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Return migration and economic turmoil: experiences of repatriated Chinese professionals in Shanghai, China


From 2007, the economic turmoil in the USA has had a dramatic impact on immigrant populations living within the nation’s borders. One such group is Chinese migrants who came to the USA as students in the 1980s and 1990s. This paper focuses on a segment of this population—medical professionals—who obtained graduate degrees in the USA and subsequently stayed on to work in pharmaceutical or health industries in Philadelphia’s metropolitan area. As a result of the economic crises in the USA and also the burgeoning market in China, pharmaceutical companies have begun to repatriate some of these Chinese professionals. This paper will examine reflections on the return experience to Shanghai, which has developed rapidly to become the most commercialized modern city in China as a result of the market reform initiated in 1979. I argue that neoliberal ideology in the USA not only forces these Chinese immigrants back to China, but also challenges their concepts of identity and citizenship, including cultural citizenship. This paper also examines the ways in which processes of change are affected by global capitalism and neoliberalism.

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  1. 1.

    Before the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, there was a national origins quota system which limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted to the USA according to its nation of origins. Moreover, the system restricted immigrants with certain national origins, such as Eastern Asians, which included Chinese immigrants.

  2. 2.

    According to the definition of The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (, third preference visas (Employment Based-3) are issued to workers who perform work “for which qualified workers are not available in the United States”.

  3. 3.

    In this article, Liu and Cheng point out that after 1965, the relatively unstable political situations and slow economic growth in Asian countries led to a workforce surplus of highly educated Asians.

  4. 4.

    Some families are separated owing to the unexpected job relocation to China of one of the parents. Some families choose to leave their children in the USA with relatives or boarding schools for education while parents go to China together. Some families choose to stay in the USA, while the parent goes to China alone for his/her job. Moreover, these Chinese returnees tend to reside in certain districts in Shanghai.

  5. 5.

    Ethnographic research was undertaken in Philadelphia from 2007 to 2009, and 5 months of this period were spent in Shanghai from June to October 2009. I also collected media footage to make a documentary film about my research subjects. Within this time period, I participated in their cultural institutional activities as a participant observation and conducted household surveys, as well as both structured and open-ended interviews with members of twenty families in each location. Personal life history interviews were done with ten selected individuals. During my fieldwork in Shanghai, I stayed with a Chinese returnee host family and through informal interactions with them and with others in social gatherings and through formal interviews, I obtained insights and opinions of their lives in Shanghai.

  6. 6.

    United States.

  7. 7.

    The Philadelphia Mainline includes towns locate along the Regional Rail Number 5, which started from Philadelphia center city (Suburban Station) to the northwest suburban areas Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Villanova, Radnor, St. Davids, Wayne, Strafford, Devon, Berwyn, Daylesford, and Paoli.

  8. 8.

    Goode and Schneider point out the race of Philadelphia residents is a vital component in Philadelphia’s history. Reduced racial tension is one of the main foci of the city’s improvement since 1990s.

  9. 9.

    According to Weigley, Philadelphia has served as a port city and developed its trade business under Penn’s plan in the seventeenth century. Most of the early population were Quakers, but later other European immigrants moved in as Philadelphia grew as a trading port. The nearby area (The Philadelphia Mainline) from Philadelphia to Lancaster has been developed into farmland by immigrants from Europe, mainly from Germany.

  10. 10.

    When Jewish residents moved into the Philadelphia Mainline area in 1960s, they were not welcomed by old European residents since being Jewish was considered inferior. See Brodkin (1998), Goode and Schneider (1994), and Weigley (1982).

  11. 11.

    In my interview with Chinese professionals, all of them point out the immigrate to the USA to pursue the “American dream”—defined as to own a big house and a nice car, and enjoy the great living environment. Chinese Christian informants add religious freedom as the additional element.

  12. 12.

    West Chester is located about 20 miles west of Philadelphia. Exton is located about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, and North Wales is located about 20 miles north of Philadelphia.

  13. 13.

    These professionals maintain their identities and social connections by participating in cultural activities held by people from their hometown or organizations from their hometown.

  14. 14.

    As many Chinese informants in Philadelphia Mainline told me, they are not able to participate in the political activities in the town where they reside because of language and culture barriers.

  15. 15.

    Unless intimately familiar with the diversity within and among Chinese migrants and transnationals, Westerners generally identify people who appear “Asian” as Asians (it is a “blanket” term not-unlike European). For more information about pan-Asian ethnicity, see Espiritu (1992), Lopez and Espiritu (1990).

  16. 16.

    Modern Chinese culture here mainly refers to the period of Chinese culture from 1949 when the communist took over China to the present. During this period of time, China experienced political economic and social structure movements through Mao and post-Mao period.

  17. 17.

    Giroux (2005). Giroux points out that neoliberal practices in politics fail to provide function for the society but turns services (i.e. schools and citizenships) to profit-making commodities, and a form of orders to follow (p. 2).

  18. 18.

    The neoliberal ideology is implied in government policies in China. China is carrying out what Ong and Zhang called “its variant style of neoliberalism” in China’s regulation and government control (Zhang and Ong 2008).

  19. 19.

    Having a guanxi network is essential for a successful career in China. As a kind of social connection, guanxi is built by giving and returning favors and gifts. Since many important decisions are made in non-transparent ways, it is essential to have guanxi with the decision makers in order to achieve success.

  20. 20.

    According to my informants, pharmaceutical companies they worked for closed whole departments in the USA. Some choose to relocate these departments to China for lower costs and to be close to the burgeoning Chinese market. Owing to confidentiality issues, I am not allowed to reveal further details of this situation.

  21. 21.

    All Chinese informants I interviewed told me that they thought they would stay in the USA for their rest of their lives since they have been there for more than a decade. They all bought properties and raised their children in the USA and saw it as their permanent residence. The relocation raised unexpected challenges to their lifestyle and family.

  22. 22.

    Even though they have been to the USA for more than a decade, these Chinese professionals always refer China as their motherland.

  23. 23.

    In Shanghai, people call Chinese with non-Chinese passports “waijirenshi” to distinguish them from foreigners (“waiguoren” 外国人).

  24. 24.

    My informants from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan retain their British, Portugal, and Taiwan passports while having US passport at the same time. Some of them have Canadian, Australian, and Swiss passports in addition to their US passports.

  25. 25.

    For this research, I interviewed twenty Chinese returnee families in Shanghai (which included married couple with children or a single parent with children) with their children in present (if they are available). Interviews were conducted at places of informants’ choice, but mostly at their home in Shanghai. Eighteen families are relocated to Shanghai by pharmaceutical companies, and two families came to Shanghai for their own business.

  26. 26.

    Guanxi is a powerful Chinese-style social network which is practiced through gift and favor giving. See Yang (1994).

  27. 27.

    For more information, see Wu (2002).

  28. 28.

    Jinwairenshi (境外人士) receive special treatment as regulated by another set of laws, thus allowing them more of the benefits of living in Shanghai than people without Shanghain residency.

  29. 29.

    According to P. R. China law of gathering and protest which passed on October 31, 1989, in the seventh law, it says: permission must be obtained for gathering and protesting for a gathering of more than four people. Original text is available at

  30. 30.

    Solinger argues that the two-class structure—urban and rural divide—has been emerging in cities as another closed-class structure since the 1990s in China.

  31. 31.

    Construed as socially inappropriate (i.e. rude) by those accustomed to Western norms of “proper” social behavior.

  32. 32.

    In order to protect my informants’ identity, informants’ names used in this article are changed into pseudonyms.


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Correspondence to Shu Fan Wen.

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Wen, S.F. Return migration and economic turmoil: experiences of repatriated Chinese professionals in Shanghai, China. Dialect Anthropol 37, 363–382 (2013).

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  • Transnationalism
  • Return migration
  • Neoliberalism
  • Modern China