Chinese highly skilled migrants in Poland – carving out a third space

By Lihua Qian.

In the past two decades Poland has become a destination for thousands of highly skilled Chinese migrants. They work as managers, technicians, professionals and entrepreneurs, and their ages range from 25 to 55. Many stay long term, but most don’t intend to be naturalised. My research focuses on their practices of citizenship and subjecthood, and, in particular, how they maintain their agency in an in-between state across national boundaries. To explore this, I have studied their social and cultural backgrounds and conceptualised a liminal third space where they situate themselves and practice citizenship in a flexible way.

For these highly skilled Chinese, their initial motivation to move to Poland is not to earn money. In contrast to the earlier Chinese traders who moved to Eastern Europe to make a living in the 1990s, these migrants normally have a family background with high social status. Ning, for example, comes from a family of former prominent revolutionary officials of the Chinese Communist Party [1]. As a hongsandai [2], she is proud of her family and shows deep faith and emotional attachment to China. At the same time, she made the choice to study abroad to pursue her dream of becoming a soprano singer even though she could have stayed home to inherit the glorious career of her parents and grandparents – that is, serving the Chinese government.

These highly skilled Chinese are not motivated to move to Poland to gain European citizenship either. For them, Poland is just an opportunity to experience European life, broaden horizons and enhance cultural capital. They always intend to return to China in due course. They are strongly influenced by their traditional kinship values and feel obliged to go back and take care of their parents one day. Moreover, given the fact that the Chinese economy is growing rapidly, they see migration as an opportunity to realise some personal aspirations, but they do not plan to be left behind by the unprecedented development in China. This, consequently, has moderated their expectations of life abroad and tied them more firmly to their homeland.

Legnicka, Wroclaw, Poland (image: Pawel Czerwinski, Unsplash)

In fact, the highly skilled Chinese immigrants in my study are more concerned with experiencing ‘high quality’ in some way than they are with gaining wealth or citizenship. This high quality can be understood as ‘a wide range of standards of morality, knowledge, education, style, and skills’ (Fong 2007: 102), which are pursued by the Chinese middle class in the process of rapid modernisation in China. It is in this light that we can understand the processes by which these high skilled Chinese immigrants situate themselves in Poland, gradually forming perceptions about a high-quality life as immigrants, which are derived from the comparison between Polish and Chinese society.

In this way, these migrants are adopting a liminal position in Polish society. Poland provides them with an external environment to pursue the quality of life that they define for themselves, but they still stick to the characteristics of their Chinese ethnicity – not in their recognition of Chinese lineage but, more importantly, their deeply rooted attachments to language, diet and ways of thinking. They also retain a sense of alienation caused by the difficulty of making a genuine cultural and emotional connection with the local society. In that sense, they occupy an ambiguous position between being insiders and outsiders. And yet, their agency emerges from this ambiguity, given that they have firmly established themselves in a liminal condition through marrying Poles, getting working visas and acquiring some Polish beliefs. In other words, their personal narratives reveal that the those who are able to stay permanently in Poland manage to create a space between Poland and China in which they are neither completely disassociated from China nor fully integrated into Polish society.

This in-between space has been examined in social science research of cultural differences. Here I draw on Bhabha’s notion of the ‘third space’, which refers to the hybridity that comes from the process of cultural negotiation and translation. To understand this hybridity, we are ‘not able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges’, rather, ‘it is the “third space” which enables other positions to emerge’ (Bhabha 1990: 211). Therefore, we cannot understand the in-between status simply in terms of a dichotomy between Poland and China, but rather by conceptualising a third space beyond national boundaries. The social and cultural norms between the two countries meet and clash but gradually come into a new and unique structure in which the highly skilled Chinese situate themselves.

The third space also shows a subtle process of negotiation between the migrants’ own cultural background and the cultural conflict that they are faced with in their host country. Through this process of negotiation, migrants gradually form their notions of worth and enact their agency and free will. This discourse breaks down the usual perceptions that immigrants are either integrated into or isolated from the host culture. From my observations, highly skilled Chinese are actively going through the process of actualising their own sense of value in the third space. As they are in constant dialogue with cultures in both Poland and China, they figure out their own ways of dealing with the cultural differences and of enacting their subjecthood in this hybrid space.

In an era of globalisation, when transnational mobility has become the norm, the concept of ‘migration’ no longer implies that people move from one place and settle in another permanently. Especially for the highly skilled Chinese who have the resources, migration turns out to be more of a choice driven by individual agency, rather than by spatial displacement or a shift in political identity. Considering the contrast between the rapidly developing economy of China and the uncommon destination of Poland, the highly skilled Chinese in this study have chosen a migration trajectory based on personal aspirations. In pursuit of these, they display a flexible and pragmatic disposition and try to achieve an optimum position in a liminal space beyond national boundaries.

[1] The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the founding and sole governing political party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In China, being a former official of the CCP who fought for the foundation of the PRC is often considered to be of high social status and an honourable cultural tradition.

[2] Hongsandai, also known as the Third Red Generation, refers to those whose grandparents served middle- or high-ranking positions in the Chinese Communist Party or the government from 1949 when the CCP attained power in China. The families are usually empowered with political and economic benefits even in the post-Mao market economy era.

Lihua Qian is a Masters student in social and cultural anthropology at University College London. She conducted two months of fieldwork in Warsaw exploring the migratory trajectories of highly skilled Chinese and how they construct their identities in a transnational context. Earlier this year Lihua attended our course, ‘Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: The MMB Online Academy 2021’.

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