Professor of Social Anthropology | University of Oxford & MPI for Social Anthropology, Halle
A way out or a way in? Social competition in China and transnational mobilities
Despite the major disruptions created by COVID-19, the momentum of outmigration from China seems to remain strong. Why are students, workers, and businesspeople eager to leave while China is becoming a world economic centre and its living standards have significantly increased over the last four decades? I suggest that transnational migration from China is driven by intensifying competition within China rather than by inequalities between China and destination countries. Social competition in China is fierce in all important life domains, from education, work, to marriage. Rewards across different domains are closely related. In response to the ever more tense competition, outmigration emerges as a “spatial fix” for individuals. For some, migration is a way out of the white-hot competition. For others, higher savings or more reputable education degrees from overseas put them one step ahead of others when they return, thus a shortcut into the race. For yet others, the privileged minority, migration serves both a way out and a way in. Sending young children overseas, for instance, frees them from the educational pressure, and at the same time opens up the opportunity for the children to return to China one day with extra competitiveness, say as representatives of transnational corporations. The growing tension between China and the West since 2019 may discount the value of outmigration as a way “in”, because status achieved in the West has less symbolic value in China than before. It is likely that more people choose to migrate as a way out.
Biao Xiang 项飙 is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, and Director of Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. Xiang’s research addresses various types of migration in China, India and other parts of Asia. Xiang is the winner of the 2008 Anthony Leeds Prize for his book Global Bodyshopping and the 2012 William L. Holland Prize for his article ‘Predatory Princes’. His 2000 Chinese book 跨越边界的社区 (published in English as Transcending Boundaries, 2005) was reprinted in 2018 as a contemporary classic, and 自己作为方法 (Self as Method, co-authored with Wu Qi) was ranked the Most Impactful Book 2020. His work has been translated into Japanese, French, Korean, Spanish, German and Italian. His ongoing projects include MoLab Inventory | Max Planck Institut für ethnologische Forschung (mpg.de), Twitter @MaxMoLab