Taiwan in mind, Beijing channels overseas Chinese influence

October 21, 2019 15:32
Ethnic Chinese, regardless of nationality, are Chinese first and foremost, according to Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

As Taiwan's January presidential election approaches, Beijing is stepping up its effort to undermine incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and boost the opposition Kuomintang's candidate Han Kuo-yu, who is generally viewed as being Beijing friendly.

Much attention has focused on China’s successful stripping away of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, with seven having defected during Tsai’s tenure – two in the last month – leaving only 15 governments in the world that still have diplomatic relations with Taipei.

But, with much less notice, China has also been quietly strengthening its influence with a significant global community, many of whose members used to support Taiwan: the millions of overseas Chinese around the world.

Significantly, when President Xi Jinping delivered his National Day address in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1 to mark seven decades of Communist party rule in China, he said: "At this very moment, Chinese people of all ethnic groups and all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation at home and abroad take pride in and joyfully give our best wishes to our great motherland."

The phrase “sons and daughters of the Chinese nation abroad” refers to people who are citizens of foreign countries, who may not read or write Chinese, people who may have little in common with China except for their ethnicity.

But all these people, Xi said, “take pride in” China as their motherland.

Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, returned to this topic when presiding over a meeting of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee earlier this month.

He said the National Day celebrations had served as a proud demonstration of “the shared ideals of all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” toward realizing the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. That is to say, ethnic Chinese, regardless of nationality, are Chinese first and foremost.

Today’s communist government is often compared to China’s imperial dynasties, but there are differences. During the dynastic period, it was illegal for Chinese to leave the country, a move seen as treasonous.

These days, it is all right to physically be in foreign countries, even to be citizens of foreign countries, swear allegiance to foreign countries, as long as they remain Chinese at heart and give priority to China’s interests.

During the Cold War, Taiwan and China battled for the support of overseas Chinese around the world – in North America, Southeast Asia, Australia and elsewhere.

However, China has gained steadily in this area. And Taiwan has virtually given up the fight.

When the Kuomintang was in power, Taiwan declared itself the legal government of China and, especially during the Cultural Revolution, it depicted itself as the guardian of traditional Chinese culture, which was being repudiated on the mainland.

Taiwan had a Cabinet-level Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission while the mainland created an Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO); each sought the support of ethnic Chinese around the world.

But in the 21st century the KMT lost power to the DPP, which wanted an independent Taiwan separate from China. Taiwan decided that it would only help Taiwanese abroad and lost interest in overseas Chinese in general.

China, now unchallenged, merged its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office last year into the Central United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. Its primary mission: to seek ethnic Chinese support for reunification of Taiwan with mainland China.

The OCAO has shown remarkable success, even in faraway places.

In Mauritius, for example, the Mauritian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China was founded 10 years ago, with the Chinese ambassador attending the ceremony. “The founding of the council,” the ambassador said, “showed the confidence and resolve of the overseas Chinese in Mauritius to oppose Taiwan independence.”

Jieh-Yung Lo, a Chinese Australian writer, seemed to echo the Beijing position when he commented in the South China Morning Post that “the reunification dream is not just the dream of the People’s Republic; it is a dream shared by many overseas Chinese and their communities.” He did not say whether the mainland dream was a Taiwan nightmare. But he called on overseas Chinese to act as an intermediary to trigger peaceful reunification.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, presidential candidate Han, who is mayor of Kaohsiung, pledged Oct. 10 to try to restore Taiwan’s dialogue with Beijing by returning to the “1992 consensus” under which both Taiwan and the mainland say that each is part of “one China.”

It was Tsai’s refusal to accept “one China” that caused Beijing to end its dialogue with Taiwan. The election’s outcome is still uncertain, but if China supports Han overtly, it is likely to hurt rather than help.

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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.