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The Chinese leaving China

By Ming Hwa Ting - posted Monday, 11 January 2010

China is arguably the fastest growing economy in the world. It is difficult to go through any major newspapers and not come across optimistic and rosy reports about China and its incredible development. China is seen to the next major power, one that is tipped to rival, and perhaps overtake the United States sooner rather than later.

However, there is a curious development. It was recently reported in The Weekend Australian that the number of Chinese migrants to Australia was greater than that of either Britain or New Zealand in the first ten months of 2009. Given the close cultural, social and historical affinities between Australia, Britain and New Zealand, it is not surprising that British and New Zealand residents choose to migrate to Australia and vice versa. On the other hand, China is a very recent actor in this area and I believe that the current large numbers of Chinese migrants undermine popular claims of Chinese “soft power”.

In essence, Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power refers to a state’s ability to influence another state through the inherent attractiveness, draw, and attraction of its ideas, values and culture.


In the present context, individuals and states are keen to jump on the Chinese bandwagon for fear of missing out on reaping the immense economic benefits associated with closer links with the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese social, political, cultural, and economic systems and values do not hold much traction nor are they intrinsically attractive. Volition is arguably the key aspect that differentiates soft power from traditional forms of power. Fear of missing out does not qualify as acting on one’s volition.

Soft power is most usually associated with the United States. Mention the United States and the first thing that comes to mind is the “American Dream”, which is arguably the ability for an individual to make good through one’s efforts. The American Dream is arguably about the equality of opportunities, not necessarily the equality of outcomes. However, I am unable to recall if a corresponding version of “Chinese Dream” exists.

The United States has been long been the traditional and favoured destination for migrants. On the other hand, China has been the source of many migrants in recent years, just when the positive effects of the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 have begun to be realised.

If China is really the next superpower with its large reserve of ever increasing soft power, why is it that its residents are leaving the country in droves? Furthermore, it is also important to remember that Chinese residents who emigrate belong to the middle-upper classes in China. They are the direct beneficiaries of Deng’s economic reforms. They have the education, the financial resources and most importantly, the guanxi to succeed in contemporary China. At the same time, most of these migrants are in the prime of their lives, and it coincides with China’s ascendancy. Logically, these individuals would want to remain in China. Yet, they are seeking greener pastures abroad, when the rest of the world perceives China to be the greenest pasture. Perhaps, these Chinese residents are not so certain about the durability of China’s bull run or taken in by optimistic assessments of foreign analysts. Granted some of these individuals are politically and religiously persecuted by the Chinese authorities, it is fair to assume that they only constitute a minute proportion of the total number of people leaving China.

As an individual working in the Australian higher education system, I have come across many Chinese students who seek an Australian tertiary education with an eye to securing Australian permanent residency status. More of these students already possess degrees from Chinese universities and while in Australian universities, many of them take courses conducted in Chinese languages on Chinese topics, or even Chinese language classes. I would assume that if they were really that interested in learning more about Chinese culture and society or brushing up their language skills, staying on in China would be the natural choice. After all, nothing beats an immersive experience.

International students pay a lot in fees and coupled with living expenses, a three-year stay in Australia can easily exceed $100,000, or in excess of half a million yuan. Since privileged Chinese citizens are willing to invest so much money and time in order to secure an opportunity to leave China, perhaps it is only commentators and analysts with their parochial focus on economic numbers and statistics that are so upbeat about China and the belief that it has soft power.


The movement of people can take place in different forms, be they defection or migration. In the Soviet Union during the Cold War, people defect to the West. The Soviet Union had the population and military hardware to rival the United States. Yet, like Ozymandia’s creation, this state of affairs did not persist. For many Chinese residents, China, apparently, also holds no attraction for them.

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About the Author

Ming Hwa Ting is a doctoral candidate and Bill Cowan-Barr Smith Library Research Fellow at the Centre for Asian Studies, University of Adelaide. His previous articles have been published by Academia Sinica and Australasian Political Studies Association. His forthcoming works will be published by the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies and the Austrian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.

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