China's Great Migration

China's Great Migration: Why Leave Changle?
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 11 2008 11:59 AM

China's Great Migration

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Why Leave Changle?

Click here to launch a slide show on Day 3: Why Leave Changle?

CHANGLE, China—The city of Changle, a bustling metropolis of 600,000 people where pretty much everyone has family in America, is ground zero for Fujianese emigration to the United States. I'm whizzing through town with Lin Li, a thirtysomething supermarket magnate, in her chauffeured Toyota van, which has an onboard TV-DVD system and a GPS display. Given that half the highways in Fujian look like they were laid down last week, I wonder what good the GPS does. But it doesn't seem to faze the chauffeur.

Lin Li is part of a new generation of Fujianese entrepreneurs. She's wearing a white poncho and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag, and she explains how she borrowed money from family members to purchase a 15,000-square-foot space and establish Changle's first bona-fide superstore—and then its second. We stroll through one of the stores. It sells everything from socks to cognac to medicine to chicken feet.

With their scattered diaspora and entrepreneurial traditions, the Chinese have sometimes been called the Jews of Asia. The Fujianese, who are famous for their adventurism and business savvy, are occasionally described as the Jews of China. The people of Changle, Lin Li tells me, are the Jews of Fujian Province.

I've come to Changle trying to solve a riddle: Why would hundreds of thousands of people leave this area, often risking their lives in the process, to move to America and live as illegal aliens, making minimum wage or worse, when Fujian province has never been, by any stretch, the poorest part of China? As part of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1970s and '80s, several Fujianese cities, including Fuzhou, became special economic zones, where some free enterprise was tolerated. During the 1990s, when people were leaving Changle in epic numbers, the economy was experiencing double-digit growth.

Migration specialists have looked into this, and it turns out that it is not absolute poverty that drives people to leave one country for another. When everyone shares the same meager lifestyle, there is less of an inclination (and less means, presumably) to leave. Instead, economic migration in places like Changle is driven by "relative deprivation": income disparities and the experience of watching your neighbor do better than you. So, ironically, economic development sometimes causes people to leave.

You'd think that a massive population drain would depress the local economy, but because Fujianese restaurant workers in Boston or Houston or Los Angeles lived frugally and sent all their savings back to their families, places like Changle prospered from the exodus. By 1998, Changle was receiving as much as $230 million a year in remittances from overseas Chinese. Lin Li points out a huge monument in the center of town that looks like a sail—but with wings. "It shows that Changle owes its prosperity to the people who left, on boats and on planes," she says.

It used to be that the best and the brightest left Changle, she tells me. All that money flooding back into the country was almost a taunt for families whose sons and daughters didn't have the wherewithal to make it to America. But the economy is so strong now that, for the first time in memory, there are more economic opportunities for those who stay in Changle than for those who leave.

Sure, Changle's no Shanghai, or even Xiamen, a thriving Fujianese city down the coast, but everywhere I go, there's a boomtown vibe. Lin Li brings me to a pretty park on the banks of an artificial lake, surrounded by gleaming new buildings. A construction site behind us will be Changle's first Wal-Mart, she tells me. The high-rise next to it will be a five-star hotel. She looks around with satisfaction. "Six years ago, this was farmland," she says. "All of it."

Everyone in Changle seems to be investing in something. Old men boast about the new textile factories springing up outside of town. At least once a day someone informs me that China's economy is projected to surpass America's by 2050. In a characteristically Fujianese twist on the "plastics" scene from The Graduate, I'm taken aside by wheeler-dealers on three separate occasions and entrusted, sotto voce, with the same investment tip: Mongolia.

Lin Li invests in real estate. We drive to a property her family is developing on the outskirts of town called (and I'm certain this sounds better in Chinese) River Scent International. Right now, the site consists of dirt, tractors, and an army of decidedly nonunion construction workers trucked in from Sichuan. But an intricate scale model in the adjacent sales office promises several apartment towers; scores of modern, vaguely Mediterranean-style townhouses; an artificial river; and acres of green space.

As Lin Li talks about her various projects, I realize that in Changle, at least, the economy has reached a point where the traditional migration dynamic is reversed. Where in recent years it was the most talented and ambitious residents who went abroad to seek their fortune, today, those are the people who are staying put. People still leave for America, Lin Li says, but "the people going away now are the ones who aren't doing that well. If you can do anything here, you stay." She says a lot of people go to the United States now just to get a green card as a hedge against an uncertain future—"an insurance policy." Then they return to China to get rich.

As night falls, we meet up with Lin Li's family and an assortment of friends for dinner. The meal is typical of my experience in Fuzhou: an almost ostentatiously extensive feast served at a round table in a private room with its own private bathroom. Because I'm the guest, I'm obliged to sit in the seat of honor, facing the door. As each new course is presented, someone spoons some onto my plate, and my fellow diners watch me intently while I eat it. This would be more awkward if the food weren't so delicious. The Fujianese eat abundant quantities of very fresh fish, and this evening Lin Li disappeared to the kitchen to make her selections while they were still alive. There are perhaps two dozen courses in all—far more than even the eight of us around the table can consume—and doggy bags are considered gauche in China. When I ask Lin Li why she ordered so much food, when much of it would simply end up going to waste, she explains that if there were even the possibility that any of her guests might leave hungry, as the host, she would suffer an impermissible loss of face.

At dinner, the subject turns to the United States. We talk about the presidential election (most Fujianese support Clinton, I'm told) and the view, held by everyone at the table, that the U.S. media have a tendency to accentuate the negative (human rights violations, dodgy exports) in its coverage of China. We discuss the friends and family everyone has in America. Lin Li tells me she wanted to visit some friends in New York recently. She applied for a tourist visa, only to be turned down. Everyone around the table understands the reason: She is from Changle, which is a kind of lowest common denominator for vast numbers of illegal Chinese immigrants in the United States. Of course it's going to raise red flags.

But there's general agreement that the U.S. Consulate is a little behind the times. "When a delegation of Changle entrepreneurs went to New York last year, to Chinatown, they were very disappointed," Lin Li says. "Here, if you're in business, you have a chauffeur. You have hundreds of people working for you. The streets in New York Chinatown are worse than the worst streets in Changle." She laughs. "The U.S. Consulate denies us a visa? You think we'd want to stay there?"

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