Identity and Wellbeing
Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by Iredale R. Robyn and Guo Fei
Chapter 9: From guiqiao to haidai: diaspora engagement and the evolving politics of return migration in China
This chapter compares two distinct phases of diaspora engagement in Mainland China. Historically China has encouraged co-ethnics abroad to retain their ties to the ancestral homeland while simultaneously assimilating into their countries of immigration. Nonetheless, during 1949–1979 the Chinese state accepted successive cohorts of co-ethnics fleeing forced migration circumstances in Southeast Asia. Rather than categorizing them as refugees (nanqiao), China considered them returnees (guiqiao) and resettled them in state-owned farms even though many were diasporic descendants that had not lived in the ancestral homeland before. The policy was arguably motivated at that time by what the Chinese state considered its geopolitical claims to ethnic affinity with co-ethnics abroad. In comparison, China’s diaspora engagement today is focused more on the economic benefits to be derived from the human and financial capital represented by its co-ethnics abroad and their potential return migration. This is reflected in the programs developed as part of China’s diaspora strategy to court business and scientific knowledge in the Chinese diaspora. The initiatives today are also more likely to be targeted at highly skilled emigrants that left China after the 1980s. However, the contemporary diaspora strategy neglects other types of returnees, such as the ‘middling’ category that have difficulty finding jobs after spending a period of time abroad. They are referred to derogatorily in Chinese parlance as haidai (seaweed), an extension of an earlier label ‘haigui’ (sea turtles) used to describe returnees. By juxtaposing these two phases of Chinese policy towards diaspora engagement and their outcomes, this chapter thus critically examines the politics of emigration and return migration in China.
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