date / BY The Australian's Graham Lloyd

China charges to a future by descent

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This story first appeared in The Australian on October 28, 2019 and has been republished with permission.

Tony Wang is the face of China's 60 million-strong diaspora called on to bring their money home.

Young, intelligent and well travelled, Mr Wang is fiercely proud of the economic miracle that has transformed his homeland in the 17 years since he moved to Singapore with his parents when he was 13 years old.

Mr Wang is sure that one day he and his parents will return to China to retire. He has a utopian view of global affairs, does not mind being spied upon online, thinks protesters in Hong Kong lack respect and that one world government is the answer to international problems, including climate change.

“People misunderstand the Chinese,” Mr Wang says. “We are opening our hearts to all of the world. I choose still to be Chinese because I wish for the future in China to get better. It is good now but it will get better.”

Mr Wang’s views underscore debate about how China’s attitude might be changing towards overseas Chinese communities. In the past, Chinese who took citizenship elsewhere were shunned by the mainland and forced to give up their Chinese passport.

The new attitude of the Communist Party is to encourage overseas Chinese to maintain their links. In China, there is a saying that “falling leaves will return to the roots”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has publicly emphasised the need to bring together people of ­Chinese descent around the world to enjoy the “Chinese dream”.

The Weekend Australian today begins a six-part series that will explore the Chinese diaspora in Asia and the Pacific.

This series is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

Not all overseas Chinese are the same. The diaspora has come from different parts of China over different periods of time for different reasons. Illegal migration and people-smuggling by organised crime remain key features. The death of 39 people smuggled from China in the back of a truck in Essex in Britain has heightened fears about people trafficking.

Some have taken citizenship in other countries. Not all speak the same language and many have mixed feelings about China. The numbers are still clear that most who have left China since it began to loosen restrictions on migration have chosen not to return.

Yet China’s rising economic power and progress is changing the perception of a generation.

Mr Wang frequently visits mainland China where he met his fiancee, Abby Ding, through a ­dating app. They plan to marry next year.

Ms Ding manages a beauty clinic in Singapore that caters for girls who want to look like Barbie dolls to find a rich husband and ­injects botox into harried businessmen who fear their faces might look crumpled against the clean lines of a tailored suit.

Mr Wang and Ms Ding enjoying Singapore’s nightlife. Picture: Vanessa Hunter

Picture: Mr Wang and Ms Ding enjoying Singapore’s nightlife.( The Australian: Vanessa Hunter)

It is hard to overstate the change that Mr Wang’s attitude represents for Singapore, where the authoritarian government still works tirelessly to enforce ethnic cohesion and encourage a national identity above all else.

Foreign interference remains the key concern of Singapore’s ruling elite. More than 70 per cent of Singapore’s population of 5.5 million can trace their roots to China.

This adds pressure to demands from the People’s Republic that the small island ­nation subordinate its ties with the US, Britain and Australia to its links with China.

Despite this, wealthy Chinese businessmen still flock to Singapore for the greater access it provides to global markets and as a hedge against things one day going bad in China.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used his ­national day address in August to warn that rising tensions between­ China and the US meant troubled times ahead.

“We must always remember to engage and co-operate with China as Singaporeans,” Mr Lee said. “We have our own history and culture. Hence, we have our own perspectives on various issues and must take our own stand.”

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

Academics insist that few of the ethnic Chinese living in Singapore would identify as being Chinese rather than Singaporean first, but the number is rising as a generation less aware of earlier hardships increasingly chooses to maintain its Chinese passports and citizenship.

Singapore wants to encourage the new generation of sharp brains from China to maintain its strictly controlled ethnic mix both for cultural and political reasons. Eighty per cent of Singaporeans live in state-owned unit blocks that each have strict quotas of Chinese, Malays and Indians. The food stalls in hawker centres enforce an equally strict quota system.

In a country where public displays of dissent are outlawed and strictly punished, there are ­bubbling tensions about what is sometimes perceived as favourable treatment for newly arrived Chinese.

As the diaspora changes and China exerts a bigger global influence, Singapore is being forced to adapt to a new reality. The city state is being pressured to support China’s expansion into the South China Sea but has so far declined to do so.

Mr Lee says China’s rise is inevitable and it is neither possible nor wise for the US to seek to prevent it. But he says that as a rising global power, China needs to put itself in other countries’ shoes and take greater account of their interests and viewpoints.

Beautiful Singapore by night

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Pictures: Singapore by night. (The Australian: Vanessa Hunter)

Mr Wang says he cried as he watched the choreographed display of China’s military power at the October 1 celebrations for the 70th anniversary of Communist China.

“This has not been an easy achievement,” he says.

Having spent his primary school years in China, Mr Wang provides a window into the thinking of the youth of modern China. “Our religion is ourself and our government,” he says.

He adds that China is returning to its rightful place.

“For most of the last 3000 years, we have been the most prosperous and easily No 1 but over the past 200 years we have slipped back,” he says.

“Rising means poor to rich but coming back is to restore what has been.”

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The Australian's series about China's diaspora is supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

Graham Lloyd is The Australian's Environment Editor.