Who are the new Chinese migrants in the UK? By Caroline Knowles


The Chinese are one of the UK’s smallest minorities comprising just 0.72% of the population of England (379,503 people). In population terms, London is the centre of Chinese Britain; official sources suggest a population of 124,250 (1.52% of the population) while estimates including undocumented migrants put more it at more than double, closer to 300,000. They are also one of the least studied minorities.

The small number of studies by ethnicity and migration scholars that do exist are focused on migrants from Hong Kong and Fujian who were long-settled, and on chain migration into restaurant trades. Thus the Chinese are fixed in the UK public’s imagination. But the UK now hosts many new kinds of Chinese migrants.

Chinese migrants are growing in numerical and financial significance and they are no longer predominantly from Hong Kong. Last year 40,000 Chinese migrants came to the UK – more than from any other country – in part due to a large number of students. The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency reported 47,740 Chinese students in UK higher education. Cambridge has the highest concentration of Chinese in Britain (3.6% of population) and significant clusters appear in Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Exeter, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Southampton – all cities with elite (Russell Group) universities. Chinese students in Britain pay £479 million in living expenses and £300 million in tuition fees. Students are, of course, young temporary migrants. New Chinese migrants (i.e. those who arrived in the last ten years), who tend to be born in the Chinese mainland rather than Hong Kong or Fujian, now outnumber settled migrants.

Though measuring the ethnic make-up of neighbourhoods is not necessarily representative of overall statistics, it is worth noting that significant numbers of Chinese are to be found in London’s wealthier areas. The boroughs of Camden, Westminster, Islington and Kensington and Chelsea, which have high property values and substantial clusters of high-net-worth individuals (HNIs) are in the top eight local authorities in England for high percentages of Chinese residents. The top ten postcodes for Chinese residence are in areas with higher than average London housing prices. These statistics inevitably exclude undocumented Chinese residents, who live as ‘sub-citizens’, not represented in the formal economy. Otherwise, Chinese London is materially rather well off.

This is not surprising. The new architectures of border control explicitly favour wealthy migrants. From 2008 (fully implemented in 2011), border control shifted from a historic focus on permanent migration for settlement to temporary migration. At the same time it shifted from ‘unskilled’ to ‘highly skilled’ migrants. The new rules and the points-based system favours wealthy, elite, migrants. ‘High value migrants’ meet the criteria for what the UKBA calls ‘tier one’ visas issued to those who display ‘exceptional talent’. These migrants must be ‘internationally recognised as world leaders or potential world-leading talent’. They will be entrepreneurs who want to set up or take over a business; graduate entrepreneurs with ‘world class’ innovative ideas or business skills wishing to establish business in the UK; and investors who want to make a ‘substantial financial investment in the UK’. This provision is aimed at HNIs with a minimum of a million pounds to invest. Meanwhile tier-two visas facilitate intercompany transfers ‘for employees of multinational companies’ wanting to deploy staff in their UK operations and those earning over £150,000. The elite status that is embedded in these changes, alongside the rise of the Chinese middle class in China, explains the changing face of Chinese migrants in the UK.

Meanwhile, those Chinese migrants who do not qualify under the new regime are at the mercy of traffickers, profiteers and exploiters of various stripes. They are left travelling by unsafe methods, sometimes left dead in the back of trucks. In cutting off legal channels of entry for less well off migrants, the new border controls can only increase illegal migration. In social terms, Chinese Britain is highly polarised in this way.

The changing role of China in the world is of course what has produced a new kind of Chinese migrant to Britain and elsewhere as new routes open up across China and in Chinese lives. With potentially the biggest emerging middle class on the planet, newly wealthy Chinese seek overseas education for their children and new routes for themselves as tourists and as investors.

Thus Chinese Britain has other significant textures too, beyond the bodies of migrants and their long-settled co-ethnics. UK businesses are keen to access what are potentially vast markets for luxury goods. Visits to Beijing by Mayor Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister underwrite these moves and encourage Chinese investment in UK infrastructure and other projects. With these developments in mind it is time to update our understanding of Chinese migration and to take account of the new streams of migrants that now compose Chinese Britain.

Professor Caroline Knowles is co-director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research. Her report ‘Young Chinese Migrants in London’ is published with Runnymede Trust.

You can download the report here : http://www.runnymedetrust.org/publications/189/32.html

This blog post was first published on Runnymede Race Card site: http://www.racecard.org.uk/equality/who-are-the-new-chinese-migrants-in-the-uk/

Image : “London” by jo.sau is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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