Full name: The People’s Republic of China
Head of state: Hu Jintao
Head of government: Wen Jiabao
Population: 1.3 billion (est.)
Ethnic composition: Han Chinese (93%) – there are a further 55 ethnic minority groups, the largest of which is Zhuang and the best-known of which outside of China are Tibetan and Mongol. Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in all of China’s provinces and Autonomous Regions except for Xinjiang and Tibet.
Languages: Mandarin Chinese (official) – while Mandarin Chinese is the dialect favoured in public and political life and is used in the overwhelming majority of educational institutions, regional dialects – often mutually unintelligible with Mandarin – are used widely in the family and in social life. The most widely spoken of these are Wu (around Shanghai and Zhejiang province); Cantonese (in Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macao) and Hokkien (around Fujian province). Ethnic minority languages – including Korean, Tibetan, Mongol and Uyghur – are also widely spoken in their respective Autonomous Regions and Counties and are sometimes used by state institutions.

Who are China’s refugees?

The Mao era

Early refugees from the newly-founded People’s Republic of China went mostly to Taiwan, where the Communist Party failed to dislodge the nationalist KMT government, and into India and the Soviet Union from the politically sensitive ethnic minority regions. From the 1960’s, the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – which respectively saw 30 million deaths from famine and a wide-scale witch-hunt for supposed ‘enemies of the Party’ – led to large numbers of Chinese, mostly intellectuals and members of the bureaucracy at risk of being purged, fleeing to Hong Kong. Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Communist Party shifted under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping away from oblique, ideologically-driven totalitarian politics towards market-socialist authoritarianism. For large numbers of Chinese citizens, these changes brought real improvements both in economic conditions and human and civil rights, with the emerging legal system and free market offering unprecedented levels of protection and prosperity, though improving international relations also facilitated escape abroad for those at risk of persecution.

The Deng era

Tensions within the CCP did, nevertheess, continue to overshadow reform and corrective campaigns against ‘bourgeois liberalism’ and ‘spiritual pollution’ in the 1980’s meant that intellectuals and state officials remained most at risk of being ‘purged’. These social groups thus continued to form the primary source of asylum seekers abroad, not least following the ‘4th June incident’ of 1989 when demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were suppressed by the Chinese state, ostensibly in order to prevent a return to the chaos that had ensued in the 1960’s when student demonstrations had served to pour fuel on the fire of the Cultural Revolution. While it has been suggested that working-class participants in these demonstrations suffered most brutally under the crackdown, international attention was focused on pro-democracy students and intellectuals; these classes were better placed to take advantage of opportunities to flee abroad and were received with huge public sympathy, due in part to the wave of democratisation spreading across most of the former Communist world.


Political imperatives continue to give rise to numbers of Chinese asylum seekers from the often outspoken intellectual classes. Other factors that have given rise to Chinese citizens fleeing abroad include:

Ongoing tensions in Tibet: currently, some 150,000 Tibetan refugees reside in India, with second- and third-generation Tibetans born in India still essentially stateless. The fact that Tibet remains an Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China remains controversial in the eyes of a number of campaigning groups, though it is widely acknowledged that religious, cultural and civil liberties have all improved for most Tibetans in recent years and that Tibetans have benefitted from strong economic growth in common with other Autonomous Regions and provinces of China.
Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang Autonomous Region: the Han Chinese population, which makes up some 41% of Xinjiang’s population, is perceived in the Region as having undue political and cultural influence, especially by the largest ethnic group, the Uyghurs. There is an active political movement in the Region for independence as a nation under the name of East Turkestan; the Chinese government is believed to have used policies of arbitrary internment against suspected ‘splittists’. Though the situation in Xinjiang has been relatively peaceful since the late 1990’s – when a bus bombing in Beijing by pro-independence militants killed 9 commuters – there is widespread concern that the US-led War on Terror will be used as a justification to launch attacks on the largely Islamic Uyghurs. Especially in the current political climate, asylum seekers from the region are often not met with the same level of sympathy as student demonstrators.
Falun Gong: Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, has variously been described as a form of meditation and exercise, a belief system, a religion, a cult and a political movement. It was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi and, though it is banned in its home country of China, has an estimated 70-100 million followers. A high-profile crackdown of Falun Gong by the Chinese authorities in 1999 has resulted in large numbers of practitioners from all walks of life and of all socio-economic backgrounds claiming asylum abroad on the grounds of persecution due to religious belief; the Chinese state contests that the movement has at its core the aim of overthrowing the current political order, and derides it as a threat to social stability.
Snakeheads: it is believed that a high proportion of Chinese asylum seekers in the UK are in fact the subjects of people-smuggling or even non-consenting human trafficking by Snakehead gangs, mostly from the south-eastern province of Fujian, who are forced to seek asylum by gang-masters in order to secure the right to residence. The Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which at least 21 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned, and the subsequent film Ghosts, drew attention to the plight of Chinese human trafficking victims.

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