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    How Yunnan Became China’s Immigration Frontline

    The foreign population of the southwestern Yunnan province has multiplied over the past decade, thanks in part to strong demand for laborers from nearby Southeast Asian countries.

    When China’s National Bureau of Statistics published the results of the 2020 population census this May, there was one item in particular that caught my attention: The number of residents from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and foreign countries living in southwestern China’s Yunnan province had multiplied roughly eight-fold over the previous 10 years, from 47,000 in 2010 to 379,000.

    That figure becomes all the more staggering when compared to other regions in China. Over that same 10-year period, the number of such residents living in the Chinese mainland grew by less than 50%, from 1.02 million to 1.43 million. Remove Chinese who were born outside of the mainland from the equation, and it’s likely that Yunnan is now home to China’s largest foreign population, surpassing Shanghai, Guangdong, and other coastal regions.

    There are statistical explanations for this astounding result. Using more advanced technology and more precise data collection methods, the 2020 population census likely produced a more accurate picture of groups that have been historically hard to count, including cross-border migrant workers. The pandemic, too, played a role, as the census recorded major drops in the foreign populations of Shanghai and Beijing. But it’s also true that Yunnan, despite its reputation as a remote inland province, has for centuries been a hub for large-scale, cross-border movement.

    In particular, with its more than 4,000 kilometer-long border with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, Yunnan has always had a large “foreign” population, though that word may not be particularly appropriate in this case. As anthropologists like Peng Zhaorong have noted, the cultural boundaries created by Southeast Asia’s various ethnic and cultural groups are “far broader than modern definitions of national boundaries, with more layers and in more forms.” Movement, trade, and marriages between ethnic groups on either side of the border are common.

    In addition to geographic and blood ties, cross-border movement in China’s Southwest is also being driven by disparities in the region’s labor market. Both Vietnam and Myanmar have an abundance of surplus labor, and both countries’ GDP per capita and average wages are notably lower than Yunnan’s. That has attracted significant numbers of migrants to Yunnan, just as many Yunnanese have been lured to China’s more affluent coastal cities over the past few decades, leaving behind a labor shortage that perfectly fits many immigrants’ needs and skills. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Ruili, situated on the border between China and Myanmar, had a total population of 200,000 people. Of these, 50,000 were cross-border migrant workers from Myanmar.

    Another major source of migrants is the region’s cross-border marriage market. Over the years, many women in China’s border regions have “married out” to men in more economically developed places, like the Pearl River Delta, leaving behind a sizeable surplus of marriage-aged men in their hometowns. As a result, many Yunnanese are supportive of cross-border movement, especially cross-border marriages. Surveys of cross-border marriages in Yunnan’s 12 border counties and cities have found more than 30,000 such unions, with that number growing by 10% annually.

    According to the chain migration theory of immigration, large-scale migration triggers a chain reaction, with ramifications for both the migrants’ place of origin and their destination. Institutions and mechanisms that facilitate migration gradually emerge, decreasing the costs and risks of moving, and enticing more migrants to make the journey.

    This is what’s happening in Yunnan. Whether for marriage, commerce, or work, a transnational network has sprung up in the province’s border areas which provides information, financial aid, and other forms of assistance to later immigrants. For instance, many of the early immigrant sugar cane cutters in Yunnan and the neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region were Vietnamese and Burmese laborers with family ties to sugar cane farmers in China. As the demand for cane cutting labor in China’s border regions grew, those early migrants became intermediaries, bringing entire villages of people to work in China, sometimes far afield from border regions.

    Meanwhile, on the Chinese side, an emerging sector of private labor agencies applied experience they had gained from facilitating the domestic labor migration process to the business of cross-border labor. Finally, countries across the region set up state-run agencies to oversee and regulate the cross-border movement of labor. In 2015, China designated Ruili and Mohan, two border cities in Yunnan, as pilot zones for development and opening-up and encouraged them to realize “stability through prosperity” by way of cross-border economic cooperation.

    The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has put a dent in these plans. That year, fewer than 3 million people passed through Ruili’s border post, an 80% decrease from the previous year. However, the decline mirrored trends elsewhere in the province, and there is little evidence that the pandemic hit border cities harder than anywhere else. Even now, the driving forces motivating the influx of foreigners into Yunnan remain in place. If anything, they may have gotten stronger given that China brought the virus under control much earlier than other countries, allowing its economy to recover sooner. Compare that to Myanmar, whose unemployment rate shot up to over 15%.

    It’s worth noting that the existence of an immigration chain doesn’t mean that Yunnan’s foreign population will continue to grow at its current rate forever. Most researchers acknowledge that cross-border activity in the region will not return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, especially now that the emergence of COVID-19 has caused outbreaks in countries relatively unscathed by the pandemic, like Vietnam.

    Changes in the labor market might also reshape the pattern of cross-border migration in the region. Faced with rising labor costs and uncertainties over the cross-border movement of labor, some companies in Yunnan have already scaled back production. This includes the low-margin sugar companies that once employed vast numbers of immigrant cane cutters. Other firms have invested in automation, like logistics enterprises that previously depended on immigrant porters.

    In both industries, the demand for immigrant workers may gradually decline. Yet, at the same time, new economic models have sparked renewed demand for labor and cross-border movement in other industries. In Ruili, for instance, the gemstone industry’s embrace of livestreaming e-commerce has created tens of thousands of jobs, some of which explicitly trade on the faces of immigrants as a guarantee of “authenticity.” Yunnan may not overtake Shanghai in the Western imagination anytime soon, but that shouldn’t blind us to its importance as a hub for immigrants — and immigrant communities — in the near- and long-term.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: A young woman from Myanmar works on a production line at a factory in Longchuan County, Yunnan province, June 2020. Liu Ranyang/CNS/People Visual)