Chinese Diaspora

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Chinese Diaspora






Diaspora is a Greek term, meaning the widespread scattering of seeds. Its biblical use refers to the dispersal of the Jews around the Roman Empire. Until the 1990s it was rarely found in the social sciences, and is also absent from previous editions of this Encyclopedia and from the 1994 Dictionary of Sociology. The international distribution of middlemen minorities during premodern times was long considered of only historical interest, with little relevance to the modern world of capitalist corporations and nation-state societies. Members of various diasporas were conceptualized as ethnic groups, minorities, and immigrant communities, with a focus on their place within individual host societies, rather than on their transnational connections.

Only in the last decades of the twentieth century, with increasing globalization, did the need for a collective term become apparent. Daniel Chirot and Anthony Reid proposed the term essential outsiders ; Joel Kotkin used global tribes. Neither term caught on, however. Khachig Tololyan launched the journal Diaspora, in December 1991, with the claim that transnational diasporas were the exemplary communities of the trans-national moment, and new diaspora studies (of Africans, Chechens, Indians, Irish, Italians, Palestinians, and Filipinos) have multiplied.

Diaspora is a collective noun, referring to people who have (themselves or their ancestors) been scattered from a place of origin, and to elements of their common identity and culture. If a diaspora is only constituted by shared memories and common attributes, these are likely, with the passage of generations, to fade through assimilation. Long-term survival for diasporic communities generally depends on continuing transnational communication and flows. Thus, historically, the most tenacious diasporas have often been those interconnected by long-distance trade.


China has for over two thousand years been a great power in the East, yet it has nearly always seen itself as a land-based empire, indifferent or hostile to the traders and emigrants who left its shores, fleeing poverty or conflict or seeking economic opportunities. Chinese have been important traders around the South China Sea since before the twelfth century. They were predominant middlemen in precolonial and colonial times in Southeast Asia and Vietnam, and served as intermediaries between local producers and colonizers. Like other such groups, they suffered periodic persecutions and expulsions. Chinese trading communities around the region and the world thus largely established themselves and their transnational relations with each other as self-regulating entities, with limited state support or protection and with their own associations and welfare provision.

Wang Gungwu (in China and the Chinese Overseas, 1991) argues that these Chinese established a peripheral capitalism, on the fringes or outside the reach of the imperial (and later the Communist) state. Only here was Chinese merchant culture able to flourish, away from a repressive and contemptuous mandarinate, whose Confucianism emphasized ritual and hierarchy and disapproved of trade, risk, and profit. Wang describes how the Chinese overseas created their own distinctive institutions, by reshaping and developing the traditions they had brought with them and combining them with influences from the lands where they settled and the local women they married. These traditions included the Taoist and Zen Buddhist beliefs common in southern China, the sophisticated monetary and lending practices of Chinese peasants, and a facility in forming cooperative organizations. Another resource, described by Gary Hamilton (in Business Networks and Economic Development in East and Southeast Asia, 1991), was the experience some brought of imperial Chinas urban guilds, which had set their own standards for weights and measures and had enforced contracts without relying (as had the guilds of medieval Europe) on state enforcement.

Most diasporic Chinese came from the outer parts of the empire, from its southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, where state control was looser, or via treaty ports or the ceded territories of Hong Kong or Macao. One concentration of emigrants from the mainland was based in Taiwan, which was only attached to China late and insecurely. Settled from China from the sixteenth centuryoften by merchants and pirates from Fujian, who were seeking a base for maritime activities, and by rebels against the Manchu dynastyTaiwan only came under central control after 1684, and was always lightly administered and notoriously lawless thereafter. From 1895 until 1945 it was a colony of Japan and after 1949 it was ruled by Kuomintang exiles from the Communist mainland.

In time, many diasporic Chinese assimilated completely, yet continuity was assured by new waves of emigrants, who worked for, learnt from, and then replaced their predecessors. In Chinese business culture today there are some direct continuities with features of merchant culture and institutions in the China of five hundred years ago. Yet most of the members of modern diasporic communities can trace their own familys origins to villages in China left at most only a couple of generations ago. For a majority in Southeast Asia, the migration of their family occurred in the period preceding the last world war. For most in Hong Kong it is even more recentuntil 1981 those born in China were a majority. Thus a persisting feature of these often-ancient communities is their intense social mobility and constant self-rejuvenation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, gold rushes attracted significant numbers of Chinese to California and Australia, where many remained. By the end of the century, however, restrictions on immigration and widespread discrimination led to a decline in numbers, the demise of associations, and ghettoization within narrow economic niches. Ivan Light, in Ethnic Enterprise in America (1972, p.7), comments that the classic small businesses of prewar Chinese were monuments to the discrimination that had created them. In contrast, the 1920s saw large-scale movements, including of women, into flourishing Chinese settlements in Southeast Asia.

In the decades after World War II the situation reversed. Postcolonial nationalist or Communist regimes in Southeast Asia and Vietnam restricted, persecuted, or expelled the Chinese in their midst, whereas racially based barriers to entry were lifted in the United States in 1965 and the White Australia policy was terminated in 1973.

Chirot and Reid (1997) explore the analogies between diasporic Chinese in Southeast Asia and Jews, viewing both as essential, but periodically scapegoated, outsiders. In Malaysia, discriminatory rules favored bumiputras (indigenous Malays) but failed to halt the rise of Chinese business. In Thailand, Chinese de-sinified their names. Many were expelled from Vietnam after the Communist victory. In Indonesia, Chinese cultural expression was banned until recently, and widespread anti-Chinese riots and rapes followed the Asian Crisis and the fall of Suharto in 1998.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, new waves of secondary immigration increasingly moved from Asian countries of settlement to North America and Australia and fresh flows came from Mainland China. Today, at the start of the twenty-first century, Chinese communities are to be found everywhere in the world, including throughout the Americas and Europe, as well as in Russia. There is, for example, an active Chinese Association in Johannesburg.


Can the some twenty-five million Chinese outside China (double that number if we include those in Hong Kong and Taiwan), sometimes called the ethnic Chinese or the overseas Chinese or the Chinese overseas, be called a diaspora ? The suggestion has been academically controversial, and not only among those who wish to reserve the concept for the Jewish people.

An academic divide long carved up Chinese studies into segments, placing in separate compartments the China specialists, the East Asianists, the Southeast Asianists, and the experts on ethnic Chinese in Western countries. Those who speak of a diaspora have been accused of oversimplifying and blundering into areas beyond their competence. Reality is indeed varied and complex, but these particular divides result from the staking out of academic and political territories, rather than from insurmountable barriers in lived experience. If questions about linkages are not posed, however, the answers are unlikely to obtrude on our vision because there are also statistical divides, created by the political units for which data are collected and presented. Also a factor are the ideological preferences of those who wished to focus on national loyalties and assimilationist hopes, and to deny any transnational attachment, especially one that might involve a Cold War opponent. To justify the concept of a Chinese diaspora, two arguments need to be made, showing both similarities and interrelationships between and among diasporic communities.

First, it must be demonstrated that despite the multiplicity of national, political, and class loyalties and the diversity of cultural and historical trajectories, there exist significant similarities and elements of a shared identity. Evidence for such commonalities is particularly to be found in studies of the economic activities of Chinese around the world, which demonstrate clearly a strong tendency to establish mainly small family businesses, with important elements of a distinctive and shared business culture and mode of operating.

John T. Omohundro (1981) describes the Chinese of Iloilo in the Philippines in 1970 as a one-class community, without gentry, in which the vast majority were self-employed descendants of penniless immigrants. In this community, young employees saw themselves as the rich businessmen of the future and old employees were seen as ex-apprentices who had bungled their chances. The status of women and junior members within the family rose as the family business grew and their role within it expanded. Similar accounts from many other times and places (including America and Australia) demonstrate how both opportunities (including their own effective business traditions and skills) and legal and discriminatory barriers (which often excluded them from agriculture and the military, and from managerial and bureaucratic positions in the state or big business) pushed every person with any ambition into self-employment.

Even education was more likely to lead back into business, or at least into an independent profession, than into high-status employment. Within the Chinese business community, managerial and bureaucratic positions were rare and these tended to be subject to owners mistrust, while access to top positions was reserved for family members. Independent business activities have provided the predominant role model, the community leadership, and often the most common activity for mature adults in diaspora communities.

In most Chinese diasporic communities, one of the central and continuing attributes of business is a persistence of family control over entrepreneurial decision-making, even in the largest companies, where professional management and public flotation may be well-established. The tendency, with a few noteworthy exceptions, has been toward a multiplication of relatively small units in a conglomerate structure under the familys control, rather than the expansion of size and market share of large bureaucratically organized firms. This too has reduced the visibility of the concentrations of capital involved. Western and Japanese systems of capitalism have tended to present a duality of large corporations and small and medium firms, with major differences between them and limited opportunities to move back and forth. In Chinese capitalism, many features are common to both large and small operators, leading to greater similarities and continuities and opportunities for mobility up and down. Small firms, with large entrepreneurial ambitions and transnational networks, and with a leading role for highly educated family members, can grow fast by multiplication. Tycoons may own hundreds of such small firms and retain the personalistic style of small operators; they may also be weakened or have their wealth split up if key managers leave to set up independently or if inheritance is divided.

In their external relations (with lenders, borrowers, suppliers, customers, contractors, and subcontractors), Chinese capitalists tend to minimize reliance on legal protection. Chinese capitalism is distinguished by a preference for long-term, personalized, but opportunistically extensible networks, based on trust and upheld by the indispensability of reputation.

Another feature, at least in recent times, has been a preference for a strategy of diversification, in the interests of maximizing flexibility, not putting all your eggs in one basket, and taking advantage of novel and unpredictable opportunities that open-ended networks may present. This allows individual family members to carve out a territory of their own, promoting harmony, and is facilitated by the freedom of owner-managers to make rapid decisions.

The temporary usefulness of this Chinese business culture was rarely contested. It used to be claimed, however, that these distinctive features were transitional, doomed to decline as they adjusted to modernity and the mainstream or were driven out by competition with modern capitalism. By the 1980s, however, modernity itself had been changed by processes of globalization, including cheap and rapid communications, growth in the flows of people, goods, money, and information, the spread of deregulation, the opening of the frontiers of previously largely autarkic Communist regimes, the weakening of economic control by national governments, increasing worldwide subcontracting, and direct foreign investment in globally integrated production. The balance of advantage shifted to the flexible, entrepreneurial businesses of the diaspora, whose previously largely redundant transnational sleeper networks now sprang into life.


The second requirement for justifying the term diaspora is to show that the similarities between separate communities create the conditions for actual transnational linkages and interrelationship. Through much of the twentieth century, such linkages and interrelationships were at best incipient and potential, blocked as they were through a long period of nationalism and stagnant world trade. Only in the last decades of the century, in the period of globalization, have constant and increasing transnational diasporic activities and movements across various divides become apparent. Experts within particular fields of Chinese studies have tended, however, to be blind to these newly growing linkages, constructed by the movement of goods and capital and by people (business people, refugees, students, visitors) investing and trading, remi-grating, or returning to their place of origin, all weaving far-flung networks of kinship and friendship. Widely noticed or not, such linkages and the similarities that facilitate them are likely to persist, insofar as they are an asset in an age of globalization.

From the 1980s, locally initiated and funded manufacturing, finance, and markets were developing faster within East and Southeast Asia, along with a progressive integration of regional trade and investment flows. The previously discrete Chinese trading or manufacturing communities around the region now had the motive and opportunity to start diversifying, upgrading, and linking up, using their transnational networks to benefit from and contribute to the export-led economic growth of the region.

The volume of trade of the countries in which Chinese diaspora networks were active (including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and the countries of Southeast Asiathe Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam) grew slowly between 1980 and 1985 and then more than doubled by 1990. By 1996 it had increased by another 126 percent, over a period during which total world trade increased by only 56 percent. Intraregional trade, between these countries, increased even faster, up by nearly 160 percent from 1990 to 1996. All parts of the region experienced accelerated growth. Trade between the two great Chinese entrepôts of Hong Kong and Singapore (including the re-exports they channeled in both directions between China and Southeast Asia) increased at rates similar to those of intraregional trade as a whole.

In the 1990s the countries in which diasporic Chinese were prominent economic actors emerged as major international investors. Already by the late 1980s their combined outward investments were jointly on a par with those of Japan. After 1991, as Japan substantially reduced its global foreign investment, they clearly overtook her. By 1996 these countries provided around 14 percent of total world flows of realized foreign direct investment, most of it directed to the countries of their own region. There can be no doubt that most of this investment came from Chinese diaspora sources within these countries. In contrast, Japan was by then providing only about half that proportion of the world total, most of it directed outside the region.

Turn-of-the-century studies of Chinese ethnic business concentrations in America and Australiain California, Vancouver, and Brisbane, for examplehave also found a trend for traders and investors to start using their transnational networks to develop a role as bridges to Asia, adding their weight to the diasporas global flows.

The most significant opportunity for the diaspora, both the small businesses and the tycoons, was the economic opening of, first, Chinas Pearl River Delta after 1985, and then of all of the coastal provinces (from which most in the diaspora had originated) and the rest of the country. Diasporic Chinese were responsible for some 80 percent of the massive foreign investment in China up to the end of the twentieth century and were still accounting for over 50 percent in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first. They served as a bridge between China and the world economy, helping to transform China into one of the great exporting nations of the world, and a rising economic superpower. Their role, and the crucial importance of the transnational networks that made it possible, is documented in some detail in Lever-Tracy et al (1996).


Before the turn of the century, the multiplication of successful contacts with other parts of the diaspora and with the mainland was promoting re-sinification. Children were now often encouraged to learn Chinese, new Chinese associations proliferated, and dormant Chinese identities and knowledge were resurfacing. Economic success has bred a new ethnic pride and a cultural flowering, and diasporic Chinese are now even able to influence the Chinese government.

SEE ALSO East Indian Diaspora; Jewish Diaspora; Palestinian Diaspora


Chirot, Daniel, and Anthony Reid, eds. 1997. Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Cushman, Jennifer W., and Wang Gungwu, eds. 1988. Changing Identities of the Southeast Asian Chinese since World War II. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Hamilton, Gary, ed. 1991. Business Networks and Economic Development in East and Southeast Asia. Hong Kong: Centre for Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong.

Lever-Tracy, Constance, David Ip, and Noel Tracy. 1996. The Chinese Diaspora and Mainland China: An Emerging Economic Synergy. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan.

Light, Ivan H. 1972. Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lim, Linda Y. C., and L. A. Peter Gosling, eds. 1983. Ethnicity and Economic Activity. Vol. 1 of The Chinese in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Maruzen Asia.

McKeown, Adam. 1999. Conceptualising Chinese Diasporas, 1842-1949. Journal of Asian Studies 58 (2): 306-337.

Omohundro, John T. 1981. Chinese Merchant Families in Iloilo: Commerce and Kin in a Central Philippine City. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Pan, Lynn. 1990. Sons of the Yellow Emperor: The Story of the Overseas Chinese. London: Secker & Warburg.

Pan, Lynn, ed. 1999. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pieke, Frank N., Pál Nyíri, Mette Thunø, and Antonella Ceccagno. 2004. Transnational Chinese: Fujianese Migrants in Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wang, Gungwu. 1991. China and the Chinese Overseas. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

Wong Siu-Lun. 1988. The Applicability of Asian Family Values to Other Socio-Cultural Settings. In In Search of an East Asian Development Model, ed. Peter L. Berger and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, 134-152. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Constance Lever-Tracy

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