By M.E. Strickland

When the first results for China’s 2010 census were released at the end of April, media attention duly fell on two trends: one, the surprisingly low growth in the national population, suggesting a lower than expected fertility rate; and two, the uptick in the number of elderly and an even sharper drop in people under the age of 14, indicating the rapid aging of the population. But there was another little piece of data in the reports that caught my eye, despite being largely passed over: according to the census, at the end of 2010 there were approximately 594,000 foreigners residing in China. What are we to make of this?

At first blush, this is just one more number in a litany of census statistics. And yet, if we stop to think about it for a moment, the figure of 594,000 becomes something of a curiosity. When mixed into the population of more than 1.34 billion people in mainland China, these 594,000 foreigners represent less than 0.05% of the total population. Judging from UN figures compiled on international migration for 2009, this would mean China has the lowest percentage of foreign immigrants of any country in the world. Or to put it another way, the city of New York alone has a population of foreign born residents several times larger than does the whole of China.

This simple statistic now looks a little odd, maybe even something of an anomaly. Why would China’s foreign population be so small? There are no immediately obvious explanations for this. Proportionally, it is lower than that of India, which has a similarly large native population; lower than in poor countries like Bangladesh, economically troubled ones like Zimbabwe, or unstable ones like Afghanistan; and lower even than for countries with famously restrictive immigration policies, like Japan.

Yet this state of affairs appears at odds with China’s transformation over the last thirty-some years. Today, China seems to occupy a permanent position on the front page of the news, where there are almost daily reports remarking on its various superlatives: world’s second largest economy, fastest rising power, largest consumer of various commodities from iron ore to soybeans, home of some of the world’s largest engineering projects, and an all-around dominating force in global trade. And with its fast-charging economy and the perpetual buzz about its ascension in world affairs, China has attracted foreigners of all kinds: workers and businesspeople, academics and researchers, students, teachers, pilgrims, artists, travelers, adventurers, and too many others to name. All else being equal, one might assume that a country that has sought and achieved some measure of global preeminence, and that now has such widespread international connections, would have a foreign population at least a little bit larger than it this.

The 594,000 figure begins to raise a number of questions, and the problem of why it is so low is only one of them. But more fundamentally, does it matter that it is “only” 594,000? Does it mean anything for China, for its development, or for its relationship with the rest of the world that its foreign population is still so small—and if so, what? This is a surprisingly complex problem with multiple dimensions, and I do not presume to offer a definitive answer for it here. Instead, all I wish to do is draw attention to the question itself, and show why it may deserve more thought and discussion by those who live in, work in, and study China.

Admittedly, the size of China’s foreign population does not have nearly the significance of the other results highlighted by the census report. The demographic trends of falling fertility and rapid aging are likely to make their impacts felt throughout Chinese society for decades to come, affecting everything from employment to family structure. By comparison, the number of foreigners who happen to be living in the country is, frankly, trivial. China’s foreign population is barely visible, rarely heard, and little thought of. And yet it is precisely that apparent lack of significance that should make us wonder. After all, in many countries, both wealthy and impoverished, immigration is a major subject of public discourse, fraught with political, social, economic, and cultural importance. Why should China seemingly be an exception?

Granted, this not an easy subject to discuss. The question of China’s foreign population may unavoidably spill over into other, thornier problems regarding current and past state policy and immigration laws, the complicated imbalances in visa rules between countries, the subtle privileges that foreigners from developed countries enjoy when traveling to less developed parts of the world—all to say nothing of Chinese popular and governmental attitudes towards foreigners, the pained memories of Western colonialism, the unbalanced economics of globalization and international migration, and so much else besides. Nevertheless, this is a potentially important topic, both for foreign residents in China and for China scholars, and little could be served by shying away from it.

But first, what do we know about these 594,000 people? The 2010 China census was the first ever to include foreigners in its count; if the Chinese government had any precise statistics on the foreign population residing in the country before this, it was not very forthcoming with them, leaving a great deal of uncertainty as to just how many foreigners were actually present. Indeed, the United Nations, in its annual reports on international migration, previously had to rely on imputing the numbers for China, rather than drawing on officially published figures as it does for nearly all other countries (incidentally, the latest such report from the UN apparently overestimated China’s foreigner population at 686,000).

This makes the recent census report from the National Bureau of Statistics a very welcome change, but it must be considered with a few caveats. First, as with any population statistics there may always be some level of error; some foreigners were no doubt missed in the census count, meaning that the real number could very well be higher than 594,000. But China’s foreign population is already so low that, even if we were to assume it is fully twice as large as reported, it would still rank among the smallest in the world.

Second, like all such data collection, the census could only capture a given moment in time. The 594,000 figure cited was the number of foreigners who happened to be living in China in a brief period at the end of 2010. What is important to know, however, is how long these foreigners had actually been in the country—in other words, how stable the foreign population is. The census report does provide numbers on this, although they are combined with those on people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan who were also living on the mainland at the time. Needless to say, the legal status of someone from Hong Kong and someone from, say, Germany, is not exactly the same in the eyes of the Chinese government, and so we cannot assume the two groups (foreigners and ostensible Chinese nationals from outside the mainland) are necessarily similar on any given measure. Still, if we go by the data presented, then roughly half of the foreigners in China at the time of the census had been in the country for less than two years, and only a quarter of them for more than five. In other words, of the already small number of foreigners living in China, an even tinier fraction has been living in the country on a long-term basis. This implies a high rate of turnover, with many foreigners coming for perhaps only a few months or a year or two before leaving.

The report does not mention how many foreigners hold permanent residency, though it would seem to be extremely rare. Most, of course, depend on visas that have to be renewed at least once per year. As this news report from Xinhua points out, the city of Beijing itself awarded a total of only 311 “green cards” in the five years between 2004 and 2009. A more recent report from this year claims that, nationwide, there have only been about 1000 permanent residency cards issued in the last seven years.

In Beijing or Shanghai, with foreigners seemingly to be found on every street, it may be hard to believe that there are only 594,000 in all of China. We should remember, though, that the distribution of foreigners is not even across the country. They are disproportionately located in the major cities, with minimal presence in lower-tier cities and the countryside. The census data itself demonstrates this, showing that a majority are concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong province (primarily in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, most likely), with the remainder strewn throughout the other provinces and regions.

These numbers and statistics together give a rough portrait of the foreign population in China: it is small, in both relative and absolute terms, largely relegated to wealthier urban areas, and generally transitory. And if that were all there were to it, then it would be only a matter of light interest. But these figures are not mere abstractions; they reference stark, concrete realities about the place of foreigners in China and just how deeply (or not) they are embedded in Chinese society.

Beginning in 2008, I lived in the central town of a rural county in Shandong province for two years—not a city, by any means, but not a village, either, with a population totaling in the tens of thousands. And yet in the two years I lived there, I never once saw another foreigner. There were rumors about a South African man who taught English at one of the local high schools, though I never ran into him, and I half suspect that he had long since left and that talk about him simply persisted long after he was gone. It would not be surprising. Intermittent glimpses of foreigners passing through the area as tourists or on business at one of the local factories tended to become items of gossip. Once every few months I would hear something along the lines of “there was a Canadian over in the other town last week,” or “there were two Germans who were seen at the hospital the other day.” The very fact that these sightings were commented on speaks to how rare and memorable they were for locals. But more to the point, I encountered many people over the years who told me, sometimes excitedly, that I was the first foreigner they had ever met. Such experiences as these are surely familiar to foreigners who have spent any amount of time in China’s more rural areas. Yet something about all this is at odds with the image, now increasingly common, of a more globalized and open China. For all the changes that have taken place since the start of the Reform and Opening Period, and a certain cosmopolitanism that can now be found in Beijing, Shanghai, and the other upper-tier cities, it is important to remember that there are still broad swathes of the country where many Chinese have never had any personal contact with someone from another country.

But as the census report’s numbers hint, it is not just that foreigners are few or unevenly scattered, but that there are even fewer who seem to be firmly rooted in the country. It should be noted that even in the urban centers, there are almost no well-defined, stable foreign communities. The only major example might be the “Little Africa” of Guangzhou, though by some accounts this community and its members have been put under strain from ever more stringent visa rules and police crackdowns in recent years. Alternatively, one can point to the personal and social networks of Western expats in Beijing and Shanghai, but these do not seem to cohere into focused or localized communities in quite the same way as do, say, the various Chinatowns and other Chinese enclaves in cities elsewhere in the world.

Bizarrely, there are streets, districts, and even whole villages in China built in mimicry of foreign communities—almost like immigrant enclaves, but without the actual people, such as, famously, the Thames Town near Shanghai, or the recently revealed (and mildly controversial) replication of Hallstatt, an Austrian village. Some of these places have been built with the aid of foreign developers, some not, but in all cases they are intentionally exoticized constructs built for local Chinese homebuyers and tourists, and are not the organic products of a living immigrant community.

But can we even envision a future China with real foreign communities, fully visible and integrated into the country’s greater social and cultural landscape? For that matter, can we imagine eventually seeing (odd as they may sound) the emergence of officially recognized hybrid categories, such as “Canadian-Chinese” or “Indian-Chinese,” within China itself? It is not really a matter of whether or not we find these scenarios likely or even desirable. The question is simpler: do they even seem feasible?

There are several sides to that issue, the first being Chinese visa and immigration policy. But another is the foreign population itself, and if and how foreigners residing in China can, or want, to see themselves that involved and integrated. Granted, it would be impossible, not to mention inappropriate, to group all foreigners in China under the same umbrella; they are diverse in their own cultural backgrounds, personal circumstances, and, no doubt, their expectations and intentions about living in China. But it is entirely fair to ask if they should even be concerned with the dearth of their own numbers, or the lack of definite immigrant communities. Many foreigners would be understandably indifferent to such things, and have neither the need nor the desire to change them. And, to put it bluntly, many others may simply have no desire to settle permanently in China, and expect to reside there only a few years at the most. It has to be asked if the foreigners of China even hold any particular interest in their own collective status in Chinese society.

But even if the foreign population were disinterested in its own status, what of the Chinese state and general public? Although the foreign population ostensibly brings with it valuable skilled workers and investment funds, the central government may still believe it has an interest, for whatever reasons, to limit their numbers. And though many Chinese are open and friendly to foreigners, China nonetheless has, as many countries do, a small contingent of those who are hostile to outsiders. Yet if it is important, as so many now believe, for the rest of the world to engage with China, then it is surely just as important for China to engage with the outside world, including at the grassroots level. The benefits of social interaction between people of differing nationalities and cultures are difficult to quantify, or even name, but they are no less real for that. It could be argued, as China moves forward onto the world stage and broadens its global connections, that the lack of a sizable and stable foreign resident population could be detrimental in any number of respects, whether for international business opportunities, advancing diplomacy, or simply for the sake of basic, everyday cross-cultural communication. And if we believe that diversity is its own virtue, then perhaps such low numbers of foreign nationals in the world’s most populous country, a country with ever more presence and sway in international affairs, should give us pause.

Answering these questions—what are the implications of China’s foreign population being so small and transient; what does the foreign population matter for China at large; how do foreigners see their own place and role in Chinese society—is no easy task. But they are worthwhile questions, and perhaps, with the final release of the first ever official data on the foreign population, and with China’s ascension in the world, it is a fitting time to start asking them.

M.E. Strickland is a doctoral student in Anthropology at UCLA. His current work focuses on Chinese youth of the 80’s generation.

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