Between Downward and Upward Social Mobility: Transnational Careers of Northern Chinese Migrants in Paris

Between Downward and Upward Social Mobility: Transnational Careers of Northern Chinese Migrants in Paris

Mrs. Cheng, a Chinese woman in her late 40's walks slowly in the streets of Eastern Paris. Nothing indicates that this plainly dressed and lightly made up woman is a sex worker looking for clients. Being a Chinese ex accountant, she turned to this independent work a few years after her arrival in Paris. When times were difficult, she would remain optimistic by remembering her unbearable work as a nanny for the southern Chinese employers who despised and exploited her. 

She defines prostitution as “a choice, when you have no choice”, while also acknowledging how it enabled her to leave her previous employer, to meet her French husband and to obtain a legal document through marriage. Being able to work as a cleaning lady, she was able to combine her earnings from this more respectable position and prostitution to pay for her son’s expensive university fees in China.


 Paris street prostitution (© F. Lévy, 2015)

Mr. Wei, a former taxi man in Tianjinin Paris who worked at construction sites and restaurants in Paris, also wanted to free himself from the control of an employer. Like many northern Chinese migrants, he sells used objects salvaged from Parisian bins at illegal flea markets. He notes that “you need to have a thick face” when locals watch you inspecting rubbish bins. Still he is satisfied with his monthly earnings (around 1000 €) and sends some to his wife and daughter in China.

Informal market besides flea market of Montreuil (© M. Qiu)

These life stories are beyond exceptional among northern Chinese migrants who have settled in Paris since the late 1990s. They continue to question the motivations and the senses associated with migration. Why do these migrants leave a country of increasing economic growth to settle in Europe where they will experience migration as a harsh downward social mobility? In certain ways, this recent and poorly documented flux tackles many ill-acknowledged ideas on migrations. Most migrants are educated citizens in their 40's and depict themselves as part of the lower middle class urban population in China. Women represent 70% of these migrants with 2/3's being divorced. Their atypical profiles contrast with the largest Chinese migration flux in France. Coming from South of China and embedded in migratory chains, they are different from most economic migrants.

Contextualizing migration trajectories into long term life stories in China highlights the link between the rise of this new migratory wave and the social and economic transformations of urban china at the turn of the century. Migration has been conceived by these men and women as a way to resist the downward social mobility increased by economic reforms in the mid-90s. After graduation from high school or a university, they take positions as qualified workers in intermediary professions or management. These lines of work allow access to a series of benefits (good education, permanent jobs, subsidized housing, health care, retirement). However, this model of success is suddenly put into question. Their professional careers are affected by the restructuring of the economy which is accompanied by the shut down of many state owned enterprises. The first to be made redundant are the workers considered to be the least adaptable to the new, flexible, and competitive working conditions. These groups consisted of older workers (aged over 40yrs) and those who met fewer qualifications such as women. Therefore, it is easy to see how this criteria applies to the profiles of most migrants in Paris. At the same time, the dismantle of welfare system escalated prices if access to healthcare and education. This generation is confronted with an unprecedented need for money, as they have to provide for both their children and aging parents. The changes in lifestyles and the development of a consumer society have led to the emergence of new enticements. The economic capacity is a determining factor when it comes to evaluating the social positioning of individuals. While the country is rapidly developing, migrants’ narratives reflect frustration of their situation. The speed of improvement on their living standards is perceived to be slower than other groups. They often interpret this discrepancy as a sign of impoverishment. If few migrants were unemployed before they left China, most were concerned about a decrease of their living standards. But these economic and social changes also have an impact on families causing a significant rise in divorce rates for city dwellers in their forties. Divorce is often accompanied by women IMPOVERISHMENT and social stigmatization which increases the insecurities of meeting the economic and social norms of success. The combination of these different difficulties allow future migrants to feel put aside or offset from the middle class. Migration is therefore thought of as a temporary and innovative solution to address the issue of professional, economic, familial and social decline in status. “We came to France to work and earn money during three or four years and then go home”.

In France, their migration plans and its temporality change of nature. The follow-up of migrants’ trajectories during three to nine years allows for the measurement of impact of structural constraints in the destination country that shape their projects. They came with tourist visas and soon after become undocumented migrants. Illegal status creates room for maneuvering and confining them to informal resources in a temporal precarity (as they could be deported at any time). The lack of legal status, French language skills and contacts with locals limit their choices to informal jobs proposed by Chinese entrepreneurs or families settled for a longer period of time in Paris. Men find jobs in restaurants, garment factories, or warehouses while most women work as live-in nannies. At first glance, these situations are related to an ethnic work market which consists of Chinese speaking workers, employers, and clients. However, a deeper analysis highlights the complexity of these situations. Feeling humilated and exploited by employers, Northern Chinese migrants often complain about their working conditions. Faced with discrimination, they are only hired for arduous and poorly paid jobs which disregard their premigration qualifications. Men and women experience a double process of deskilling themselves and being placed into highly gendered jobs.

Northern Chinese migrants have a difficult time working and serving southern Chinese employers in the countryside. A social division that differentiates urban and rural citizens in China is renegotiated in Paris. It is important to acknowledge this dimension in order to highlight how Northern Chinese migrants are integrated at the bottom of the social stratification and experience a complete reversal of social hierarchy in migration. The “Chinese community” is not a homogeneous place with systematic solidarity relationship. In the contrary, it is crossed by strong dividing lines and power relations. The interpersonal links mix mutual assistance, competition and exploitation. Ambivalent and ephemeral, they call into question the idea of a “Chinese community” in Paris which highlights the complexity of scientific usage on the concept of ethnicity.

As in the cases of Mrs. Cheng and Mr. Wei, these tensions push and weed out some Chinese migrants from the “ethnic networks”. They try to enlarge the range of economic activities and propose independent services to local clients. Men work as ragmen, while most women turn to domestic service, massage parlors, prostitution or trying to marry a French citizen. Hence, female migrants have more choices and can use sexual and intimate relationships, relying on either economic or intimate resources. These innovative and gendered activities reflect the agency of these migrants. They represent a way to achieve their primarily goal and to provide for their families in China. However, they also have an impact on their identity which is forced to adapt the way they present themselves, in France or in China. Though, even if they can’t go back to China, the investment of the transnational space, unable them to balance they downward social mobility in France by their upward positioning in China, and to keep a positive image of themselves.


Keywords : Migration, Northern Chinese, Dongbei, downward social mobility, gender and migration, agency, transnational practices.


Florence Lévy

Sociologist, associated to the Research Center on Modern and Contemporary China of EHESS.

Florence Lévy has completed her PhD in sociology in the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, France) and in Neuchatel University (Switzerland) in 2015. She is associated researcher at the Research Center on Modern and Contemporary China (EHESS). Her main research interests combine migration studies with gender, ethnicity and transnational dynamics and professional trajectories.



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Lévy, Florence. "The Migration of Women from Northern China: A Gender-Oriented Choice?". China Perspectives 4 (2012): 43-51.

Lévy, Florence, and Marylène Lieber. "Sex and Emotion-Based Relations as a Resource in Migration: Northern Chinese Women in Paris." Revue Française de Sociologie 52 (2011): 3-29.