Working Paper, #05, June 2023                                                                                                                            Centre for East Asian Studies

Han Minorities in the Neighbourhood: How are They Treated by China’s Neighbours?

Patricia Cherlyn P

Map Tracing China's Neighbours 


Chinese labourers, especially male peasants of the Han ethnicity, began leaving China between the mid-19th century and mid-20th century, primarily for economic reasons. Approximately 39.5 million Chinese migrants live in 130 countries, of which an estimated 3.7 million are Han Chinese. They are the ethnic majority of the migrant community, having settled in the regions surrounding China. While other ethnic minorities of China, namely the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Huis, and Miaos, also occupy these regions, the paper traces the approach towards the Han Chinese, specifically. 

The approach towards the Chinese migrant population is determined by the nature of the relations China holds with its neighbours. Cordial relations assure the welfare of the ethnic community residing abroad. On the other hand, strains in the relationship pose a threat to the well-being of the diaspora. The paper aims to explore and investigate in detail the dynamics of the relationship between the states and how it affects the treatment of their Chinese population. The paper examines how China is treating the migratory people of its adjacent countries to compare and contrast the differences in the treatment, if any.

Keywords: Kin state relations, China’s Neighbourhood, Han Chinese, Ethnic groups, Migration.


China contains the world’s second-largest population of about 1.4 billion, a tool it wields in favour of its domestic and foreign policy. The demography of China majorly consists of Han Chinese, making up around 91.6 percent of the Chinese population among 56 other minority groups. The majority of people of Chinese origin identify themselves as Han in honour of the Han dynasty that came into power following a peasant revolution, overthrowing the Qin Empire in 206 BC. 

Kin states are those territories that border the region where their kin groups reside. Ethnic kin states are created by people of the same background and ethnicity who might maintain social, political, and economic ties but are separated from their state of origin. China tends to maintain affable kin-state relations with its neighbours in most cases, such as in Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, to ensure the safety of its Chinese-origin people living abroad. While in other cases, such as in Russia, Mongolia, and India, the kin-state relations primarily depend on the political relations between the countries.  

The ‘External kin’ is the outcome of the population that moves across state borders (Waterbury, 2010). Migrant diasporas are formed automatically as a group of people migrates to another state over time. China’s dominance provides it with a bubble of security that deflects the ethnic Chinese diaspora from harm in their country of residence. These trans-border ethnic groups remain in close contact with the people of their background for economic, social, and cultural reasons. For example, Han Chinese traders settled in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar remain in close contact with their families back in China to manage the chain of trade. 

Ethnic ties transcend national boundaries (Gurses, 2015). This statement helps explain the identity assimilated within them and the subsequent loyalty that follows it. Hence, countries deport people who originated from their non-allied country (even those who have long settled in their country and obtained a new identity) for fear of espionage. For example, during the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, people of Chinese origin were sent to detention camps or deported back to China. In most countries, even after a person has successfully obtained citizenship in another country, they are not fully regarded as their people. The tales of discrimination and Sinophobia in Russia, Mongolia, and India are cases in point to this argument.

Skeptical Attitude towards Chinese Settlers in Russia

The borders between China and Russia were porous until the 1930s. Many Chinese labourers and contract workers settled in the Far East region of Russia to work on the Trans-Siberian Railways and obtained Russian citizenship. After the October Revolution of 1917, Soviet Russia deported around 17,000 Chinese-origin people owing to the Sinophobia caused by the fear of China’s growing economic influence in the Far East and continued to do so until 1938. During this time, Russia was also cautious of China’s claim to its lands, which further complicated the growing hostile attitude toward Chinese-origin people. Their stay in Russia ended with the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, as many were detained or deported on the accusation of espionage. Post-1961, Chinese-origin people were barred from entering Russia for education and trade. 

Until the 1980s, trade and cross-border activities remained stagnant, and the movement of people across borders was at an all-time low. The deterioration of relations between Russia and the West during the Cold War sparked a new wave of emigration. It increased the Chinese footprint in Far East Russia's border regions. In the last 20 years, the Chinese have emerged as the fourth largest ethnic group in Russia, one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. Russia is concerned about the growing number of Chinese settlers in the Far East as it is projected to shift the region from being mostly Russian to mostly Chinese within a few decades. The varying interest to either propel migration or deportation of the Han Chinese population depends on the status of inter-state relations between both countries, whereas deterioration of relations can negatively impact the diaspora living in that region.

Similarly, in China, the Harbin and Shanghai Russians (Russian-origin ethnic groups settled in China) were treated with skepticism and hostility as the relations between the countries worsened. Harbin Russians are a group of labourers that developed settlements along Harbin city, dating as early as 1898, for the CER (China East Railways) project. The CER aimed to propel the colonial legacy of Russia and retain its stronghold in the Far East. After the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1932, Russia sold CER to Japan, expecting to form an alliance. However, Russian-origin settlers were deprived of extraterritorial rights in China after the Republic of China ceased relations with Soviet Russia. These Russians found themselves stateless overnight, causing them to migrate to Russia. Later in 1946, Harbin’s control over its institutions was transferred to China’s PLA (People's Liberation Army). Russians are hardly found today in Harbin, except for a handful of expatriates. The plight of Harbin Russians depicts Chinese hostility towards the Russian diaspora in retaliation for the support they failed to provide during the annexation by Japan. In both cases, the interrelationship between the countries determines the approach towards the diaspora.

Anti-China sentiment towards Han Chinese population in India

The Han population in India is a small immigrant community of labourers residing in West Bengal. They moved from China to Calcutta in the late 18th century, as a way to escape internal conflicts and instability caused by the Opium Wars and acquire better work opportunities. Soon after they settled in Calcutta as residents, they engaged in trade or set up mills and factories. 


Chinese Indians found themselves subject to discrimination due to strains in the relationship between India and China. As a result of the India-China border conflict in 1962, many Chinese were discharged from their jobs, and around 3,000 Chinese immigrants were sent to prison camps in Deoli, Rajasthan (Ghosh, 2018, p.26). Gradually, the immigration of Han Chinese into India saw a decline due to the surge in Sinophobia which has manifested in racist slurs, prejudicial treatment, and stereotyping. More recently, the spread of coronavirus added to the blame and increased the anti-Chinese sentiment toward local Chinese people. Recent border clashes in Galwan, Doklam, and Tawang Pass between India and China have further aggravated the animosity towards Chinese settlers in India. Less than 2,000 Chinese settlers reside now in Kolkata as many emigrated to the US, Canada, and Australia to seek better opportunities.  

Alternatively, a vibrant Sindhi community of traders resides in Shanghai, China. Having fled from the Sindh Province of present-day Pakistan around the time of partition, they set up new lives and homes in Shanghai. China hosts around 5,000 ethnic Sindhs, who engage in a wide range of businesses, primarily exporting wholesale products, and hardly feel the tensions of the bilateral relations between the countries crack down on them. Apart from the Shanghai Sindhis, many Sikhs, Parsis, and Bohra Muslims have established themselves in China's Shanghai Yiwu, Keqiao, and Ningbo provinces, widely popular for their wholesale consumer goods. Apart from traders, Indian students from all over the country obtain visas and travel to China on a temporary basis, mainly to pursue their medical degrees.

Favourable approach towards Chinese-origin people in Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar

Chinese migration into present-day Vietnam and Laos has been happening since the 9th century. In the case of Burma (present-day Myanmar), the port of Rangoon, and the unique products of Burma, attracted Chinese traders. From 1860 onwards, Han Chinese people were favoured by the French Imperial forces to get involved in trade and agriculture-related activities (Amer, 2010). It resulted in a constant influx of Chinese ethnic groups into French Indochina during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s and 1940s, due to civil unrest in China, many Chinese nationals moved to Vietnam and were welcomed to assimilate into Vietnamese culture. The Chinese-Vietnamese were provided citizenship in 1955 and gradually integrated into the Vietnamese community as Vietnamese nationals. 

The duration of around 30 years during the Vietnam War and its aftermath were of hardship, especially for the Chinese due to restrictions on economic activity. The deterioration of relations subsequently led to the China-Vietnam War in 1979, and many emigrated back to China. The Chinese-Vietnamese who stayed back in Vietnam witnessed a period of growth and reformation as Vietnam reconstructed itself post-war. The recent development of a cross-border bridge in 2019 on the China-Vietnam border reflects deeper connectivity between the countries through trade and tourism. 

Correspondingly, the Gin/Jing are an ancient ethnic group of Vietnam settled in southwestern China. The Gins are a nomadic tribe that joined the local people of the ethnic groups of Han and Zhuang, to explore and develop the islands. They are officially recognized as a separate ethnic minority and enjoy equal treatment as other ethnic groups residing in China's Jing islands. 

In Laos, the Chinese were influential and held positions such as moneylenders, traders, and managers of opium farms, through which they amassed a lot of wealth (Stuart-Fox, 2009). The Chinese prospered as they had a coign of vantage over the Laotians in trade and commerce, with their experience conducting business through the silk route for hundreds of years. PLA troops in the 1960s set up vast road construction projects and deepened the dependency of Laotians on the Chinese. In the 21st century, Beijing is Laos’ largest investor and continues to depend on China for its development goals (Writer, 2020). Since China was able to overpower both Vietnam and Laos through its economic and industrial might, it has ensured the safety and rights of its people settled in these regions. 


The Chinese in Myanmar are a well-established ethnic group and are well-represented in all upper levels of Burmese society. Representing about 3 percent of the entire population, they play a leading role in the Burmese business sector and dominate their economy. They were given equal status as the Burmese for trading, encouraging Chinese trade in the ports from the early 18th century. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the conflict between the Kuomintang nationalists and the Communists in China worsened. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek's defeated army retreated to Burma and tried organizing attacks remotely. To raise money, the Kuomintang encouraged peasant farmers to cultivate opium, which the Chinese nationalists sold for huge profits. 

Hence, in China-Myanmar relations, China has the upper hand. Ethnic Chinese hold positions in the government through which they directly influence the political environment in Myanmar (Yi Li, 2017). It can be inferred that China exercises its dominance by increasing the dependence of these regions on China, thus guaranteeing the safety of its people settled there. Beijing, in turn, safeguards people of Burmese origin in times of conflict or disaster. For example, when Myanmar faced internal conflicts throughout the 2010s, the Yunnan province of China sheltered around 70,000 refugees.

Migration of Han Chinese into Bhutan as a strategy to assert dominance 

China uses its enormous population of Han people as a tool to wash out the ethnic population in a particular region by creating a shift in their demography (Fischer, 2008). A case in point is the staggering shift in the demography of Tibet, strategically maneuvered by China to curb the ‘Free Tibet’ resistance movements. China has now taken its practices outside its borders to implement its will through Bhutan, by building roads and villages in Doklam, well within the borders of Bhutan. There has been evidence of the movement of Han Chinese to Bhutan to aid infrastructure building near the disputed area of Doklam. Previously, China’s interest in developing roads across the Doklam plateau in southwestern Bhutan, next to the trijunction, set off a military standoff in 2017 between India and China. The 73-day standoff was a result of the mutual interest of both countries to claim the area. Since then, Doklam has been recognized as a disputed area, where neither of the countries has full authority over it. 

Recent reports show that China has built three villages near the disputed region in Bhutan to solidify its claim over the region. The Han Chinese concentrated on the border regions of China are also helpful in strengthening their border, acting as means of surveillance.

Map of Trijunction between India, China and Bhutan

Source: Maxar Technologies

Distaste towards Han Chinese in Mongolia

The Mongols share a close cultural link with the Hans of China, as the Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan once controlled most parts of the East Asian peninsula. One of the prominent Mongolian emperors, Kublai Khan established the Yuan Empire, which thrived due to trade along the Silk Route. The rule lasted less than ten decades, after which the Yuan dynasty collapsed due to revolts in 1361, and the remaining Mongols fled toward the Northeastern part of Asia. The Manchu people from the East seized control of the weakened Mongolian dynasty leading to the separation of Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia.

Upon Outer Mongolia’s revolution in 1911 and its proclamation of independence from China, many Chinese-origin people became victims of hate crimes (Bille, 2015). The two major reasons behind Mongolian Sinophobia are China’s conquest of Inner Mongolia and discrimination against ethnic Mongols living inside China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Mongolians are also wary of China’s meteoric economic development, a cause of anxiety for Mongolia, a vast but sparsely populated country rich in mineral resources (Bille, 2015). 


A newly communist China initially favoured Mongolia in its economic relations. After the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, Mongolia moved close to the USSR based on their mutual desire to counter China’s influence, consequently severing bilateral ties with China. Post-Cold War has witnessed a wave of immigration into Mongolia owing to China’s policy shift to engage in relations with its neighbours. Nevertheless, feelings of contempt against Chinese people remain due to the ongoing violence and suppression of the ethnic Mongolians residing within China. 

Ethnic Mongols living in the Inner Mongolian territory within China aim to reunite Inner and Outer Mongolia. More recently, Mongolian Independence protests have come under the international spotlight for secessionist demands. They amass support and spread awareness through the Mongolian diaspora, as Inner Mongolians are suppressed within the region. With the presence and growing influence of the Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia, it is less likely for Mongolians to separate from China and integrate their territory with the Republic of Mongolia.


Over the years, the Han Chinese have migrated to the neighbouring countries: Vietnam, Laos, Russia, India, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The migration was often induced by internal conflicts, war, starvation, and the movement of Chinese labourers in search of new jobs. The reasons for migration in the early 19th century from China were primarily triggered by the growing dominance of Britain and the economic hardships faced by the people after their defeat in both Opium Wars (1839 -1842 and 1856 -1860). Later in the 1930s, the Japanese annexation of Manchuria witnessed another wave of migration. 


Once they had settled in the bordering regions, the Han Chinese occupied positions of power in most countries. They have also extended trade in these countries, as seen in Laos and Vietnam. In spite of it, they are not free from being subjects of discrimination and prejudice, as witnessed in Mongolia, because of the general hostility of Mongols against the Chinese. In Russia and India, the treatment of Chinese-origin people depends on the nature of relations between the countries and fluctuates between hospitable and hostile.


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About the Author

Patricia Cherlyn is a Research Affiliate at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Christ University, Bangalore and is pursuing her Master's from the Department of International Studies, at Stella Maris College, Chennai. She is an avid reader who is currently focusing on China Studies and exploring the trajectory of Han Chinese migration in her paper.

Working Paper, #05, June 2023                                                                                                                            Centre for East Asian Studies