Migration from China.

Author:Skeldon, Ronald
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

Tradition holds that the Chinese were a non-migratory people: Generally speaking, no Chinese will leave his home to seek his fortune at a distance unless he is in some way driven to do so ... No Chinese leaves his home not intending to return. His hope is always to come back rich, to die and be buried where his ancestors are buried.

Yet, the reality was different. Southward expansion is one of the great themes of Chinese history as the Han, over the centuries, progressively colonized beyond the Yangzi.(2) Warfare and famine led to complex patterns of expulsion and flight. In times of peace and prosperity, thousands moved to towns, as sojourners perhaps, with the intention of returning, but spending most of their lives from their homes. The inhabitants of southern China had broader horizons, as Sterling Seagrave has shown in a recent, somewhat swashbuckling book, and they established trading diasporas throughout what is now Southeast Asia and beyond into the Indian Ocean.(3) The Northern Chinese, on the other hand, rarely looked beyond the bounds of the Middle Kingdom -- until recently, when their leaders realized that if China was to regain the position it had held as the world's largest economy for so much of human history, it must come to some kind of accommodation with the increasingly interdependent global community.

Population migration is very much part of that accommodation as it is a clear physical link between China and the international economy. The recent evolution of movements, not just from China but also from the peripheral areas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which make up what can be called "Greater China," will be considered in this article. A major theme is that the recent patterns cannot be understood without some appreciation of past migration. While there are significant differences between present movement from China and past migrations, there are also important continuities, and these can best be appreciated within an evolutionary framework.

Three very broad periods are identified in the recent history of China. The first is the hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The middle of the nineteenth century is but an approximate time to start our considerations. Hong Kong was established as a British colony in 1841 and emigration began almost immediately thereafter.(4) The year 1860, however, is perhaps a more appropriate beginning point as in that year the late Qing restrictions on emigration were lifted and the Chinese accepted that their nationals had the right to go overseas.(5) Although migration from China had occurred before the mid-nineteenth century and trade was sponsored during the Ming dynasty, emigration was never officially encouraged an there were periods under the Oing when it was banned totally and returned migrants might pay with their lives.(6) The period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century was one of pronounced, if fluctuating, emigration to various destinations dominated by males who saw themselves going overseas temporarily While there were those who settled permanently, this period, for a variety of reasons, was dominated by sojourners.

The second period covers the socialist economy of Mao Zedong and his immediate successors from the formation of the People's Republic in 1949 to the end of 1978. This was a period during which, as before 1850, there were times when migration in general was tightly controlled by the state and emigration was essentially prohibited.

In December 1978, at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, China shifted direction toward a more open economy through the road to "socialist modernization." Formal diplomatic links with the United States were established from 1 January 1979, formally representing the linking of China to the outside world. This third period, from the beginning, of 1979, saw migration increase in volume, not to levels seen during the first period perhaps, but in terms of complexity and in the types of migrants involved. This article will focus primarily on this increasing complexity since 1979, but will first consider briefly the earlier periods to provide an essential backdrop against which more recent movements can be viewed.

The Emigration between 1850 and 1949

Although the Chinese have been moving for centuries, it was only in the nineteenth century that the diaspora began in earnest. Discoveries of gold in the mountains of the Western United States from 1848, in Southern Australia from 1851, and in Western Canada from 1858 set in motion a flow of people from China that, over the next eight decades, would include millions of individuals. The vast majority of migrants were never involved in gold-mining and never reached the more distant destinations, but those returning in the earliest periods were instrumental in spreading information about a world beyond the confines of Chinese towns and villages. Some left China as free migrants, paying their own way. Many more left as indentured or contract laborers enlisted directly by governments or by labor recruiters. Yet others left on the "credit-ticket" system where their expenses were advanced to them and they were expected to pay off their debts after reaching their destination.(7) The vast majority of the migrants were males who expected to return home to their families or to marry after their time overseas. They were the sojourners, and the fact that many died outside of China or became trapped through indebtedness or inertia does not deny the essentially circular nature of this migration system.(8) However, Chinese did settle overseas, particularly where women also migrated, or were allowed to. Hence, large and fairly stable overseas communities had been established before the outbreak of the Second World War with between 8.5 and 9 million Chinese outside of China, the vast majority of whom were in Southeast Asia, or the Nanyang.(9) The network was, however, much more extensive, with communities established throughout Spanish America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, South Africa, North America and Australasia.

This emigration from China was highly localized and controlled through those parts of China annexed as colonies: Hong Kong, Macau and the "treaty ports," that is, the ports from which foreign merchants were allowed to trade. Hong Kong and Macau, on either side of the Pearl River Delta in South Central Guangdong Province, and Amoy and Shantou (Swatow) in Eastern Guangdong were the principal ports. In the hinterlands, the origins of the migrants were yet more localized. The movements to North America were almost entirely from four districts in the Western Pearl River Delta and mainly from one of these districts, Taishan (Toishan). Origins in Eastern Guangdong and Fujian were equally localized and the limited number of surnames among the overseas Chinese has been observed, reflecting the dominance of a small number of lineages and villages in the process.(10) The migration demonstrates a classic chain effect based upon areas of quite limited extent.

It has been estimated that, between the 1850s and 1939, over six million people moved from Hong Kong alone. Some individuals however, would have made several overseas trips in their lifetimes.(11) In the 1850s, the vast majority moved to North America and Australia while, from the 1870s onwards, Singapore and the Malay states emerged as the principal destinations. This switch in destination was brought about by two concurrent processes. First, the "great white walls" of the exclusion policies were progressively erected around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- policies specifically designed to keep Asians out.(12) Second, the colonial governments in Southeast Asia, primarily the British, were seeking labor to develop the economies of territories they were rapidly absorbing.

By the turn of the century, over 100,000 people a year were leaving both Hong Kong and Amoy for the Nanyang. The vast majority were almost certainly poor peasants from villages and small towns in Southern China ho left to become laborers in both rural and urban activities, but migrants also included free settlers. They left an impoverished Southern China to work tin and develop market gardening in the Malay peninsula, to open up tobacco and rubber plantations in Sumatra and Sarawak respectively and to become rickshaw pullers and prostitutes in Singapore.(13) Also, a minority who had considerable urban experience, and some education and capital moved to extend trade and entrepreneurial activities. Perhaps of greatest significance, however, was that the destination areas provided opportunities for poorer migrants to become successful through hard work and personal contracts. There was thus considerable scope for economic and social mobility, resulting in a much greater range of Chinese migrants in terms of background and activities.

By the 1930s, with the recession in the capitalist world, Southeast Asian destinations were becoming restricted to further Chinese immigration. This was followed by 12 years of disruption caused by the Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, and the civil war between the Communist and Kuomintang armies. This period culminated with mass exoduses of two to three million people to Hong Kong and Taiwan upon the triumph of the Communist party in 1949. China subsequently isolated itself from the capitalist world and relatively few were able to leave. The great phase of migration that had formed the basis of a global network of overseas Chinese was over. That basis is fundamental for any analyses of current migration as, since the mid-1960s, Chinese have progressively been drawn into a new phase of emigration which clearly builds upon the global network established by earlier migrations.

Emigration between 1950 and 1978

The period from...

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