As China has developed into a global power, it has also become a nation of people on the move. Like the large flows of internal migrants since the 1980s that contributed to China's urbanization and manufacturing boom, the increase in migration to and from China is deeply intertwined with its history of socioeconomic reforms. After China's leaders in 1979 identified global economic integration as a key target, many of its citizens moved abroad in search of better personal and economic opportunities. As China's development took off, the country also has attracted growing numbers of foreign-born migrants, particularly following its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Decades of increasing international mobility followed, with border crossings by mainland Chinese citizens (350 million) and foreign nationals (95 million) in and out of China reaching a new record in 2019. Since then, this trend has been interrupted by China's border-control measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, among the strictest in the world. As of 2022, Chinese borders remain tightly controlled.
This article provides a brief introduction to China's international mobility, discussing 1) the history of immigration to and emigration from China, 2) key information on current migration trends, and 3) a broad outline of China's migration policy.
1) Historical trends
Throughout Chinese history, international mobility has been common in border regions and along trade networks. In the 19th century, migration both to and from China rapidly increased in scale as part of societal change caused by wars and increasing global interconnections. Between the 1840s and 1920s, millions of Chinese people moved to Southeast-Asia and other destinations around the world to work or settle. In the same period, foreign settlers came to China as traders, investors, missionaries, and educators, many of Euro-American, Japanese, and Russian origin. In 1942, more than 150,000 foreign nationals lived in Shanghai's foreign concessions, which were established following the end of the First Opium War (1839-1842) between China and Great Britain; these foreign migrants were not part of Chinese jurisdiction due to unequal arrangements between China and imperialist powers such as Britain and the U.S..
In 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded as a communist state that considered control over foreign influence ("cleaning the house" in national leader Mao Zedong's words) crucial to China's reckoning with its history of imperialist aggression. Controlling migration became a top priority – and the foreign-born population dropped sharply in the 1950s. International arrivals and departures fell even lower in the late 1960s, when foreign ties became highly politicized during the Cultural Revolution. Emigration was similarly difficult, as the government limited the issuance of passports and permits required to exit the country, among other measures. Some international mobility continued, such as that of refugees and ethnic Chinese returnees, but at low levels.
After 1979, China's developmental strategy radically shifted, and so did its approach to international migration. As China's economic modernization became the top priority, the country opened its borders for students, laborers and people who wished to join relatives abroad. China experienced an "emigration craze" after the 1990s, during which millions of people moved abroad. The government encouraged migrants to return, but the brain drain continued during this period. Out of over 1.2 million students who went overseas between 1978 and 2007, only about one-quarter returned to China.
The Chinese government also started to attract migrants to support the country's economic development. In the 1980s and 1990s, foreign-born managers and technicians, many of them members of the Chinese diaspora, moved to China from the surrounding region – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – to invest or to set up production. Later, their families followed. In the new millennium, both the number and types of immigrants increased and diversified.
2) Current migration trends
As of 2019, an estimated 10.7 million Chinese citizens lived abroad, according to United Nations estimates.
Mobility has become increasingly accessible to Chinese citizens. The percentage of Chinese citizens with a passport grew from around two percent of the population in 2010 to nearly 15 percent, or more than 200 million people, in 2019 (compared to about 44 percent in the United States).
In China, more diverse and permanent immigrant communities have formed in major urban centers, as well as in the country's border regions. Guangdong province, home to a large part of China’s manufacturing industry, has a larger and more diverse foreign-born population than any other province in China. In addition to the foreign investors, professionals, teachers and students that can be found across China, in this region traders from Africa, South Asia, and the rest of the world also have a prominent presence in some areas.
The 2020 census counted 1.4 million overseas residents (jingwai renyuan) in mainland China – which is sizable in absolute terms but accounts for just 0.1 percent of the total population. This figure includes 846,000 foreign nationals and 585,000 residents of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, who the Chinese state considers 'overseas' but not foreign.
3) Chinese migration policy trends
Throughout the history of the People's Republic of China, migration has been managed for selective developmental aims and often in service of broader geopolitical goals. In the post-1979 reform era, international mobility has generally been encouraged. At the same time, however, it has retained an ambiguous position in the nation-building project, which has been defined around China's self-sufficiency. As a result, Chinese authorities have largely taken a pragmatic approach to international migration: accommodating the migration flows they deemed desirable without much long-term planning or more fundamental reforms.
Compared to the rapid growth of its foreign and transnational populations in recent decades, legal and institutional frameworks for managing migration have lagged behind. While many Chinese emigrants have gained permanent residency rights in foreign countries, the vast majority of migrants in China reside on temporary residence permits, often linked to their employer. Many of these can be annually renewed, but migrants from some groups, especially economic migrants from developing and bordering countries, have been more likely to be pushed into irregularity by discriminatory rules. A system by which immigrants could obtain permanent residence was introduced in 2004, but has been implemented on a case-by-case basis. Only around 10,000 individuals received this status between 2004 and 2016.
Policies have focused on attracting top professionals, return migrants, and foreign students. But other policy areas have proven more controversial. For instance, China's central immigration law, the 2012 Exit-Entry Administration Law, strengthened the government's control over irregular migration but was largely silent on migrant rights and integration. State institutions responsible for migration affairs are fragmented across the Chinese bureaucracy, slowing down reforms. Together with the foreign ministry's consular department, China's public security authorities, known for their opaque operations and lack of public data sharing, play a leading role in immigration management.
The reality on the ground, however, has often been more complicated than China's restrictive immigration laws suggest. Local authorities aiming to attract and retain migrants for local development have often pioneered more accommodating approaches, developing local legislation and practices for managing migration (for instance, the city of Yiwu, a global center for wholesale trade, has appointed migrants on its city-level governing body and as judicial mediators). More generally, enforcement of existing laws has often been lenient. Such local-level accommodation can shift when immigrant groups become politically contested. This happened in the case of African trader communities in Guangzhou, who were initially welcomed for their economic contributions, but in the 2010s faced increasingly targeted immigration enforcement by local authorities following public controversy. Their numbers subsequently dwindled.
China only hosts small numbers of refugees, although in 1982 it was one of the first Asian states to become a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Before it acceded to both the Convention and the Protocol, China had already offered refuge to about 250,000 refugees from Vietnam, following the brief border war between both countries in 1979. From the mid-1990s onwards, sizable refugee flows have consisted of North Koreans as well as ethnic Kokangs and Kachins from Myanmar. However, the Chinese authorities regard most of these refugees, especially those from North Korea, as illegal immigrants and have barred UNHCR and other international relief organizations from providing assistance to them. To date, China has incorporated very few provisions of the Refugee Convention and its Protocol into domestic law.
In the last decade, immigration management has risen on the policy agenda, driven by changes in Chinese leaders' aspirations and increased state capacity to develop and enforce policy. Authorities aim to gradually build a more comprehensive immigration system by closing loopholes and increasing controls, while also keeping permanent immigration limited. In 2016, China joined the
Still, China's immigration framework remains incomplete, and is often ill suited to the realities of de facto permanent immigration, with many migrants settling in China without ever gaining full residency rights. Its visa categories are restrictive, with migrants on spousal or student visas unable to work. Immigrants lack full protection of their labor rights, for instance in the case of labor disputes. There is also little long-term planning for future immigration that might be needed to offset consequences of rapid population aging.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese international mobility trends still pointed towards continued growth and more comprehensive reforms of its migration system. In the last years, however, China's 'zero-COVID' approach has led to a big focus on securing Chinese borders, from building border walls to restricting passport issuance, at the expense of other reforms. Several years of disruption cannot undo decades of cross-border exchange, but pandemic-era restrictions are certain to have a major impact on all mobility streams into and out of China.