Is the emigration of Chinese a drain on the country's human resources? Two scholars, a foreigner and a Chinese, enlighten us with their views.
Social justice can reverse the flow
The emigration of an increasing number of the social elite from China in the past decade has drawn the attention of the media, the government and the public alike.
Emigration and immigration are an obvious outcome of globalization, and were expected to increase in China after the reform and opening up. So, are the media and public overreacting to the emigration of Chinese people in the past 30 years, especially because the first three decades of the People's Republic of China saw almost no flow of people across the borders? The answer is "no", because emigration over the past 10 years has been really high and has special implications on the country.
To be honest, China has seen an inflow of talent, too. Most people can be classified into two categories. Many of them are Chinese with a degree from universities abroad and the experience of working in foreign countries. They, at least a majority of them, return home in search of greener pastures in a more familiar environment. The other group comprises entrepreneurs from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who have shifted to the Chinese mainland, attracted by the favorable policies its local governments offer and the lure of making greater profits by exploiting its cheap labor.
In this sense, the flow of manpower has been a two-way traffic for the mainland, indicating that the country is catching up with the developed nations and regions in terms of the economy, social development and living standards. Chinese citizens and foreigners both may be benefiting from the increasing freedom to move across borders, but we should not forget that members of neither group are eager to change their citizenship, for they migrate in search of better opportunities.
In contrast, most of the Chinese emigrants are too eager to change their nationality or at least strive to get a long-time residency permit from the government of the country they migrate to.
A remarkable difference between this generation of emigrants and those who emigrated in the 1980s is that the first group was trying to look for better working and living conditions. But most of the new generation of emigrants represent the so-called successful class and already enjoy a much higher social status at home. Such people opt to emigrate for the lure of the West even if they have to start life anew.
This means China's elite are ready to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy at home in exchange for the citizenship of a foreign country. Such people choose to do so mainly because they don't believe their country's legal system, because of its uncertainties, cannot guarantee them a "successful and peaceful" life.
Apart from a sense of security, the Chinese elite also emigrate in search of better living environment and world-class education for their children. And so enamored are they by everything Western that they fail to see the prosperity and stability they could get back home in the long run, and are ready to trade the comforts they enjoy at home for the lure of a rosy future abroad.
Such a brain drain is bound to harm China's economic construction and modernization, because the elite' knowledge, innovativeness and creativity, and funds are valuable resources to build a better future. The emigration of such people robs China of not only valuable manpower, but also the resources they have.
More importantly, their emigration is a loss of collective confidence, especially because the elite are setting a bad example for their less-privileged countrymen by disregarding the needs of the country in exchange for the mundane benefits of everyday life. The flight of the elite thwarts the country's modernization process, too. Hence, it is doubly sad to see local governments not doing enough to contain this flow.
The increase in the number of elite emigrants is a rude reminder that the government has to reform the legal system. It is important to establish the rule of law not only to retain the elite in China, but also to ensure that the rights of the underprivileged are well-protected.
The government has to cleanse the bureaucracy of corruption and see to it that the grievances of all citizens, irrespective of their social status, are redressed.
It has to establish a clean and honest police administration and independent judiciary so that people can rely on their intelligence and hard work, rather than bribes and guanxi (connections), to succeed in life.
What kind of society do we need? The government should be worried over the emigration of the elite and loss of social resources. But it should not just try to attract as many outstanding talent as possible to help the country build a better future.
Moreover, since the common people are not inferior to the elite, offering favorable policies only to the latter would be unfair.
The elite are already an advantaged group because of the money, knowledge and privileges they enjoy. The government should thus focus more on the lower strata of society.
Justice is the source of confidence. A just society is what people will be emotionally attached to. And that applies to all citizens, whether they are the elite or the common citizens.
The author is a research scholar with the Institute of Philosophy, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
More emigrants, greater prosperity
News and commentary about the increased emigration of wealthy Chinese have been making the rounds in China and Asia. Their numbers are not especially big.
For example, the 1,000 Chinese who applied for immigrant investor visas to Canada and the United States in 2009 is only a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 140,000 Chinese who get US visas every year to study, meet family members and work there. But many commentators have responded to the emigration of wealthy Chinese as a problem, as the drain of important resources.
Emigration should be seen as a gain rather than a loss. It offers access to the global circulation of wealth, knowledge and business connections, both for individual emigrants and the Chinese economy as a whole. Historically, economic growth has almost always been accompanied by emigration of a large number of wealthy as well as poor people. These emigrants created a link to the global economy that was a critical part of the economic development of their home nations. Chinese should promote the emigration of the wealthy and skilled, not view it with concern.
By living and investing abroad, wealthy emigrants gain social and business connections, new skills and knowledge, increased mobility, and access to new resources that they could not so easily get at home. They rarely lose touch with their interests at home, partly because of sentimental attachment but also because their success at home is the source of their opportunities abroad. Their knowledge of markets and business conditions at home is the foundation of new partnerships abroad. And the resources and security obtained abroad help generate more investment and innovation at home.
The practice of wealthy Chinese obtaining multiple passports, residences and political affiliations has a veritable lineage in China, going back at least 500 years. It is a strategy of portfolio diversification, a way to increase both opportunities and security. The ability to move money, people and goods across borders is a lucrative skill in itself, too.
China has always been an important beneficiary of such activities. Before the 19th century, overseas Chinese went on tribute missions from foreign countries to Beijing and were the main conduits for the foreign trade of silk and porcelain in exchange for marine and forest products from other Asian countries. In the early 20th century, overseas Chinese invested heavily in education, railroads and other industries in China. For example, the "big four" department stores (Sincere, Wing On, Yat Sun and Sun Sun) in Shanghai were founded by overseas Chinese.
The so-called Chinese "astronauts" that emerged in the 1980s are the most recent version of these practices. These are Chinese, mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who constantly "orbit" the world between homes, jobs, schools and families in multiple countries. Some of these astronauts claim to feel at home at any place in the world, so long as there is an airport and a Chinese restaurant close by.
A huge emigrant industry emerged in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, feeding off the anxiety of the imminent reunification with the motherland. But few among the massive number of emigrants completely broke off ties with their homes. Many former Hong Kong residents established families abroad but continued to return to Hong Kong on work. In the end, emigration has become part of the very fabric of these places, impossible to separate from their current prosperity.
It is also no accident that some of the most prosperous areas in China today are the emigrant areas of the southern coast, stretching from the Pearl River Delta region to southern Fujian province. The ties to overseas Chinese were the key reason for setting up the Special Economic Zones in the south. Mass emigration (more than 650,000 a year in the 1920s) ended in 1949. But 30 to 40 years later, the strategy of appealing to the emigrants has paid off well, with overseas Chinese accounting for more than two-thirds of foreign investment in the 1980s and 1990s.
The impulse to see emigration as a drain was common in pre-modern states both in China and Europe. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rulers feared that emigrants would become bandits and rebels. Beijing officials, however, were persuaded by the arguments of coastal officials about the importance of emigrants to the local economies and allowed the emigration of licensed merchants.
But the Chinese government never supported its overseas merchants in the way that European governments did, with the result that much less wealth was ultimately channeled back home. Shouldn't Chinese today be supportive rather than dismayed by the prospect of emigration?
Of course, emigration of the wealthy and educated does not always yield positive results. In countries with poor infrastructure and fewer opportunities to invest capital and skills, emigration can quickly become a net loss. This was often true in pre-1949 China where investments had mixed success outside of Shanghai and Guangzhou. It currently applies to many African and Latin American countries, where emigrants find fewer opportunities at home. But this is clearly not true for contemporary China.
Chinese abroad generally feel the economic future lies in China. Their sentimental attachment to China and the prospect of material gain make them want to be a part of that growth.
For a dynamic country such as China, any attempt to keep wealth within national borders will be counterproductive. When rich Chinese move abroad in search of greener pastures, their action should not be seen as disengagement with China but a step forward in China's engagement with the world.
The author is an associate professor of history at Columbia University.
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