The Political Incorporation of Chinese Migrants

This week in North Philly Notes, Amy Liu, author of The Language of Political Incorporation, recounts lessons she learned studying how Chinese migrants are treated in Europe.

Central-Eastern Europe is not an oft-discussed migration destination. Yet, places such as Hungary are some of the most popular European countries for Chinese migrants. Likewise, the Chinese constitute one of the largest migrant populations—not just in Hungary, but in all of Europe. To better understand the Chinese in Europe, I surveyed over 2500 Chinese migrants in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Serbia. I find that while the vast majority still held on to their Chinese passports (Beijing forbids dual citizenship), there is substantial variation in the migrant networks. Some are from parts of southern China with large migrant populations in Europe. These southern Chinese communities have a distinct vernacular that ensures their insularity—not just from the local Europeans but from other Chinese.

Everyone else is resigned to larger, all-inclusive Chinese networks. The diversity of these networks requires Mandarin Chinese—the Chinese lingua franca—to be the operating vernacular. The use of this lingua franca means the average Chinese migrant engages regularly with other Chinese persons from different backgrounds. They also interact with the locals more frequently—whether it is because the locals had learned Mandarin or because the Chinese migrant had learned the local European language. This repeated, regularized diversity in interactions translates into a differential: The Chinese in lingua franca networks were on average more trusting of authorities (6 percentage point differential) and civically engaged (7 percentage point differential) than their co-nationals in insular networks.

The surveys were conducted over a five-year period—all before the COVID outbreak. For over a year now, the pandemic has put the Chinese—those in China proper and its migrant/diaspora population globally—on display. As we begin to return to some post-pandemic normalcy, here are two lessons the Chinese in Europe can teach us.

First, what drives higher incorporation levels among the Chinese in the lingua franca networks (i.e., diversity) is also what undermines it when there is a crisis. When I was doing surveys in Romania, the tax authorities launched a four-month raid of Chinatown. It was part of a larger, national campaign to collect unpaid taxes. Responses to these raids—seen very much as an ethnic attack—varied by networks. Those in the insular networks bunkered down and weathered the storm. Conversely, those in the inclusive networks finger-pointed and demarcated new group boundaries. There was sudden suspicion of anyone and everyone that was different. And here is the irony: Those most hurt by the raids were those who trusted and engaged more before; and conversely, those who had been insular were left relatively unscathed. The troubling implication is that anti-Asian hate crimes—while they do not discriminate against passport color or the generation number—affects those who were better integrated in the U.S. And this makes bouncing back after the crisis subsides even harder.

Second, political rhetoric—even the empty rhetoric—matters. During my research, Hungary—led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party—pursued aggressive nationalist rhetoric. And policies matched the rhetoric (e.g. the border fence). Yet, during this time, Chinese migrant attitudes towards the Hungarian authorities remained consistently high (86% in 2014; 95% in 2018). The interviews corroborated these numbers. Interestingly, even at the height of targeting the Muslims and refugees, Fidesz reached out to leaders in the Chinese community to emphasize the Chinese were not the targets of the xenophobic policies. Similarly, text analysis of Hungarian language newspapers across the political spectrum showed when the Chinese are talked about, it is rarely negative. Even as COVID broke out in Hungary, Orbán refrained from associating the Chinese with the virus. This is in stark contrast to his American counterpart. What the former U.S. president did to link COVID with the Chinese cannot be undone. As the Asian-American community tries to make sense of what happened last month in Atlanta, the Biden administration must exercise caution in what it says and how it says it.

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