A new conference for overseas Chinese entrepreneurs raises an important question in terms of a rising China and its global ambitions: Has China changed its policy towards overseas Chinese?
Addressing the conference held in Beijing in July, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged overseas Chinese businessmen to put China first. This appeared to be despite the fact that many participants, although of Chinese descent, were citizens of another country.
A look at the new conference, and a comparison with a long-existing one for overseas Chinese entrepreneurs, shows the evolution of the new development.
The inaugural World Huaqiao Huaren Businessmen and Industrialists Conference was held on July 6 and 7. The term huaqiao refers to Chinese nationals overseas, and huaren to foreign nationals of Chinese descent. Over 300 overseas guests from 79 countries and areas participated. Most of the major Chinese tycoons were present.
It was jointly organised by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) under the State Council, China's Cabinet, and China's Overseas Exchange Association.
But there is already a similar conference, the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Conference (WCEC), organised by the Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Its objectives are to foster mutual understanding of the world's Chinese entrepreneurs, build Chinese entrepreneurial networks, and foster the integration of ethnic Chinese into local society, enabling them to contribute to the economy and development of the country where they reside.
The WCEC takes place every two years and was first held in Singapore in August 1991. About 800 representatives from 30 countries and areas and 75 cities participated. Its medium was both English and Chinese. The 13th WCEC will be held this month in Bali, Indonesia.
China itself has hosted the conference twice, in Nanjing in 2001, and in Chengdu in 2013.
However, it appears the WCEC does not satisfy the needs of a rising China. Beijing has felt it necessary to have its own gathering for overseas Chinese entrepreneurs in the form of the World Huaqiao Huaren Businessmen and Industrialists Conference.
Thai-Chinese tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont, head of agribusiness conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, has said the new conference is "the diplomacy of big country".
Indeed, the conference was aimed at helping the "One Belt, One Road" programme proposed by President Xi Jinping to promote exchanges between China on the one hand, and Central Asia/South-east Asia on the other.
NEW ROLE FOR OVERSEAS CHINESE
Chinese Premier Li appealed to participants that he would like overseas Chinese entrepreneurs to be the "new effective forces" of China's economic transformation and development. He wants them to serve the interests of China first, followed by ensuring "mutual wins", creating a new image for Chinese businessmen and having a harmonious relationship with the local population.
It would be understandable if he was speaking to Chinese nationals, but the majority of the Chinese entrepreneurs at the conference were foreign nationals of Chinese descent. To ask foreign nationals to serve China's interests first appears to be unreasonable; this would also put the conference participants in a rather awkward position.
Beijing's policy towards Chinese overseas has begun to change in recent years. In the Deng Xiaoping period, the distinction between huaqiao and huaren was quite clear.
Deng's China promulgated the first PRC citizenship (nationality) law in 1980, which stipulated that China recognises only single citizenship. Once a Chinese person living overseas becomes a citizen of another country voluntarily, he or she ceases to have China's citizenship. The clear distinction between Chinese nationals and foreigners appears to have resolved the historical problem of dual nationality of Chinese overseas.
With the modernisation of China and globalisation, there have been waves of new Chinese migration to the West and South-east Asia. The new migrants in the West proposed that China should revive the dual nationality policy for ethnic Chinese, as this is being practised in the West. The proposal was debated in the people's consultative body, but the 1980 Chinese Nationality Law remained unchanged.
The most striking example of the distinction between China's nationals and foreigners can be seen in Beijing's attitude towards the anti-ethnic Chinese riots in Indonesia in May 1998. Many Chinese-Indonesians were affected, but Beijing did not want to get involved as those Chinese were foreign nationals.
CHANGE IN POLICY
However, it appears that Beijing's policy towards the Chinese overseas started to change after that.
In 2001, the first Conference of World Federation of Huaqiao Huaren Associations by OCAO put both Chinese nationals and foreign citizens of Chinese descent into one group. It became more obvious after 2006. In 2007, for instance, then Chinese President Hu Jintao, at one of the Chinese entrepreneurs' gatherings, stated that although huaqiao and huaren were overseas, their "hearts are still linked to homeland". He appealed to them to foster the unification of China.
In the following year, when China hosted the Olympic Games, Beijing stressed the concept of a "Chinese nation", and included huaren as part of this. Beijing appealed to ethnic Chinese all over the world, regardless of citizenship, to protect the Olympic Torch relay and become Olympic volunteers, so that the Beijing Olympics would be successful, "to realise the great revival of Chinese nation".
In recent years, this kind of thinking - to lump huaqiao and huaren together - has become more obvious. In April 2012, OCAO Beijing director Li Yinze gave a speech at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Jakarta, urging young Chinese Indonesians to learn Hanyu (Han language), "in order to strengthen their identification with the Chinese nation".
In September last year, OCAO chairman Qiu Yuanping said in a speech to the Perhimpunan INTI (Indonesians of Chinese Descent Association): "The ancestral land (of the Chinese) will never forget the major contribution of the huaqiao huaren overseas. China will always be the strong backer of the people of Chinese descent overseas."
At the World Huaqiao Huaren Businessmen and Industrialists Conference, China's top leaders continued to call foreign nationals of Chinese descent qiaoshang (compatriot-businessmen overseas) and qiaobao (overseas compatriots), ignoring citizenship. This habit of not differentiating between huaqiao and huaren is worrying, and detrimental to foreign nationals of Chinese descent, as their loyalty to their own country could be called into doubt.
China should respect Chinese overseas who have become foreign nationals. And in my view, the existing WCEC is a better vehicle to help China in a peaceful rise.
• The author is visiting senior fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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