Contested membership: experimental evidence on the treatment of return migrants to mainland China during the COVID-19 pandemic

Yao Xu, Abigail Coplin, Phi Hong Su, Kinga Makovi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Pandemics refract sociopolitical tensions within societies and highlight how national belonging hinges on informal performances as much as legal status. While return migration has become a common practice and institutionalized strategy of state development, little scholarly work has probed how domestic populations view returnees and their claims to national membership. Using a large-scale, pre-registered online survey experiment deploying a give-or-take Dictator Game, this paper leverages the dynamics of COVID-19 to explore how Chinese nationals envision and treat returnees. First, our results illustrate that the Chinese population imagines returnees as a group of elites with substantial social and financial capital, even though returnees are a socio-economically diverse population. Next, by applying information priming, we demonstrate that Chinese nationals discriminated against overseas returnees during the pandemic and that this behavior was not primarily driven by fears of viral contagion. Finally, using mediation analysis, we show that participants’ differential behavior towards returnees can largely be explained by participants’ perceptions of returnees’ class status and adherence to key markers of national membership. Ultimately, this paper broadens our understanding of the informal dynamics of national membership and intergroup relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

Keywords

  • China
  • COVID-19
  • Discrimination
  • national membership
  • return migration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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