“Emigration is the act of leaving one’s native country or region to settle in another.”
In the past few decades, China has witnessed the largest human migration in history. Every year millions of workers leave their homes in rural villages in search of urban employment in the big cities. China’s “floating population” leave behind their friends and family with the hope of a better life, for both themselves and the family back home whom they can send money back to.
The migrants often find that their new life in the city is not what they hoped for. The hours are long, the pay poor and the jobs boring. They persevere because they often have people back home relying on them and because there would be great shame in returning home a failure.
On the opposite end of the scale though there is a growing trend in emigration amongst the wealthiest of Chinese. The Huran Research Institute has published statistics in 2011 revealing that 14% of China’s wealthy have emigrated out of the country or are applying to do so, and a further 46% are considering it. These “wealthy” are defined by having more than 10 million Yuan (nearly £1 million). Many go to Hong Kong, where life is easier both politically and financially but the immigrants don’t have to sever all ties with China. Others generally leave for the USA, Canada, Singapore and Australia. These wealthy mainlanders feel their families and children would have better lives overseas, and cite reasons such as higher quality education, convenience, to avoid political issues, cleanliness and safety.
Many of these expatriates will return to China in their retirement, but it’s a different story for their children, who know much less about China and will often choose to remain in the west. This younger generation will have been raised in a different culture from their parents, and hence will have different values and outlooks on life.
I talked to a friend of mine who is a student at Dundee University, he is of Chinese descent but was born here in Scotland. I asked him about the history of emigration in his family and got to understand the motivation behind the migrations of three different generations, which were all for very different reasons and essentially reflect the era that each generation came from.
For his grandmother, moving from Hong Kong from China was a matter of safety. She fled there with her family to escape the invasion of the Japanese in China. This eight year conflict claimed the lives of 20 million Chinese according to official statistics. I used Google to try and source a statistic about how many Chinese fled China during this time and couldn’t find anything along those lines, which suggests that not very many did. Perhaps my friend’s family was among the very rare and fortunate.
The prospect of a better quality education took his father to Scotland. Although he was born and raised in Malaysia, his family is Chinese. He came here to study engineering at Edinburgh University, but then never ended up returning to Malaysia upon graduating. This was mainly because he had started to make a life here, he had a job and had met his future wife, and would go on to do a PhD. I enquired about how his family felt about this permanent emigration, my friend wasn’t too sure, but he was under the impression that it was seen as a positive thing.
As an afterthought I asked, “Would you ever go to live in China?”
“No, never” he said firmly and confidently. This answer didn’t come as a surprise, but I asked for an explanation anyway. He considered the question briefly before replying.
“Mainly because of the government I guess. It’s a closed system and they are closed minded. Ironically I realize it seems that I am closed minded for saying that, but it’s true, at least for the most part. There’s much less freedom there.”
In this century in the United Kingdom, it’s almost impossible for my generation to imagine a life where we don’t have complete freedom of speech, where we don’t have the right to democracy, and where we can’t just type a few words into a search engine to find any information we could ever want to know. To suddenly have to live under a Chinese style regime would be a massive culture shock, and we’d feel it was for the worse.
There are those currently living in China who fantasize of leaving but just don’t have the money of means to do so, the generation who feel they are still young enough to have their own American Dream. In Paul Midler’s book “Poorly Made in China” he meets a factory manager who tells Midler that he is from Los Angeles in the USA, after much confusion it is finally understood that he has never actually lived there but once visited the city on holiday and now wishes it was his home. Los Angeles was his aspiration, so he called it his home.
The reason I used the word emigration apposed to immigration for this post is because I wanted to focus on the attitudes and feelings the Chinese have about people leaving home, rather than the attitudes to the millions of immigrants who arrive into China’s cities. Emigration is the act of leaving ones home for another country or region. Immigration is the act of arriving in that country or region.