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



THIS BOOK ARGUES THAT the multidirectional aspects of migration routes—emigration, immigration, and re-migration—can and should be analyzed alongside one another. Its focus on contemporaneous migration departs from conventional approaches that study migration sites in isolation or as snapshots in time. This approach directs us toward examining how temporal periodization structures migration and the citizenship constellations that are forged across migration sites, shaping the lives of citizens in motion. The book develops new arguments that contribute to our theorization of citizenship and territory, fraternity and alterity, ethnicity, and the co-constitution of time and space.

The chapters in the book examine how state accounts of migration and citizenship in China, Canada, and Singapore compare with the experiences of fraternity and alterity articulated by migrants and nonmigrants. This combination of cases may seem unusual, but what links China, Canada, and Singapore analytically is their status as societies characterized by existing cultural diversity, even as they simultaneously experience a range of new migration trends that add newfound challenges to maintaining social cohesiveness. Central to the analyses of migration in these countries are past and present accounts of emigration, immigration, and re-migration.

This book is based on more than a decade of field research, including participant observation, semistructured interviews, and analysis of news reports and other textual or visual sources. From 2008 to 2010 I conducted a two-stage research project, first considering skilled Mainland Chinese immigration to Vancouver, Canada, followed by research on skilled immigrants who had re-migrated to China from Canada and were based in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The latter group was labeled “return migrants” (huiliu zhongguo huaren) by the Chinese state, even if they had naturalized elsewhere. While searching the library archives of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (Qiaolian) in Beijing for reports of Chinese return migration, I chanced upon a news article describing an earlier cohort of forced migrants from Southeast Asia, which the Chinese state had resettled as returnees (guiguo nanqiao, or refugee-returnees). My curiosity piqued, I began to find out more about them.

From 2010 to 2013 my research focused on the refugee-returnees who had been resettled in the state-owned farms established by the Chinese state (huaqiao nongchang). I conducted research at two farms in rural Guangdong province and Hainan Island, and subsequently in the cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Xiamen. I extended my research from the farms to the cities for two reasons: First, I learned that during the 1980s post-reform period, groups of young people from the state-owned farms had been dispatched to work in state-owned enterprises in the cities and they resettled there. Second, of those who remained on the farms, their children (1.5 and second generations) later re-migrated to look for work in the cities independently after the rules restricting internal mobility through the household registration system (hukou) were relaxed.

In 2011 an academic colleague who was visiting Singapore introduced me to his Burmese companion. He remarked, “You do research on the Chinese, you will find many Chinese in Myanmar!” The possibility of carrying out research in Myanmar proved appealing because Myanmar had been closed to most of the international community for decades and little was known about the Chinese living there. The transition to partial civilian rule through the general elections in 2010 proved timely for starting new research there. From 2012 to 2014 I carried out research on Chinese migration to Myanmar. I began by sourcing for contacts in Yangon, but it was in Mandalay, known colloquially as Myanmar’s “Chinatown,” where research access proved most productive. From Mandalay, I went to Lashio in Shan state, a key trading route between Myanmar and China, and as such a key node for Chinese migrant communities as well. In Lashio, the Chinese I met urged me to do further research at the border town of Ruili in Yunnan province of China, thus enhancing my knowledge of the social interactions between Chinese diasporic descendants from Myanmar and the domestic Mainland Chinese.

From 2013 to 2016 I conducted new research on Africans in China, as I had started to notice new immigration trends in Chinese cities. I focused on educational migration routes and the social lives of African students who had enrolled in Chinese university degree programs. My fieldwork was in Guangzhou and Wuhan, cities with an agglomeration of universities that appealed to African students. As a hub of China-Africa trade, Guangzhou was further attractive to African students who wanted to do business or work alongside studying. As a second-tier city, Wuhan attracted students who desired a lower cost of living than in metropolitan cities like Guangzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai, or those who were dispatched there by Chinese scholarship agencies that funded their studies.

Throughout 2008 to 2016 I maintained an interest in deepening my understanding of Singaporean migration. Prior to 2008 I had conducted research on overseas Singaporeans in London and Singapore’s diaspora strategies (2003 to 2007). During my trips to China I would meet overseas Singaporeans who were working and living there. In Singapore I got to know Singaporeans who had returned from an earlier working stint in China or were commuting regularly between China and Singapore to balance their work commitments and family life. In 2012 I conducted interviews in Singapore with government agencies and organizations reaching out to Singaporeans abroad. Dividing my time between Singapore and China meant that I was in a trans-territorial environment that allowed me to be an ethnographer even as I went about my daily life.

At the same time, in Singaporean society a sense of urgency had developed over social tensions between Singaporeans and the new immigrants living in Singapore. Much of the coverage in the Singaporean media, reflected in everyday life, focused on the perspectives of Singaporeans who expected the new immigrants to integrate. In 2015 I started research on the attitudes of new Chinese immigrants toward integration in Singapore. This research is ongoing, complementing my overall research engagement on the migration connections between China and Singapore, and more generally between China and the world.

This book brings together these different research projects conceptually. The multisited ethnographic approach informing the work pieces together a picture of migration flows that connect China to the world, and the world to China.