40% Of Chinese Emigrants Want to Live in the U.S. — and China Wants to Stop Them


With a population of over 1.3 billion and a current growth rate of 7.8%, China is often viewed as a major emerging market, a future economic powerhouse, and a site of rapid socio-economic development. Most Chinese live in large cities, the more affluent of which are located in coastal regions; those that are less economically-developed sprawl further inland. According to The World Bank, around 13% of Chinese nationals live on $1.25 a day or less, many of which are migrating to urban regions, driven by urban economic incentives and employment opportunities. During the 1990s, it has been estimated that some 50 million Chinese migrants moved to municipal areas, forming the largest labour flow in history. However, the county’s demographics are shifting further as more prosperous Chinese are choosing to leave their homeland and culture. The growth of China's middle class has led to an increase in national emigration. This trend is apparent in the number of Chinese students wishing to apply for universities abroad, businesses choosing to invest overseas, and wealthy families deciding to emigrate, despite the comparative high costs of living, culture and language barriers, and complex visa requirements.

Global Qualifications  

China has the world's highest number of students studying overseas. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, 1.27 million students left China in 2010 to study abroad (a 24% increase from 2009). Of this total, 285,000 were new students; 90% of such learners chose to study in the United States, Australia, Japan, Britain, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, France, Germany and Russia. Rising urban populations are placing a strain on schools, which struggle to accommodate prospective students; this has led to a rise in students applying for education institutions abroad. Growing wealth among the burgeoning middle class, who can afford to pay high tuition fees and living expenses, is also a key reason for this trend. Another motivation is the competitive national college examination, which dictates whether students can enroll at tertiary education and what they will study. This system filters out less able students, who may find it harder to gain professional employment without a university education, while those students who succeed often embark on science or engineering courses, even if they have little interest in such subjects.

Students who have overseas experience – especially in native English speaking countries – can take advantage of greater employment opportunities if they choose to return to mainland China. Indeed, a number of Chinese provinces have begun developing regional benefit packages to lure capable Chinese graduates from abroad. There is also a growing a trend of dissatisfaction in Chinese institutions. Located in Beijing, two of the country's most esteemed universities are Tsinghua and Beida; many other Chinese institutions do not carry such prestige. However, today's employers now view an education from an overseas institution as an asset, which can improve employment chances. Considering the typical Chinese family has one child, the value gained from having their son or daughter studying in an acclaimed university in a developed nation is considerable in view of the competitive nature of contemporary Chinese culture, and the social pressures placed on the younger generation to generate enough money to support their aging parents and grandparents.

International Investment

Mainland China has a market-economy based on private property ownership, and is an example of state capitalism. Although the government still dominates the energy and heavy manufacturing industries, private enterprises, which encompass some 30 million businesses, have increased since the 1980s. With good infrastructure, low labour costs, and high productivities, China is a global leader in manufacturing and exporting goods. Even so, Chinese investors are increasingly looking beyond China’s borders.

In 2010, there was a total outward foreign direct investment of US$68 billion, coupled with an increasing number of takeovers of foreign companies by Chinese firms. Despite a lack of confidence among investors due to the weakened global economic climate, there are currently more Chinese investing overseas than foreigners investing in China. Overseas investment from China rose during January and February 2013 by 147%. Conversely, annual foreign direct investment into China (which excludes financial sectors) fell by 1.35%. Between January and February 2013, the largest expansion of mainland Chinese investment into a major overseas market was to Australia, which rose to 282%; investment into the United States grew by 146%, and 81.9% in the European Union. However, there has been a decline in some neighbouring countries; due to territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, annual investment in Japan fell by 31%, while investment in Russia, which borders China’s north-eastern provinces, dropped by 45%.

Possible explanations for such trends include relatively stable Western economies, reliable business partners, lower corruption, quality services, avoidance of local legislation, and greater political freedom. It is projected that China's economy will continue to grow over the next few years, which should result in increased overseas investment. There are also concerns that China’s growth could be influenced by domestic issues, such as high inflation, a slowdown in overseas export demand, and an unsustainable housing market, which could encourage the Chinese to invest in countries that are comparatively stable.

Eastern Exodus

Over half of all Chinese millionaires are either in the process of immigrating, or are considering such ventures. Joint-published by the China Merchants Bank and Bain & Co., a survey of 2,600 high-net-worth Chinese citizens revealed some 60% of affluent Chinese had either arranged for immigration, or were seriously considering permanently moving overseas. A survey (by the Bank of China and Hurun Report) of 980 Chinese individuals with assets of at least US$ 1.6 million, disclosed that the most popular country for emigrants is the United States (40%), followed by Canada (37%), Singapore (14%) and the European Union (13%). Furthermore, there are a growing number of Chinese purchasing high-end properties in London, New York, Sydney and other major Western cities. A further survey estimates that there are approximately 960,000 Chinese individuals (spread across 18 Chinese cities and with an average age of 42 years) with personal assets of at least US$1.6 million or more. 

One reason for the rise of emigration among Chinese nationals who had benefited from their country’s economic growth concerns the avoidance of the one-child policy, enabling larger families, which could benefit from better schooling and healthcare found overseas. Many affluent Chinese also choose to move to Western nations to avoid domestic corruption and the weak-legal system that exists in mainland China. Another worry and reason to leave is due to deteriorating air quality standards in most Chinese cities, as well as freshwater contamination, coastal pollution and other environmental issues. This is coupled with food scares, which routinely make the headlines, and social and cultural pressures.

Changing Demographics

To avoid corruption, pollution and stringent university examinations, and gain greater socio-political freedom, further employment opportunities, and education and healthcare benefits, there is a movement of affluent Chinese nationals, choosing to leave their homes and cultural norms behind. Moreover, the majority of such emigrants are selecting developed, English speaking nations. This trend, which has increased considerably since the 1990s, is expected to rise over the forthcoming years with the anticipated growth of China's economy. However, there are apprehensions among potential Chinese emigrants, concerning culture and language barriers. Furthermore, the extensive visa applications and necessary paperwork that is required to enable legal immigration is also a concern. Despite this, such people movements will alter human demographics – both within the country and the wider world – that will affect us over the ensuing century, and could be a reflection of similar emigrations from affluent citizens in Brazil, India, Indonesia or the other emerging markets.