Belt & Road in Global Perspective
Two men stand on a train station platform. Behind them a modern, white train sits with the door open.
Commentary / Analysis, Migration & borders, East Asia, Belt & Road

“Belt and Road” and the globalisation of Chinese migration

“Belt and Road” is perceived mainly as a geopolitical project that manifests itself principally in infrastructure and capital flows. To the extent that human flows associated with it attract attention, they are typically seen as instruments of a “state-mobilised globalisation” (Ye 2020) who may benefit from it by escaping unemployment at home while taking away potential jobs from locals. An influential if somewhat extreme instance of such a view is Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo’s book China’s Silent Army. In some cases, this picture is roughly accurate. For instance, Miriam Driessen’s fine-grained ethnography of Chinese construction workers in Ethiopia interprets their migration as a way to deal with pressures at home, which entails little meaningful engagement with their local environment. (For a critical attempt to highlight the diversity of Chinese labour abroad, see Made in China Journal 2021.)

At this point, however, it is useful to recall that, as Tim Oakes noted in his post for this blog, “Belt and Road” for all its geopolitical ambition and teleological charge is a post-hoc label that encompasses multistranded processes of the globalisation of Chinese capital and institutions. These processes predate the adoption of the BRI as a cornerstone of China’s foreign policy and as a source of finance (Pieke 2014), even if the “initiative” now legitimises and accelerates them. This is true for migration as well. Along with the first Chinese workers dispatched to Africa and the Middle East in the 1980s, the pioneers of global China were individual traders who set out across the Soviet border with duffel bags stuffed with clothes and shoes to sell to fashion-starved Soviet and Eastern European customers just as China’s state economy was in the throes of reform and recession. It is out of these individual initiatives that a network of “China marts” and shops covering much of the globe emerged in the subsequent two decades, the most successful of which have been able to upgrade themselves with BRI-related funding and rhetoric. Essentially serving the global poor unserved by slightly higher-end Western chains, Chinese traders have taken the place of the Indian or Lebanese dukawallah in rural colonial Africa and the rural Jewish shopkeeper in Eastern Europe (Nyiri 2011). Although they tied their luck to the ability of Chinese industry to serve global markets and are often proud of China’s “rise”, most have very little to do with any state-directed project. Unlike Chinese workers abroad, these migrants are, economically if not emotionally, deeply invested in understanding the societies in which they live.

After these pioneering ventures, the first wave of Chinese corporate globalisation involved state-owned extraction and infrastructure giants that rely on a Chinese workforce but remain physically and socially disembedded from their operating environments. But the second wave, tech companies ranging from Huawei to surveillance-camera manufacturer Dahua and electric bus maker BYD, have to operate in urban centres and manage teams of local employees. They deploy a global corps of young Chinese expatriate professionals, most of whom have grown up in China’s post-reform urban middle class and are keen to experience the pleasures of fine dining in Europe or wildlife safaris in Africa. They owe their careers to China’s economic success, but their relationship to their environments is complex and self-reflexive.

It should be clear by now that different migration flows associated with Chinese globalisation engage with the world around them in quite divergent ways. A recent development is the rise of lifestyle migration: an increasing number of middle-class Chinese are moving abroad not to make money or to improve their chances at home but to escape what they perceive as a polluted, high-pressure environment (Nyiri and Beck 2020). This trend has little overt relation to “Belt and Road.” But China’s political rapprochement with and infrastructural investment in particular countries often results in more business contacts, favourable media exposure, and increased tourism and youth volunteering, opening up more of the world to a Chinese middle class eager to consume it. This expanding middle class no longer only invests in real estate in Vancouver and Sydney but also in Budapest or the Cambodian and Philippine seaside, in turn generating more demand for Chinese construction workers (Franceschini 2020). Even if part of this interest, particularly in Southeast Asia, is driven by gambling, it nonetheless signals a shift towards the globalisation of middle-class consumption.

Projects under the “Belt and Road” umbrella are likely to contribute to the further diversification and globalisation of migration from China, as they catalyse not only the movement of workers, managers and technicians and all sorts of “camp-followers” (from accountants to tour guides, market gardeners and brothel keepers) who cater to their corporate and personal needs but fuel middle-class fantasies of leisure, adventure and escape. Of course, they also facilitate reverse flows of workers, traders, students, and fortune-seekers into China, which are likely to be increasingly tightly policed (Pieke et al. 2019) but, like outward flows, remain mostly spontaneous and haphazard rather than state-engineered.

Cardenal, Juan Pablo, and Heriberto Araujo (2014) China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing’s Image. New York: Crown.

Driessen, Miriam (2019) Tales of Hope, Tastes of Bitterness: Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Franceschini, Ivan (2020) “As far apart as earth and sky: a survey of Chinese and Cambodian construction workers in Sihanoukville.” Critical Asian Studies 52(4): 512-529.

Made in China Journal (2021) The Chinese Worker Goes Abroad. Special issue, 5(3).

Nyíri, Pál (2011) “Chinese Entrepreneurs in Poor Countries: A Transnational ‘Middleman Minority’ and Its Futures,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 12(1): 145–53.

Nyíri, Pál, and Fanni Beck (2020) “Europe’s New Bildungsbürger? Chinese Migrants in Search of a Pure Land” Diaspora 20(3): 305–26.

Pieke, Frank N. (2014) “Anthropology, China, and the Chinese Century.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43:1230-138.

Pieke, Frank N., et al. (2019) How Immigration is Shaping Chinese Society. Berlin: MERICS.

Ye, Min (2020) The Belt Road and Beyond: State- Mobilized Globalization in China, 1998– 2018. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.