Beijing’s charm offensive

Leo Suryadinata's The Rise Of China And The Chinese Overseas: 10 takeaways from the book

Key points from Dr Suryadinata's new book, launched on March 2, about understanding Beijing's overtures to the Chinese everywhere:

1 China is now so strong economically that it needs more markets and projects to soak up its surplus capital, as well as to find more raw resources. Hence, President Xi Jinping launched One Belt, One Road (Obor) in 2013 to link China to at least 60 countries along the old overland Silk Route west of China (One Belt) - which is meant to jump-start western China's growth - and South-east Asia's old maritime trade routes (One Road).

2 To bolster Obor efforts and flex its economic muscle globally, in 2014, China set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a sort of funding rival to the Asian Development Bank and perhaps even the World Bank.

3 Then, in July 2015, Beijing's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) boosted Obor further when it held its first World Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs Conference. The event drew more than 300 people from 79 countries. By one estimate, overseas Chinese businessmen have a net capital worth of more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion). To underscore how important the overseas Chinese were to Obor's success, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the keynote speaker at the conference.

4 Mr Li said China expected three things of all non-mainland Chinese: (1) Be "New Effective Forces" in transforming and reconstructing its economy; (2) build a "Rainbow Bridge" between China and other countries for Obor's success; and (3) give China a "New Image" globally by being law-abiding, peaceable and responsible wherever they were.

5 OCAO chairman Qiu Yuanping also spoke, stressing that China was home to the Chinese overseas too, and so they were obliged to help it succeed. Such a statement, read with Mr Li's, shows that Beijing is blurring its long distinction between huaqiao (mainland Chinese living overseas) and huaren (ethnic Chinese born overseas, or long settled there).

Beijing bureaucrats now refer to huaren as haiwai qiaobao (overseas compatriots), suggesting to their home countries that they are ultimately loyal to China, which puts them in an awkward, even dangerous, position.

6 The distinction arose in 1980 under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. He introduced China's Nationality Law, which recognised only a single, not dual, nationality for all mainland Chinese. Under this law, a mainland Chinese ceased to be a Chinese national once he or she took up foreign citizenship voluntarily. Despite much recent official debate after Beijing's blurring of the distinction, the Nationality Law has not yet been amended to recognise dual, not single, nationality, as suggested by Beijing's blurring of the terms huaqiao and huaren.

7 As proof that such blurring is primarily for advancing core national interests such as Obor, in January last year, Beijing's State Development and Reform Commission published a five-volume set, comprising speeches and case studies of some overseas projects between China and countries along the proposed Obor routes. The commission's director Xu Shaoshi, who edited the set, said it was "to get investments into China and to get China's capital out".

8 Beijing even tried to introduce a Huayi Card - meant for people of Chinese origin to reside in China, but with no voting rights - to entice Chinese overseas who are talented in new technologies and finance to help China grow. The card has since been shelved because of criticism from Chinese and non-Chinese overseas that China was selecting talent according to ethnicity.

9 Beijing has long realised that the nations of South-east Asia were suspicious of the ethnic Chinese among them, chiefly because they thought all were still loyal to China. It was only after 1974, when several South-east Asian states established diplomatic relations with China, that China finally declared that it no longer considered any Chinese person who adopted another citizenship willingly as one of its own.

10 According to some estimates, there were between seven million and eight million mainland Chinese overseas in 2007, not including about one million students. By comparison, there are between 42 million and 60 million ethnic Chinese of other nationalities worldwide.

Cheong Suk-Wai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline '10 takeaways from the book'. Subscribe