The Chinese diaspora

More than 10 million people who were born in China now live in other countries, plus another 50 million or so descendants who identify as Chinese, according to the International Organization for Migration.  They are concentrated largely in Southeast Asia.  Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have the highest populations of Chinese, with the United States in fourth place at over 5 million people.

President Xi Jinping has “prioritized efforts to cultivate support of the diaspora as well as all of its citizens who study and live abroad, which state media has collectively referred to as ‘overseas Chinese’… [He has also] called for ‘closely uniting’ with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese dream.”

There’s just one little problem. As Timothy Heath, a research analyst at the RAND think tank, put it “The Chinese diaspora, like those of other ethnicities, is a heterogeneous group with diverse views, values, and identities. Many regard themselves as of Chinese heritage but feel no allegiance to the People’s Republic of China.”

In fact, some of them hate China.  That’s why they left.

For example, in her bestselling memoir Beautiful Country, Qian Julie Wang wrote about moving to Brooklyn from Zhong Gui, China when she was seven years old.  Her father was critical of the government and had long faced attacks and harassment in China.   He moved to New York around 1990, and Qian and her mother followed a few years later, after he had saved enough money to pay for their passage. 

Life was not easy in the US.  Both of Qian’s parents were college professors in China, but in New York they were just two more undocumented immigrants.  The best jobs they could get were in laundromats, sushi factories, and a sweatshop where her mother worked 12 hours a day, cutting extra strings off shirts and pants.  She was paid three cents for each garment.  Three cents.  But no matter how hard and unpleasant these jobs became, Wang wrote, her father “would never forget what [the Party] did to him.  He would happily eat America’s shit before feasting on China’s fruits.” (p. 88)

Wang would probably not have found time to write a memoir if she had grown up to work in a sweatshop.  US streets may not have been paved with gold, but her parents’ values paid off, their economic situation gradually improved, and Wang ultimately attended Yale Law School, “where [she] could not have fit in less.” (p. 3)  This type of trajectory is not uncommon because “With a tradition of hard work and frugality, Chinese migrants tend to earn their place in society by saving their income and investing in property to tide them through economic hardship… [And] whether they are rich or poor, Chinese families abroad are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that their children get the best education possible.”

Some emigrants have a much more positive view of China than the Wangs.  According to a brief history of the overseas Chinese on a UNESCO website, many of them “continue to have strong ties to their home country. They believe that China is their homeland – an attachment that often lasts for generations. One of the main reasons they migrate is to be able to support their families and friends – they have a culture of making remittances to help those at home financially.”

Within the overseas Chinese, this sub-group is seen by the Party “as a tool of influence, not only for the promotion of China’s culture and language, but also for the facilitation of lobbying for business purposes, economic growth and diplomatic purposes.”

At a time of growing tension between the US and China, some of these efforts have dark overtones, as revealed in Hidden Hand, which one reviewer called “a remarkable book with a chilling message.” According to its authors — Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg — “An understanding of CCP influence activity in the West is impossible without an understanding of the CCP’s united front work, the objective of which is to induce, co-opt and coerce those outside the Party to form a ‘united front’— or coalition of groups that act in ways that suit the Party’s interests—and to undermine those it designates as enemies.”  (p. 24)

Two years ago in this blog, I wrote about China’s persecution of the Uighurs, “an ethnic group of about 11 million Sunni Muslims who live primarily in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China.”  As a result of this persecution, a number of Muslim Uighur activists have left China, only to find that China’s malign influences do not end at the border.  According to Hidden Hand (p. 122) “Uighurs in Canada, Britain, Sweden and Germany have been told that unless they agree to spy on fellow Uighurs they will never see their families again.”  As one Chinese Canadian dissident and activist put “Some might think that once you flee China, you are free.  But you are never free.” 

Such threats can even extend into the classroom (p. 210).  “In recent studies, several professors across the US [have] reported that they assumed their Chinese students were reporting on each other. Some said that Chinese students had approached them directly with concerns about being denounced.”  While some of these reports are probably paranoia, others have been based on confirmed incidents.  For example, at “the Australian National University, a comment made in class by a Chinese student was reported to the embassy, and her parents in China received a visit from the Ministry of State Security, warning them about their daughter’s behavior. The Ministry of State Security visit [in China] came two hours after she made the comment [in Australia].”

In today’s post-pandemic age of globalization, the special challenges facing members of China’s diaspora are growing more complicated.  If you followed the Winter Olympics last month, you probably know about Eileen Gu, the first woman to win three freestyle skiing gold medals in a single Olympics.  The bi-racial 18-year-old was raised in California by her single mother, a Chinese immigrant.  Next year she will continue to live in California when she starts her freshman year at Stanford, but she chose to compete for China in the Olympics.  You can imagine the uproar in social media on both sides of the Pacific when she chose to compete for China, from horrified Americans to smug Chinese.

Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu was raised by a Chinese single mother in California but chose to compete for China.  She has made millions as a spokesperson for both Chinese and worldwide brands.   

Growing up, Gu visited Beijing frequently and she is fluent in Mandarin. Gu has repeatedly refused to answer repeated questions about whether she had to give up her American citizenship to compete for China.  Instead, she would only answer cryptically “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese and when I go to America, I’m American.”

If Gu’s decision was based on business, it was an excellent one.  Before the Olympics, she had already earned over $35 million in branding deals with such Chinese brands JD.com, Anta, China Mobile, and the Bank of China.  These earnings are expected to skyrocket now that Gu is a star.

The challenges faced by Gu are dwarfed by those of the millions of Chinese emigrants who’ve never won an Olympic medal, or even a high school track meet.  Instead, they face a wave of discrimination that has only increased as our relations with China have deteriorated.

Since the onset of COVID-19… Asians of all ethnicities had been increasingly scapegoated, demonized, and physically and verbally assaulted… Stop AAPI hate [an Asian American Pacific Islander coalition formed in March 2020] reported over 9,000 racially motivated attacks on Asian Americans between March 2020 and June 2021.”

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Chinese American writer Frankie Huang summed up the diaspora challenge like this:  “In the United States, we’re often treated as perpetual outsiders who must constantly prove our loyalty…  [But] being Chinese American need not be considered a fractured experience: There’s no division between where the Chinese part of me ends and the American part begins.

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