Chinese, Overseas

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Over the five thousand years of Chinese civilization, Chinese people have migrated to virtually all the areas in the world. Ethnic Chinese living outside mainland China (including Hong Kong and Macao) and Taiwan, usually referred to as the overseas Chinese, reside in almost every country. Their total number, according to the estimate cited below, exceeds 30 million. A famous Chinese poem notes that, "wherever the ocean waves touch, there are overseas Chinese."

Who Are the Overseas Chinese?

Definitions of the overseas Chinese vary from country to country and from scholar to scholar. Decisions on who is overseas Chinese are made by governments, both Chinese and foreign, by the individual persons concerned, by the larger societies alongside and within which the Chinese settlers live, and by individual scholars.

The scholar Lynn Pan represents the Chinese people in a series of four concentric circles. The innermost circle refers to Chinese living permanently in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The next circle consists of Chinese living in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, as well as Chinese citizens living or studying outside China. The third circle includes those "unequivocally identified as overseas Chinese"; these are what she calls the hyphenated Chinese (e.g., Chinese-Americans or Sino-Thais) (Pan, 1999). They are people who are "Chinese by descent but whose non-Chinese citizenship and political allegiance collapse ancestral loyalties." The last circle contains persons of "Chinese ancestry who have, through intermarriage or other means of assimilation, melted into another people and ceased calling themselves Chinese."

The term hua ren is commonly used to refer to overseas Chinese who have been naturalized by their host countries, and the term hua qiao to overseas Chinese who have retained their Chinese nationality and would likely consider themselves as sojourners. The 30 million-plus estimate of overseas Chinese is based on a broad definition that includes all persons with Chinese ancestry living outside the mainland and Taiwan, including hua ren, hua qiao, and hua yi (the descendants of Chinese parents).

Patterns of Chinese Emigration

According to scholars such as Gungwu Wang and Wen Zhen Ye, there have been four major patterns of Chinese migration during the past two centuries. The first is the Huashang (Chinese trader) pattern, which is characterized by merchants and artisans–often with their colleagues and members of their extended families–going abroad and eventually setting up businesses. The migrants are usually males, and over one or two generations many of them settled down and brought up local families (Wang, 1991, p. 5). Huashang migration has been the dominant pattern of Chinese emigration to other Asian countries, particularly to Southeast Asia before 1850. It is likely that the earliest Chinese emigration, which was to Japan or the Philippines during the Qin Dynasty (221–207 b.c.e.), was of the Huashang type. And whereas the other three patterns have definite temporal periods associated with them, Huashang has always been important.

The second is the Huagong (Chinese coolie) pattern, which existed from about the 1850s through the 1920s. This migration involved the "coolie trade," supplying labor for gold mining and railway building in North America and Australia. Chinese emigrants under the Huagong pattern were often men of peasant origin, and the migrations were usually non-permanent in that a "large proportion of the contract laborers returned to China after their contract came to an end" (Wang, 1991, p. 6).

The third is the Huaqiao (Chinese sojourner) pattern. Sojourners included migrants of all social levels, but most were well-educated professionals. This pattern emerged after the downfall of Imperial China in 1911 and was strongly tied to feelings of nationalism. Beginning in the 1920s many teachers left China for Southeast Asia to instruct the children of earlier Chinese immigrants in these countries. The pattern continued until the 1950s.

The fourth is the Huayi (Chinese descent) pattern, a more recent phenomenon that has been prevalent since the 1950s. It involves persons of Chinese descent, Huayi, in one foreign country migrating or re-migrating to another foreign country.

Most of the global migration of Chinese in the early twenty-first century is of the Huashang type, and it will likely continue to be so in the future.

Size and Distribution of the Overseas Chinese Population

Data on the numbers of overseas Chinese are assembled from several sources, mainly issues of the Overseas Chinese Economy Year Book and the Encyclopedia of Overseas Chinese. The estimated total number of overseas Chinese at the end of the twentieth century was about 32 million, living in 130 countries. Their distribution around the world is uneven, with more than 98 percent of overseas Chinese living in 76 countries. About 24 million (85% of the total) are found in 21 Asian countries, three-quarters of whom are in just three countries: Indonesia (7 million), Thailand (6 million), and Malaysia (over 5 million). Nearly 4 million Chinese live in the Americas, almost 2.5 million of whom are in the United States.

Origins of the Overseas Chinese

The largest numbers of Chinese emigrants have historically been from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces, with fewer from the Zhejiang province, Shanghai, and other parts of southeastern China. Since the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, the origins of the emigrants have differed depending on whether their migration is legal or illegal. Legal migrants mainly hail from the large urban areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Tianjin. The illegal migrants are mainly from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Currently, most of the migration from China is illegal. In several years of the 1990s, there were as many as 180,000 persons leaving China each year, most of them illegal. As of 2002, there are an estimated 250,000 illegal Chinese immigrants in the U.S. The illegal migrants are assisted by human smugglers, known as snakeheads (shetou). Although cargo ship, or container truck, smuggling has been the dominant image of human smuggling from China to the United States and Europe, increasing numbers of illegal migrants leave China by air. The smuggling industry is made up of international networks, many based in Taiwan, that are deeply entrenched in the infrastructure of the sending communities in China and in many transit countries. The fees paid the shetou and their associates ranged from $18,000 per person in the 1980s, up to $35,000 to $40,000 per person in the 1990s, to $60,000 or more around 2000. The smuggling business is a very lucrative enterprise. One snakehead in the U.S. began her business in the 1980s and twenty years later had netted in excess of $40 million.

The Future

The future growth of the overseas Chinese population will be affected more by trends in international migration than by natural increase. Controls on immigration in the major host countries restrict the scale of legal migration from China, but there is a sizable flow of unauthorized migrants, especially to the United States. There is a possibility of rapid increase in those numbers: The migration expert Douglas Massey has written that "China's movement towards markets and rapid economic growth may contain the seeds of an enormous migration… that would produce a flow of immigrants [to the United States and other countries] that would dwarf levels of migration now observed from Mexico" (p. 649). The political sociologist Jack Goldstone calls the potential for international migration from China a "tsunami on the horizon" (1997). But even conservative forecasts see the numbers of overseas Chinese becoming steadily larger in future decades.

See also: Ethnic and National Groups.


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