With legislation introduced in Australia’s parliament which Prime Minister Turnbull has explicitly said is meant to counter Chinese interference, the efforts of Beijing to shape the world have been brought to the fore like they haven’t in quite some time. Across the Western world, governments and companies are realising that behind Chinese acquisitions and investment might be a conscious influence-building agenda that transcends economic rationale. The accusations that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends on projects that are economically not viable seem less important now. Sri Lanka’s inability to pay back loans led to it handing control over the Chinese-built Hambantota port to Beijing. The power China has over Venezuela and Zimbabwe has been in the press as well.
However, the creeping global influence of the regime in Beijing should not lead us in the West to condemn ‘the Chinese’ en bloc. The West has a long history of ‘Yellow Peril’ narratives and while addressing the very serious issue of Communist Party of China (CPC) abusing the openness of Western countries we should take care to distinguish between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and ‘the Chinese’. Already, reports by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) about the danger of Chinese infiltration has led to some unease in the Chinese community in Australia. Not all ethnic Chinese are a threat. Reporting should take care to reflect this.
This might be even more necessary because often the first target of PRC overseas operations are overseas Chinese communities. Every PRC embassy has an officer for Overseas Chinese Affairs (华侨事务 huáqiáo shìwù, shortened to 侨务 qiáowù) who concerns themself with bringing the local Chinese community in line with the CPC. This includes ensuring joyful flag-wavers whenever Chairman Xi Jinping or another Chinese leader makes a foreign visit, but also organising angry nationalists to, for example, shout over pro-Tibet demonstrations and allegedly to beat up demonstrators. It moreover includes overseeing Chinese Scholar and Student Associations (CSSAs) that keep tabs on Chinese students and impel them to inform on each other. Often, the poorer students are encouraged with financial rewards to do so. Lastly, it tries to keep the local business community in line.
Chinese embassies have this power because of the enormous economic importance of China, especially to Chinese business communities that distinguish themselves based on their ties to the PRC. Perhaps it were these business interests that made ethnic Chinese businessmen in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 happy to welcome the PRC ambassador to tour Petaling Street after Malay riots. Recently, the Chinese ambassador even accompanied an MP of opposition party DAP on house visits. Ambassador Huang’s remarks about anti-Chinese racism and separate remarks declaring the safety of ethnic Chinese a national interests of the PRC only fuel racists in UMNO who still see the ethnic Chinese as foreigners under foreign tutelage.
The year 2016 saw the PRC’s claim of ownership over ethnic Chinese wherever they live in the world also hit Singapore. Various issues—including the remaining military links of the Republic with Taiwan and its pro-international law stance in the South China Sea—had been grating Beijing for a while, and it was probably this older unhappiness that caused such an outburst that year. Talking to people at Peking University, I got the impression that the root of this cause is the supposed ‘Westernisation’ of the Singaporeans, who are losing their Chineseness—no matter that the ancestors of ~25% never had any ‘Chineseness’ to begin with. When Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March 2015, on the Chinese internet several nationalists saw it fit to call him a 汉奸 (hànjiān), traitor of the Chinese race, for selling out ‘his’ Chinese to the West.
Increasingly, as the CPC turns to traditional culture as its source of legitimacy, Beijing has to present itself as the guardian of Chinese civilisation. In a speech to overseas Chinese I have looked at earlier, Chairman Xi Jinping implied that their Chinese heritage ought to lead ethnic Chinese to staunchly support the ‘motherland’ and with that of course the Party. In Chinatowns across the world, Chinese businessmen with links to the PRC take over papers and Chinese schools. A granny who has read her local Chinese-language news for decades suddenly finds her trusty source of news following the Party line, no matter that she herself might actually have fled from that Party. Chinese community organisations abroad are reminded by the local qiáowù official where their business interests lie and need not much further instruction.
The danger of ‘infiltration’ is then much more serious and much further along already for ethnic Chinese communities across the world. This has real-life consequences, especially when ethnic Chinese find themselves in PRC (or Hong Kong) jurisdiction. Australian
citizen permanent resident, professor Feng Chongyi, discovered this as he was barred from leaving the PRC, but we can also see this in much more severe punishment for ethnic Chinese businessmen who find themselves in trouble with the law as compared to other businesspeople with foreign nationalities.
That we have to deal with this issue is clear. As the CPC refines its methods, we will see more stories like the current Australian saga pop up. However, it is essential that we do not chalk this off to interference by ‘the Chinese’. It is true that Beijing seeks to mobilise overseas Chinese communities—in the case of Australia the PRC embassy in Canberra shockingly threatened the government to instruct the Chinese community to vote against the Australian Labor Party—but by talking about the Chinese as one monolith we only give the PRC the ownership it wants. What we need to do is recognise the experiences of ethnic Chinese around the world, since they have battled with this issue for much longer.
The Century of National Humiliation narrative that shapes Chinese nationalism bemoans the loss of Chinese dominance. This is said to have not only lead to the lamentable loss of geographical bodies, but also to the humiliating loss of human bodies. Rejuvenation or restoration (复兴 fùxīng), the core of Chinese ambition, would in the eyes of nationalists include restoration of Chinese control over ‘Chinese’ bodies. Other countries thus have to spend more attention to protect those among their citizens who happen to be of ethnic Chinese descent. This requires distinction between the country and the civilisation.