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The Historical Development of Migration

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The Historical Development of Migration

Lan Diao Maren Opitz

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In the past, China has experienced both emigration and immigration. In the 19th and 20th century many foreigners moved to metropolises like Shanghai while many Chinese nationals emigrated due to war und hunger crises. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 led to the remigration of Chinese citizens from abroad. Since the implementation of reform politics in the late 1970s more and more foreigners have been coming to China for both temporary and long-term stays.

Historical Jewish district of Shanghai. In the 1930s more than 15.000 Jews from Germany and Austria found protection from persecution in Shanghai. (© picture-alliance / Christian Ender)

There was extensive trade early on with foreign merchants in the territory of what is today China. After the golden age of trade in the 17th and early 18th centuries, trade was regulated by the implementation of a restrictive trading system in the middle of the 18th century. Trade with the west was then only to be carried out at the southern Chinese port of Canton with licensed western merchants; on the Chinese side trade was reserved to the Cohong, a guild of Chinese merchants. British tradesmen, mostly young men, were the first to arrive in Canton, followed by Austrian, Danish, Dutch, French, Spanish, Swedish and American merchants. In the 1760s about 20 ships, each with 100-150 people on board, came to China on a yearly basis, and in the 1840s about 300. The tradesmen were not permitted to bring their families, were only allowed to live in Canton for a few months and had to stay in the accommodations assigned to them.

Only after both lost Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) did China have to reopen trade with the West with the signing of the so-called unequal treaties. The Treaty of Nanjing between China and its opponent of war, Great Britain, forced the Chinese to, for instance, open various harbors. Moreover, the treaty included the right for foreigners to live in China and allowed Christian missionaries to spread their faith. Great Britain, along with France and the USA who had also concluded treaties in 1844 with similar content, erected concession areas in Shanghai, that is, residential areas for foreigners in which Chinese citizens also ultimately settled. The number of foreigners in Shanghai was already 100,000 by 1900. Furthermore, in the 1930s more than 15,000 Jews from Germany and Austria found protection in Shanghai from persecution, for which they needed neither valid identity cards nor a visa.

Chinese Emigration

The first communities of Chinese traders in Southeast Asia already existed around 1400. As the population of the Qing Empire rose from 150 to 300 million between 1700 and 1800, ever more Chinese families were forced to send male family members away from home to offer themselves as labor in other parts of the country, and after the middle of the 18th century also abroad.

In the 19th century Chinese emigration took on new dimensions. For one, many Chinese fled war and famine into regions such as Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam. Here they built up a new existence in farming or fishing or began to participate in trade. Many of the 19 million Chinese that emigrated between 1840 and 1940 to Southeast Asia and areas in the Indian and Pacific Oceans were engaged as contract labor in the French, British and Dutch colonies. Furthermore, between 1850 and 1875, over two million Chinese from southern China moved to the Caribbean, California and Central America. They worked in railway construction in the USA and the silver mines in Peru, among other things. Starting in 1937, tens of thousands of Chinese began to flee from the Sino-Japanese War.

Remigration to China

The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 led to the remigration of Chinese living abroad who themselves or whose ancestors had once left China. Their number is estimated to be several million. Many followed the call of the political leaders to make a contribution to the country’s reconstruction after the Chinese Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asia came back to China because they felt threatened by anti-Chinese policies and violent attacks in their “new” home countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Furthermore, territorial conflicts between China and Vietnam led to the return of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.

Migration to China – Immigrants from Developing and Industrial Countries

After the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955, under the influence of the Non-Aligned Movement states, China took a leading role amongst developing countries. The People’s Republic offered financial and technical support in particular to a number of African countries. As a result, citizens of African states came to China for the purposes of training, higher education and employment. Many of them stayed for a longer period of time or even settled permanently in the People’s Republic. Moreover, since the Chinese reform and open-door policy in 1978, ever more foreigners have been going to China from industrial nations for both temporary and long-term stays.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile China.



  1. Perdue (2011), Vogelsang (2013), pp. 453, 458, Laytner (2011), p. 101.

  2. Vogelsang (2013), p. 431, Peterson (2012), pp. 8-10, 107f.

  3. Peterson (2012), pp. 103-108, 125, Chung et al. (2010), pp. 353f.

  4. Chung et al. (2010), p. 353.


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Lan Diao, Doctor of Educational Sciences in foreign language didactics with a focus on Chinese didactics, originally comes from Beijing and is currently a teacher for Chinese and German at a secondary school in Hamburg.

Maren Opitz has a master’s degree in International Migration and Intercultural Relations from the University of Osnabrück and is currently working for the German Youth for Understanding Committee in Hamburg. After completing her bachelor studies in Sinology, Civil Law and Language Acquisition Research she spent two years in China where she worked inter alia in the office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Shanghai.