A decision by the oldest overseas Chinese organization in the United States to remove the flag of the Republic of China from its San Francisco headquarters has split the community down the middle.
On May 25, the board of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), commonly known as the Six Companies, voted by 21-20 to remove the flag, which has hung in the main hall for decades. Two days later, it came down. A week later, Yuan Nansheng, the Chinese consul general in San Francisco, came to the building, the first ever visit by a senior official of the People’s Republic of China.
On June 29, the board received a legal challenge to the decision, on the grounds that the by-laws of the CCBA required a 75 percent majority for any important decision.
Huang Rong-da, the chairman who proposed the resolution, said that for a long time, he had wanted to remove the political character of the association. “This will be better for the unity of overseas Chinese and facilitate visits by officials from both sides of the straits.”
The decision provoked indignation in Taiwan and among many parts of the overseas Chinese community in the US who said the flag should be retained.
“The national flag of the RoC represents the spirit of Dr. Sun Yat-sen who pioneered the revolution and the revolutionaries who gave their lives for our country,” said Wu Ying-yih, minister of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council in Taiwan. “Displaying the flag is our gesture to show respect for Dr. Sun and support for the democratic RoC he founded.”
Since the CCBA is a non-profit corporation incorporated under the laws of California, the Taiwan government has no legal authority over it.
The association was established in 1854 by six large Chinese associations in northern Californa, with the aim of helping Chinese in accidents and legal disputes as well as supporting schools and hospitals for them. A majority of the early members came from Guangdong, the biggest source of overseas migrants.
The association provided financial and political support to fellow Cantonese Sun Yat-sen in his efforts to establish the Republic of China. It set up branches all over the US and Canada.
As the civil war at home intensified after 1946, the two sides began to compete intensely for the support of their compatriots abroad. For the first 40 years of Communist rule, the Kuomintang won comfortably. The new government confiscated homes and businesses of overseas Chinese and persecuted their relatives as “capitalists” and “American spies”.
In 1955, Beijing changed its overseas Chinese policy and declared that they should only hold one passport, of the country where they were living. The Republic of China continued to allow dual nationality, giving passports to those who could prove their Chinese ancestry, wherever they lived.
This policy was very popular with tens of thousands of Chinese who had no citizenship or lived in countries where their nationality was controversial. Many also wanted to have a link to the mother country.
Taipei’s grip on the overseas community began to weaken with the economic growth of China; business people wanted access to Chinese products, capital and markets and make contact with PRC officials.
The eight-year presidency of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan from 2000 and 2008 also helped Beijing. Regarding the island as separate from China, the DPP told its diplomats to support Taiwan people living abroad and not overseas Chinese with no connection to the island.
This alienated many overseas Chinese who are loyal to the Kuomintang and oppose independence for Taiwan. Since Ma Ying-jeou became president in 2008, government policy on the overseas Chinese has returned to the KMT line. More than 22,000 of them went to Taiwan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China in October 2011.
Another battleground between the two sides is the correct form of Chinese characters. Beijing has invested heavily in more than 350 Confucius Institutes around the world to teach the simplified form used in the mainland as the standard and to spread its art and culture.
After he took office, President Ma established the Taiwan Academy to promote the island’s religions, literature, architecture, arts and crafts and traditional customs as well as the traditional form of characters. The number of its branches abroad is a fraction of that of the Confucius Institute.
Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai said that comparing the two was like comparing apples and bananas. “Taiwan’s culture comes from the bottom up. Taiwan Academy does not promote ideology,” she said. “Taiwan has no Propaganda Ministry. The Culture Ministry is absolutely not the Propaganda Ministry. The Taiwan Academy need not compete with the Confucius Institute and has no political motive.”
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, writes on Greater China. He has worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.