Inflow of International Immigrants Challenges China’s Migration Policy

Shen Haimei

Historically, China has been a migrant sending country: for centuries Chinese citizens, primarily laborers, have traveled to the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia in search of jobs and new lives. But the situation is evolving. More recent Chinese emigrants have been highly educated and seek employment throughout the world in the globalized era, or act as wealthy investors in the global market. Meanwhile, China has become well known as “the world’s factory” and one of the largest economies in the world. Now, it attracts great numbers of international immigrants from great a variety of countries in search of jobs and new lives. Thus China is becoming a destination country for transnational migrants rather than a source of them.

Transformation from a Source Country to a Destination Country[1]

According to the Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration of China’s Ministry of Public Security, 26.11 million foreigners entered China in 2007 and about 2.85 million of them― more than 10 percent―came for employment.[2] In 2007, 538,892 foreigners lived in China for longer than six months and over half of these were workers or relatives of workers in joint ventures and solely foreign-owned companies.[3] Influenced by the financial crisis, the total number of foreigners who entered China decreased to 21.93 million in 2009, but 2.27 million of these were seeking employment.[4] In late 2010, China conducted its sixth national population census, for the first time counting foreigners and residents of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan who were residing in mainland China.[5] The census counted 1,020,145 people from outside mainland China, including 593,832 foreigners; 336,245 were males and 257,587 were females.[6]

Table 1. The top ten countries of foreigners residing in China








Republic of Korea






United States
























(Data from National Bureau of Statistics of China, April 29, 2011 )

A total of 412,243 of these foreign residents came from the ten nations listed in Table 1 above, with the remaining 181,589 coming from other countries. Most foreigners were long-term residents in China: 683,101 (or 66.96 percent of the total from foreign countries, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan) resided in China for at least one year. 204,962 of these came for business, 201,955 came for employment, 186,648 came for settlement, and 202,482 came for study. Therefore, if we define immigration as the movement of humans across national borders for long-term or permanent durations, we might find that approximately 796,047 international immigrants or potential immigrants were living in China in late 2010.

Transnational Immigrant Communities in Chinese Society

Transnational migrants – with both legal and illegal status – are joining Chinese society at an unprecedented scale, and in unexpected ways. International communities are beginning to emerge within Chinese society; Shanghai and Beijing Municipalities, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Fujian, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Liaoning Provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are home to the largest concentrations of foreign residents. It is estimated that Beijing’s “Korea Town,” Wangjing, is home to more than 200,000 Koreans.[7] Approximately 50,430 Japanese lived in Shanghai for more than three months in 2010,[8] the largest enclave of which is in the city’s Gubei district. Xinhua News reported that in 2007 the number of long-term Japanese residents was greater in Shanghai than in New York.[9] Some communities may be a bit more unexpected. “Middle Eastern Street,” a bazaar in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province that is frequented by Muslims, is the largest international small commodities wholesale market in the world. Guangzhou is home to a so called “African Zone” (also named “China’s Brooklyn”),[10] where an estimated 200,000 African peddlers have lived with their families during the last decade.[11] Also, many tourists from Western countries have been settling for years in Yunnan Province in or around the towns of Lijiang and Dali, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, producing “local” cosmopolitans.[12] Such waves of migration indicate a coming era of inflow transnational migrants in China.

Asian female immigrants play diverse and important roles in China, as they impact both the professional and family domains.[13] Filipino maids are famous for domestic service around the world, and approximately 137,000 of them work in Hong Kong every year.[14] In recent years, as more and more mainland Chinese have begun earning high incomes, thousands of Filipino maids have left Hong Kong and Taiwan to work in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.[15]

Partly as a result of the One Child Policy, the ratio of males to females in China is increasing. A shortage of females in China along with the high cost of marriage (bride price) for Chinese men has created a “marriage squeeze”[16] in the provinces with the highest male-to-female ratios,[17] and very high demand for potential brides for ethnic minority women in poor Southwestern provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. A shortage of females in China has also created a demand for “foreign brides”[18] purchased from Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Illegal immigrants among the foreign brides are sometimes forced to marry poor Chinese single men, who are known as “bare branches” in society.[19] Poor and remote villages of north China’s Henan and Shandong provinces, for example, are home to many Burmese brides; some of these villages are even dubbed “black villages”[20] because of the Burmese women’s darker skin and smaller stature. This “feminization” of migration has grown in recent years,[21] and foreign brides from Asian countries are now becoming typical immigrants in China’s transnational migration era.

Challenges for China’s Current Immigration Policies and Law

International immigrants have come to comprise a fourth section of China’s population, thus reshaping a demographic structure that was divided into three sections: rural farmers, urban residents, and the floating population (internal immigrants). Moreover, the increasing numbers of the international population are a great challenge for the current Chinese immigration policies and laws.

On the one hand, China has little experience with immigration and has no special law regulating transnational migrants. The Rules for Foreigner Administration, which have long focused on entry and exit procedures for short-term visitors, is ineffective for addressing the increasing long-term or even permanent transnational migrants or the three different aspects of illegal immigration (san fei ren yuan): illegal entry, illegal residence, illegal work.

The Chinese government is inexperienced in the administration of international migrants and falls short in its laws and policies relevant to transnational immigration. This is especially true with respect to the granting of “eligible status” to immigrants, which is still under strict policy control. There is a very limited quota of Chinese “green cards,” or permanent residence permits for foreign citizens, and applications for such permits are usually influenced by politics: they are primarily issued for “international friends” of the Communist Party instead of for international immigrants. Current immigration policy also tends to encourage accepting immigrants who are highly educated and can work in high-tech or bring large investments with them, as China already possesses abundant labor resources.

Disadvantaged female immigrants, such as “foreign brides” who are less educated and less skilled than many migrants are therefore often not able to enter the country legally, and may do so illegally, either by their own means or through the facilitation of smugglers. Obviously, such women lack visible legal and policy support to obtain immigrant status, legal Chinese citizenship, or even an official marriage certificate. This poses a problem for more than just the underserved and unprotected population of foreign brides: undocumented non-registered marriages and undocumented marriage immigrants stimulate the growth of human trafficking crime across China’s borders and has a negative effect on society as a whole.[22]

Toward a Legalization of Irregular Migration: Possibility and Routes

China is not exceptional in facing and dealing with illegal or irregular migration issues, which are a serious problem for many countries. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “most States in the world (and not just in the developing world) lack the capacity to effectively manage the international mobility of persons today, not to mention respond to new dynamics.”[23] Even the United States, which defines itself as a nation of immigrants, still has to face “an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Some crossed the border illegally. Others avoid immigration laws by overstaying their visas.”[24] Europe is also facing an increasing illicit migration problem, with “an estimated 400,000 people entering Europe illegally each year.”[25]

According to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, because “immigration is vital to the long-term national prosperity and security in the global competition to attract highly talented immigrants, the United States must ensure that it remains the destination of first choice.”[26] While it is possible for the Chinese government to open the migration market further to the talented international immigrants in order to enhance China’s status in the global market economy, it may also need to attract immigrants to deal with the shortage of females in order to maintain the gender balance and social harmony. Despite emotional and political arguments about immigration around the world, legalization is still estimated to be an essential and widely used tool to manage illegal migration, “and often the only realistic way to reduce the existing stock of unauthorized immigrants.”[27]

For China, legalization implies not only innovation in the system but also a whole new immigration strategy. For example, local governments in border region of Yunnan province, near Myanmar, have explored a more flexible “Blue Card” policy in order to register and certify Burmese “foreign brides.”[28] The “Blue Card” strategy plays several roles: First, it encourages local residents who are in cross-border marriages to register their marriages with the local government, which increases the proportion of documented cross-border marriages and improves the government’s ability to administer the region. Second, it legalizes these marriage immigrants, and separates them from the illegal immigrants. Third, it provides benefits for the brides themselves, enabling them to obtain the new rural cooperative medical care and other public health welfare services. The “Blue Card” approach does have limitations. It is currently only a pilot program, and is only authorized by one prefecture (Dehong) in Yunnan province and therefore its influence is limited to a small region. However, this creative local policy practice represents an important step toward the legalization of marriage immigrants in China.


Full legalization would imply the creation of fundamental and comprehensive immigration administration structures. Such a structure should include five major aspects:

1) The formulation of national immigration strategies for responding to the global competition for talented human resources and dealing with the  immigrant population in regional security.

2) The formulation of immigration laws, regulations, and relevant policies to prevent irregular migration and promote regular migration, such as increasing the quota of Chinese “Green Card”; initiating programs of earned legalization for irregular migrants.

3) The building of migration mechanisms and a professional civil service, such as to establish a “State Administration of Immigration” and “Office of Refugee Affairs”; there should be an explicit division of responsibility and cooperation between internal departments; and quality training for immigration officials.

4) National capacity-building for immigration governance, management, protection and service, such as cooperation between international organizations, the national and local governments, and NGOs; developing civil societies for immigrants, and training of social workers; developing stronger capacity to evaluate immigration policies.

5) Improving the overall effectiveness and operational response to international migration of the Public Security and Board Guard, such as enhancing the capability and techniques in border enforcement, and state and local enforcement.

In brief, Chinese governance functions must be reconstructed – or constructed from scratch – to better adapt to China’s transformation from a traditional migrant sending country to a receiving country. Stopping illegal immigration depends on innovation in systems of immigration and developing new immigration strategies to formulate an Immigration Law, to establish a “State Administration for Immigration” and an “Office of Refugee Affairs,” and to strengthen its capacity both in law making and mechanism building to effectively manage transnational migration, both legal and illegal. 

[1] This article is adapted from “Trafficking in Women Across the Yunnan-Myanmar Border in Transnational Migration-Era China,” forthcoming in the CNAPS Visiting Fellow Working Paper Series. The author wishes to thank several scholars for contributions to the article: Frank N. Pieke, Cheng Li and Richard C. Bush III.

[2] “China plans draft immigration law,” Xinhua News Agency, published in The China Daily, May 22, 2010, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-05/22/content_9881622.htm; accessed June 24, 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Zhongguo Shichang Diaoyanwang, “2009 nian luyou waiguoren renlei zongji,”
http://www.20087.com/News/2010-02/N_2009NianRuJingLvYouWaiGuoRenRenShuTongJiAnMudiTongJi.html; accessed June 24, 2011.

[5] “Major Figures on Residents from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan and Foreigners Covered by 2010 Population Census,” National Bureau of Statistics of China, April 29, 2011, http://www.stats.gov.cn/english/newsandcomingevents/t20110429_402722638.htm; accessed June 24, 2011.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Zai Hua Juzhu Hanguoren Da Bai Wan, Beijing Renshu Zuiduo Da Er Shi Wan” (Over one million Koreans living in China, most in Beijing with more than 200,000), Huanqiu Wang, August 10, 2009, http://china.huanqiu.com/roll/2009-10/596705.html [accessed September 5, 2011].

[8] Chen Jianjun “Changzhu Shanghai de Ribenren Zongshu Shouci Tupo 5 Wan, Wei 10 Nian Qian de Liu Bei” (The total number of Japanese residents in Shanghai topped 50,000, six times as many as 10 years ago), Renmin Wang, February 18, 2011, http://world.people.com.cn/GB/13954620.html [accessed September 5, 2011]

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Bai wan wai guo ren zai Guangdong ju zhu gong zuo kao yan Zhong Guo yi min zheng Ce” (Million foreigners living and working in Guangdong challenge China’s immigration policies), Wangyi Xinwen, October 14, 2009, http://news.163.com/09/1014/05/5LIH1BPH0001124J.html [accessed September 5, 2011].

[11] “Fei zhou ren jing li jian xin chuang Guangdong” (Africans experienced hardships in Guangdong), Sina.com, July 20, 2009, http://news.sina.com.cn/c/sd/2009-07-20/095918257011.shtml [accessed September 5, 2011].

[12] Beth E Notar, Producing Cosmopolitanism at the Borderlands: Lonely Planeteers and ‘Local’ Cosmopolitans in Southwest China. Anthropological Quarterly, Vol.81, no.3 (summer) 2008.

[13] Penny, J. and S.-e. Khoo,1996, Intermarriage: A Study of Migration and Integration. Canberra, A.C.T.: A.G.P.S

[14]Guangzhou di xia fei yong shi chang diao cha: duo shu shi min bu zhi gu yong wei fa” (Underground Filipino maids market survey in Guangzhou: most citizens do not know hiring Filipino maids is illegal), Xinhua, January 10, 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2011-01/10/c_12965083_3.htm [accessed September 5, 2011].

[15] “Jing cheng di xia ‘fei yong’ shi chang an liu yong dong, jia ge bu fei shen fen bu he fa ” (Underground ‘Filipino maids’ market simmered in Beijing, hiring Filipino maids is expensive but they are still illegal status), Zhongguo Wang, January 29, 2011, http://news.china.com.cn/txt/2011 01/29/content_21841103.htm [accessed September 5, 2011].

[16] Siwan Anderson, “Why the marriage squeeze cannot cause dowry inflation,” Journal of Economic Theory 137 (2007) 140–152

[17] The 9 highest male-to-female ratios were respectively recorded in: Jiangxi (138.01),Guangdong (137.76), Hainan (135.04),Anhui (130.76),Henan (130.3), Guangxi (128.8), Hubei (128.08), Hunan (126.92) and Shaanxi (125.15).

[18] Le Bach Duong, Danièle Bélanger and Khuat Thu Hong, “Transnational Migration, Marriage and Trafficking at the China-Vietnam border”, CEPED-CICRED-INED Seminar on Female Deficit in Asia: Trends and Perspectives, Singapore, 5-7 December 2005.

[19] This phenomenon is described in detail in the book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, by Valerie M. Hudson, Andrea M. den Boer, 2004, (Belfer Center Studies in International Security) The MIT Press.

[20] “He nan nong cun nan nu bi li shi tiao, Mian dian fu nv fei fa jia ru dang di” (Demographic imbalance between male and female in rural areas of Henan Province, Burmese Women married illegally into the local villages), Wangyi Xinwen, June 16, 2006, http://news.163.com/06/0616/10/2JO04A760001124J.html [accessed September 5, 2011].

[21] U.S. Department of State, 10th Edition “Trafficking in Persons Report,” June 14, 2010, http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/.

[22] Shen Haimei, “Trafficking in Women Across the Yunnan-Myanmar Border in Transnational Migration-Era China,” CNAPS Visiting Fellow Working Paper Series, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution (forthcoming).

[23] IOM International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report 2010, The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change.

[24] Transcript: Obama’s Immigration-Reform Speech, El Paso, Texas, May 10, 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/10/remarks-president-comprehensive-immigration-reform-el-paso-texas

[25] Louise Shelley, 2010, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press, p4.

[26] Council on Foreign Relations, Independent Task Force Report No.63, U.S. Immigration Policy, 2009.

[27] Marc R. Rosenblum, Immigrants Legalization in United States and European Union: Police Goals and Program Design. Policy Brief, December 2010.

[28] “The Documented Registration Certificate for Border Residents in the Cross-border Marriages,” named by local residents the “Blue Card” because the cover of certification is blue color.