“There are tens of millions of Chinese overseas compatriots, all of whom are members of one big Chinese family … they did not forget their fatherland, they did not forget their ancestral province, they did not forget that in their body there is Chinese blood.”
Xi Jinping, speaking on June 7, 2014, at the Seventh Conference of the World Federation of Huaqiao Huaren Associations
China’s entanglement with Southeast Asia has a long history. Filipino tributes arrived in Chinese imperial courts as far back as 3,000 years ago, while Chinese diplomats set foot in the Khmer Empire in 1296 and built close ties to Thailand’s Sukhothai dynasty only a few years later. While much of ancient Chinese ties to Southeast Asia were via this tributary system, several dynasties, two opium wars, a communist revolution, and a capitalist market later, relations have shifted significantly.
Amid the shifting dynamics of changing regimes in recent centuries, Chinese migrants spread across the region to escape poverty or seek opportunity – becoming the 50 million “huaren” or “overseas Chinese,” those who are of Chinese ethnic descent but do not hold Chinese citizenship. Concentrated especially in Southeast Asia, where they account for more than three-quarters of the $369 billion in wealth held by Southeast Asian billionaires, their lives have become closely interlinked with the Chinese state and their economic power has made them a key target of Chinese Communist Power (CCP) soft power. However, with a complex history and an identity of their own, such ties are not as obvious as they may seem.
Tan Yu first set foot in the Philippines in the late 1900s as one of many migrants from China’s Fujian province. After his studies and a stint in selling bread buns on the street, he would go on to establish a major textile business, becoming one of the world’s top 10 billionaires of 1997. Yet his rags-to-riches success story is almost unimpressive when compared to that of other ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, including Chia Ek Chor, who moved to Bangkok in 1919 and went on to build what has become the $68 billion CP Group; Malaysia’s Robert Kuok, whose business empire includes founding the Shangri-La hotels; and Indonesia’s tobacco-tycoon Hartono family. In fact, across the board, ethnically Chinese families have dominated Southeast Asian billionaire lists despite making up less than 10 percent of the region’s population. As a result, they hold significant economic power in a region that has collectively become China’s largest trading partner.
The multi-layered relationship between China and this diaspora has naturally followed the tides of politics. In 1909, the Qing dynasty “claimed jurisdiction over all ethnic Chinese” no matter where they were based. Just a few decades later, hoping to build better relations with ASEAN, the CCP encouraged this diaspora to be loyal to their adoptive countries and established a clear distinction between the concept of “huaqiao” (a Chinese citizen living overseas) and “huaren” (a foreign citizen of Chinese descent) in the late 1970s. One could be a Chinese citizen or a local citizen, but not both. The end of the 20th century however, ushered in a new era and with China’s reform and opening up, the ties to its “bamboo network” were rekindled. As Sebastian Strangio has noted, 10 percent of the nearly $30 billion invested into China by ethnic Chinese abroad came from Southeast Asia. The diaspora acted as a bridge for Chinese business into Southeast Asia and greatly benefited from China’s rise – for example, two-fifths of CP Group’s annual revenues come from its Chinese subsidiaries, while the group also holds stakes in major Chinese companies such as Ping An insurance.
With this rekindling, the lines between huaren and huaqiao have been blurred once again, especially under Xi Jinping’s vision of the “one big China Family” and his project of a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Under this new imperative, overseas Chinese have become important not only because of a larger value-based mission, “the unification of the motherland,” but also for their political or economic influence, seen as key to economic growth and larger policy initiatives. In 2014, after first proposing the “One Belt One Road” initiative, Xi’s definition of the “sons and daughters of China” included both mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese.
To further strengthen these ties with the diaspora, China has launched a multitude of soft power offensives and campaigns targeting its overseas Chinese community. These are often led by the United Front Work Department, an organization under the CCP that aims to build coalitions locally and internationally with the goal of achieving party objectives. Campaigns have included urging huaren youth to study the Chinese language, promising to always protect those of Chinese descent, funding pro-China overseas think tanks, and gaining control of overseas Chinese-language media (including radio, TV, and newspapers).
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With the above in mind, it would be easy to assume that China’s soft power and economic opportunities have made the lives of huaren easier. But the results of this new-found closeness have been mixed. In a context of growing mistrust toward China and a history of significant ethnic tension within ASEAN nations where huaren were seen as unfairly prosperous, these soft power attempts have also made life more difficult and rekindled older feelings of resentment. In 2015 for example, Malaysian pro-government protesters demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown to denounce the ethnic Chinese community and leaders, while the Chinese ambassador’s defense of these ethnic Chinese attracted criticism from the Malaysian government for interference in domestic affairs. More recently, there has been backlash against Chinese ties in Indonesia and the Philippines, and campaigns against Chinese businesses in Malaysia. Many worry this could get worse.
While CP Group’s Chia Ek Chor may have named his sons to spell out “fair, great China” and soft power attempts may have rekindled ideological bonds to some families, the huaren are and have always been, above all, pragmatic. As businessmen and traders, they seize opportunities, wherever they are coming from and find ways of balancing the growing Chinese power, business realities, and their local ties – just like many of Asia’s leaders, despite their nations’ mistrust towards China. Ultimately, huaren have built their own identities within their respective countries, and younger generations, who have often attended local universities or elite institutions across the world, enter the job market, distant memories of a Chinese motherland are continuing to fade.