Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 2 February 2024


In the ‘Asian Century,’ Indians and Chinese Flee


(6 min)

Commuters wait at a bus stop amid heavy smog in New Delhi, Nov. 4, 2023. Photo: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg News

Geopolitical pundits often describe this as the “Asian century.” The economic rise of China and India is supposed to end 500 years of Western pre-eminence any day now. But votaries of this notion often overlook a curious fact: Both China and India continue to account for a large portion of the world’s emigrants. If these countries’ prosperity and stability are assured, then why are so many—including the well-educated and the wealthy—eager to leave?

Each year, tens of thousands of Indians and Chinese are willing to risk life and limb to enter America illegally. In fiscal 2023, Customs and Border Protection agents encountered 97,000 Indian and 53,000 Chinese inadmissible aliens, or people without authorization to enter the country. That’s more than three times as many Indians and more than twice as many Chinese as were caught in 2021. Based on CPB data, China’s numbers are on track to rise dramatically this year.

To an extent, these numbers reflect a global rush to America’s southern border on Joe Biden’s watch. “Ten years ago, border crossings were overwhelmingly by Mexicans and Central Americans,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “You would write a news story about it if a couple of Indian or Chinese men were caught crossing the border in Arizona. Now it’s increasingly common.”

Though Chinese and Indians still make up only a small proportion of unauthorized crossings into the U.S.—150,000 of 3.2 million last year—it’s notable alongside the strong flow of legal migration from those two countries. China and India have long dominated student visas to the U.S., though Chinese are more likely than Indians to return home after their studies. Last year about 55,000 Chinese and 69,000 Indians pursued optional practical training, a year or two of work following graduation that often leads to a job in America.

Indians and Chinese also receive more H1-B temporary visas for skilled workers than do citizens of any other country. Indians alone typically get more than half the 85,000 H1-B visas issued each year. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Indians are now the second-largest immigrant group in the U.S., after Mexicans. Chinese are third.

As with illegal migration, this surge largely mirrors a global pattern. The United Nations estimates that in 2019 about 3.5% of the world’s population, or 272 million people, were international migrants—defined as people living somewhere other than their country of birth or citizenship. The largest group of migrants in 2019 was Indians (17.5 million people), and Chinese were third (10.7 million people) behind Mexicans (11.8 million people).

At one level, this isn’t that surprising, says Mr. Krikorian. “They are the two most populous nations in the world,” he says. “If anything, you would think that there would be even more people coming.” India and China account for 36% of the world’s population. Their share of the world’s migrant population is slightly over 10%.

But look more closely and these emigration patterns reveal weaknesses that Asian-century believers often miss. One telling sign is the outflow of “high net worth individuals,” banking jargon for wealthy people. Thriving nations typically attract capital and talent. They don’t drive them away. Yet in 2022 China lost more millionaires than any other country—10,800 people, according to Henley & Partners, a firm that helps the wealthy acquire foreign residency. India came in third, losing 7,500 millionaires that year, just behind Russia’s 8,500. If you include Hong Kong, then together China and India accounted for nearly 25% of the 84,000 high net worth individuals who migrated that year.

In China’s case, blame Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the private sector to tighten his grip on Chinese society. Well-off Chinese have long shifted their money into assets or property in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia or Singapore—all countries that follow robust Anglo-Saxon legal traditions.

Mr. Xi’s hard-line approach seems to have spooked them still further. The number of Chinese “family offices”—which handle financial matters for wealthy immigrants—in Singapore rose from a handful in 2018 to some 750 in 2022. Chinese nationals have long acquired more EB-5 investor visas that allow permanent residency in the U.S. than nationals of any other country. A Western passport is an insurance policy against a return to political chaos in China.

For Indians, the concerns are different. The country’s patchy governance often drives the wealthy and best-educated away. They want to escape polluted cities, harassment by tax authorities, subpar public-health programs and shoddy urban infrastructure. Last year Indians received the second highest number of EB-5 investor visas. Millionaire flight, combined with the outflow of Indian engineers and doctors, takes a chunk of the country’s most productive people each year.

Outbound migration from China and India by itself may not be enough to alter the countries’ trajectories. But the fact that so many Chinese and Indians vote with their feet to leave these putative superpowers should raise questions about how inevitable their rise really is.

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Wonder Land: Despite weeks working with Democrats to shape a compromise on illegal migration that also bolsters national security threats, the Trump-dominated GOP intends to do nothing until Election Day. Images: AP/Zuma Press/Bloomberg News Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 1, 2024, print edition.

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