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Homeland Calling5 min read

China’s ethno-nationalist policies towards the Chinese diaspora – Kenddrick Chan

Recent years have seen a global resurgence of ethnic nationalism. Yet some scholars have pointed out that political identities based on value systems revolving around ethnicity are nothing new, claiming that they are often instigators of history – with disastrous consequences. Ethno-nationalist desires reshaped Europe’s borders in the 1910s and threatened to do so again two decades after. Despite more than seven decades of relative peace, largely kept in place by the multilateral organizations and deepening global integration, nationalism appears to be returning to the forefront of politics once more.

In Europe, politicians and political parties draw increasing support by riding anti-immigrant nationalist sentiment. In the case of Germany and Italy, political parties and politicians such as the Bavarian CSU and Matteo Salvini have openly advocated solutions which involve marginalizing ethnically-defined “others.” Academic Roger Brubaker has also pointed out the danger of “civilizationism,” a term he uses to describe the rhetoric used by multiple European political parties which claim that the ethnocultural homogeneity of the West is under threat from Islam. Even in the United States, white nationalists are increasingly emboldened in stating their dislike for culturally-foreign immigrants, with the number of white nationalists attempting to run for national office at its highest in American history.

However, despite arguments by political scientists such as Ronald Inglehart, the surge in ethno-nationalist sentiment is not solely present in states or regions plagued by economic imbalances caused by globalization. In China, which has been experiencing an economic boom and meteoric rise to the top echelons of world power, ethnic nationalism is also being used to attain its political and economic ambitions. If ethnic nationalism threatens to tear the West apart, it looks posed to fuel China’s rise even further.

If ethnic nationalism threatens to tear the West apart, it looks posed to fuel China’s rise even further”

After the founding of modern China in 1911, being “Chinese” almost always referred to those of the Han Chinese ethnicity, to the exclusion of others. For instance, in the lead-up to 1911, a leading newspaper declared: “In order to restore the Chinese nation, we must drive the barbarian Manchus back… [and] overthrow the [ethnically-Manchu] Qing government.” Sun Yat-sen was not the only Chinese leader to fan the flames of ethnic nationalism to advance China’s goal of progress. Ever since Deng Xiaoping initiated the Open Door Policy to promote foreign investment into China, the Chinese government has laid out the red carpet for ethnic Chinese diasporas around the world to provide the largest share of foreign investment into China. Despite official policy granting China’s them equal rights, ethnic minorities in China, such as Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hui Muslims, continue to face widespread discrimination from the Han majority regarding jobs or even hotel bookings. This means that they are denied the opportunity to benefit from China’s economic boom, further cementing ethnic Han dominance at all levels of society.

As the United States and Europe, plagued by internal division, continue their relative decline, much debate has sprung up over whether China’s rise to world leadership indicates its desire to embrace the liberal international order based around global capitalism, multilateralism and inclusivity. The trend points towards a scary proposition: As the US continues its retreat from global leadership, it leaves behind a void that China is increasingly likely to fill. The concern is that rather than limiting its ethno-nationalist policies within its borders, China has increasingly sought to export such policies overseas, demanding the loyalty of ethnic Chinese who are citizens of other states. In March 2018, by merging the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) with the United Work Front Department, Chinese policymakers signaled the importance it places on the ethnically Han Chinese diaspora. In 2015, in light of anti-Chinese sentiment at a rally in Malaysia, the Chinese ambassador asserted that “China would not sit idly when its national interests were threatened.”

Blurring the distinction between ethnically-Chinese citizens of other states (Huaren 华人) and citizens of China who have settled overseas (Huaqiao 华侨), the umbrella term “Chinese overseas compatriots” (haiwai qiaobao 海外侨胞) has allowed China to tap into the Han diaspora as an economic resource. At business conferences targeted at diasporic Chinese businessmen worldwide, Chinese officials continue to invoke ethno-nationalist sentiment by claiming that despite being overseas, ethnic Chinese still have their “hearts linked to the homeland.”

Beijing’s attempt to export its ethno-nationalist policy to the Chinese diaspora abroad threatens the societal stability of other sovereign states”

The pursuit of ethno-nationalist policies by China is especially dangerous due to the threat it poses to the societal fabric of other sovereign states. For example, in Australia, local Chinese-language media tends to follow the fiercely nationalistic tone set by China’s state-run outlets. This, together with large amounts of Chinese foreign investment, is starting to lead to a backlash against ethnic Chinese citizens, who are already feeling the pressure to avoid being accused of acting as foreign agents.

In Southeast Asia, where a sizeable amount of ethnic Chinese reside, China’s ethno-nationalist policies are already posing a threat. In Malaysia, decades-long anti-Chinese discrimination, coupled with China’s invitation for ethnic Chinese overseas to partake of the Chinese dream, have led to a brain drain which has reached critical stages. In Singapore, the only country outside of mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau to have a majority ethnic Chinese population, one retired Singaporean diplomat called the issue one of existential security.

Given China’s embrace of ethnic nationalism as a source of strength, the divisions and propensity for conflict that such ideology produces might very well result in aggravating anti-Chinese prejudice and endangering ethnic Chinese abroad. Beijing’s attempt to export its ethno-nationalist policy to the Chinese diaspora abroad threatens the societal stability of other sovereign states who have long relied upon values of multiculturalism to prosper and flourish. All in all, the resurgence of nationalism in Europe and a rising China’s ethno-nationalist policies convene to signal a worrying future dominated by ethnic and racial conflict. ∎

This piece was first published on OxPol, the Oxford University politics blog. Header: Chinese security guard, a free-use image from Pxhere.

Kenddrick Chan

Kenddrick Chan is a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics. He completed his undergraduate studies in International Relations at the University of London, where he graduated with a First Class Honors. His research areas include the evolving role of identity in Global South states, and the relationship between diaspora engagement and ethnic nationalism in the cases of China and Israel.