Chinese entrepreneurs in poor countries: a transnational ‘middleman minority’ and its futures
In the early 1990s, I started doing ethnographic research among Chinese migrants in Hungary, a project that lasted until 2004 and included brief periods of research to Russia, Yugoslavia, and Romania. These migrants were, and are, entrepreneurs who left China after 1989. Unlike other, earlier strands of Chinese migration, which either targeted traditional migration destinations (North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia) and was largely based on family sponsorship, or rich countries where Chinese went as students (US, Australia, Japan), these new entrepreneurial migrants went to countries with no recent tradition of Chinese immigration, but where there was high demand for low-cost consumer goods produced by China and a lax regulatory environment. What enabled this migration was the 1986 Law on Exit and Entry Management, which liberalized the issuance of passports, especially so-called service passports, which could be issued to any state employee travelling on business. What propelled it was the situation of the Chinese economy in the late eighties, when inflation combined with an overproduction glut, while state ‘work units’ attempted to trim their workforce by encouraging employees to go into business (‘plunge into the sea’) while retaining some of their workplace benefits (such as housing, health care and pensions). Between 1989 and 1992, a recession and fears of a rollback of economic reforms were additional reasons for fledgling businesspeople to want to leave the country.
Pal Nyiri is professor of global history from an anthropological perspective at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, and author, most recently, of Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China (University of Washington Press, 2010). His research interests include Chinese international migration and tourism. His blog can be found at http://MqVU.wordpress.com.