The Spice World Hot Pot restaurant at Singapore’s Clarke Quay is a theatrical sensation and a culinary treat. It starts with two Barbie dolls, one draped in raw wagyu steak, the other with finely cut fillets of fish. The proteins are stripped from the dolls and boiled in a fiery broth.
Tony Du Zhiqiang, chairman of Asia-Link Technology and head of the Tian Fu clan association, which represents the Sichuan diaspora in Singapore, is co-ordinating a private feast.
Within days, Du is due to travel to Switzerland for a global gathering of the Sichuan clans. China’s central government wants to know what the clans are planning to do during the next 12 months to bring international prestige to the Sichuan region.
The first-generation immigrant is one of an estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora scattered around the world. Scholars argue it is wrong to view the diaspora as a single coherent group because its members have come from different places in different times for different reasons.
The China Diaspora Project
China is reaching out to its diaspora of 60 million people living overseas. In the past Chinese who took citizenship elsewhere were shunned. Today they are being called to share the China dream.
But the evidence is that under President Xi Jinping, China is taking a new view of its diaspora. As its economic power rises, the government in Beijing is calling overseas Chinese to share the dream and bring their skills, money and loyalties home.
Against a brewing trade war with the US, regional disputes over the seas, and increasing Chinese outreach and investment from Africa to the Pacific, there is an emerging focus on how generations of overseas Chinese may respond to the motherland’s call.
Today, The Weekend Australian begins an investigative series travelling across the Asia-Pacific to ask how the diaspora will respond and what difference a wave of richer, better-educated and more nationalistically assertive Chinese migrants may mean for our region and the world.
Du says that when he gets to Switzerland his message for China will be that it needs to quieten down and listen and learn how other countries value diversity. It is the message absorbed by the human resources executive over three decades in Singapore, where 75 per cent of the population can trace its roots to China, but clings determinately to its own national identity.
When he left China for a better life in Singapore 30 years ago it was a controversial decision. Despite having a government job, conditions in China were harsh and local authorities took their time to decide whether to let him go. After two years in the Asian Tiger city-state, Du says he faced a difficult decision of his own — whether to take Singapore citizenship and leave behind his citizenship of the People’s Republic of China.
“In 1994, after a long time of concentration, I gave up my home country passport to become a Singapore citizen,” Du says. “At that time I say Singapore is my new motherland. To China I can’t say I do not know you but it is now my original home.’’
Today, he says: “I consider myself to be Singaporean without hesitation. It was the right choice.”
An influential figure among many new arrivals, the labour hire organiser says today not everyone will be making the same decision.
“Before China was a very big country but not very rich or very powerful,” he says. “Over the past 10 years China has developed quickly so a lot of Chinese who go overseas do not want to give up their PRC citizenship. They are still thinking they are proud of China and want to hold a Chinese passport.”
This certainly is the case for Vic Xuyun, 38, and wife Vivi Lou, 30, who have established a beauty salon G-Skin and Nails. The business is keeping them in Singapore but “I will never give up my Chinese citizenship, I am still holding a PRC passport”, says Xuyun.
Both think people in China have more disposable income for beauty treatments than in Singapore and that conditions are less restrictive, particularly with business rules and regulations. “The Chinese government is quite open in that they give enough space for you to do whatever you want within a frame. People know what to do inside the frame,” says Xuyun.
Others, particularly the mega rich, are likely to make a different calculation. Says Du: “They (the rich) want to transfer their family, money and business overseas. They want to find a nice country with safety so they want to give up the PRC in case there is a change in leadership in China.”
It all adds up to a significant change in how the Chinese diaspora is perceived and what it may mean for the future.
The numbers still favour a shift away for Chinese migrants. Academic studies show of the 1.2 million Chinese people who have gone overseas to study in the 30 years since China’s economic reforms began in 1978, fewer than a quarter have returned home.
But the attitude of the Chinese government has changed and the message now being sent is: remember the motherland, bring your skills and resources back home.
For Singapore, where three-quarters of the population is of Chinese heritage, the new reality poses something of a dilemma.
The global financial centre thrives by attracting the best and brightest. It must also preserve a fine balance of being a mostly Chinese ethnic society in a staunchly Muslim part of the world.
Political expediency dictates that new migrants come predominantly from China. But as China’s prosperity rises, the compact on which earlier Chinese migrants were expected to drop their Chinese citizenship is being tested.
Kok Hong Leun, artistic director of Drama Box theatre company, says attitudes certainly are changing. “In China, there is a saying that the falling leaves will go back to the roots,” Kok says. “When earlier generations left China, they had a vision of what China was like at that time — poor, fighting, trying to find stability within the country. So you find that narrative is sort of inside their mind and that is what they understood China to be.”
The new diaspora is very different, having come because of the opening up of China. “I think they came out to seek opportunity and maybe stay here because it is close enough to China. Over the past 10 years the narrative has changed.
“By the 1990s and 2000 it was no longer just about there being no opportunity in China, but rather ‘let’s go out to other countries for opportunities and if I get the chance why not go back’.
“That is the narrative you are hearing now. They see the opportunities in China and that there is a lot of economic power there as well. They don’t see the political power because I don’t think for them the politics is that important. Some of the values that you may talk about, like freedom, for them is not a great concern.”
Beautiful Singapore by night
China expert Ja Ian Chong from the University of Singapore says the large influx of mainland Chinese from the 2000s also has created a friction with ethnic Chinese who grew up in Singapore with its Western education system and who mainly speak English.
“There is enough of them and they are different enough in the way they use Mandarin for them to hang out together and make integration more difficult,” he says.
When they moved to Singapore not all have become citizens. Frictions are across the socio-demographic range. The less well educated feel they are losing out on jobs while professionals and students think the government has been too generous with incentives to attract talent from overseas. Wealthy migrants snapping up luxury property, driving exotic cars and living an ostentatious lifestyle grate on local sensibilities.
China’s economic rise has also shifted the dynamic of the sometimes tense relationship between Singaporeans educated in the Chinese schools in Singapore and those educated in the English schools. The Cold War fed animosity towards China amid fears it would export its communist ideology and foment revolution. People who were educated under the Chinese system felt some affinity to China in terms of ideology and culture, whereas for those educated in the Western curriculum the end of the Cold War confirmed the wisdom of siding with the allies.
But the economic rise of China has left many who were shunned during the Cold War clampdown on communist sympathies to feel vindicated and happy now to show they are close to the PRC and able to work with China and wear the relationship as a badge of pride. Newer immigrants may be more prepared to agree with the view of Chinese nationalism they were exposed to when they were younger.
Already there is a natural tension as the current Chinese administration reaches out to the diaspora and seeks to draw them in and have them mobilised to spread the message.
Chong says this has played differently across the different Chinese populations in Singapore. “Some who have more recently come from the PRC are more ready to accept this development,” Chong says. “Others feel they have moved to a new country and really don’t want to be associated with parts of this.”
Alvin Tan from prominent theatre group The Necessary Stage is a Peranakan, born when Singapore was part of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya. His ancestors arrived in pre-Islamic times. He is wary of China’s building economic power and influence in the region.
“In my mind, when they become stronger and stronger I am so happy that by that time I will be dead,” he says. “That is the only thing I take comfort in because I don’t know how big they are going to become in this region because there is no stopping them.”
The former Fulbright scholar says he does not accept China’s view of itself as the motherland. “You can come here and bring your mother culture but meet us halfway,” he says. “They won’t meet us halfway because they won’t learn to speak English, so they will continue speaking Chinese and we don’t understand each other. They have a disdain for us because we look Chinese but we don’t speak Mandarin.”
Kua Bak Lim, chairman of the research committee of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, is keeping a record of Chinese settlement. Every wave of migrants is asked to write a chapter in a book about their experience of becoming Singaporean. A key question among the diaspora is what exactly is China’s attitude to those who have left the mainland to live overseas.
Scholars say China has increasingly been blurring the distinction between huaqiao (Chinese citizens overseas) and huaren (ethnic Chinese of all nationalities). At an overseas Chinese work conference last year, President Xi stressed the need to bring together people of Chinese descent around the world — up to 60 million ethnic Chinese in more than 180 countries — to enjoy the “Chinese dream”.
Xi told China’s state-run news agency: “The realisation of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires the joint efforts of Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad.’’
Lim says China is targeting those with high skills and deep pockets to bring opportunity back to the mainland.
Nonetheless, Kwa Chong Guan, a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, tells The Weekend Australian Xi’s call for overseas Chinese to “remember your motherland” has created a dilemma and significant political issue in Singapore.
“Not for my generation, because we are ethnically Singaporean,” Guan says. “But for the first generation who have come here since 2012, very much such a call would resonate — don’t forget your homeland.
“That creates a problem for us. For Beijing it is very clear: bring you money home is the bottom line. And when you visit China, wherever you go, each province now has its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, including a national level to revive and resuscitate among the overseas communities a sense of the motherland.
“It is quite clear now the Chinese view is you are a citizen of China ultimately — which we don’t see ourselves as. We may be genealogically and ethnically Chinese but we have created a very distinct cultural evolution in terms of business practices, family culture practices, art and performing art. We have all developed a very specific Singapore Chinese.”
In his National Day address in August, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, restated the importance of Singapore retaining its unique identity. He says becoming aware of history will help the development of Singapore’s national consciousness that “will lend us a perspective as we navigate the turbulent voyage ahead”.
The first wave of Singapore’s “Founding Generation” came from places such as Guangdong, Chaoshan and Fujian from 1823 to 1891 and worked as labourers or “coolies”, struggling to make ends meet. Most still saw themselves as people of China and were passionate about their homeland.
After World War II, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This made a deep impression on many passionate, idealistic young Chinese in Southeast Asia, inspiring them to join local anti-colonial struggles.
But the identity of the Chinese in Southeast Asia was ambiguous, Lee says. The influence the new PRC had over the hearts and minds of these young people engendered distrust of its motives and of China among Southeast Asian countries. It was in this context that China in the 1950s started to distinguish between overseas Chinese who were “haiwai huaqiao” and those who were “huaren”.
China once insisted Chinese who took up citizenship in their country of residence could no longer be considered Chinese nationals and should be loyal to their new home country. The tide appears to have turned and regional governments are nervous.
Australian sinologist Wang Gungwu, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, is arguably the leading authority on the diaspora. He says the story has changed because for the first time in 150 years China is no longer weak and divided. “As long as China was weak and divided everybody was relaxed. They had nothing to fear,” Wang tells The Weekend Australian. “It is only in the past 40 years that things have really picked up and it was only 20 years ago that people noticed that these guys are making it. We are talking about 20 years and the whole story of China changes.”
Trade tensions are the focus of attention but Wang says it is not really about trade.
“The Chinese see it as being about US hegemony and the American desire to dominate everything after the Cold War. American hegemony in the sense America wants to be No 1 and wants everyone to love it. That is how the world is seen outside of America and that is how China sees it.” Wang says US hegemony is threatened by China potentially standing up to it in the South China Sea, for instance, and this is unacceptable to the Americans.
Nonetheless, the US has reason to be unhappy with the World Trade Organisation and the way China sometimes behaves.
“In a way it is a real test of the whole post-World War II sorting out the world order, the UN, World Bank and other institutions meant to bring about a global system that works according to free market economies and rules and international law,” Wang says.
“The system all worked pretty well for the first 30 or 40 years and helped to keep the Soviet Union contained and ultimately destroyed the Soviet communist party.
“But having won in the 1990s to become the sole superpower it has been much harder and the American people are getting fed up. In that sense President Trump is not wrong to ask: what is it all for? The American people don’t care about hegemony.”
China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific is leading to new calculations.
For Singapore, the question is how best to maintain its identity and preserve relations with both China and the West. For Australia and the US the question is how best to safeguard their engagement with Pacific neighbours, which increasingly are being wooed by a resurgent China.
Picture: A classic Sichuan hotpot complete with a Wagyu meat and fish Barbie. (Supplied: The Australian)
But Wang says what should not be lost is that China has internal problems.
“For a country of 1.4 billion people it is not surprising they have internal problems,” he says.
“They are serious problems. The Communist Party is not loved by all people but in most cases they accept it because it kind of worked.
“Somehow it has brought prosperity and relative stability, and people are much better off than they were 40 years ago, so that is undeniable.
“From that point of view, the Communist Party would claim credit that it is ‘because of us’.
“But how to make 1.4 billion people happy all the time? It is not possible. This does not come out in the press because the external things are highlighted more, but for China’s leadership the internal stuff is much more serious.
“How do they avoid having a rebellion on their hands?”
According to Wang, these tensions are one reason the Communist Party in China is tightening its controls and things are not as free as they were 10 years ago.
“The Chinese Communist Party is not having it all their way because they themselves have been corrupt. One of the reasons President Xi has been popular is because he is clearing up corruption. But Xi has enemies galore.”
Like a Sichuan hotpot, the theatrics often can be a distraction from the main event.
Graham Lloyd is The Australian’s Environment Editor.
This story first appear in The Australian on October 28, 2019 and has been republished with permission.
The Australian’s series about China’s Diaspora is supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.