Chinese Diaspora Carries Torch for Old Country

May 19, 2008

China on Sunday suspended the Olympic torch relay for three days of mourning for victims of last week’s earthquake. Nevertheless the torch’s progress around China is proving more tranquil than the international portion of the relay, which was disrupted repeatedly by anti-Beijing protests. Even more striking than those rallies, however, were the counter-demonstrations by overseas Chinese nationalists determined to defend the torch.

Thousands of Chinese students rallied in Seoul and a few threw bottles at critics demonstrating against Beijing’s treatment of North Korean refugees. In Canberra, 10,000 Chinese were bussed in from Sydney and Melbourne, vastly outnumbering the pro-Tibetan independence protesters.

These incidents coincided with other demonstrations of solidarity by overseas Chinese, including protests in Seattle against the Dalai Lama and a rally outside CNN’s Atlanta offices condemning a presenter’s description of the Beijing leadership as a “bunch of goons and thugs”.

A great deal of attention is rightly given to the formal elements of China’s new global influence – its diplomatic dexterity, military capability and economic muscle. But there is another element to China’s power: its diaspora.

There are tens of millions of Chinese people living outside China. Many overseas Chinese communities have existed for generations, but there have also been impressive new movements of ethnic Chinese recently into the lands on China’s periphery and further afield, to Africa and the south-west Pacific. Overseas Chinese have contributed mightily to the mainland’s economic growth: for example, the World Bank reports that in 2007 China received more remittances – nearly $26bn – than any other country in the world except India.

There is good evidence, aside from the patriotic demonstrations, of a spike in diasporic feeling among overseas Chinese – instances of ethnic Chinese reviving their old names, learning Mandarin or visiting their ancestral homes.

The growing interest of overseas Chinese in their motherland is certainly being reciprocated. Over the past two decades, Beijing has cultivated ethnic Chinese tycoons, supported new history textbooks for diaspora schools, and encouraged diaspora organisations to support China’s position on issues such as the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Officials provided guidance to overseas Chinese during the worldwide protests against the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and in the run-up to elections in Taiwan in 2000. There have been persistent suggestions that Chinese diplomatic missions were involved in the staging of the recent pro-Beijing rallies.

Chinese media coverage of the diaspora has also shifted. Not long ago, overseas students were presented as unpatriotic and their host countries as “brain plunderers”; now emigration is celebrated as a patriotic and modern act. On the intelligence side, the Chinese intelligence services take a “vacuum cleaner” approach to collection, relying heavily for data-gathering on Chinese visitors, students and business people who visit or reside in target countries for legitimate purposes.

Finally, Beijing has changed its approach to providing consular assistance to Chinese abroad. In most cases, Beijing’s historic default position was to remain aloof. However,the Chinese foreign ministry has retooled to provide better consular services. In 2006, for instance, Beijing leased foreign charter planes to airlift overseas Chinese out of ugly situations in the Solomon Islands and Tonga – which is new for China. Beijing also muscled up to Pakistan in 2007 after attacks on Chinese citizens in Islamabad, which contributed to President Pervez Musharraf laying siege to the Red Mosque.

The tightening of diasporic connections between the Middle Kingdom and its far-flung people reflects, to some extent, the general thickening of global diasporas. So long as host countries are realistic about their citizens’ mix of affiliations and China does not overreach in defending the interests of its emigrants, the Chinese diaspora is not a particular cause for concern.

However, if the diaspora consciousness of overseas Chinese were to harden permanently into the kind of aggressive nationalism seen recently, then international public opinion would turn and interstate friction likely follow. In that case, the diaspora could end up reducing China’s influence, rather than multiplying it.