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The Past Decade of Migration from the People’s Republic of China to Europe and Asia

Workshop sponsored by the European Science Foundation Asia Committee
and the Economic and Social Research Council Transnational Communities Programme
Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, 26-27 May 2000
Organisers: Pál Nyíri (University of Oxford) and Igor R. Saveliev (Niigata University)


Movement of people from the People's Republic of China to Europe and Asia has both increased in volume and become more diverse in channels in the last decade. The Chinese catering enterprise has spread to Southern and Eastern Europe. Self-financed language and college study, especially in England and Japan, has increased. Chinese traders have created large markets and new Chinese communities from Eastern Europe and Russia to Burma. Smuggling of Chinese migrants by "snakeheads" has become a returning theme in European and Japanese media. Chinese contract labourers have appeared in Russia, Japan, and Singapore. Tour groups and trade delegations have become common and are catered to by Chinese-owned travel agencies in Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Individuals often participate in several of these diverse flows at the same time or shift from one to the other. Yet only in two cases have Chinese migration flows to Asia and Europe been treated within a single perspective. One is Russian scholarship, which by necessity includes labour and trade migration both across the border to the Russian Far East and to the European part of Russia. Most of this scholarship is not available in Western languages. The other is research on trafficking in migrants, written overwhelmingly from the standpoint of North American receiving countries. Our workshop aimed to bring together academics from different fields in order to piece together disjoint and partly unpublished empirical knowledge, and analyse them together with the help of renowned migration scholars. In doing so, we wanted to take into account forms of migration traditionally excluded from its discussion: the movements of students and tourists. Our aim was to treat Chinese international migration in the last decade within a single perspective that would link shifts between countries, roles and legal/illegal status chosen by migrants with expediencies for social mobility in China and policies of government agencies in China that influence such mobility.

The workshop succeeded in bringing together 37 anthropologists, sociologists, demographers, political scientists and economists, as well as journalists, government and NGO workers from 14 countries who have researched migration from the PRC into Europe, Northeast Asia (Russia, and Japan), and Southeast Asia. Most papers disclosed empirical findings and statistics previously unavailable in English or in any language. We take the fact that most participants have not heard of each other previously as a measure of success in avoiding the club-meeting character of some workshops. The first concrete result of new acquaintanceships are application by Junko Tajima and Igor Saveliev for Toyota Foundation grants to support comparative research projects on Chinese migrants in Europe and Japan.

The following is a list of papers presented:


Panel I: Migration from the PRC to Europe and Russia: empirical reviews and case studies (Jean-Philippe Béja, chair)

Marc Paul, "Demographic change in Chinese clandestine immigration in Paris in the light of NGO statistics"

Gladys Nieto. "Chinese Organisations in Spain in the 1990s"

Vilya G. Guelbras, "The Statistics of the Chinese in Russia"

Anatoly M. Shkurkin, "Chinese on the labour market in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East"

Panel II: Migration from the PRC to Asia: empirical reviews and case studies (Ronald Skeldon, chair, Dudley Poston, Jr., discussant)

H. Richard Friman, "Evading the Divine Wind through the Side Door: The Transformation of Chinese Migration to Japan"

Bertil Lintner, "Illegal Aliens Smuggling to and through Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle"

Penny Edwards, "P.R.C. Migration and Shifting Discourses of Chineseness in Sino-Cambodian Relations"

Go Bon Juan, "Old and New Immigrants from China: Comparative Dimensions"

Kyoko Tanaka, "New Chinese immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore"

Karsten Giese, "Irregular migration from Fujian to Taiwan: a comparison with other Asian and European destinations"

Panel III: Migrant groups from boat people to students: one migration or several? (David Kyle, chair, Liu Xin, discussant)

Cheng Xi, "Brain Drain and New Migrants: The Mainland Chinese Students in Japan and Europe Since the 1970s"

Li Minghuan, "The Chinese liuxuesheng group in the Netherlands"

Tadao Furumaya, "From student to illegal worker: Chinese migrants in Japan"

Junko Tajima, "Residential patterns and entrepreneurship of new Chinese migrants in Tokyo"

James K. Chin, "Gold from the Lands Afar: New Fujianese Emigration Revisited"

Panel IV: Migration and discourses of power in China and the diaspora (Frank Pieke, chair)

Mette Thunĝ, "Policies Concerning, ‘Domestic Overseas Chinese’ and the impact on the construction and development of qiaoxiang areas"

Veronique Poisson, "Case Studies of Places of Worship Before 1949 and in the 1990s: a Comparative Approach – South Zhejiang and Overseas"

Carine Guérassimoff, "P.R.C.’ s Overseas Chinese and Emigration Policy 1978-1998: Associating Migration and Development"

The diversity of the papers, discourses, and languages was not a goal in itself but an inevitable corollary of the attempt to review existing empirical knowledge thoroughly. Admittedly, it made a common frame of analysis difficult. Nonetheless, panel chairs and discussants led a highly animated discussion, which succeeded in bringing out common themes emerging across the papers. One of these themes was the globalisation of Chinese migration, which includes several aspects. One aspect is the opening up of new migration spaces from Eastern Europe to Cambodia and Burma and the commercialisation of migration brokerage networks, resulting in increased intermigration between individual countries and regions. Another aspect is the increasing standardisation of some modes of economic activity and identity discourses, mainly those tied to the People’s Republic of China. This has mitigated status and lifestyle differences between migrants following very different routes and possessing different types of cultural capital, making the previously rigid categories of "student", "illegal sweatshop worker", and "overseas Chinese businessman" more mutually permeable. On the other hand, this global Chinese migration stands in opposition to and sometimes conflict with established, more stationary overseas Chinese communities, whose elites feel that their hard-earned economic and social stability as well as their control of "Chineseness" in the local context is being threatened. A good example of this is the paper by Go Bon Juan, which internalises this view.

Another overarching theme was perhaps best formulated by Liu Xin in the form of a question: "What does travel mean to the way a Chinese today sees himself as a person?" Most papers, explicitly or implicitly, struggled with the question of whether the meaning of movement to different social subjects – to the migrant, to non-migrants, to elites attempting to discipline the migrant, to the states between which the migrant maneuvers – is different today from what it had been. In Liu’s view, movement is a measure of success that engenders a "spatial hierarchy", which can obscure localised social hierarchies, thus making the path of migration – legal or illegal, student or labour – less important than its result. This phenomenon may not be new, but papers by Edwards, Guerasimoff, and Thunĝ furnished support to the view that the PRC government’s policy is now lending legitimacy to this spatial hierarchy by co-opting migration into an organisationally underpinned discourse of patriotism. This can make spatial movement a sort of shortcut to social movement in a localised context.

The papers challenged several assumptions that are gaining popularity in media and policy-analysis narratives on migration from China. Lintner and Paul argued against the popular criminological view of migrant smuggling as a criminal enterprise controlled by organised syndicates. Paul, Chin, Guerassimoff, and Thunĝ, while stressing the role of government-controlled organisations in facilitiating migration, rejected the centralised agency in promoting migration increasingly imputed to the PRC. Gelbras and Shkurkin dismissed figures cited in Russian publications concerning "Chinese expansion" into the Far East of the country, but signalled that the economy of the region favours their continued arrival, thus the possibility for increased ethnic conflict remains. China, Russia, and Japan participants argued, share a situation where reporting and policies on Chinese migrants fall victim to conflicts of interests between various levels and branches of government.

Despite such differentiated treatment of these issues, the papers, especially in the last panel, emphasised the role of new migration in reinforcing the PRC’s state-sponsored discourse of Chineseness. As Pieke pointed out, the more dynamic Chinese overseas become and the closer ties they have with China, the more vital it is for Peking to pre-empt the spilling over of subversive discourses among them into the domestic sphere by emphasising a single collective identity. The treatment of alternative identities and discourses of truth constructed by various elites and at the grassroots, including religious movements and oppositionist political parties active among the rank and file of migrants was underrepresented at the workshop, but Poisson’s paper offered a promising beginning.

Professor Carl le Grand, representing the ESF Asia Committee, expressed the Committee’s interest in publishing the proceedings of the workshop. We are planning to propose a volume consisting of selected papers along the conceptual lines of globalising Chinese migration and its changing meaning.

We would like to express our thanks to Pál Tamás, Director of the Institute of Sociology, for offering us the facilities of the Institute at no charge, and the staff of the Institute – especially Mrs. Endre Gajda – for helping us with copying and other chores on their own time and expense.

Pál Nyíri and Igor Saveliev

pal1.jpg (36806 bytes) Dudley Poston discusses the papers on migration to Asia

pal2.jpg (37727 bytes)   Participants in the courtyard of the Institute of Sociology in Buda Castle

  pal3.jpg (33886 bytes)   Anatoly Shkurkin speaks on labour migration to the Russian ar East


pal4.jpg (38170 bytes)   Workshop participants in the Jacobin Room



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