Northern Dynasties, 420–589 A.D., a period of civil war and disunity.


Tang Dynasty, one of China's most influential periods as it reached its height of power. The prosperity of the Empire was largely destroyed by the An Shi Rebellion.


See the ‘Reasons and Impact of North–south Migration in Chinese History: (last accessed: 24 July 2007).


Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 A.D.), Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 A.D.).


Detailed information on migration in Ming Dynasty can be found at in Chinese by Mr. Cao Shu-Ji, Institute of Historical Geography, Fudan University, Shanghai, China (last accessed: 26 July 2007).


Jian Tao, Population Distribution and Migration in Qing China 1644-1911, The Humanities Study, 2003/05/23, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Beijing, China (last accessed 26 July 2007):


In Chinese, Zheng Cheng-Gong, was a military leader at the end of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, was a prominent leader of the anti-Qing movement opposing the Qing Dynasty and a general who defeated the Dutch to claim Taiwan in 1662.


Detailed reference in Chinese: Peaks of Human Migration in Chinese History, (last accessed: 26 July 2007).


Sea Ban, in Chinese ‘Hai Jin’, was a ban on maritime activities during China's Ming Dynasty and again during the Qing Dynasty, which was intended to curb piracy, the ban proved ineffective for that purpose, while imposing huge hardships on coastal communities.


Detailed reference in China: Economic Globalization and Chinese International Migration, (last accessed: 26 July 2007).


More details information about the Tait family can be found at: (last accessed: 27 May 2007).


The full text of this legal document can be viewed on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: (last accessed: 30 July 2007).


People's Daily: Over 20,000 Chinese Students and Scholars Study in France (Dec/27/2005) (last accessed: Oct 2007).


Invest in France Agency: Attracting talent, one of France's key priorities: (last accessed: March 2009).


Detailed news report in Chinese can be found on Xinhua News Agency's website: (last accessed: 31 July 2007).


Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010