Citizens in Motion
Emigration, Immigration, and Re-migration Across China's Borders
Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho


Migration and Citizenship


A taxi driver in Beijing, noting that my intonation of Mandarin did not identify me as someone from northern China, asked curiously if I was from southern China. Not feeling particularly chatty that day, I replied, “I’m from Singapore.” He probed next, “Which part of China is that?” To which I explained, “It’s not in China—Singapore is in Southeast Asia.” Without missing a beat, he retorted, “You should come back to serve the country (huiguo weiguo fuwu).”1

A seemingly casual encounter such as this one, which happened during my first visit to China in 2008, captures the complex relations that tie emigrants and their descendants to China as an ancestral land. Whether through one’s personal decision to emigrate or through one’s being several generations removed from China (through ancestral emigration), the Chinese abroad continue to be regarded as co-ethnics who should serve the ancestral land. At the same time, the countries in which they reside see them as immigrants or citizens—that is, subjects in which national identity and loyalty should be cultivated and mobilized to serve their country of immigration or natal belonging.

Transnationalism theorists have long argued for the need to study the links between emigration and immigration societies.2 This book takes Chinese emigration as the starting point to consider how multidirectional migration flows have shaped and continue to shape nation building both in China and the countries to which cohorts of Chinese have migrated. My approach brings seemingly distinct emigration, immigration, and re-migration trends under the same analytical framework to conceptualize the contemporaneous aspects of migration, illuminating how citizenship formations in different national contexts are drawn into a constellation of relations (henceforth citizenship constellations3).

A handful of scholars, such as Susan Coutin and Filomeno Aguilar, have proposed that immigration debates should be reconsidered through the lens of emigration.4 For Coutin, this analytical shift shows that “it is no longer clear which migrant movements consist of going and which coming.”5 Studies of re-migration also trouble the dichotomy that is often drawn of emigration and immigration contexts. For example, the re-migration of diasporic descendants (i.e., descendants of emigrants) to an ancestral land is normally labeled “return migration,” but this label becomes a misnomer when it is projected on migrants who have never lived in the ancestral land before. For Anastasia Christou and Russell King, the re-migration of diasporic descendants to the ancestral land is more suitably referred to as “counter-diasporic migration.” 6 Re-migration reverses the directionality of movement between two countries, switching the sites of origin and destination. It also challenges accounts that presume migrants and their descendants will assimilate into their countries of residence in the long term.<7

With these arguments in mind, I develop the concept of “contemporaneous migration” as an analytical framework to draw together multidirectional migration routes as they converge in a national territory or forge interconnections across global space. This analysis situates the migration and citizenship politics of national societies in a trans-territorial context to signal how concurrent global events (i.e., temporal simultaneity) taking place in different parts of the world can forge citizenship constellations that interconnect migration sites.

Theoretically, this book advances migration and citizenship scholarship in four ways. First, it draws out how states, migrants, and nonmigrants exercise claims of membership (henceforth fraternity) or social difference (henceforth alterity) flexibly to advance their claims to belonging, identity, and rights. I deploy the vocabulary of fraternity and alterity throughout the book to creatively juxtapose discourses and practices of membership with social difference. Such dynamics are illuminated in new ways when emigration and immigration contexts are analyzed in tandem, rather than in isolation. Second, I consider the co-ethnic tensions that ensue when different cohorts of migrants from the same ancestral land advance their own versions of fraternity or alterity alongside interethnic hierarchies that exist in multicultural societies. Such an approach marks a distinctive departure from studies that consider fraternity and alterity through the lens of interethnic relations only. This provides a significant and timely intervention for scholarship on migration and citizenship, because the assumed cultural compatibility of migrant co-ethnics has been challenged in different immigration contexts, such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong.8 Yet the academic vocabulary we have for analyzing such trends remains deficient compared to interethnic relations. In response to these deficiencies, this book underlines how temporal periodization (i.e., temporality) is deployed to differentiate the membership and rights of newer immigrants,9 particularly toward co-ethnics.10

Third, the book examines how migrants engage in re-migration journeys and their aspirations for recognition and rights in different countries during distinct life stages. Re-migration journeys render such migrants susceptible to dissonances in membership and identity. They also become conscious that their social reproduction concerns regarding family closeness and retirement planning will extend across different nation-states in their lifetime.11 Few researchers have considered the long-term implications of re-migration patterns for the rights and duties associated with citizenship. As compared to normative framings of national citizenship that assume sedentariness, accounts of re-migration prompt us to analyze how citizenship inclusion or exclusion is experienced across the life course in a trans-territorial context. Fourth, the book contrasts the partial acceptance of immigrants in a country with the recognition extended to emigrants from the same country (i.e., the diaspora). Immigrants may be physically present but accorded only partial recognition by the nation-state, whereas emigrants can be physically absent yet sustain an emotional and political presence in a society that values them.12 Examining emigration, immigration, and re-migration trends in conjunction directs attention to how the territorial premises of citizenship are undergoing spatial change.

To develop the above arguments, the chapters in this book examine how state accounts of migration and citizenship in China, Canada, and Singapore compare with the actual experiences of fraternity and alterity expressed by migrants and nonmigrants. The culturally diverse societies of those three countries are experiencing migration patterns that add newfound challenges to maintaining social cohesiveness. Studying those countries together will allow us to draw out the spatial connections and temporal considerations that would be otherwise elided in compartmentalized approaches to migration trends. In addition to multisited ethnography and interviews, the writing also draws on wider historical and ethnographic studies to develop the breadth and depth critical to elucidating the diverse forms of migration and global events addressed here.

Emigration and Diaspora: Contextualizing Chinese Migration

Emigration creates diasporas when people move from one part of the world to settle elsewhere but they retain a sense of belonging to the countries they left, often referred to as the homeland. Diaspora can counteract narrow-minded framings of “race,” ethnicity, and nation, but diasporic imaginaries may also be appropriated by chauvinist agendas.13 The lineages and social relations undergirding diaspora create cognitive and material taxonomies of inclusion or exclusion in conceptions of the nation and diaspora. Hence critical race scholars, such as Avtar Brah, argue that diasporas should be examined conceptually from a historically informed perspective, rather than being taken as a primordial condition.14

Such debates on diaspora, membership, and belonging inform my analyses of migration trends pertaining to China. Scholars of Chinese migration have questioned using “diaspora” as a referent for the Chinese abroad given the assumptions of origin, membership, and belonging that it connotes.15 The “Chinese diaspora” is conventionally associated with the Han Chinese ethnic group, which represents only one of the fifty-six officially classified ethnic groups in China.16 The Han Chinese comprise the majority population in China, but their culture is also characterized by regional, linguistic, and cultural distinctions. I use the label “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao) to refer to the Chinese who consider China their natal land while reserving “Chinese diaspora” (sanju huaren) or “Chinese abroad” (i.e., persons of Chinese ethnicity) as more encompassing terms that also include Chinese diasporic descendants (huayi) who were born abroad, bear foreign nationality status, and consider a country other than China their native land. The heterogeneity of the social groups contained within these labels and the changing nature of the label “Chinese diaspora” will be discussed. I employ the emic labels that were mentioned during research so as to capture the specific aspects of identity brought up by the research participants.

Chinese emigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were mainly young and poorly educated male peasants from five major dialect groups (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, and Teochew) in coastal China (Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan Island). They ventured to Southeast Asia and the Americas as laborers and are referred to as the “overseas Chinese” by both the Chinese state and in academic literature. They brought their families to join them or intermarried with the resident population in their destination countries. This group is now referred to as the “old diaspora,” differentiating it from the “new Chinese diaspora,” made up of migrants who left China after 1979. Whereas first-generation emigrants have a personal identification with the country they left, diasporic descendants harbor only distant identification with the ancestral land. Their knowledge of the ancestral land is accrued through stories and memories of the older generation or through short visits rather than longer-term residency.

Engaging Chinese emigrants and diasporic descendants has been central to successive political regimes in China, whether it is the late Qing dynasty, Sun Yat-sen’s short-lived republican administration, or the communist government that succeeded it.17 Political rhetoric oscillated between seeing the Chinese abroad as resources for nation building, co-ethnics deserving protection by the ancestral land, or foreign spies and threats to the prevailing political ideology. Mobilizing the Chinese abroad to promote nation building and China’s role in the world led consecutive Chinese political regimes to assert an extraterritorial reach toward the Chinese diaspora, re-territorializing the geo-body from afar.18 The extraterritorial reach of the Chinese state is enabled through diaspora engagement policies that capitalize on the transnational identifications of the Chinese abroad.19

Diaspora engagement by China must be analyzed on three levels: first, the “old Chinese diaspora” and Chinese diasporic descendants with foreign nationality; second, overseas Chinese from the “new Chinese diaspora” who have naturalized abroad; and third, overseas Chinese from the “new Chinese diaspora” who retain Chinese nationality. Each of these emigrant populations can be analyzed in relation to immigration trends perceptible in China today. Diasporic descendants with foreign nationality status (huayi) are moving to China to work, study, or live. Unlike earlier policy that recognized the right of “return” for the Chinese abroad even if they no longer have Chinese nationality status, Chinese diasporic descendants today are required to apply for temporary work or study visas. Nonetheless, they are tacitly acknowledged as co-ethnics who bear a cultural affinity to China. The ties that the Chinese state maintains with diasporic descendants are loose but resilient, as it recognizes that their affiliations to their natal lands are likely to be more prominent than their attachment to the ancestral land.

The other two groups of Chinese left China after 1979 and are referred to as xinyimin (new Chinese immigrants). However, the collective label of xinyimin belies the distinct identities that different cohorts of emigrants embody, depending on whether they left the country when China was a low-income or middle-income developing country. Another marker of differentiation pertains to their nationality status. Of the xinyimin, those that have naturalized abroad are required to apply for immigrant visas to re-migrate to China. The third group of emigrants retained Chinese nationality (huaqiao) and went abroad intending to study or work temporarily. They represent the accrual of global competencies and international networks for China’s domestic agendas, and the means through which the Chinese state extends its reach to places as diverse as Africa, North America, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Through this third group the Chinese state exports national ideologies, development models, and modernization.20 Long-distance nationalism extends the extraterritorial influence of one country into another.21

Production of national identity and community in China has to be viewed alongside global events that interconnect the ancestral land to the countries where the Chinese abroad have migrated across the generations.22 As Adam McKeown argues, the “mutual entanglement” of flows and border is “key to most understandings of contemporary globalization.”23 Historically, the Chinese in Southeast Asia represented the conduits by which political revolution and notions of modernity circulated from China to destinations abroad, and from those destinations back to China. Circulatory histories, genealogies, and concurrent events prompt us to examine the interlinked aspects of migration within and across national contexts.24 For example, Chinese emigration and Chinese development abroad today are precipitating new immigration trends in China.

Chinese globalization and its extraterritorial reach into other countries expand capital circuits that connect not only goods and services but also people globally. As China transitions from an emigration nation to an immigration nation, the racial categorizations that shape its external engagement with the world influence its treatment of immigrant populations too. More importantly, China’s experience exemplifies how the territorial underpinnings and norms of citizenship are being reconfigured through the domestic and global events experienced by emigrants, immigrants, and re-migrants.


1. ​The phrase huiguo weiguo fuwu contains a double alliteration (guo), which puts the nation-state at center stage of the idea of return and the idea of service.

2. ​Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1994); Thomas Faist, The Volume and Dynamics of International Migration and Transnational Social Spaces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

3. ​Rainer Bauböck, “Studying Citizenship Constellations,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36, no. 5 (May 2010): 847–859.

4. ​Susan Bibler Coutin, Nations of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007); Filomeno V. Aguilar, Migration Revolution: Philippine Nationhood and Class Relations in a Globalized Age (Singapore and Kyoto: NUS Press and Kyoto University Press, 2014).

5. ​Coutin, Nations of Emigrants, p. 4.

6. ​Anastasia Christou and Russell King, Counter-Diaspora: The Greek Second Generation Returns “Home” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

7. ​Roger David Waldinger, The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants and Their Homelands (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

8. ​For examples on Korea, see Eleana Jean Kim, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Caren Freeman, Making and Faking Kinship: Marriage and Labor Migration Between China and South Korea (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). On Japan, see Takeyuki Tsuda, ed., Diasporic Homecomings: Ethnic Return Migration in Comparative Perspective (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). On Taiwan, see Sara Friedman, Exceptional States: Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015). On Macau, see Cathryn H. Clayton, Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau and the Question of Chineseness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). On Hong Kong, see Nicole DeJong Newendorp, Uneasy Reunions: Immigration, Citizenship, and Family Life in Post-1997 Hong Kong (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

9. ​This approach is inspired by critical theorists of time who argue that periodization should be examined as rhetorical strategies and that juxtaposing the state’s periodization with the lived experiences of migrants (i.e., social time) can restore “diverse forms of co-presence” that are denied in national discourses. See Michael J. Shapiro, “National Times and Other Times: Re-Thinking Citizenship,” Cultural Studies 14, no. 1 (2000): 79–98, quotation from p. 79. See also Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Saulo B. Cwerner, “The Times of Migration,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 27, no. 1 (January 2001): 7–36; Espen Hammer, Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

10. ​For example, Hong Kong laws prevent Filipino labor migrants from gaining long-term legal residency, while co-ethnic immigrants from Mainland China are also excluded by the Hong Kong public, who believe that they have different historical and political backgrounds that would deter their integration. See Nicole Constable, Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Newendorp, Uneasy Reunions. Clayton observes similar trends in Macau but adds that what differentiates the Macanese Chinese from the Mainland Chinese is the former’s claim to a sense of “native place.” Clayton, Sovereignty at the Edge, p. 220.

11. ​For examples, see Rosa Mas Giralt and Adrian J. Bailey, “Transnational Familyhood and the Liquid Life Paths of South Americans in the UK,” Global Networks 10, no. 3 (2010): 383–400; Ken Chih-Yan Sun, “Transnational Healthcare Seeking: How Ageing Taiwanese Return Migrants View Homeland Public Benefits,” Global Networks 14, no. 4 (2014): 533–550.

12. ​Coutin, Nations of Emigrants, p. 9; Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights from Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

13. ​Arif Dirlik, “Intimate Others: [Private] Nations and Diasporas in an Age of Globalization,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5, no. 3 (2004): 491–502.

14. ​Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (New York: Routledge, 1998).

15. ​Gungwu Wang, China and the Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991); Leo Suryadinata, “Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia: Overseas Chinese, Chinese Overseas or Southeast Asians?,” in The Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, ed. Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 1997), pp. 1–24; Adam M. McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

16. ​See Chapter 2, note 4.

17. ​For a historical review of how each of these governments engaged Chinese emigrants and diasporic descendants, see Els van Dongen, “Behind the Ties That Bind: Diaspora-Making and Nation-Building in China and India in Historical Perspective, 1850s–2010s,” Asian Studies Review 41, no. 1 (2017): 1–19.

18. ​Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

19. ​Mette Thunø, “Reaching Out and Incorporating Chinese Overseas: The Trans-Territorial Scope of the PRC by the End of the 20th Century,” The China Quarterly 168 (December 2001): 910–929; Elena Barabantseva, Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-centering China (New York: Routledge, 2011); Hong Liu and Els van Dongen, “China’s Diaspora Policies as a New Mode of Transnational Governance,” Journal of Contemporary China 25, no. 102 (2016): 805–821; Shelly Chan, “The Case for Diaspora: A Temporal Approach to the Chinese Experience,” Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 1 (2015): 107–128.

20. ​Pál Nyíri, “Chinese Investors, Labour Discipline and Developmental Cosmopolitanism: Chinese Investors in Cambodia,” Development and Change 44, no. 6 (2013): 1387–1405.

21. ​Nina Glick Schiller, “Transnational Social Fields and Imperialism: Bringing a Theory of Power to Transnational Studies,” Anthropological Theory 5, no. 4 (2005): 439–461.

22. ​Karl, Staging the World.

23. ​McKeown critiques the Eurocentric focus of scholarship on the history of globalization or the international state system, which locates the origin and diffusion of such processes in Europe, rather than studying the “mutual entanglement” with flows and borders elsewhere in the world. McKeown, Melancholy Order, p. 5.

24. ​Ibid.; Eng Seng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).