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Transnational Identities, Multiculturalism or Assimilation? China's ‘refugee-returnees’ and generational transitions



This article investigates the tensions that emerge when transnational identities are juxtaposed against claims of multiculturalism and de facto assimilation processes. The article focuses on the resettlement of co-ethnics who arrived in China through forced migration between 1949 and 1979 and the generational transitions of their descendants. The Chinese state resettled these forced migrants from Southeast Asia on state-owned farms known as the ‘overseas Chinese farms’ and gave them preferential treatment as ‘returnees’ rather than ‘refugees’. They retained transnational cultural identities which set them apart from the China-born Chinese and suffered further stigmatization during the Cultural Revolution. This article highlights the limitations of using ethnicity as a lens for understanding how ‘difference’ is negotiated in China. In contemporary times the (multi)cultural identities of the refugee-returnees are promoted for the purposes of tourism to help reinvent the farms for economic sustainability. Yet the identity transitions experienced by the children and grandchildren of the refugee-returnees suggest that they are assimilating a national identity that subsumes their overseas Chinese cultures, serving to normalize a Chinese identity associated with the locally born Chinese instead. The article argues that the objectification of overseas Chinese heritage and assimilation ideology work together to selectively highlight China's historical connections to its co-ethnics abroad while simultaneously projecting a new national narrative of contemporary Chinese identity that is distinct from the overseas Chinese. This article on Chinese forced migration and resettlement provides useful insights concerning the negotiation of transnational identity with respect to multiculturalism and assimilation, and further suggests new directions for overseas Chinese studies today.



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1 The label ‘huaqiao’ is often used to describe the overseas Chinese, but this term simplifies the differences between distinct groups of Chinese living abroad. ‘Diasporic descendants’ refer to the Chinese who were born and grew up abroad. They absorbed other cultural influences from their socialization abroad but intermingled with a lingering Chinese identity. Some still have Chinese nationality, many have adopted the citizenship of the countries in which their parents settled. Another group of overseas Chinese are those who were born and bred in China but migrated later in life. They maintain a strong Han Chinese national identity with most still choosing to retain their Chinese nationality as they plan to return to China after their sojourn abroad. See Leo Suryadinata, ‘China's citizenship law and the Chinese in Southeast Asia’ in Michael B. Hooker, Law and the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Singapore, ISEAS, 2002, pp. 169–202.

2 However, efforts to promote an overarching national identity privileging Han Chinese norms, which continued into the Communist period, can be traced back to the Republican era.

3 In Mandarin, minzu can refer to nationality, ethnicity or people more generally. For the fluidity of social groups categorised as ‘nationalities’ in China, see Nicholas Tapp, In defence of the archaic: A reconsideration of the 1950s ethnic classification project in China, Asian Ethnicity, 3, 2001, pp. 63–84; also Vasantkumar, Christopher, What is this ‘Chinese’ in overseas Chinese? Sojourn work and the place of China's minority nationalities in extraterritorial Chineseness, The Journal of Asian Studies, 71, 1, 2012, pp. 423446.

4 Gladney, Dru C., Representing nationality in China: Refiguring majority/minority identities, The Journal of Asian Studies, 53, 1, 1994, pp. 92123; Barabantseva, Elena, Change vs. order: Shijie meets Tianxia in China's interactions with the world, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 34, 2, 2009, pp. 129155; Howell, Anthony and Fan, Cindy, Migration and inequality in Xinjiang: A survey of Han and Uyghur migrants in Urumqi, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 52, 1, 2011, pp. 119139.

5 Howell and Fan, Migration and inequality in Xinjiang.

6 Franke Pieke, Immigrant China, Modern China, 38, 2012, pp. 40–77.

7 Castles, Stephen, Towards a sociology of forced migration and social transformation, Sociology, 77, 1, 2003, pp. 1334.

8 Portes, Alejandro and Zhou, Min, The new second generation: Segmented assimilation and its variants, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530, 1, 1993, pp. 7496.

9 Portes and Zhou posit three trajectories of assimilation: upwards into a higher socio-economic class through acculturation and integration, downwards into a lower socio-economic class, or economic advancement through the preservation of unique ethnic traits.

10 Zhou, Min and Yang, Sao Xiong, The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants: Lessons for segmented assimilation, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28, 6, 2005, pp. 11191152.

11 Rambaut, Rubén, ‘Ties that bind: Immigration and immigration families in the United States’ in Booth, Alan, Crouter, Ann C. and Landale, Nancy, Immigration and the Family: Research and Policy on U.S. Immigrants, Mahwah, New Jersey, Erlbaum, 1997, pp. 346; Alba, Richard and Nee, Victor, ‘Rethinking assimilation theory for a new era of immigration’ in Hirschman, Charles, Kasinitz, Philip and Dewind, John, The Handbook of International Migration, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1999, pp. 137160.

12 Li, Peter, Deconstructing Canada's discourse of immigrant integration, Journal of International Migration and Integration, 4, 3, 2003, pp. 315333.

13 For example, Suryadinati, Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians.

14 See footnote 1.

15 Rong Ma, A new perspective in guiding ethnic relations in the twenty-first century: ‘De-politicization’ of ethnicity in China, Asian Ethnicity, 8, 3, 2007, pp. 199–217.

16 Ibid, pp. 208–210.

17 Gladney, Representing nationality in China, pp. 110; Mullaney, Thomas S., Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 2011.

18 Mei, Weiqiang, Kaiping huaqiao yu diaolou jianzhu, Journal of Wuyi University, 4, 2002, pp. 4549; Zhang, Yinglong, Some thoughts about the cultural characters of Guangdong Qiaoxiang: A comparative study of architectural culture of Wuyi and Chaoshan Qiaoxiang, Overseas Chinese History Studies, 3, 2006, pp. 6369.

19 See Wang, Gungwu, China and the Chinese Overseas, Singapore, Time Academic Press, 1991; Suryadinati, Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians; Zhuang, Guotu, Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, Shijie Minzu, 3, 2002, pp. 3748; and Jacobsen, Michael, Navigating between disaggregating nation states and entrenching processes of globalisation: Reconceptualising the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Journal of Contemporary China, 18, 2009, pp. 6991.

20 See Fitzgerald, Stephen, China and the overseas Chinese: Perceptions and policies, China Quarterly, 44, 1970, pp. 137; Fitzgerald, Stephen, China and the Overseas Chinese: A Study of Peking's Changing Policy 1949–1970, London and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1972; Godley, Michael, A summer cruise to nowhere: China and the Vietnamese-Chinese in perspective, Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, 4, 1980, pp. 3559; and Godley, Michael, The sojourners: Returned overseas Chinese in the People's Republic of China, Pacific Affairs, 62, 1989, pp. 330352.

21 Ho, Elaine Lynn-Ee, ‘Refugee’ or ‘returnee’? The ethnic geopolitics of diasporic resettlement in China and intergenerational change, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38, 4, 2013, pp. 599611.

22 Chee-Beng, Tan, Reterritorialization of a Balinese Chinese community in Quanzhou, Fujian, Modern Asian Studies, 44, 3, 2010, pp. 547566.

23 Xiaorong, Han, The demise of China's overseas Chinese state farms, Journal of Chinese Overseas, 9, 2013, pp. 3358.

24 Ho, ‘Refugee’ or ‘returnee’?, pp. 604–606.

25 Gladney, Representing nationality in China, p. 102; Yang, Li, Wall, Geoffrey and Smith, Stephan L. J., Ethnic tourism development: Chinese government perspectives, Annals of Tourism Research, 35, 3, 2008, pp. 751771; Xiaobo, Su, The imagination of place and tourism consumption: A case study of Lijiang Ancient Town, China, Tourism Geographies, 12, 3, 2010, pp. 412434.

26 Peterson, Glen, Socialist China and the huaqiao, Modern China, 14, 3, 1988, pp. 309335, p. 312.

27 The hukou refers to the household registration system in China, which distinguishes the social rights of urban residents from those of rural residents. As ‘returnees’, their parents were entitled to the non-rural hukou (fei nongye hukou) thus enabling their children to inherit this status. It can be transferred to the cities if those holding it are able to prove their long-term urban residency.

28 Han, Dong, Policing and racialisation of rural migrant workers in Chinese cities, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33, 4, 2010, pp. 593610.

29 Wolf, Diane, ‘There's no place like “home”: Emotional transnationalism and the struggles of second-generation Filipinos’ in Levitt, Peggy and Waters, Mary C., The Changing Face of Home: The Transnational Lives of the Second Generation, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2009, pp. 255294.

30 Wolf, ‘There's no place like “home”’, p. 285.

31 Zhou, Min, ‘Straddling different worlds: The acculturation of Vietnamese refugee children’ in Rumbaut, R. G. and Portes, A., Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 187227.

32 This observation is corroborated by Han's study of the Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in China. He notes that, ‘The lack of education and skills has made it difficult for [the refugees] to venture into non-agricultural sectors of the economy. When the reform of the state farms started to threaten the existence of their farms . . . many of them felt inadequate and became distraught’ (p. 42); Xiaorong, Han, Exiled to the ancestral land: The resettlement, stratification and assimilation of the refugees from Vietnam in China, International Journal of Asian Studies, 10, 1, 2013, pp. 2546.

33 Han, Policing and racialisation of rural migrant workers in Chinese cities, pp. 596–597.

34 Yang et al., Ethnic tourism development, pp. 753.

35 Spivak, Gayatri, Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York, Routledge, 1993.


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