Social Science

Lost in translation: how comparing the uses of the term ‘foreigner’ can help explain China’s immigration policy shift

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Scholars normally explore China’s international migration policy through a pure social sciences lens. This article aims to investigate the policy evolution trajectory, adding a linguistic viewpoint. It explores the question of how the word ‘foreigner’ changed to reflect shifting policies. Theoretically, it engages historical institutionalism and focuses on the critical junctures in Chinese history, especially after 1949. Methodologically, it uses document interrogation. To collect data, it mainly relies on Chinese encyclopaedic dictionaries (e.g. The Great Chinese Dictionary, Chinese Etymology Dictionary), Chinese historical ancient books, the Peking University Law database [PKULAW] and some regulation compilation books. In China, a variety of words can signify ‘foreigner’ (Waiqiao, Waiguoren, Yimin), yet each word has another connotation. Waiqiao suggests that China regards foreigners from an ethnic and cultural perspective, revealing an ethnic orientation of the policy makers in Chinese immigration policies in the 1950s. Waiguoren has a more political undertone and strengthens the administrative orientation of immigration policies after the 1960s. While, as a more recent phenomenon, the use of Yimin is a sign for the turn of integration-oriented policies. By differentiating those terms and clarifying their applications in different historical periods, we expect to unveil a clear link between the use of the different terms and China’s immigration policy changes.