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Perspective | China’s Extraterritorial Reach on the Chinese Diaspora

Image Credit: Eleftheria Alexandri/Foreign Policy

What does it mean to be Chinese? Am I Chinese?

With my recent move to New York City, I am surprised at how often I am asked this question: Are you Chinese? I struggle to respond every time because the word “Chinese” can mean a lot of things – a nationality, an ethnicity, a language, and even a culture. And it requires much more than a simple yes or no to answer. 

I was born and raised in Cambodia, a South-East Asian country where many people have at least some strains of Chinese ancestry originating in the Jieyang and Shantou regions of Guangdong province in China (although I think of the United States to be my home now). I enjoy decorating my house with lanterns for the Spring Festival and love cooking for Tomb-Sweeping Day. I get off on reading Chinese mythology and watching Chinese dramas. I take pride in my Chinese facial features. But in the grand scheme of things, I have no ties to the so-called “Middle Kingdom,” and you would have to trace back to my grandparent’s generation to find someone in my family whose feet touched its soil from birth. 

So, ethnically speaking, I am a Teochew, a subethnic Chinese with roots in eastern Guangdong province. But citizenship-wise, no, I am not Chinese. What troubles me about this question is the realization that ever since China launched its modernization program, it has been deftly using the ambiguity of the word “Chinese” to sway the Chinese diaspora to its cause by constantly highlighting the significance of bloodline and heritage. 

In July last year, I watched as China celebrated the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, making it the longest-running nation-state to ever hoist a flag painted with the hammer and sickle, outperforming even the former Soviet Union. On this 100th anniversary, Xi Jinping called upon all Chinese people to “strengthen the great unity” for “collective endeavors.” 

“The patriotic united front is an important means for the Party to unite all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, both at home and abroad, behind the goal of national rejuvenation,” President Xi continued. 

Wielding phrases like “Chinese values” and “great unity”, the CCP seeks to entice and lure us into cultural relativism, etching out a narrative that justifies the adoption of blatant cultural exceptionalism and undercuts any universal aspirations. Based on this perception, all foreign nationals with Chinese heritage, despite how many generations ago their families departed from the motherland, can conceivably be included in the CCP’s idea of the Chinese nation and must work hard for and share in the “Chinese dream”. From Beijing’s point of view, support for China is equivalent to support for the party and vice versa. Hence, the employment of the word “Chinese” bolsters and exports the notion that there is merely one politically-correct way of being Chinese—adherence and obedience to the party above all else. Meanwhile, Chinese dissidents, Tibetans, Hong Kong protesters, and Uighur Muslims are deprecated and persecuted like heretics.

Wielding phrases like “Chinese values” and “great unity”, the CCP seeks to entice and lure us into cultural relativism, etching out a narrative that justifies the adoption of blatant cultural exceptionalism and undercuts any universal aspirations.

Although the blend of ethnic nationalism and an authoritarian system is not an uncommon application used by the world’s tyrannical governments, its global power, the size of the Chinese diaspora, and the level of organization of the CCP’s propaganda apparatus toward overseas Chinese make the China case unique. The United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is the primary agency responsible for influence operations to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve the party’s objectives, has increased its efforts to mobilize the Chinese diaspora, regardless of citizenship, to support the CCP’s swelling international aspirations and its causes abroad. Those members of the diaspora who are deemed to be dependable are deployed to shape the politics of their residential countries with the outlook of China’s national interests. 

As recently as January this year, there was an allegation against the British-Chinese lawyer, Christine Ching Kui Lee, of being a Chinese agent and of influencing British parliamentarians on behalf of the CCP. The allegation emerged after the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency known as the MI5 issued a Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA) – a rare warning – that Lee acted covertly to interfere in UK’s politics with the help of the UFWD, and she did so using her Birmingham-based law firm Christine Lee & Co, whose website states that she is also a legal advisor to the Chinese embassy.

Chinese actors with different degrees of involvement with the CCP have been active in influencing politics in other Western democracies as well. Chinese-Canadian journalists have reported growing pressure to muzzle criticism of Beijing due to intimidation from China’s consulates and pro-Beijing advertisers. News reports have emphasized efforts by Chinese students to bully fellow students, often with the palpable encouragement of embassy officials. Incidents in which Chinese netizens harass and terrorize ethnic Chinese in other countries who voice criticism of the CCP and its policies have garnered tremendous attention. In 2021, Chinese diaspora communities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia were a significant target of manipulation orchestrated by Chinese state social media that aimed to strike fears by conveying false equivalences between anti-Asian racism and increased speculation about Covid-19 laboratory-leak theories. This campaign illustrates the CCP’s strategy of using allegations of racism to avert criticism. 

Similarly, some government news agencies, like Xinhua, have struck deals with impecunious local newspapers and wire services in South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. In 2017, a Chinese firm and the Cambodian interior ministry launched a TV station that carries content from China’s official media. Chinese propagandas are extrusive all-over South-East Asia and they usually include a few subject matters: democracy is a sloppy, turbulent form of government, and the United States is a racist country. For example, a video purporting to show that black and white Americans assaulted a Chinese man with sticks was broadly distributed on South-East Asian chat groups earlier in 2021. However, it was later verified that the video was actually a gang riot that occurred in an Ecuadorian prison. On the other hand, Chinese propagandists would portray China as the most benevolent and powerful country, with the demonstration of their donations of vaccines to South-East Asian countries and the invention of the “first” Covid-19 vaccine by a Chinese general.

It should be noted that there are approximately 60 million ethnic Chinese in more than 180 countries – with more than 5 million in the United States alone (excluding roughly 300,000 international students). And to a greater extent, they are getting caught up in the crossfire between their host countries and the People’s Republic of China. Overseas Chinese who withstand and defy Beijing’s demands could potentially face intimidation and harassment from the CCP. But at the same time, the CCP’s policy of influencing overseas Chinese also exacerbates the aggravating conjectures against them in their countries of residence, despite whether they endorse the Chinese government or not. By taking advantage of the atmosphere of mistrust toward and fear of alienation amongst the Chinese diaspora, the CCP propagates the sacred responsibility of greater ties and allegiance toward the motherland. 

Nevertheless, this appeal to the diaspora via the sentimental heartstrings of heritage and the romanticized idea of ancestral roots is somewhat ironic, considering that China does not recognize dual citizenship. This means that Chinese who acquire foreign nationality are no longer considered Chinese citizens. That is why we have cases like Zhu Yi, an American-born Chinese figure skater, who renounced her U.S. citizenship in 2018 after deciding to compete for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Nevertheless, this appeal to the diaspora via the sentimental heartstrings of heritage and the romanticized idea of ancestral roots is somewhat ironic, considering that China does not recognize dual citizenship.

It is up to people like me, those who are ethnically Chinese but have spent our lives outside of China, to push back against this notion that we have to be patriotic and loyal to our ancestral home. It is up to us to ward off the idea that we must share in the vision of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and support the CCP’s perpetuation of a digital authoritarian state. It is up to us to urge the governments in our host countries to demonstrate leadership and courage in defending our rights to live free from coercion and in a manner consistent with the rights and freedoms due to us as fellow countrymen and women. It is up to us to show that our individual beliefs and views extend beyond ethnic and national boundaries. Chinese might be my external component, my hardware. But my software is not Chinese, at least not in the way the CCP defines it. I value pluralistic thinking, freedom of expression, freedom of privacy and the basic human right not to be surveilled, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and universal suffrage. And until China has room to accommodate these values of mine and the varying Chinese identities that don’t conform to the party narrative, then count me out of the CCP’s great ethnocultural project of national rejuvenation.

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