I've been to China twice - once on business and once on a tour of Chinese start-ups and businesses for school in 2010. We saw the World Expo in Shanghai which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I love that city - so much energy and "dynamisme." As you cruise the huge biotech and industrial parks just on the outskirts of the city, you have to ask yourself, "What am I doing with my life?" It's that kind of place.
However, China was firmly fixed in my head as a country of emigration. I come from the West Coast of North America which for years has been a destination for Asians: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of the instructions on my King County ballot for local elections is written in kanji. The former governor of the state of Washington is Gary Locke, a Chinese-American, who was recently named U.S. Ambassador to China by President Obama.
So I was very surprised to read that China is becoming a country of immigration. The Migration Policy Institute just published a special series called Migration in the Modern Chinese World. They talk about the Chinese immigration to other countries and the diaspora (33 million strong and a large and powerful force in the world) but all that is much less interesting to me than the idea that migrants are finding it to be a choice destination. The "pull" is obvious: a good economy, lots of opportunity, and a labor market that is experiencing shortages as the consequences of the "One Child" policy come to fruition. Low fertility today and sluggish population growth mean that filling those jobs will be a real challenge for China in the future.
Chinese emigration is still more significant than immigration but there are signs that this may change. Here are some surprising facts that I gleaned from various articles:
1. Labor shortages were so acute in some regions in this past decade that illegal immigration became a problem. Tens of thousands of undocumented laborers were imported from places like Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. There are also, for obvious reasons, significant flows of migrants from North Korea. And finally there are people coming from as far as Africa - Congo, Nigeria and Mali. You know a place is an attractive destination when people are willing to risk arrest, possible imprisonment and deportation just to be able to come to work and live there.
2. In 2007 2.85 million people came legally to China for employment. That number dipped slightly in 2009 but was up again to 2.27 million in 2010. The Chinese census counted over 1 million people from outside the mainland living in China of which 539,000 were long-term resident foreigners. Yes, in a country of over a billion people, this is a drop in the bucket, but it is still a huge number and apparently there is plenty of room for more if they have the right skills.
3. Have look at the top sending countries and prepare to go into shock. The Republic of Korea tops the list but the United States of America is in second place with around 71,000. Then comes Japan, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Canada and France are in 6th and 7th place and Germany is 9th. We know that one factor that pulls migrants to a place is the existence of a diaspora community already in place so it is very likely that future migrants to China will come from these countries. These numbers are even more significant when you consider that North Americans and Europeans don't usually know the language and can't even read it since the writing system is character-based (kanji). This is an important barrier to finding a job and integrating but it doesn't seem to be stopping them.
All this has the Chinese authorities re-examining their immigration policies. Right now they don't have rules to manage long-term foreign residents much less permanent ones. This document, The Rules for Foreigner Administration, really only applies to people on short-term visas and temporary residency permits. China seems to have realized that something more comprehensive needs to be put into place to manage international migrants and they are working on it.
I think this is a fabulous development and I hope it continues. The world knows China and the Chinese mostly through media coverage and its diaspora but that's not nearly as useful as knowing the country and the people through the eyes of their compatriots who live and work there. Long-term resident foreigners will be able to help their home countries deal with China as a rising power. It's not just business, it's understanding, which can only come when people are immersed in their host countries and know the culture deeply enough to be able to interpret it for others. And, let's face it, this is very flattering to China. For every international news story that is critical of their internal policies, one must now take into account that, well, a lot of people want to live there so perhaps there is more to the story than what the media is reporting. It's very good for their image and I think it's good for the world. China will be a major power in the 21st century and the more peaceful and positive connections that can be made now, the more likely it is that the competition within the community of nations will continue to be fierce but friendly.