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Friday, March 9, 2012

Sea Turtles, Seaweed, and Seagulls

There are a lot of grand theories about why people migrate.  I just finished reading The Migration Apparatus by Gregory Feldman and he devotes a lot of space to documenting efforts in Europe to make migrants' motivations and actions"legible".  The idea, of course, is to find some model that would allow states to better understand why people move with an eye toward better controlling that movement.  Technology is their new best friend in this endeavor - if they can just get enough raw data and tie it to a model that fits then they will finally be able to get this all under control.  As an IT person I smell money and work.  As a migrant I am dubious that this will actually do any good at all and may even have some very pernicious side effects for migrants and non-migrants alike.

In parallel I am reading Beyond a Border by Peter Kivisto and Thomas Faist.  They have a good overview of some of the more popular theories of migration:  Push/Pull Model, Neoclassical Equilibrium Perspective, Network Theory and New Economics.  All very interesting from a purely theoretical and very academic perspective.  They seem to share my own doubts about the validity of these models.  The models are very pretty, certainly explain some things and seem intuitively plausible but they are also reductionist to the point of absurdity.  Oh, how nice it would be to simply assume economic motivations which would allow one to completely ignore as irrelevant those messy "mixed migration flows."

And then last night I found and read this dissertation by Seth Werner submitted in January of 2012 in support of  his Doctorate in Philosophy.  It's called "Chinese Return Migration and Kunming’s ‘Jia Xiang Bao’ - Hometown Babies."  I loved his approach for several reasons.  He genuflected to theory but he allowed for the evolution of his original ideas through the field research that he conducted with actual migrants.  Yes, he went out and talked to them and made some interesting discoveries which he summarizes and interprets in his paper.  He had the humility as well to admit that he is trying to hit a moving target - neither his framework nor his informants are living in a static world and things are changing even as we attempt to understand them.

Werner primarily looked at a group of people referred to as haigui or "sea turtles," a term used for Chinese who left China for study or work and who subsequently decided to go back.  This phenomenon is of particular interest right now because:
According to recently published statistics from the Chinese Ministry of  Education (MOE), approximately 1.4 million Chinese students and scholars went abroad between 1978 and 2008. It is estimated that 390,000 have since returned, and, of these returnees, almost half have done so from 2005 to 2008 (Ministry of Education, 2010).
The questions he asks are deceptively simple:  what drove these people to emigrate in the first place, what brought them back to China (specifically Kunming) and what has been the experience of these people as they re-integrate?  What follows here is a rough summary of Werner's answers to these questions.

Why did they emigrate?  Some of it had to with policy changes in both the Chinese and the receiving state. Looking at the U.S. the country had traditionally been very hostile to immigration from Asia but this loosened up in the 1960's. But that was probably less significant then changes on the China side with new laws that allowed Chinese to emigrate for private reasons and a policy of encouraging some Chinese to go abroad for higher education.  So the short answer here is that they emigrated because they could or were actively encouraged to do so.  Smart policy because it allowed the Chinese government to use other states' education systems to train and educate their people.

What brought them back to China?  Having encouraged some people to get an overseas education and work experience, China had every interest in enticing them to come back and they offered tangible benefits to those who decide to do so:
For example, over half of university-level administrators in the institutions directly under the Ministry of Education are returnees (Li, 2005). Further, Zhao and Zhu (2009) report that at least three quarters of the presidents of Chinese universities and the academicians at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering have overseas study and/or work experience.
But that isn't the entire story.  To find out more Werner looked at a group of returnees that bypassed the larger cities like Shanghai and settled in Kunming (population 6.5 million) the capital of Yunnan Province.  This is a region that is taking off economically in part because the Chinese government is trying to encourage development beyond the coastal areas.   Werner's case studies really illustrated the multiple variables that migrants had to consider before they made the decision to move back to China and specifically to Kunming.  In one case, it started with the inability of the person to find work in the U.S. in a tight labor market. This was then exacerbated by news from her friends who had returned to China and had found good positions there. So she gave up and returned to China where she had several job offers almost immediately. In another case, the person, after receiving several degrees from European institutions, returned to China and went straight home to Kunming because her parents and her child were there.  She was fully aware that she could have far more opportunities in Shanghai but she liked the slower pace of the regional city where she had family.  Another returnee from New Zealand says he was motivated by the idea of being his own boss - something he saw as less likely in New Zealand where he though he would always be an employee.  His experience and his credentials were unusual and highly marketable in both Shanghai and Kunming.  In New Zealand he was not terribly special, but in Kunming he was a "big fish in a small sea."

These are the success stories.  Are there returnees who are less successful?  Of course, and there is even a word for them.  Werner reports that they are called haidai or "seaweed" because they have trouble finding work.  So there is risk to returning.  There is another group that is also of interest here because they have decided to mitigate the risks by keeping one foot in China and the other in the other passport country. They are called haiou, or “seagulls” and they are frequent travelers between China and Canada, the U.S. or another country.  Sometimes this means leaving a spouse and the children in one passport country and working in China.

Pretty messy, isn't it?  It's almost impossible to put these people into neat categories and come up with grand theories about why they did what they did.  Economics and opportunity certainly played a role but family, conditions in the host country, personal circumstances and the relative benefits and costs of one place over another played an equally important role.  

Now it should be said here that a study like Werner's has some important limitations.  Werner is not Chinese and is not a master of the language.  You can also question the veracity of his informants.  I can say from experience that migrants are not always aware themselves of precisely why they emigrated or returned and what factors were most important in that decision-making process.  Self-deception is a common and very human flaw.

It's still important to read these studies because whatever their limitations or inaccuracies they make clear that there are many motivations for emigration/immigration and if states are going to make policy, this is information that is genuinely useful.  Werner says:
To be successful in attracting these and the Chinese citizens that had left China before them, the Chinese government must look beyond the economic theories of migration to encourage return. In the same way that the Chinese government can‟t rely on economic theories of migration to attract returnees, nations in which Chinese are currently living that are hoping to retain this human capital must also understand their motivations for return migration if they hope to discourage this return.
I think he's 100% right.  Economic motivations are easier to manage and so states get lazy (or desperate) and act as though these are the only considerations that need to be taken into account when they adjust their immigration policies. There is a lot of talk in the U.S. , for example, of how people with good academic credentials ought to be given Green Cards automatically when they graduate from a US university.  Nice idea but it is not necessarily going to make them want to stay long-term in the U.S.  Whether or not they accept depends a lot on other factors like the availability of good work (better perhaps then they could obtain in their home countries),  future opportunities (the future state of the economy), an immigrant-friendly social environment, possibilities for family reunification and so on.  On the China side, getting their people back may be more a function of actively encouraging their emigrants to maintain strong family and social ties with China while they are outside the country and making them aware on a regular basis of the opportunities to be had at home. 

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