“THIS COMRADE IS politically reliable and has no criminal record.” Applicants for a Chinese passport once anxiously awaited these words. Scrawled on a form by a bureaucrat, they meant an end in sight to weeks or months of torment that involved queuing through the night, being sent from pillar to post in pursuit of documents, having your loyalty to the Communist Party checked, being grilled about your purpose and sources of funding, and having to slip cigarettes to sullen officials. Not many people got to see those precious words, or the four Chinese characters that followed them: tongyi chuguo (permitted to go abroad).
Aspiring travellers in Communist-ruled China had to run this Kafkaesque obstacle course until the early 1990s. But in the past quarter-century a country once almost as paranoid as North Korea about keeping its people within its borders has dramatically changed course. Whereas for much of the 1980s the number of trips abroad taken by Chinese citizens was in the tens of thousands a year, the current figure is well over 130m. The reasons for travelling range from tourism and study to business and migration. By 2020 the total could reach 200m a year, officials estimate—the equivalent of nearly one in seven of the country’s population.
Much has been written about how China’s rise as a global economic, political and military power is changing the world. This special report is about another side to the story: the extraordinary number and variety of Chinese people who are going abroad—and then mostly returning. It will examine the effect of this unprecedented flow on the travellers themselves, on their host societies and ultimately on China itself.
Since the 1980s people have been moving around the globe in ever-growing numbers. The reasons have ranged from the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and the opening of borders in the European Union to the growth of middle classes across the developing world and the flight of millions from conflict and poverty. But China’s contribution to this mass movement has eclipsed all others.
Its people are making a striking difference the world over. On university campuses in Sydney Chinese students fill lecture halls and research labs. In California’s Silicon Valley Chinese scientists make up a big share of tech firms’ brainpower. In the medieval Italian city of Prato thousands of Chinese toil in clothing factories. In small towns in Namibia Chinese traders peddle cheap wares. Big-spending tourists from China snap up luxury brands in Mayfair in London and the Champs Elysées in Paris.
Forty years ago, when Deng Xiaoping “unfastened the great gate of reform and opening”, as officials often put it, it was far from clear that this would ever happen. Deng’s idea of opening was warily to admit some foreign tourists and businesspeople and, on an even tighter rein, journalists. He saw this relaxation as an economic and diplomatic necessity. A more normal relationship with the West, including visits by Westerners, was an essential salve for China’s Mao-battered economy.
Deng also saw some benefit in sending more Chinese students to universities abroad to acquire technical know-how at state expense, but he never envisaged an outflow on the scale seen since. “There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies and other insects,” Deng reportedly said in 1985. “But we say, ‘Open the windows, breathe the fresh air and at the same time fight the flies’.” As it turned out, swatting insects took up a lot of his time.
Fortunately for China, the Communist Party was sometimes prepared to take risks. This was evident in three main areas. The first was reforming the economy. In the 1990s leaders ignored the complaints of conservatives and pushed ahead with the closure or sale of tens of thousands of state-owned enterprises. With the rapid growth of private business, the shift of many state employees into these new jobs and the migration of tens of millions of people to find work in cities, the party lost much of its once all-controlling network of workplace cells (it is still struggling to build a new one). But the reforms helped to catapult China into the ranks of global economic powers.
The second big risk was taken by Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin: embracing the internet. Mr Jiang may not have realised in the 1990s how much this new technology would change the world (who did?). But it was still a gamble for a party that was determined to control the spread of information. And it paid off: China became a global leader in information technology, and the party remained in power.
The third gamble was to open the country’s gates and allow people to leave. The exodus started haltingly but steadily gathered pace. Since 2007 the number of visits abroad made by Chinese people has more than tripled. To cash in on China’s tourism boom, many countries have greatly eased their visa requirements. Some have also opened their doors to rich Chinese migrants by giving them permanent residency, at a price.
Bonanza or excess?
For many people in host countries, the growing presence of Chinese people is a bonanza. But it is also fuelling resentment, sometimes tinged with racism. Residents of Australian cities fret about soaring property prices, which they attribute to Chinese demand. In parts of Africa people grumble about competition from Chinese shopkeepers or construction firms. Italians sound off about a perceived threat to their textile industry from Chinese migrants, many of them illegal.
Political and security fears come into the picture, too. Across the West concerns are growing that universities rely too heavily on fee income from Chinese students, exposing the institutions concerned to the risk of espionage in high-tech labs and ideological interference by the Chinese state. In February the director of America’s FBI, Christopher Wray, called China “not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat”. Noting the activities of what he called China’s intelligence “collectors”, he said that “it’s not just in major cities; it’s in small ones as well. It’s across basically every discipline.” Some governments worry that having millions of its citizens abroad will encourage China to boost its military power.
Western politicians might show more enthusiasm about this wave of Chinese visitors if they thought that the travellers, once returned home, would transform their country with liberal ideas they had picked up abroad. But evidence of this is scant. As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, clamps down ever harder on civil liberties, flexes his muscles in the South China Sea and squeezes foreign firms for intellectual property, a more global China does not seem to be getting any easier for the West to deal with. And for its people, familiarity with Western ways appears to be breeding mainly contempt.
Yet this report will argue that it is far too early to assess the full impact on China of this large-scale movement of people. It will look at the tens of millions of Chinese tourists who are flocking to Western countries every year and sending back images and accounts of their impressions to countless millions back home; the hundreds of thousands of students who head annually to Western universities for their first taste of intellectual freedom; the tens of thousands who head abroad to eke a living in factories, shops and restaurants (and dream of making a fortune); and the hundreds of thousands of wealthy Chinese who shuttle between two rich worlds—the affluent suburbs of Western cities, where they snap up expensive properties, and the boomtowns of China, where they fill boardrooms.
Travellers returning from abroad, and the ideas they bring with them, have played a crucial role in the country’s tortuous history, especially since the 19th century. The recent flow has been greater than anything seen before. In the long run, Deng may turn out to have been right to worry about political flies.