Emmanuel Ma Mung, La Diaspora chinoise, géographie d’une migration

In France, the addition of “China and the Chinese Diaspora”
to history and geography syllabuses for the CAPES and Agrégation courses
has opened the way for the prompt publication of books aimed at non-specialists.
The widening of the proposed subject-matter has led most of these studies—of
very unequal craftsmanship—to concentrate on the geographical aspects of
China and to deal only peripherally with the question of the “Chinese of
the Diaspora”; this strengthens the impression that the subject matter is
too wide and that the question itself, as initially set, has been misunderstood.
While most of these publications have been reviewed, one of them has passed—unjustly—almost
unnoticed, by non-specialists at any rate.

Emmanuel Ma Mung is a geographer; he is the Director of Research
at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Director of
the Migrinter Laboratory. The book he has written is both a generalised presentation
of Chinese migration and a highly topical reflection on the process whereby it
has been transformed into the diaspora. The book, divided into eight parts and
three chapters, has the immediate merit of offering an overall picture, in space
and time, of the Chinese migrations, taking into account both the original homeland
(mainland China) and the areas where migrants first arrived or where they re-emigrated
from. In this regard, Ma Mung’s study completes and updates the only generalised
work of reference so far available in France: the Que sais-je volume (PUF) by
Pierre Trolliet, La Diaspora chinoise.

The first part, “Chinese International Migrations”,
starts with a very brief history of Chinese migration, reminding us of the diachronic
significance of the phenomenon. The writer goes on to place the present-day movements
of Chinese people (and/or people of Chinese origin) within the general context,
on a complex and worldwide scale, of international migration. He also recalls
(p. 22) that the dynamic of Chinese migratory flows rests primarily on networks
or trafficking organisations, as with the Qingtian migrations into Europe. Emphasising
the complex status (political, administrative and cultural) of those grouped together
under the term “overseas Chinese”, he adopts the (debatable) categorisations
of “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao and huaren) suggested by Wang Gungwu(1).

Regrettably, however, the writer subscribes to a hypothesis
according to which the various groups “share more and more between them so
that the distinctions tend to become blurred; and their connections, mainly trading
links at the start, become diversified at all levels and increasingly overlapping”
(p. 29). One would not deny that connections do exist, but their general application
as called for by Professor Wang is at present no more than a working hypothesis,
one with little corroboration from empirical studies. The chapter closes with
a swift presentation of the “new categories of migrants”, including
the skilled migrants, and with a description of the illegal methods of leaving
one country and entering another as practised by a growing number of Chinese people
from the People’s Republic. The second chapter gives a general outline of
the main places of origin of Chinese migrants in China and South-East Asia, along
with Peking’s policy on emigrant communities since 1978.

In the second part of the book, “The Chinese Diaspora
across the World”, the writer gives a survey of present condition of Chinese
communities in their host countries (South-East Asia, North and South America,
Europe, archipelagos, and Africa). The author rightly stresses the difficulties
encountered in calculating the number of “overseas Chinese”. In addition
to the weaknesses of national statistical services, in trying to assess nationality
and levels of assimilation, researchers find themselves up against the complexity
and diversity of administrative and cultural status affecting people of Chinese
origin. A significant number no longer see themselves specifically as “overseas
Chinese” (huaqiao) and are unwilling to be counted as such. They have quite
often been settled in their host countries for several generations; and they claim
the status of nationals and of full members of their local communities. In South-East
Asia, they have often been pushed into this position by local governments that
deny, for political reasons, the existence of such categories. These difficulties
explain why the only world population count is still today that of Poston (1994)(2).
The second part ends with a detailed chapter devoted to the Chinese presence in
Europe. The space given to Italy, Spain and the countries of the former communist
bloc underlines the present-day importance of Europe as destination for new Chinese
migrants. It is a pity, even so, that the maps offered, notably the one for France
(1990), should be so out-of-date. Since the book was published, several national
and European monographs have completed the data used by the author, confirming
the significance of this destination(3).

The book’s originality becomes more evident in the third
part, “The Organisation of the Chinese Diaspora”. According to Ma Mung,
the Chinese diaspora is structured around an entrepreneurial centre: its activities,
he says, are “strongly connected” to an “economic organisation
in which the dimension of identity is predominant” (p. 117). The empirical
data used by the author are drawn mainly from surveys carried out in France on
the activities of Chinese enterprises (chapter 7). He describes the economic organisation
as “consistent”, this being shown by the significance of the links between
businesses, these being of fundamentally ethnic character (p. 119). The lack of
comparisons tends, nevertheless, to restrict the possibility of generalising from
the French case. The chapter ends with a presentation of the spatial layout of
the Chinese businesses, mainly in the Paris region.

The writer pursues his argument by speculating, in chapter
8, on what it is that qualifies the Chinese migration as a diaspora. He postulates
that the diaspora (the dispersal of a society into a multiplicity of places) presents
two morphological characters: the multipolarity of the migration and the interpolarity
of the connections. It maintains its consistence thanks to a particular conception
of extra-territoriality, “that is to say a particular form of self-representation
in space” (p. 147). This space, he asserts, is fantasised; it is imaginary;
it is utopian. It emerges from the consciousness that the diaspora has of its
own dispersal with, as the main consequence, a reticular vision of the relationships
and spaces in which human support predominates. Culture and society become a “territory”
of unification.

The author adds that the diaspora also has a particular connection
in time and space, by constituting a particular memory/history: “This genealogy,
through the continuity it creates between individuals living in different countries
by offering them a common origin, serves as the basis for forming a transnational
ethnic identity (p. 158).” Lastly, he asserts that the spatial dispersal
of the diaspora is used as a resource, particularly by forming transnational trading
networks. Few examples, regrettably, are provided in support of this theoretical,
yet attractive, framework, which seems still to be awaiting empirical studies
that might provide a better balance for its constituent elements. But it is no
doubt an additional merit of this slim volume for Agrégation students that
it sets out prospects for future research.

 

Translated from the French original by Philip
Liddell

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