Tracing the ever-rising death toll of the COVID-19 outbreak to the exotic meat on sale at a wet market in Wuhan, China, probably feels a bit surreal. If anything, it serves as a sobering reminder of how, in our globalized, interconnected lives, a plate of dubiously sourced food can rapidly lead to packed hospitals, empty supermarkets and general panic around the world.
On top of this, another reminder is of how these connections have drawn greater scrutiny of Chinese nationals living abroad and, more often than not, of ethnic Chinese who hold no ties to the mainland — or even of anyone who looks remotely Asian. But the question today expands beyond the side effects of the virus and toward Chinese communities that didn’t have wait for 2020 to be reminded of their strange status in the world today.
Strange, in this sense, refers to ethnic Chinese being the target of hysteria and violence, and even suspicion of being agents sent directly from Beijing, despite having no connections or loyalties to the mainland. In fact, those in the Chinese diaspora have become more relevant than ever as a result of China’s growing economic and social influence, forcing overseas ethnic Chinese to revisit their identities and how they relate to other Chinese people around the world.
A Century of Chinese Migration
Of the approximately 50 million overseas ethnic Chinese abroad, around half reside in Southeast Asia, with the largest populations concentrated in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore is a particular case, being the only country in the world outside China and Taiwan to have a population that is majority ethnic Chinese, at around 76%. As of today, these Chinese emigrants are largely third or fourth-generation, having had their ancestors settle during the time of the Qing or Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. With the exception of a minority of emigrants who have only moved within the last few decades, these ethnic Chinese are known as huayi, or people of Chinese descent.
This minority in Southeast Asia is part of another wave of Chinese emigration, in which their compatriots have largely preferred to settle in the West, in countries such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. These emigrants are first or second-generation and, as a result, tend to have closer ties to the mainland and are known as huaqiao, or people of Chinese origin.
As a consequence of the passage of time between these two waves, the identities of the huayi and the huaqiao are divided on several key points. When it comes to language, the huayi tend to have roots in dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew, while the huaqiao are more comfortable with the post-1950s, Communist Party-approved Standard Chinese. In religion, the huayi are more likely to profess adherence to Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity, in contrast to the more non-religious huaqiao who inherit modern China’s tumultuous and complicated relationship with religion.
Having family in and memories of China also plays an important part in identity-shaping, where first or second-generation immigrants are more likely to have them as compared to immigrant families who have spent decades in their country of residence. Finally, it is by and large the huayi who have been the recipients of attacks and repression of their Chinese identity in the 20th century. Examples of this include legislation in Indonesia in 1966 that pressured Chinese immigrants to replace their surnames with more Indonesian-sounding ones, or the sectarian violence against ethnic Chinese in 1960s Malaysia.
Thus, there exists a division in the perception of China by the overseas Chinese community. The huayi, as compared to the huaqiao, are more keen to emphasize their distance from Beijing, viewing themselves as communities that hold no obligations or loyalties to the country of their ancestral origin. This makes it difficult for the former to relate to the latter, who are more likely to embrace the duality of their identity, holding ties to both China and their country of residence.
For the huayi, one controversial case was the proposal of the recognition of dual citizenship status around the turn of the century. As suggested by sinologist Leo Suryadinata, the act of granting all ethnic Chinese the right to be considered a Chinese citizen in addition to being a citizen of their country of residence was primarily aimed at enticing the “new wave” of Chinese first-generation huaqiao immigrants with the opportunity to reestablish ties with their homeland. The Southeast Asian Chinese feared that they would be forced into competing obligations, with a country long removed from their consciousness potentially interfering in their lives. Following such opposition, the proposal was not entertained any further.
Compare this to the huaqiao and their representation in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference’s “overseas delegate” system. Every year, 35 prominent members of overseas Chinese communities who have obtained foreign nationalities are invited to sit in on the conference alongside Communist Party members as representatives of the Chinese diaspora. For these members, and the communities they represent, their active participation in Chinese civil society does not conflict with the roles they play in their country of residence, with one previous member being a senior adviser to the US Federal Reserve Board. This demonstrates the intrinsic difference between how the huayi and the huaqiao view themselves and, thus, the fundamental division within the Chinese diaspora.
Agents of Influence
This fundamental division is a volatile one and with potentially harmful results over how Beijing views and treats the reluctant huayi community. Such harm may come about unintentionally via China’s misunderstanding of the huayi identity and their perceived obligations to their ancestral homeland. For example, the case of Singapore may be raised, where its majority huayi population closely cooperates with China in economic and social sectors, with government officials, thought leaders and academics enjoying long-lasting ties. Some in China have gone on to nickname the Nanyang Technological University the “overseas branch of the Central Party School.”
Yet there is a danger that this cooperation has been borne out of Beijing’s enduring perception of the Singaporean huayi community as China’s implicit supporter. Some in China may point out the authoritative nature of the Singaporean government or the population’s inheritance of Chinese tradition and heritage as proof of Singapore’s cultural similarities to their own. This has been criticized as leading, at its worst, to “unrealistic expectations” in bilateral relations.
Those more critical of China may conversely be targeted as part of its network of influence operations abroad. In particular, these influence operations may be criticized as deliberately targeting huayi communities with the intent of drawing them into Beijing’s sphere of influence. In Singapore, this includes the use of “cultural organizations, clan associations, business associations and youth programs” to cultivate an affinity to China or lobby governments on pro-China issues.
Back in Malaysia, Chinese officials have gone as far as visiting huayi communities, endorsing Chinese political candidates and donating to Chinese-language schools. This has come amid a period of a rise in ethnically-motivated sentiment within Malaysia, where in the past, the influence and actions of the local Chinese community have been blamed for infringing upon the constitutionally guaranteed favoritism of the ethnic Malay majority.
More subversively, China’s desire to “preserve the rights and interests” of overseas Chinese could very well be gradually influencing its relationship with the huayi. This is a phrase often used by Beijing to justify the behavior of Chinese companies or individuals abroad, or the overseas demonstrations of Chinese international students supporting China’s stance on international affairs. It is a dangerous possibility that in the near future, Beijing may begin expanding the scope of this phrase to include the affairs of the huayi around the world.
This was the case in 2015, when China’s ambassador to Malaysia protested “infringements” on Chinese national interests in response to local demonstrations against the local ethnic Chinese community. Inflammatory actions along these lines may exacerbate societal tensions in countries with large huayi communities and, through alienating them from their countries of residence, draw them further into China’s sphere of societal and cultural influence.
For a glimpse at the stresses that have already arisen in the Chinese diaspora, it is sufficient to look no further than the current and pertinent example provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. The simple and common fear of disease serves as a convenient mask for anti-Chinese or anti-Asian sentiment. Moreover, fear of the huaqiao by local communities as potential vectors of the virus has morphed into a larger fear of the huayi, with an underlying insecurity about any ties to China and the virus that these generational immigrants might have. Such rising inter-ethnic tensions may not have been the result of influence operations by Beijing, but could very well have the same effect in driving a wedge between the huayi and their countries of residence.
Under the Communist Party leadership presided over by President Xi Jinping, overseas Chinese continue to be “persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity.” This will most likely continue at least into the near future, placing additional stresses on overseas ethnic Chinese to identify with China over their country of residence.
Although vehemently denied by Beijing, some continue to speculate that there is an intention to promote a narrative of a “greater China” that includes all ethnic Chinese regardless of nationality. An overseas Chinese community professing a stronger affinity with this “greater China” would present a formidable weapon of soft power, especially in areas of the world where China finds economic and strategic value. Southeast Asia, with its large huayi population inhabiting a critical node in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will most certainly be one of these areas, and Beijing may soon look to influence opinion in a region increasingly lukewarm to its ventures.
This soft-power arsenal is often overshadowed by more high-profile examples of Chinese involvement in the affairs of foreign countries, from the tech giant Huawei’s threats to information security in Europe and North America to debt-trap diplomacy in Africa and Asia, but it nevertheless remains a dangerous threat worldwide. In the short term, it would be crucial for governments to prioritize the resolution of ethnically-motivated tensions with large huayi communities. Although every country will have its own unique racial backdrop and solutions, a particular focus that may be especially useful includes a greater recognition of racially-motivated micro-aggressions that have been on the rise with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the prompt and judicious identification and handling of such issues in workplaces and in public.
Increased vigilance against Chinese influence in domestic affairs is also paramount, especially against the “agents of influence” who have used their prominent positions to attempt to pressure foreign policy decisions and public opinion. Countries that do so would not just be assuming a firm stance against China’s attempts to subvert public order but, more importantly, reaffirming their commitment to a clean, sovereign society free from coercion by foreign interests.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.