Posted on December 28, 2020

Chinese Attitudes Toward Immigrants: Emerging, Divided Views

Tabitha Speelman. The Diplomat, December 21, 2020


{snip}A national online survey on immigration attitudes, the first of its kind and designed by a team of Shanghai-based social scientists, of which I was a part, gives insight into Chinese citizens’ perceptions beyond media controversies.

Answers to our survey reveal a public more welcoming of migrants than might be expected based on media reports, with a majority in favor of expanding or maintaining current levels of migration. It also points to an emerging politicization of foreign migration among urban, highly educated parts of the population. While the prevailing sentiment among the Chinese public is moderate, as immigration becomes a more permanent part of Chinese society, related debate rises on the public agenda, revealing parallels with global trends in immigration discourse.

For decades a large source of emigrants, China started attracting growing numbers of foreign nationals in the 2000s. United Nations figures estimate about a million foreigners lived in China in 2017, a big increase from about 150,000 registered foreigners at the start of the millennium – although a fraction (about 0.1 percent) of China’s population. South-Korea, the U.S. and Japan were the most common countries of origin among China-based migrants in the most recent census data from 2010, followed by Southeast Asia and Western Europe. While incoming migration was initially dominated by foreign professionals and traders, student and marriage migration are on the rise. Foreign migrants in China are usually temporary sojourners, rather than long-term immigrants, as gaining permanent residency or Chinese nationality remains very difficult.


Among our nationwide sample, 33 percent of respondents answered that the number of foreign migrants in China should further increase, versus 25 percent who answered that it should decrease by a little or a lot and 42 percent who preferred the status quo. Compared internationally, these figures suggest relatively low levels of anti-immigration sentiment. In Japan, a country that like China has no tradition of immigration, 23 percent of a national sample supported an increase in migrants, while in Eastern Europe, where immigration levels are generally low as well, a majority, when polled, wanted a decrease in immigration. In Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index ranking attitudes in 140 countries, China holds a mid-ranking position, a few spots below Singapore.

On the effect of foreign migrants on the country’s development, just over half of our respondents answered that they think immigration benefits China’s development. This outcome fits with that of a 2018 Pew survey of 18 countries around the world, from the U.K. to Russia, in which 56 percent of respondents on average in all countries responded that immigrants made their country stronger. Compared to those countries, however, in China much fewer (9 percent vs. 38 percent in the Pew survey) respondents consider immigrants are a burden. This may reflect the influence of official discourses crediting the role of foreign expertise and internationalization in the country’s development.


While most respondents express moderate views, put together with earlier data, our survey also reveals that anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in the last five years. Data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and Asian Barometer Survey (ABS), which have included sporadic questions on immigration attitudes in their China surveys starting from the 1990s, show that anti-immigrant sentiment drops in the 2000s, reaching much lower levels than in the 1990s, before increasing again over the last five years. For instance, in the WVS Wave 7 data, published in July of this year, 26 percent of Chinese respondents select “foreigners” as a category of people they would not want living next to them, vs. 13 percent in 2013.

Views among the highly-educated are increasingly polarized. While in earlier surveys, Chinese respondents with university education were clearly more in favor of immigration, in recent years this group seems more divided. In our survey, the numbers of university graduates that prefer a reduction in immigration and those who prefer an increase are both substantial (25 percent vs. 35 percent). In the latest ABS (from 2015-2016), about twice as many Chinese university-educated respondents preferred a reduction in immigrant inflows, compared to those in favor of an increase.

{snip}But in our survey, 55 percent of respondents say controlling immigration is a higher or much higher priority for China than it was ten years ago. This percentage is higher in places with more foreigners, like Shanghai (77.5 percent) or Beijing (66 percent). {snip}