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What is the Chinese government’s approach to immigrants?

The rapid economic development of recent decades has made China a destination for migrants from all parts of the world. What does Chinese migration policy say about the priorities and functioning of this global power? PhD candidate Tabitha Speelman has conducted research on this.

‘Growing numbers of people are migrating to China, especially from Asia, North America and Europe. This raises the question of how the Chinese state views this trend and what Chinese society thinks about it,’ explains Speelman, when asked how her research originated.

Selective listening

China’s one-party system means that, in effect, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t need to take any account of the people’s opinion. ‘We have an image of President Xi Jinping as the great leader who wants to control everything - and it’s absolutely true,’ says Speelman. ‘There can be no deviation from the key principles of the CCP; in this respect, the party simply doesn’t listen to the people.’

In other cases, such as the area of migration, however, the situation is more nuanced. ‘For example, there was criticism when the policy on residence permits was changed,’ says Speelman. ‘That plan has now been deferred, partly because social stability is one of the party’s important goals. And another consideration is legitimacy, of course - the CCP still wants to be seen as a good party that has China’s best interests at heart.’

This desire for legitimacy is also reflected in how the Chinese government’s priorities have shifted in recent years: at first they were mainly aimed at economic growth, but now there’s also a focus on security and nationalism. The way this plays out in practice is clearly evident when you look at an issue like migration. There’s an increasing amount of central policy, whereas in the past local authorities had more freedom in their approach to migrants.

Diverse picture

However, the party still receives criticism about this: ‘Although Xi Jinping has an authoritarian regime, there’s criticism online that his policies aren’t nationalistic enough. On the topic of migration, most social media posts are negative. But like us on Twitter or X, that’s not the whole picture,’ explains Speelman in mitigation.

‘For my PhD research, I spoke with many ordinary citizens, partly because it’s difficult for foreigners to speak with the Chinese government, even if you’re working at a Chinese university, as I was for two years. These interviews revealed that many people are positive about giving migrants more residence rights and also feel proud of China, because it’s attracting so many more migrants and is therefore successful. But they do want more control and a more selective policy, with an emphasis on highly skilled “knowledge migrants”; just like here, in fact.’

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