As a result of market-oriented reforms beginning in the 1970s that reduced barriers to leaving the country, China has become one of the world’s leading sources of migrants. Emigration from China may be categorized into two major streams: those who are highly skilled and wealthy and those who are low-skilled or unskilled.
As this report for MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration explores, high-skilled and high-value emigration from China is rising fast. In contrast, low-skilled and unskilled emigration is stagnant—a divergence that has been widening since the late 2000s. The emigration rate of China’s highly educated population is now five times as high as the country’s overall rate. China’s wealthy elites and growing middle class are increasingly pursuing educational and work opportunities overseas for themselves and their families, facilitated by their rising incomes.
Unskilled migration from China, on the other hand, is proceeding at a much slower pace. Though government reforms have liberalized exit controls and facilitated overseas employment for individuals, making the process safer and more orderly, old restrictions have been replaced by regulations that deter migration and make the journey more expensive for migrants.
This report analyzes the evolution of Chinese emigration from the end of the 1970s to the present day. Concerns about “brain drain” in the late 1980s have now given way to various government efforts to connect with China’s diaspora members without necessarily expecting their permanent return. These include targeted recruitment programs for skilled diaspora members in academia and the science and technology sectors, online portals to engage with overseas experts, and temporary exchange programs and special visas for second-generation diaspora members.