China Abroad: The Chinese Diaspora

The entrance to the Chinatown in Boston, Massachusetts. ⓒAlacoolwiki, 2018.

Many are aware of China’s economic miracle. In just the last 30 years, China’s GDP has risen astronomically, from $442bn to $17.7tn, and from $336 to $12,556 GDP per capita. These dual forty-fold increases mean that China is now the world’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP – and, adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, which adjusts for the strength of domestic currencies, it is number one, at $23tn.  

This growth was not achieved solely through domestic endeavour. Chinese migrants overseas have contributed indispensably to the growth of China’s domestic economy and the rapid evolution of its culture and society. 

Today there are more than 10.7 million Chinese nationals overseas, with more than 60 million descendants, according to the International Organization for Migration, one of the highest figures in the world.  

The history of Chinese migration is not restricted to the recent past with the advent of mass transportation. In fact, it is ancient. It began with the opening of the maritime Silk Road over 2000 years ago, with traders and workers mainly migrating to Southeast Asia. By the early 15th Century, several Chinatowns – each hosting thousands of overseas Chinese – were present in Sumatra and Java (present-day Indonesia). By the beginning of the 17th Century, there were about 100,000 overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and 20,000 to 30,000 in Japan. Around 1.5 million Chinese were overseas by the mid-19th Century, although most of them assimilated into their new societies. 

From the mid-19th Century to the early 1940s, the second wave of migration started in China. Unskilled laborers, so-called “Chinese contracted coolies”, formed a major part of this wave. Through the two Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth Century, Britain and France forced the Qing government to authorize a mass exodus of Chinese laborers to western countries and their colonies to replace black slaves; while they were not literally slaves, their wages were incredibly low and the conditions they were kept in were abhorrent. However, this was the origin of the modern, globalised Chinese diaspora – not just to Southeast Asia or Japan, but across the world, to America, Africa, Europe, and Australia. 

After the First World War, and before the Second World War broke out in the Pacific, the economic prosperity of Southeast Asia further stimulated the demand for labour, which was met by Chinese immigrants. By the early 1940s, there were around 8.5 million Chinese expatriates worldwide – over 90% of them in Southeast Asia. This tide was briefly stemmed from 1949 to the late 1970s, as Mao’s Communist government forbade emigration.  

Under Deng Xiaoping, the country was opened up, starting a third wave of Chinese migrants in the 1980s that formed a significant part of the worldwide surge in international migration. In that time, the profile of Chinese emigrants changed significantly. First, in terms of their geographical origins, migrants mainly come from the suburbs or rural areas of Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, and Hainan.  

It was the attitudes and aspirations of this new wave of migrants that was most different. In recent history many Chinese migrants had moved to neighbouring countries as cheap labour, or else were transported by imperial powers to this same end. Post-1980, China’s emigrants have tended to belong to an internationalised, middle-class and intellectual elite, with a preference to migrate to Western industrialised countries in search of lucrative jobs, or simply a better quality of life. As per Figure 1 below, Southeast Asia remains an important destination, but the West has become more significant in recent years and is now home to a large contingent of overseas Chinese too.  

Indonesia                      7M 
Thailand                        7M 
Malaysia                       6.4M 6.4 
United States                3.8M 3.8 
Singapore                      3.6M 3.6 
Peru                               1.3M 1.3 
Canada                          1.3M 1.3 
Vietnam                          1.3M 1.3 
Philippines                      1.2M 1.2 
10 Burma                             1.2M 1.1 
Figure 1. Source: Countries With Most Chinese Outside China.

These Chinese emigrants have long made significant contributions to their countries of residence. They helped reclaim wasteland and swamps in Southeast Asia in the 18th Century to help it become economically productive; they built roads, ports and cities there; they mined in the gold rush in 19th Century America. In the modern day, Chinatowns are found in many global cities, such as London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, and they are incredibly popular tourist attractions – more visit the San Francisco Chinatown than the Golden Gate Bridge. Another of their biggest impacts in the West has been on culinary tastes: Chinese food is the most popular takeaway in the UK and USA.   

As great an impact Chinese expatriates have had on their destination countries, their influence is perhaps greater still in their homeland. Many maintain strong ties to their home country, and this attachment can last for generations. Therefore, many migrants have gone overseas not just to seek a better life for themselves but to provide one for their relatives at home. International remittances to China are the second-greatest in the world, as shown by Figure 2 below, and make up almost two-thirds of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that China receives.  

Figure 2. World’s Top Remittance-Receiving Nations. Source:

The diaspora’s contributions to China have not been purely monetary. They have acted as a window between mainland China and the rest of the world from which it has been otherwise cut off, as evidenced by the absorption of Western culture into that of China. This extends to fashion, where suits are worn to work, and black tie is not uncommon on formal occasions; food, where 85% of 16-to-25-year-olds surveyed said they like Western-style restaurants; and entertainment, where 89% say that they would like to see more Western-style shows and performances, such as opera or live musicals.  

One might assume that the internet is responsible for this social osmosis, but Western culture’s presence in China predates it significantly. The internet was only invented in 1983, and even in 2005 only 111 million in China had access to it, and yet all of the above were prevalent within China well before then. Furthermore, China’s internet censorship – dubbed ‘The Great Firewall of China’ – deliberately prevents much information about Western culture reaching China via this medium, and yet its influence is still undeniable. Word of mouth from friends and relatives remains a key source of accurate information about the outside world to this day. 

Another way in which the Chinese migrants have helped China’s development was on political terms. The 1911 revolution that ended the rule of the Qing Dynasty relied heavily on the assistance of the overseas Chinese. This was both in the form of funding the revolution and intellectual leadership. Sun Yat-sen, often referred to as the ‘father of the revolution’, spent much time exiled in Japan, and many young intellectual revolutionaries supported the cause due to their overseas educations, which had exposed them to political systems, and a quality of life, superior to that at home.  

Furthermore, after World War Two, the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, poor, economically underdeveloped and ravaged both by the Japanese occupation and the subsequent civil war. Mao Zedong hoped to develop and industrialise China to the standard of other nations, but little assistance was forthcoming from Western nations due to their reluctance to support a Communist power. Much of the necessary investment came from the Chinese diaspora.  

The ‘father of China’s nuclear programme’, Deng Jia Xian, provides a vivid example. He went to the US in 1948 to study at Purdue University and earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1950. Just nine days after he graduated, he returned to the newly-founded People’s Republic of China to lead the research of nuclear and helium bombs. For his involvement, he was honoured with a medal for ‘First-Class Contribution’ to the PRC. The development of China’s independent nuclear deterrent has been important in foreign relations, particularly during the Cold War, as it has meant they are not reliant on another country for their defence and are thus free to act in solely their own interest. 

Despite its significance over the past centuries, and most especially in the last 40 years, the Chinese diaspora has been overlooked by many. They have spread Chinese culture to the rest of the world; they have been the vessels with which foreign cultures and ideas have arrived in China; and they have undeniably impacted the social, political and economic development of China. Modern China would not be as it is without them.