Ethnic Koreans in China

Where the Chinese have Chinatowns, Koreans have Koreatowns. Koreans, like the Chinese, have an exceptionally strong feeling of affinity to other Koreans. From overseas colleges to the global job markets, Koreans have formed resilient long lasting communities, tied by camaraderie deeply rooted in a common ethnic identity. Reflective of this characteristic, as more Korean startup companies seek opportunities in China, cooperation between ethnic Koreans in China and South Korean businessmen is at its height. Nevertheless, ethnic Koreans in China are facing an identity crisis. According to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture government, the ethnic Korean population has decreased from 860 thousand in 1995 to 80 million in 2009, as the birth rate has sharply declined from a healthy 2 children per person to 0.7 per person (Kim, 3) The spiraling population trend is worrisome, as the Chinese government could ㅡand is considering toㅡ dismantle the prefecture if the minority population drops to less than 30%, which would result in a deprivation of minority privileges enjoyed in mainland China. The core cause underlying the population decline is an increasing number of younger generations of ethnic Koreans identifying themselves as Han Chinese. Critical changes in the socioeconomic framework of ethnic Korean communities and in perceptions regarding South Korea and China have weakened ethnic bonds, threatening the foundation and longevity of ethnic Korean communities in China.

Critical changes in the socioeconomic framework of ethnic Korean communities have weakened ethnic bonds. Ethnic Koreans, referred to as Chaoxion people in China, are centered in Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, Heilongjiang, and Jianoing province: rural regions in the Northeast. Since the establishment of the People Republic of China (PRC) regime, they have maintained a relatively high living standard in rural China, concentrating on agriculture and specializing in cultivating in rice paddies. In the recent decade, however, they have been increasingly placed in disadvantage in a rapidly urbanizing China. Highly educated Chaoxion people have failed to advance to major political-economic positions in Chinese society, as forming a network of connections (Guanxi) is essential for doing business. Chaoxion people have been limited from accessing educational and vocational opportunities due to their geographical position at the periphery of China, identity as a minority, and lack of command of the Chinese language. This is why a major shift in economic activities has occurred, as Chaoxion people are migrating within China in pursuit of industry and service sectors. Professor Si Joong Kim, in the Economic Status and Role of Ethnic Koreans in China, elaborated that growing number of 2nd generation Chaoxion people now work for Chinese companies (translator, factory workers and open businesses (getihu : restaurant, tourism, motels, etc) in major cities or abroad (Kim, 16). Aware of this trend, Chaoxion parents tend to send their children to Han national schools rather than ethnic schools in pursuit of better education. According to the Yanbian prefectural government, in 1991, 26 Korean middle schools were in Liuhe County, but by 2011 there remained only one (Bae). This pattern is repeated across districts as now 700 thousand Chaoxion children are enrolled in Chinese schools. Though such change has brought positive economic benefits and expanded learning opportunities, it has also resulted in social disruptions such as divorce, juvenile delinquency, and, most critically, an identity crisis. Professor Oh of Seoul National University reports that there is “debate among ethnic Korean intellectuals on the real identity of ethnic Koreans in China” and that “ethnic Koreans and leaders are confused about their identity” as more ethnic Koreans opt to assimilate into the Chinese majority culture (Denny). The population decline and mass ethnic realignment mentioned above are both signs of such confusion.

Moreover, this identity crisis has been exacerbated as ethnic Koreans feel disillusionment and disappointment from South Koreans. After the establishment of bilateral trade between China and South Korea in 1992, interaction between South Koreans and Chaoxion people has increased substantially. According to the Korean embassy, “the number of South Korean visits to China, including business trips, tourist visits, and student visits increased substantially throughout the 1990s, surpassing 1 million in 2000.” (Si, 105) Likewise, 70 thousand Chaoxion people now reside in mainland South Korea, comprising 3.8% of the general population. Such interaction has yielded mutual benefits; however has also factored into generating prejudice and discrimination towards Chaoxion people. Chaoxion people can apply to 2 types of visas, each valid for 3 years in South Korea: a high tier F-4 visa and a lower tier H-2 visa. According to Chairman Kwack of the Korean immigration and Diaspora community research center, the legal requirements are too high for Chaoxion people to attain an F-4 visa; they are thus critically limited in job options with a H-2 visa, which only allows Chaoxion people to work at 38 government approved 3-D (dirty-dangerous-difficult) jobs (Kwack). So until 2007, before the H-2 visa was introduced, Chaoxion people were framed as illegal immigrants for 15 years, and have yet to escape this prejudice. Chaoxion people are treated unfairly due to this image, suffering under precarious working conditions and abuse by their employers. According to a research paper by Professor Park of Konkuk University, 51.9% of 300 Chaoxion living in 8 districts in Yangbian reported to have experienced “discrimination, isolation, and indifference in South Korea” (Park,2). Professor Park attributes the cause of such discrimination to the South Korean economic recession, and notes that Chaoxion people are victimized as an outlet of dissatisfaction felt by South Koreans (Park, 3). Thus, it is hard for Chaoxion people to climb the social ladder, barred by the legal system and widespread negative public opinion. These circumstances force Chaoxion people to make extreme choices, subjecting them to deportation.  In addition, discrimination has been reinforced by false images produced by the popular media which associate them with money laundering, crime, and phishing. Yet, according to the Police Department, crime rates of Chaoxion people were lower than 3.7%, the national average in 2014 (Korean Herald). Just as in General Ford’s “Meeting My Father for the First Time,” in the eyes of Chaoxion people, South Koreans are carefree people who “did not really give a damn about the hopes and dreams” of the their northern neighbors (Ford). As a result, an increasing number of Chaoxion people are returning back to China, voluntarily or forcefully, disappointed by the general social atmosphere.

On the other hand, China has become a different meaning for ethnic Koreans. China has maintained a lenient minority policy, especially towards ethnic Koreans for their contribution in the formation and development of the PRC. Yet, until the Market Reformations under Deng Xiaoping, Chaoxion people had no incentive to assimilate into Chinese culture, as they maintained a relatively high standard of life in comparison to most of mainland China, and a strong ethnic identity reinforced by education. Even after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, many Chaoxion people had immigrated to South Korea following the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in August 1992. Yet, times have changed. According to the World Bank, China recorded a 14.3 real GDP growth in 1992, and have consistently maintained a 7.6 average growth rate ever since. Strengthened by its economic growth, China invested in the Yanbian region with a 30 billion dollar development project known today as the Greater Tumen Initiative, gaining popularity among the Chaoxion people. As mentioned above, socio-economic circumstances have also drastically changed, and Chaoxion people find it difficult to find jobs in the South Korean mainland. According to Professor Moon of Anyang University, “for Chaoxion people the South Korea in the past was a land of opportunity, yet today they feel that the economic tides have turned in favor of China” (Bae) This attitude is concentrated among the younger generation; Cui Shengchun, former secretary general of Yanbian’s External Cultural Exchanged Center, for example, said that “First, I am a Chinese. I grew up here in Yanbian and I love this place. My mother country is China.” This view is similar to that expressed by Lee Herrick in “What is This Thing Called Family,” where Herrick defines home as family, “the people who will stand up for you” as opposed as “a definition of physical similarity” (Herrick) Likewise, China has become a friendlier domain for younger generations, as they are also more proficient in the Chinese language and well exposed to the culture.

The overarching issue is what constitutes the Chaoxion people’s ethnic identity and how it will be maintained. The ethnic Korean community in China is going through a period of transition as times are changing and long held identities are questioned. The important point is that Chaoxion are not just derivatives of Korean peninsula, but a distinct people with a unique culture; thus, it is imperative for the Chaoxion people to reassess the definition of being “Korean,” and rebuild their community bonds with the help of South Koreans, who have to combat their unjust prejudice towards them. The problem that Chaoxion people face is one that applies to us. What does it mean to be a member of a society? Are our values truly immutable and how is our identity shaped by them? Whether the Chaoxion emerge stronger or dissipate in the flow of history is a choice; the later can be averted



Bae, Woohan. “8 million Domestic Chaoxion people… Foreigners who are not foreigners.” Hankuk ilbo, n.d. Web. 17 June 2016.

“Chaoxian (Korean) Nationality.” China Korean Nationality: History, Religion, Economy. TravelChinaGuide, n.d. Web. 16 June 2016.

Denney, Steven. “How Beijing Turned Koreans Into Chinese.” The Diplomat. N.p., 9 June 2016. Web. 16 June 2016.

Gu, Minjung. “[Still foreigners, Chaoxion people ②] “Giving up job opportunities in Korea”…2nd Generations heading back to china.”Herald News. N.p., 19 May 2016. Web.

Si, Joong Kim. The Economic Status and Role of Ethnic Koreans in China (n.d.): n. pag. Institution for International Economics. Web. 17 June 2016.

Volodzko, David. “China’s Koreans, Part I: A Brief History.” The Diplomat. N.p., 21 Aug. 2015. Web. 16 June 2016.


Written by Han Sung Lim


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