Chinese Diaspora

Chinese Diaspora Across the World: A General Overview

     The term “Chinese overseas” is generally used to refer to the approximately 46 million ethnic Chinese living outside China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. While short episodes of Chinese migration can be traced back through history, the phenomenon generally referred to as “Chinese Diaspora” only dates back to the mid-19th century (Liu & Van Dongen, 2013).

     This paper will investigate the evolution of Chinese diaspora since the nineteenth century from both a global and local perspective. The analysis will begin by providing some statistics related to the major Chinese communities spread across each continent. It will then go in depth into the influence, the challenges and the most important contributions of Chinese culture on the global community. Finally, the paper will look at the main trends and prospects of Chinese diaspora to develop a better understanding of current migration flows as well as their future implications for local communities.

Historical Evolution of Chinese Diaspora in the World

     Between 1850 and the 1950s, a growing number of Chinese workers, mostly male peasants from coastal provinces, started leaving their homeland to seek employment opportunities in Southeast Asia. Between the 1950s and the 1980s widespread violence and instability in the region shifted the destination of Chinese migrants to more industrialised areas including North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. Most migrants in this era were unskilled workers, driven by the growing demand for cheap manual labour elsewhere. This process is still evolving today and since the 1980s, Chinese migrants have developed an increasingly “multi-class and multi-skilled” profile, in line with the requirements of a globalised and technologically advanced economy (Ding, 2010).

     Economic and religious concerns have historically been the major factors driving Chinese people abroad. A good example of this forced migration can be considered to be the migration of Buddhist pilgrims to Central, Southern and Eastern Asia. In China’s case, sustained growth has been the result of economic reforms and, in particular, of the "opening up" policy that started during the 1970´s. It led to major changes in all areas of society; labour flexibility and privatization left large numbers of workers unemployed, unable to be reabsorbed by the internal-market. Rural-urban mobility, the polarization of the distribution of wealth and the consequent widening of the gap between rich and poor are all relevant factors for this migration. Thus, we can conclude that people tend to migrate in order to gain a better quality of life (such as social services and infrastructure), but always to be integrated in the places of destination (Gómez Díaz, 2012).

     According to the IMO, there are currently about 200 million migrants in the world. Chinese migrants amount to 39.5 million and are scattered across 130 countries. Asian migration, both domestic and international, is the largest globally. China and India account for 35% of migrants in the world: more than 70 million people. Therefore, the amount of international migration is heavily dependent on these two countries (Gómez Díaz, 2012).


Outline of the Chinese Diaspora´s presence in the World

     The data presented in this section intends to give a detailed outline about Chinese Diaspora and their presence in the global community. The amount of data we used describes within every continent in the world the main destination countries for Chinese immigrants and within those, the principal cities which host the largest Chinese diaspora settlements. At the same time, we try to give a statistical analysis of the data introduced in order to identify and explore the current relevant global trends and causes of Chinese immigration taking place in every continent included, having a particular focus on the States which became during the XIX and the XXth century prominent centers for the formation of Chinese diaspora communities.


     Over the past decade there has been an accelerating trend of Chinese migration in Europe. The number of Chinese migrants is, however, relatively low compared to other immigrant groups in the rest of the world. The estimated Chinese population in Europe is about 2.15 million (Gui, 2011) and the most striking point regarding migration from China to Europe are the rise in forms of irregular migration and the expansion of new channels of migration, especially student migration. The main communities can be found in the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. 

United Kingdom

     The United Kingdom has the largest Chinese population in the region. In the UK it is estimated at around 630,000 (Latham, 2011). The main communities are: Chinatown in London; the Chinese Quarter of Birmingham; the Chinatown in Manchester, which is the second largest Chinatown in the UK and the third in Europe; and the Chinatown in Liverpool, which is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe.


     French Chinese communities are the oldest communities in Europe. Chinese population in France is estimated to be around 540,000 (Latham, 2011). Half the Chinese community lives in Paris, which has three Chinatown districts: the 13th Arrondissement of Paris, the Belleville area and the Temple and Arts-et-Meriers area.


     The Chinese communities in Italy are growing rapidly from about 70,000 in 2008 to 330,000 in 2011 (Latham, 2011). The main communities are Milan Chinatown, the most important community in Italy, which amounts to 13,500 regular residents. Other two important communities are in Rome and the one in Prato.                      


     Over the past decade, Chinese citizens have emerged as the fastest-growing ethnic minority in Russia and they represent the fourth biggest ethnic group in this country. Chinese population in Russia is estimated around 300,000 (European Chinese Association, 2008) and the main communities are in Moscow Chinatown, where around 15,000 live (Neumeyer, 2012) and in the Russian Far East (Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and Ussuriysk).

West Russia

     Over the last decade the Chinese population in the Western part of Russia has increased to 300,000 people. The diaspora communities of Chinese people are based mainly in Moscow’s Chinatown, where 15,000 Chinese citizens live nowadays (Zeihan, 2014). At the same time, Saint Petersburg has commenced to receive considerable amounts of Chinese migrants during the last years.

Russian Far East

     In Russia’s Far East and Siberia, reports say that the Chinese population could become the dominant ethnic group in the Russian Far East within 20 to 30 years. Such an occurrence would require an annual influx of about 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese, so far it is estimated that around 300,000 Chinese people live in Siberia, having primarily concentrated on areas like Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and Ussuriysk (Repnikova, 2009).                                                                                                                        


     Mainly due to China’s investment in oil and infrastructure, which overtook the US to become Africa’s biggest trading partner in 2009, waves of migrants have temporarily settled in many African countries to work as construction workers and traders. Today, the total Chinese Population in Africa is estimated at close to one million (Migration Policy Institute, 2012), though it is virtually impossible to obtain a concrete figure. The biggest community in the continent can be found in South Africa, but smaller communities can be found in Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Mauritius, Madagascar and Algeria (Moban and Tan-Mullins, 2009).

South Africa

     South Africa has the largest community of ethnic Chinese in Africa, amounting at circa 500,000 people (Migration Policy Institute, 2012). The main settlement is in Johannesburg, where there are two Chinatowns and an estimated 350,000 Chinese residents (Cox, 2013). Other regions where communities are situated are Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.


     Angola–China relations date back to the independence of Angola and the two countries are tied by an emerging trade relationship. Two years ago, Angola was the second largest trading partner of China in Africa, after South Africa. According to the director of the Angolan Office of Migration and Foreigners, Chinese people living in Angola during the year 2012, amounted to 258,920 people. The main Chinatown is in Luanda.


     The number of Chinese migrants in Nigeria has grown exponentially since 1999, including not only Chinese citizens, but also Taiwanese and people from Hong Kong. Two years ago, there was an increase in migration of 20,000 people due to Chinese investments in the country and work opportunities for migrants in the region. Lagos and Kano host the biggest Chinese communities in Nigeria.


     Even with the conflicting statistics on the number of Chinese in Tanzania, we can say that in 2000 statistics of Tanzania's immigration showed that they had issued work or residence permits to just 239 Chinese nationals, making them one of the smaller groups of foreigners in the country. However, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that in 2008 the number grew to 10,000 Chinese people living in Tanzania. Dar Es Salaam is the city with the highest Chinese population


     Most migration flows from China were into Southeast Asia, where we can notice a Chinese presence from the second century B.C. Out of 40 million overseas Chinese, 30 million are found here, making up about 10% of the population in Southeast Asia (Chee-Beng Tan, 2013). Since the 19th century Chinese citizens have targeted Southeast Asian countries in order to be part of their prosperous economies. Concretely since the 1980s, when several landmark policy reforms were adopted by the Chinese government, this propelled the development of cultural links between the South East of Asia and China and facilitated the migration of Chinese people. In the last decades we have been witnessing a new migrant phase, characterized by skilled and knowledgeable Chinese citizens with still strong ties with the motherland. The highest concentration of Chinese communities can be found in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.


     The Overseas Chinese population in Thailand is 9,392,792 (2012) makes up approximately 11% of the entire population. This is the Country with the largest Chinese population outside China. Bangkok is the city with the biggest Chinatown (9% Chinese over 7,221,000 Thai).


     The Overseas Chinese population amounts to 6,960,900 people in 2010. The main communities are in Selangor, with 1.45 million Chinese inhabitants, which constitute 29% of the entire population. Also Kuala Lumpur and Penang are popular sites for Chinese diaspora.


     The number of Chinese citizens in Indonesia has grown considerably in the last 20 years; the Chinese population has recently risen to 2,832,510 (2010). Chinese migrants that are present in the country have settled in the areas of Bangka and in cities of Western Borneo (now Kalimantan) and to continue to settle in cities and towns forming a broad arc around Singapore.


     This is the only Country, China excluded, were Chinese make up the majority of population (almost 77%). The overseas Chinese population is 2,808,300 (2011). And in the city of Singapore nowadays, ethnic Chinese form 74.2% of the Singaporean population (Yeoh, 2013).


     The overseas Chinese population is 1,637,540 (2012) and represents about 3% of the entire population. The most important Chinatown is Yangon, considering that many businesses are conducted by Chinese families.


     The overseas Chinese population amounts to 1,146,250 people in 2005. In the Philippines the Chinese community is much smaller in number than in Indonesia or Malaysia, but remains in proportion to the native.


     The Chinese population in Vietnam is estimated at approximately 1 million (United Nations, 1993) and it represents one of Vietnam's largest minority groups. The main Chinatown is the one in Ho Chi Minh City, located in the Cholon district.


     During the last decade the migration flows of Chinese citizens to North America has increased substantially. In 2010 Chinese people living in the USA accounted for 37.6%, of the population. Nevertheless, a third of a million Chinese-Americans are not considered US citizens, because they have already been nationalized. In the case of Canada, which has more than one million citizens, Chinese people represent the largest ethnic non-European minority in the country. Whereas in the past decades the principle reason for migration was the search for jobs and political asylum, nowadays the rise in Chinese population in North America has largely been fueled by educational immigration, with more than 250,000 Chinese students enrolled currently in US Universities, in the hopes of improving their employability and academic background in the US (Walker, 2013).


     In 2010 3,347,229 Chinese people resided in the United States (US Government Census, 2010). California had the largest number of Chinese immigrants in 2010 with 577,745 people and 32.0 % of the total Chinese-born population (Migration Policy Institute, 2010). The oldest Chinatown in America is in San Francisco, though the largest one is in New York City. Today 376,584 Chinese-born migrants live in the State of New York (McCabe, 2012).


     Chinese people represent the largest non-European ethnic origin in Canada, amounting at circa 1,487,580. The largest communities are in Toronto, with 436,000 people and Vancouver with 348,000 (Statistics Canada, 2006). In 2001, 33% of the Chinese community was aged 25 to 44 and a quarter of them had a university degree.


     During the last decades of the 20th century, a number of Chinese migrants moved from Taiwan and China to Latin America principally for job reasons and in order to conduct their commercial and business operations in the some of the main Latin American urban areas. In this way we can find 156,170 Chinese people living in Central America. The three countries with the highest number of Chinese population in Latin America are: Panama (135,000), Nicaragua (12,000),Costa Rica (9,170) and Peru. Particularly, in Latin America, Chinese culture has been developed extensively big urban areas like Lima, in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires (Martin, 2011).


     The Chinese population in Peru is around 1,300,000 (Jacque, 2008). In the 1850s Bairro Chino, the main Peruvian Chinatown, was established in Lima. According to the population census 1941-2007, Chinese immigrants in Peru amounted to 10,915 in 1941 and 3,450 in 2007; 85% of Chinese people were living in Lima (Chee-Beng Tan, 2013).


     Today, it is estimated that there are between 200,000 to 250,000 Chinese nationals or people of Chinese descent in Brazil (Roberti, 2012). The largest community is in Sao Paulo, with approximately 150,000 people whilst there are smaller communities in Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro.


     Venezuela is the home for the highest concentration of Chinese population in Latin America. The Chinese community is very prominent on the culinary scene. Venezuela is home to more than 50,000 Chinese people (Amnesty International Report, 1990-1994). The largest community is in Valencia, namely Carabobo.


     The 21st century has witnessed a special wave of Chinese migrants to Oceania, because it plays a small but increasingly significant role in China’s efforts to further its economic and strategic interests. The two main destinations for Chinese migrants in Oceania are Australia and New Zealand.


     There are around 749,000 Ethnic Chinese in Australia (2011). Compared with the 2001 Census, Chinese migrants in Australia have been increasing by 4.07% per year from 2006. The rate is 2.52 times more than the local population growth rate (Minghuan, 2011).  The largest community is in Sydney.

New Zealand

     The numbers of people with Chinese origin in New Zealand are also increasing rapidly. In 2006, the number reached 147,600, 3.66% of all local inhabitants (Minghuan, 2011). The main community is in Auckland.

Influences, Challenges and Contributions of Chinese Culture on the Global Community

Influences of Chinese Culture on Indigenous Communities

The Chinese ethnic diaspora, induced by the several migration waves that occurred since the 19th century, have inevitably led to the exportation of Chinese culture in several countries of the world. In fact, Chinese migration abroad has several implications, particularly on the economics, politics and culture. As is the case in migration processes, the individuals advertise their heritage in the host country and within its community, hence involuntarily also exporting with them Chinese traditions and cultural goods such as science, medicine, food, and design.

According to the ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, “Chinese culture is gaining increasing acceptance overseas, which in itself attests to China's progress with a burgeoning foreign appetite to know more about China”  (Xinhua, 2014). Economic and political aspects of such migrations are not to be forgotten. In fact, Chinese diaspora in the world serves as a tool of influence, not only for the promotion of China's culture and language, but also for the facilitation of lobbying for business purposes, economic growth and diplomatic purposes.

Chinese communities have a broad influence on the local population. Traditionally, they form big communities to enhance relations within their members and feel at home in a new country.  The bigger the community, more influence and interactions it has with local indigenous population.

China has always represented unknown, exotic and oriental culture, different from the Western way of life. Therefore, the Chinese cultural heritage and peculiar traditions appear very appealing to the Western world that has shown a high level of interest and acceptance towards Chinese culture in recent years.  The major elements of Chinese culture which have been incorporated into local communities around the world are food, language, medicine and cultural events. However, there is also a huge economical influence that should not be forgotten as local population can benefit from it.

An account from an economic, cultural and sociological point of view

First of all, from a sociological and cultural point of view, the role of Chinese emigrants has also considerably contributed to the development of economic and cultural aspects with distinct countries and societies in the world. A relevant example of this, can be considered the cultural links and influences that the People’s Republic of China have had on the Southeast Asian region. For instance, the cultural ties increased considerably in the Indonesian government legalized the right of ethnic Chinese to become naturalized citizens, taking up the policy of cultural pluralism and religious and cultural freedoms (Larin, 2014).

From an economic point of view, the influence and contribution of Chinese Diasporas to the global community has been remarkable since the 19th century, when Chinese merchants started setting up their first businesses in California. There, they could sell both American and Chinese goods. A good example of this was at the end of the 1860s some of the companies, such as the commercial house "Yun Wo On Co" (Lausent-Herrera, 2011).

Managed to export and settle in several South American cities such as Lima. A recent interesting initiative in this field is the CHINA SF, which helps American companies to expand in the Chinese market and, at the same time, creates jobs and opportunities for Chinese investors.

At the same time, the cultural influence sponsored by international Chinese cultural and artistic institutions abroad has been decisive. An illustrative example would be the case of Major UK-based organizations, like the London Chinese Community Centre, the London Chinatown Chinese Association, the Yellow Earth Theatre Company and London Chinese Cultural Centre. These institutions have been the vehicle to preserve and promote Chinese culture, arts and identity, whilst aiding integration into the wider British community.

In the United States of America the Museum of Chinese Historical Society of America, has been using education, visual arts, and the organization of cultural events as tools to bring the American society closer to the Chinese minority. Several traditional Chinese events have been spread worldwide and adopted by the societies of its host countries. For instance, a huge number of people around the world are celebrating the Chinese New Year or Chinese Spring Festival, which lasts several days.

The popularity and influence of this festival has reached beyond China and Chinatowns and has become an expected event not only for the Chinese. London's Trafalgar Square hosts one of the biggest Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Europe every year, with the last year alone witnessing nearly half a million international visitors to the event (Sukhoparova, 2014).

Challenges Raised by the Chinese Diaspora

The Chinese diaspora is one of the largest spreads populations amongst many countries around the world, which contributed in influencing the life of the indigenous population and sometimes raised challenges and competitions, both for the immigrants and the indigenous population.

One main challenge is on the economic level; the power of the business of the Chinese migrants has increased and sometimes it has overcome the economy of the host country. In the ASEAN countries, competition with Chinese migrant in the labor market and the transfer of Chinese savings back to the motherland, this raises issues with the local indigenous population and plays a bad influence on local economies and small business (Larin, 2014). In south-east Asia, Chinese migrants dominate business despite forming only a small minority of the population, controlling around 60% of the region’s private corporate wealth (Xing, 2008).

The competitiveness with Chinese migrants leads to tensions with the indigenous population; for example in Johannesburg, South Africa, cultural tensions are often felt between the black and Chinese communities, especially since Chinese business is often in direct competition with black business, which is heavily supported by the government’s Black Economic Empowerment Policy (BEE). In October 2009, the Mayor of Johannesburg Amos Masondo, visited the Chinatown located in Cyrildene, in an act of ‘symbolic recognition’ to strengthen ties between the local community and the South African state.  In addition, the second generation of Chinese diaspora members may live in cultural borderlands; they do not fully identify themselves either with the culture of their native country, or with that of the host country.

To conclude, the Chinese Diaspora has led to several impacts both on the indigenous communities and the host countries on the economic, political and cultural level, both positively and negatively. Nowadays we all can benefit from advantages of the Chinese tradition such as medicine, science, design, technology, as well as benefit from the pleasure of Chinese food, cultural events and festivals.

Current Trends and Future Prospects for Chinese Diasporas


According to the Blue Book of International Migrations of China, China is undergoing its third wave of migration. The profile of the current Chinese migrants has slightly changed during the last decade and nowadays Chinese migrants coming from the rural areas of Zhejiang, Fujian,

Guangdong y Hainan still represents the majority of the newly-constituted Chinese Diasporas. Nevertheless Chinese citizens coming from urban areas, mainly from the city of Beijing, have begun to migrate. 

These new migrants tend to belong to a middle-class and intellectual elite, with a preference to migrate to Western industrialized countries and who want to find jobs in emerging market places, or to simply find a better environment with a higher quality of life for their children (Tébar Arjona, 2013). In this way, the Southeast of Asia is still one of the most important destinations in the world for Chinese migrants, but at the same time, other countries such as the US, Australia or New Zealand have gained momentum and constitute nowadays big Chinese overseas hubs of economic power.

Furthermore, Africa should not be disregarded as a current relevant continent for Chinese migrants, more specifically as part of the new so-called “Chinese economic diplomacy”. Therefore, in countries like Angola and Mozambique a considerable number of Chinese companies and workers have settle down in the last years.  Thus, several explanatory factors for this “third wave” of Chinese migration; have been argued, the most important being political reform reasons, infrastructure improvements, pollution, and education. Alongside these factors, we can proceed to analyze the current global trends and future prospects of Chinese Diasporas observed in the global community.


In Asia, Singapore is the most important destination for the Chinese migrants, and it is also the most developed economic centre for this community, with a current overseas Chinese population of 2,832,510 living there. Other relevant examples of Chinese diaspora communities formed in Asia, are Malaysia and Thailand. For instance, in Malaysia, the Chinatowns are principally based in the city of Selangor with over 5,460,000 Chinese living there, whereas in Thailand Bangkok has the biggest Chinatown with over 7,221,000 Chinese citizens based there (Tébar Arjona, 2013).


The Chinese migrant presence in the African region is proving ever more prominent and important. As China continues to reinforce its relationship with Africa, mainly for economic reasons, Chinese citizens have started to migrate to the country and many more are expected to follow suit over the coming decades. Indeed, as Africa possesses important natural resources and is a potential new market for Chinese products, a wave of migrants principally composed of Chinese businessmen, alongside their relatives, could be expected to come. Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana in particular might be the next most attractive African destinations (Grill, 2013).


Currently, the most popular destinations for Chinese migrants in Europe are considered to be the United Kingdom and Spain. Cities such as London, Paris or Madrid have witnessed a big increase of Chinese citizens over recent years. Here, the Chinese government’s decision in 1980 to allow Chinese citizens to migrate abroad prompted Chinese migration to Europe to reach its highest level in history. Consequently, Southern European countries have been the main focus of Chinese migration for the past 30 years.

Although France, Germany and Italy have been considered as the main receptors of Chinese migrants, the United Kingdom and Spain are now the most important destinations for the Chinese community (Latham. & Wu 2013),  In Spain’s case, economic progress experienced during the 1990’s and early 2000’s has been the fundamental factor in attracting Chinese migrants, with a Spanish-based Chinese diaspora of around 150,000 based there. Similarly, the cities of Manchester and London in the UK continue to receive substantial numbers of Chinese Migrants. However, the rate of growth is slowing down due to the worsening economic environment and the decreasing economic opportunities in the region (Latham. & Wu 2013),

Russia / China is always trying to find new economic partners and Russia appears to be a profitable and economically attractive one for the future. In particular, Chinese migration to the Russian Far East might also be a source of diplomatic tensions: most of the bordering region used to be under Chinese rule and there are valuable natural resources in that area. So if migration flows continue, there might be some political and economic issues to face in the future between the Chinese ethnic minority living in Russia (which currently is the fastest-growing ethnic minority in Russia) and Russian citizens (Latham. & Wu 2013).

North America

ln the United States of America, we can still find important migratory movements from Chinese citizens, particularly in larger cities such as San Francisco (Migration Expert, 2011). San Francisco is the largest Chinatown outside Asia, and New York has a Diaspora community which has witnessed the fastest increase in numbers over the last decade, with an overall population of 150,000 (Tébar Arjona, 2013).


In the case of Oceania, several new commercial agreements between Australia, New Zealand and China have been made recently, fostering an increasingly higher interest in the region by Chinese citizens. More specifically, Australia seems also to have a role to play in the future of the Chinese migration: it launched a permanent visa opportunity to attract Chinese businessman who are expected to invest in the upcoming years at least $5 million in the country particularly in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney (Barret, 2014). A good example in this geographical area is the city of Sydney, which is currently the main destination city in Oceania for Chinese migrants (Barret, 2014).


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