China vies for hearts and minds of 'sons and daughters' overseas

May 09, 2016 15:07
The 'China Dream' is shared by millions of ethnic Chinese living overseas, Xi Jinping has said. Photo: Reuters

Chinese political dictionaries define an overseas Chinese as a Chinese national who resides overseas. That is a narrow, legal definition. But many people, including the mainland government, use it loosely to mean any person of Chinese ethnicity living outside China, regardless of whether that person is a citizen of Australia, Canada, the United States or any other country.

The number of ethnic Chinese living outside of China is put at something like 40 million. If they constituted the citizens of one country, that country would be more populous than two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations.

That is not to say that Chinese in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia share the same sense of identity as those in Peru, India or Canada.

During the Cultural Revolution, when China called for overthrowing the "four olds" – old customs, culture, habits and ideas – the Chinese Communist Party’s stigmatization of traditional culture as feudal and calling on children to denounce their own parents alienated many ethnic Chinese who adhered to such old values as honoring one's parents and paying respect to the elderly.

Today, the Communists still embrace the imported western ideology of Marxism, but they also cloak themselves in traditional Chinese culture by pushing Confucius Institutes around the world as part of a propaganda campaign to gain soft power, thus reducing the sense of alienation that many feel toward the mainland.

In fact, overseas Chinese historically had a special status where the Republic of China, which succeeded the Qing dynasty after its downfall in 1911, was concerned. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who raised funds for his revolution mainly in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, called overseas Chinese "the mother of the Chinese revolution".

The Communist government set up a cabinet-level Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, reflecting the importance attached to overseas Chinese affairs.

Overseas Chinese were an important source of foreign exchange, especially in the early decades, since many people remitted money to relatives in China. As a result, the state treated relatives of overseas Chinese better and many people prided themselves on belonging to elite families.

But then, the political currents changed. During the Cultural Revolution, overseas Chinese were seen as the source of capitalist contamination. People with overseas relatives suffered. As a result, many tried to hide their foreign connections.

After Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors to foreign investors, overseas Chinese business people were the first to rush in. The earliest joint venture hotels in Beijing, the Jianguo Hotel and the Great Wall Hotel in the 1980s, involved Chinese-American businessmen, Clement Chen and C.B. Sung, respectively.

Once again, relatives of overseas Chinese were happy to flaunt their status as people with overseas connections.

China's policies towards overseas Chinese reflected domestic politics. This continues to be the case today.

There have been debates internally over how to identify overseas Chinese, and even specific individuals. Thus, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Yang Chen-ning has been at various times described as "American physicist" and "Chinese-American physicist".

In 1971, when the People’s Republic of China was seated in the United Nations, the first official delegation included Tang Mingzhao, who started the first Chinese-language newspaper in New York in 1940, the China Daily News. His American-born daughter, Nancy Tang, became Mao's English-language interpreter.

Quite naturally, the senior Tang was involved in overseas Chinese affairs. In a conversation then, he said that Chinese who had obtained foreign citizenship should no longer be considered Chinese. Still, the people "kept saying that they were still Chinese", and there was little the government could do about that, he said.

That was then. Now, it seems, the Chinese government is quite happy to entice as many foreigners as possible into its fold, and various terms are used to describe ethnic Chinese who are foreign nationals.

Among the terms used are haiwai huaren, or, literally, "overseas Chinese", and huayi, meaning "of Chinese descent". Another term that is gaining favor is zhonghua ernu, or "China’s sons and daughters".

When Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader, assumed power in 2012, he put forward his slogan of the China Dream. Significantly, he did not limit this dream to people in China. Instead, he said that "realization of the China Dream is the ultimate vision of China's sons and daughters within the country and overseas".

That seemed to say squarely that China's Dream was also the dream of millions of ethnic Chinese around the world, claiming for China the hearts and minds of 40 million people who are not, technically speaking, Chinese citizens at all.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.