Refugees in China: Who are they and how do they live? (A Continuation of the article on China’s bystander position in the refugee crises)

Working on the latest article discussing China’s bystander position in the refugee crisis in Europe, I began to be curious about whether China has ever accepted a significant number of refugees. There were several refugee influxes before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Personally, I am particularly familiar with the story of Fengshan Ho, who is called the ‘Chinese Schindler’. As the consul general of the Republic of China’s embassy in Austria, Mr Ho issued visas for thousands Jewish individuals and saved their lives from Hitler’s cleansing.  More than 30,000 Jews found asylums in Shanghai during the Second World War – this amount outnumbers the total number of the Jewish refugees accepted by Canada, Austria, India, New Zealand and South Africa. Few refugees stayed, however. Shanghai was a transfer station for most of them, who later mostly settled down in America and Israel. China functions as a transfer station for refugees in other stories as well, before and after 1949.

However, after 1949, the chance for asylum seekers to enter this transfer station has declined. Instead, China was the home country of refugees for several decades. In the first thirty years of the PRC, the country with the largest population in the world underwent a period of planned economic transformation, endless revolutions, and extreme poverty. Because of the unbearable poverty, hunger and hopelessness, approximately ten thousand people risked their lives and escaped to Hong Kong or other countries. President Xi Jinping made the comment, ‘some foreigners with full stomachs and nothing better to do point fingers at us – but we don’t export revolution, hunger or poverty, nor do we cause trouble for you’. Xi might forget the stories of suffering Chinese in revolutions and famine when he said those words proudly. A wealthy and powerful China, where refugees flow is replaced by wealthy immigrants and tourists, has made Xi confident enough to make his statement.

Image Courtesy of Glen Peterson, via DW © 2011

The first and only officially significant refugee influx in the history of the PRC occurred around 1987, a year before the groundbreaking Chinese economic reform, and ended at the mid-eighties. Mainly due to the tides of Chinese exclusion in Vietnam and wars in Laos and Kampuchea, around 320,000 refugees fled to China. Apart from 301,014 refugees who chose to settle in China[i], other refugees, mostly with their fishing vessels, stayed in Chinese ports for a short period, ranging from three days to half a month, and prepared themselves for further journey with drinking water, food, and fuel provided by the government. Refugees who settled in China were put into two kinds of place across the southern coast. One is a state-owned farm, which was named ‘overseas Chinese farm’ later. Refugees worked in the farms for the state, and benefited from the self-supply economic within the farm. Most of the farms were closed when highly centralized economics ended in the 90’s. The others were refugee villages, mostly built in the areas bordering Vietnam and Laos. Being different from temporary refugee camps, the villages have infrastructure constructed for permanent use.

The government allocated houses to residents of the village, along with certain quota of meat and vegetables. A number of large villages were officially turned into towns years after the establishment, and the towns are governed by refugees at local level. Qiao’gang (literally translated overseas Chinese port) is one of the successful cases of the refugee village. Located about 15 miles away from Vietnam, the coastal village of Qiao’gang is now a free trade and investment zone. The connections between the residents and their family and friends back in Vietnam attracts capital and labor from that side and brings prosperity to the town. Contrasting to the prosperous coastal villages, the residents in the refugee villages located in landlocked areas are protected by the same state policies as their fellows in coastal towns while farm for living. They are generally economically disadvantaged because of limited and infertile lands they farm with. The process of deciding which refugees go where is not transparent and little official document can be found online. Nevertheless, the results of the process turn out to be decisive to the refugees’ new life in China.

Up to now, there are around 310,000 Indochinese refugees living in China, and about 99% of them are Vietnamese.[ii] In addition to that, around 500 asylum seekers from Somalia, Iran and Iraq are accepted by Chinese government. In most cases, those asylum seekers were accepted because they were already in China when domestic changes took place. As foreign minister Wang Yi said, refugees are not immigrants to China. The asylum seekers are doomed to be sent back. Another refugee group that has drawn a lot international attention is the North Koreans. Approximately ten thousand North Korean defectors live in the shadows in China.[iii] Knowing that repatriation takes place immediately they are exposed, the defectors live only within Korean ethnic communities in northeastern China and claim no human rights. They are not officially documented or registered either. What is special in the case of Vietnamese refugees in China is that they are nearly all ethnically Chinese. The open recognition of Chinese culture and identity, carried by their immigrant ancestors, are inherited and remain common among their communities and families. The familiarity and similarity between two societies promote the feasibility of China’s unique policies of accepting and arranging refugees, for example, constructing the refugee village. They effectively reduce the difficulties for refugees to integrate into local communities and help them to rebuild their lives more quickly. The uniqueness of the Indochina refugees is also reflected in the definition adapted by official documents: overseas Chinese in refugee-like status (Peterson, 2011, p.131). It means being an overseas Chinese determines their qualification of receiving help as refugees. The role China plays here is more of a motherland welcoming her weary home comers.

However, the motherland seems to be ill-prepared for this home coming, and the home comers feel the same. Nearly thirty years after the influx and settlement, only a small number of refugees became Chinese citizens. The rest and their later generations remain refugees. As a consequence, they lost their right for obtaining employment, education and receive public service. It leads to the below-average public literacy within the group, and hinders them from seeking for a better life. Sadly, there is no clear definition for refugees in Chinese civil law, and correspondently, no clear way to apply law upon them either. For example, the refugees do not need to follow one-child policy for years because they are not officially Chinese, while the policy has been applied to the majority of the public since 1979. The soaring population caused by the exemption divides the already very limited land the refugees were allocated by the government, eventually leading to lower income and poverty. Furthermore, although they were not put into refugee camps as most states would do, being a Chinese citizen is still a dream thirty years after the refugees’ arrival. Some refugees register their children under the names of their family members or friends who are citizens, in order to make sure their later generations can live their lives with an official identity.

This differential in treatment reinforces feelings of alienation. Both mentally and physically, they stay far away from the mainstream society, which is in cities and dominated by the Han people. Additionally, most refugees do not fully recognize themselves as parts of China in spirit. Many schools in refugee villages do not raise the national flag and students do not sing the national anthem, while raising the national flag and singing the national anthem are the most important parts of Chinese patriotic education in schools.

The existence of the Indochina refugees in China is barely known by the majority of China’s population, and it is a smart strategy to keep it that way, after seeing the fierce public anger triggered by a mild UNHCR micro-blog. It is not only humanitarian but also realistic for the government to solve the problems that the refugees have with their identity, especially for the children. Thus, the communities can improve their lives through business and education instead of merely depending on the government’s or NGO’s funding. After all, the motherland should be a place to live with honor rather than hide without dignity.





[i] P.20 Revisit on Arrangement of Indochina Refugees in China (印支难民安置工作的回顾与思考), Guohua Cao, Shoude Chen, Minbao Zhang

[ii] pp.151-152 Contemplation on Issue of Indochina Refugees in Yun’nan Province (云南印支难民问题的审视与思考), Zhenyu Xiao

[iii] The Troubled Water(不平静的江河), Meng Yang