Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Migration of Women from Northern China: A Gender-Oriented Choice?

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Migration of Women from Northern China: A Gender-Oriented Choice?

Article excerpt

Since the late 1990s, France has been experiencing a new wave of Chi- nese migrants, which, unlike older migratory flows, is coming from the cities of northern China. Relatively little is known about this recent flow, however, because it quite often takes place illegally and consequently does not appear in official data.(1)Even so, in the 2000s it was estimated to amount to tens of thousands of people, at a time when the number of Chinese na- tionals or people of Chinese origin in France was thought to be between 200,000 and 300,000.(2)

Despite its minority status within the Chinese diaspora in France,(3)this re- cent migration is especially interesting because it differs both from the tradi- tional profile of economic migrants and from that of the majority of Chinese people in France, who originate from the Wenzhou region in southern China.(4) One of its characteristic features is that it is made up mostly of women whose socioeconomic situation was fairly good before they decided to embark on their migratory project. (5)

This article, which draws on the analysis of ethnographical interviews car- ried out in Paris between 2004 and 2010,(6)focuses in particular on the fac- tors that prompted the interviewed women to leave their native country. In view of this mainly female migratory flow, we will look at whether this gender imbalance tells us anything about the transformations in social and gender norms that specifically affected northern Chinese city dwellers in their forties in the 1990s. By looking at women's life trajectories, we will try to gain an understanding of how their migratory project was shaped and what role their experience of gender social relations and gender discrimi- nation played in their decision to migrate. By revealing difficulties that are not necessarily exclusive to women but which bring into play social expec- tations and resources that often differ between the sexes, this article will attempt to show the impact of gender social relations in China on the con- figuration of this flow and on the meaning given to migration by the mi- grants, both male and female.

An atypical female migration: The theoretical approach

The international migratory flows from China to Europe have become greatly diversified over recent decades, with a significant contingent of mi- grants now coming from northern China, especially to France. (7) Some of the characteristics of this new migratory flow challenge certain traditional representations that depict economic migrants from developing countries as being mostly young men from rural areas who are poorly integrated in the local labour market and generally have few qualifications.(8)On the con- trary, the migrants from northern China who were interviewed in Paris left their country when they were about 40 years old, and had on average nearly 20 years of professional experience in China. As city dwellers employed by state-owned enterprises and having received secondary or higher education, they considered themselves to have enjoyed a relatively privileged socio- economics status before leaving. Moreover, this new migration consists mainly of women, who comprise nearly 70 percent of these pioneer migrants and generally make the journey alone.(9)The women in their forties whom we interviewed had all been married in China and were mothers of adoles- cent children or young adults living in China. However, the majority of them are divorced (80 percent of our sample), whereas most of the men we inter- viewed are still married in China. Finally, the solitary nature of their departure is a feature of the trajectories of all these migrants, who come from regions with no tradition of international mobility and had no contacts in place who were likely to help them on arrival in their destination country. (10)

The specific position of female migrants has long been neglected by re- searchers, who considered mobility to essentially be a response to economic stimuli(11) and therefore one primarily affecting men, as they were seen as the main income earners of the family. …

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