China’s long diaspora gathering steam
Six centuries ago an Admiral named Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s immense fleet of trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far west as India, Africa and the Red Sea and south as far as Thailand and Indonesia.
The most important maritime figure in the 4,000-year annals of China, Zheng He made seven epic voyages between 1405 and 1433. This was a century before Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s in India.
It is claimed by some historians that all of Columbus’ and da Gama’s ships could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel in Zheng He’s fleet.
But after Zheng He’s death, the foreign policy of the Ming Dynasty in China became increasingly isolationist.
The Emperor Hong Wu was the first to propose the policy to ban all maritime shipping. The Qing Dynasty that came after the Ming continued the former dynasty’s isolationist policies.
Despite these insular policies the Chinese – just like Admiral Zheng He – have always ventured far in search of fortune, trade, knowledge and adventure.
Thousands of Chinese labourers built much of America’s western rail networks and came to try their luck on Australia’s goldfields in the 1850s.
The first Chinese restaurant in London opened in Limehouse in 1805 and Chinese sailors crewed British merchant ships during the Napoleonic Wars.
But at the end of China’s bloody civil war, in the early and mid-1900s, the country quickly closed off its borders to many outside countries and only maintained diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union.
For a period of time the Chinese attempted to become self-reliant, but found that in doing so it went backwards economically.
During the Chairman Mao’s rule, China became a particularly insular nation. Driven by internal interests and considerations, it became indifferent or even hostile to the rest of the world.
After the calamitous results of Mao’s 1960s ‘Great Leap Forward’ – cited by many historians as the cause of the deaths of up to 100 million Chinese from starvation – large scale and radical reforms were started.
From the 1970s the People’s Republic of China began large and radical economic reforms, which turned the nation from a centrally planned economy into one of the most competitive capitalist economies in the world.
With this transformation came the opening of China’s borders to trade with other countries and the inevitable movement of more and more people in and out of the country.
Now, China’s borders are wide open and just about anyone who wants a passport can get one.
A new wave of Chinese nationals is leaving in vast numbers – a record 100 million outbound travellers crossed the nation’s frontiers last year.
Most are tourists who eventually return home but increasing numbers are university students or the wealthy; and many of these people are staying away for good.
One recent survey found that 64 per cent of China’s rich – those with assets worth more than around $2million – say they are planning to emigrate.
The departure of China’s best and brightest is nothing new but what is significant is that these people are leaving a nation on the rise; one with arguably the fastest economic growth rate in history.
The decision to leave is a combination of push and pull factors. Wealthy and aspirational Chinese are finding they can buy comfortable and affordable lifestyles in places like Australia and the US. While no amount of cash can inure them from China’s interminable problems, which include issues around food safety, a struggling education system and the anxiety caused by rampant political and social change.
This process mirrors what happened when Hong Kong was ceded by Britain back to China in 1997. The wealthy, fearing communist sanctions, moved their families to the west but returned to China for business.
But with the economy faltering and unprecedented power placed in the hands of President Xi Jinping, China is even more at risk of losing its best and brightest.
Using these powers to crackdown on corrupt officials, human rights and democracy activists, Xi also risks scaring off the entrepreneurial, creative people China needs if its tumultuous and burgeoning economic development is to continue.