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The Commonwealth's Chinese Diaspora: "Fifth Column" or Friends of Freedom?

On the 16th September 1923, on Kampong Java Road in the British Crown Colony of Singapore, Chua Jim Neo gave birth to a baby boy. The child’s Chinese grandfather had worked in the British maritime industry and was familiar with English culture, conferring unto the bright-eyed infant the Western name ‘Harry’.

Harry Lee, better known to the world as Lee Kuan Yew, went on to study Law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, after narrowly surviving the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Returning to Singapore in 1950 aboard the MS Willem Ruys, Lee dived headfirst into the political scene, establishing the state of Singapore in 1965 before steering it to prosperity as its first Prime Minister. Lee Kuan Yew’s life straddled continents and cultures, and whilst remarkable in itself, it is representative of the diversity and historical ties that characterise the Commonwealth of Nations. Lee’s background as a Chinese descendant of historical migrants is one shared by the beating heart of the a Chinese diaspora that pulses through all Commonwealth nations.

The classical Chinese text Zhaijing, attributed to China’s mythical racial progenitor, the Yellow Emperor, has spawned a modern Chinese idiom to describe an all-embracing diversity. Baoluo wanxiang literally means ‘inclusive of a myriad different shapes’, and nowhere is this more true than in the Commonwealth’s Chinese diaspora. Ranging from 5,000 Chinese in Botswana, 50,000 in Kenya, and 400,000 in South Africa, to 1.7 million in Canada and 6.7 million in Malaysia, the Chinese of the Commonwealth are truly multifarious.

In South Africa, multi-generational Chinese communities descended from migrant labourers in the 17th century live beside recent immigrants from Fujian province. Videos of Chinese Jamaicans speaking patois garner hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, whilst hundreds of thousands participate in Chinese New Year celebrations in London every year. However, amidst growing great power rivalry, fears of Chinese political subterfuge have come to influence opinions of the overseas Chinese. Last year, stories hit the British media of the eviction of 50 Chinese students over charges of stealing technology on behalf of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Aacross the Atlantic, suspicions of Chinese Canadians has reached such heights that just this February Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a public statement denouncing accusations that Chinese-Canadian politicians were in bed with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the wake of such suspicions, this article explores the demography, identity and loyalties of the Commonwealth’s diverse Chinese diaspora, hoping to shed light on the actual views of ordinary overseas Chinese. Whilst it is true that a tiny minority of these groups are active agents of the Chinese government, the truth is that the vast majority are loyal citizens who balance their Chinese identity with that of their home nation, and it behoves us to recognise and acknowledge this fact. Of course, the ethnic affinity felt by the diaspora towards China may or may not allow them to be influenced by the CCP’s political programmes. As I will explain below, the CCP attempts to capitalise on pan-Chinese ethnic narratives to create support amongst the diaspora, with varying degrees of success amongst the varying groups of overseas Chinese.

Overview of the diaspora

Although diverse, the Commonwealth’s Chinese diaspora largely belong to three categories, with distinct identities and cultures: (i) historical multi-generational local Chinese communities (ii) recent migrants from non-mainland territories such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, (iii) recent migrants from the PRC.

Furthermore, the geographical distribution of these three groups broadly align with three types of Commonwealth countries. Firstly, there are what I dub ‘Australia-style’ countries, where historical Chinese communities have existed for a long time as a small but significant minority, and whose numbers have been roughly doubled by - in some cases swamped by - large numbers of recent arrivals, primarily from the PRC and Hong Kong. This category includes Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, as well as others such as South Africa. Secondly, there are the ‘Singapore-style’ countries, where the vast majority of Chinese are historical populations with a distinct non-mainland identity, who make up a large segment of the population. Prime examples are Malaysia, where Chinese Malaysians make up about a quarter of the population, and Singapore, where they account for over three quarters. Hong Kong would also be included in this category if it were in the Commonwealth. Lastly, there are ‘Kenya-style’ countries, where there are an extremely small number of Chinese, almost all of whom are recent PRC immigrants. These countries mostly include African nations and are part of a broader trend of Chinese development initiatives, best suited for another article at another time.

Australia, the UK, and South Africa

To begin with the Australia-style countries, let us go Down Under. There are 1.2 million Chinese Australians, 70% of whom live in Sydney or Melbourne, a pattern of concentration in major urban centres that is linked with the economic factors driving migration and which is seen in the other Australian-style nations. According to a Lowy Institute survey in 2021, this population is broadly split down the middle: 48% are born in the PRC, whilst the rest are an odd assortment of Hong Kongers, historical Chinese Australians, Malaysian Chinese, and Taiwanese. Their views also reflect this divide: roughly half considered themselves only Chinese whilst the rest share both Chinese and Australian identities. 45% believe in the viability of authoritarian governments, 57% think Australian media is too negative about China, and 52% see Australia’s alliance with the US as unimportant.. Further, there is a 50/50 split between those concerned about China’s foreign influence and those not. Clearly, the recent PRC immigrants are sympathetic with China and its values, feel mostly Chinese, and do not care much for the West, whilst the local and intra-Commonwealth Chinese have adopted local identities and local values.

This divide has also been reflected in intra-group conflicts, such as frequent campus brawls over the issue of Hong Kong. This is a common theme in other Australian-style countries, whereby Hong Kongers and local Chinese clash with mainlanders over values such as freedom of speech and democracy, demonstrating the cultural connection these groups have with their host nations. The intensity with which these pan-Commonwealth values animate this group shows the power of the Commonwealth paradigm. The mutual animosity created is interesting given the close kinship and cultural ties between mainlanders and non-mainlanders, but is perhaps not surprising – Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences notes that often we reserve the most enmity for those who are broadly similar yet different.

However, there are some points of commonalities; some of the Lowy Institute stats spill-over past the 48% Chinese mainlanders. 65% of Chinese Australians have confidence in Xi Jinping, over 6 times the ratings of the broader Australian population. That being said, there are indications that these pro-China views are not symptoms of a propensity to active subversion. Only 36% are concerned about US foreign influence, and even for recent arrivals, a vast majority are greatly or moderately proud of Australia. A recurrent theme for both mainlanders and locals is being ‘caught in the middle’ of China and the West. Both groups place more trust in the reliability of Australian media than of Chinese media.

Similar phenomena occur in the United Kingdom: there are 450,000 ethnic Chinese in the UK according to census data from 2021, or about 0.7% of the population. 43% are Hong Kongers and 20% are Chinese nationals. Almost half live in London. Conflict often erupts: 2019 campus brawls in Sheffield between students from China and Hong Kong were repeated in London in 2021. There is increasing evidence that such vitriol – Chinese students have been recording calling Hong Kongers ‘insects’ – has served to reinforce British-Chinese identity, centred on Commonwealth values such as the rule of law, democratic governance, and pluralism. Such conflicts are echoed in other Australian-style countries. South Africa's Chinese community, the largest in Africa, is 95% mainlander. The influx of PRC Chinese and their often disrespectful conduct has disgruntled the country’s historical Chinese community, many of whom speak Afrikaans and feel deeply South African.

From these examples, we can see that the Chinese diaspora of the Commonwealth is split into two camps. Importantly, these underlying loyalties are not active; only 4% of Chinese Australians have had recent contact with the Chinese embassy, and there was across-the-board desire for harmony between China and the West; rather, loyalties are latent, awakened from dormancy when issues ignite conflict between competing paradigms. This complex relationship is illustrated in the following quote from a Hong Kong-Australian councillor cited in the Lowy study: ‘We’re ethnic Chinese, we love China and the Chinese people. But our national loyalty rests with Australia… China and the CCP are two separate things’.

On the one hand, this conception of Chinese ethnicity and identity as separate from the PRC/CCP bodes well for the Commonwealth and its constituent nations, indicating that there is space wherein Chinese ethnic identity can be constructed in harmony with loyalty to a host country. This could even be used to bring over mainlanders who, as the Australian poll data shows, distrust their government yet retain deep emotional ties to China itself. The reaffirmation of host country loyalty in the face of mainlander pressure is testament to the viability of such a narrative. On the other hand, however, deep affinity with a Chinese ethnic identity also provides an avenue for the CCP. Thus the Chinese ethnic identity of the diaspora provides both a challenge and an opportunity.

The Chinese challenge

The gauntlet has been thrown down decisively. The CCP knows well the value of propaganda. The CCP Central Committee’s Central Propaganda Department would far eclipse even Mussolini’s Ministry of Culture in bare-faced shamelessness, had its English translation not been changed to ‘Central Publicity Department’ by personal order of President Jiang Zemin (the Chinese name remains unchanged). There are a total of 24 different propaganda-related organisations, of which 15 conduct external propaganda operations. Tellingly, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office counts among their ranks. It has been the headquarters of a long-term policy strategy of weaponising the Chinese diaspora which goes back to the foundation of the PRC in 1949. This initiative is supported by the work of the State Council Information Office, which operates sections aimed pointedly at overseas Chinese. The CCP view foreign nationals of Chinese descent as kinsmen and extensions of the Chinese state; propaganda narratives focus on ethnic loyalty and channelling it into patriotism towards the Chinese state, defining the PRC/CCP as the central conduit of the Chinese people.

This bold claim is substantiated by a quick glance at The Governance of China, a collection of Xi Jinping’s speeches that functions as the primary ideological weapon of the CCP. In the ‘Chinese Dream’ section of the book, aimed at putting forward the CCP’s developmental vision, two of the seven speeches are directed towards overseas Chinese associations, an oddly high proportion. One of these is a 2014 speech to the 7th Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations – a quick glance from your correspondent identified 18 mentions of key terms conveying pan-Chinese ethnicity, using the Chinese term zhonghua, beating 13 mentions of key terms relating to civic Chinese identity, which usually predominate in such speeches. The third paragraph implores Chinese people (using the term huaren, denoting the Han ethnic group) to support China’s revolution and the PRC’s geopolitical goal of Taiwanese unification (using the civic term for China, zhongguo), in order to serve the Chinese ethnos (reverting to the ethnic term zhonghua). Similar examples abound. This clear conflation of the destiny of the ethnic group with the destiny of the PRC pulls on the heartstrings of personal identity. This represents a potential danger to Commonwealth countries - such narratives might be able to mobilise latent Chinese ethnic affinity in the non-mainlander diaspora.

That said, research has shown that China’s propaganda has not been as effective as desired. However, due to a high latent nature of national loyalty in mainlanders, the CCP has been able to mobilise a certain degree of influence amongst their overseas nationals, if not yet in historical Chinese communities abroad. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated the Patriotic Education Campaign in the 1990s, Chinese youth have been inculcated with patriotic fervour and deep cultural-civilisational pride. This has been mobilised on foreign campuses, where many of the brawls described above were either instigated by or supported by the CCP, such as in Toronto in 2019 where Chinese students harassed a Tibetan student union president, or at McMaster University, Ontario, where Chinese students intimidated Uighur activists. This leads me to conclude that populations such as Australia and Canada, with large PRC immigrant populations, are at risk from these populations in the event of conflict with China, as they have exhibited disregard for democratic norms and values when flashpoint issues have touched nerves. Historical local Chinese groups and other non-mainlanders will provide a counterweight force if properly mobilised by the right rhetoric. However, the middle-ground nature of their loyalties and the fact that their identities often straddle China and their host nation mean that they may also be mobilised by CCP ethnic narratives. Given 86% of Chinese Australians use WeChat for Chinese-language news and 63% for English-language news, a platform that has censored Western outlets such as The Sydney Post in 2021, this risk remains real.

Singapore and Malaysia

The double-edged sword of the historical diaspora is nowhere more evident than in Singapore. Singapore is one of the second category of Commonwealth countries, where the Chinese population is significant and largely of historical providence. As illustrated by the life of Lee Kuan Yew, most Chinese left China hundreds of years ago and have developed distinct local identities. 76% of the population are of Chinese heritage, of whom only 15% are mainland Chinese nationals. Singapore has an identity with both Chinese and British roots, and has attempted to balance both in the past. Lee Kuan Yew made English the professional language of the Singaporean workplace, whilst adopting the PRC’s simplified characters and promoting usage of Mandarin Chinese (used primarily in the PRC) from the 1970s onwards.

Like the Chinese in Australia, we see Singaporean reluctance to take sides in the growing Sino-American rivalry, balancing ties with the US to equivalent ties with China, as seen in the 2019 extension of the Singaporean-US military cooperation memorandum that was followed a month later by an updated defence agreement with China. However, ties with Western culture are strong, and there are indications that Singapore may side with the West if forced to choose. Firstly, there are the classic indicators of intra-Chinese conflict – for instance, multiple incidents of public indecency by mainland Chinese have led to Singaporean outrage in the public sphere. Secondly, there are the strong cultural and institutional ties with Britain and the Commonwealth. Singapore is one of the 30-odd countries that use the Westminster system of parliamentary government, with legal and political tradition closely connected to that of the UK. Indeed, English overtook Mandarin as the most used language at home in 2020, strengthening affinity Anglosphere nations. There are also signs of exasperation with China amongst the political elite: the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 57% of elite Singaporeans had little or no confidence in China to ‘do the right thing’ regionally. Finally, there is the expulsion of what were - presumably - Chinese spies in 2017 and 2021, indications of Singapore’s willingness to act against Chinese intrigue.

Overall, Singapore is much more sympathetic towards China – 64% of Singaporeans view China favourably, double the average across 17 advanced economies in a Pew Research Center report this June – but, faced with an insurgent China, Singaporean identity has become more distinct as an independent unit. Singaporean Chinese used to call themselves both huaren and zhongguoren; the latter, meaning a citizen of the Chinese state, has dropped out of usage. Its supersession by the ethnic term for a Chinese person, huaren, may perhaps make Singaporeans susceptible to the CCP’s ethnic rhetoric, but there is encouraging evidence that such efforts are actually backfiring. Numerous opinion pieces in Singaporean news media and journals have expressed annoyance at mainland attitudes and narratives, CCP rhetoric about binding blood ties and purity is often uncomfortably reminiscent of racist European biological theories from the perspective of metropolitan Singaporeans who are by now steeped in the inclusive values of the Western paradigm. PRC Chinese expectations of unwavering support from Singaporeans comes across as patronising, and peremptory CCP narratives of racial duty to the motherland have resulted in some disgruntled Singaporeans reclaiming ownership over Chinese ethic identity and divorcing it from China proper. Value-based differences are also cited as reasons for animosity – like British Chinese, Singaporeans are committed to the fundamental values shared amongst Commonwealth nations. Again, this may be the Freudian theory of small differences at work, or it may be that common principles run deeper than ‘blood ties’.

With a concerted approach from other Commonwealth nations based around shared values, Singaporean Chinese can become yet more stalwart members of the Commonwealth family, and align themselves in both word and deed with like-minded peoples. I would posit that Singapore being stuck between the US and China opens up a space for Britain and other Commonwealth nations to strengthen ties with Singapore on a neutral, third-pillar basis that does not force Singapore to ‘choose a side’. Indeed, we already have defence ties, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements, sadly an undervalued part of our foreign policy agenda in past decades. It may be time for a reprioritisation of our historical relationships in Indo-Pacific region.

Of course, Singapore’s northern neighbour must also be given due attention. Malaysia is an anomaly as concerns the Chinese diaspora – its massive historical Chinese population is often more actively pro-Beijing than even overseas PRC Chinese. With 6.7 million Chinese citizens, of mixed Hakka, Hokkien, and Cantonese stock, Malaysia actually has the largest single Chinese population in the Commonwealth. However, only 82,000 of them are Chinese nationals, representing just over 1% of their number. Whilst according to the established pattern of other countries such as Singapore, Australia and the UK, this should result in a population at least passively in support of liberal democratic values and at least passively critical of China, Malaysians as a whole are one of the most pro-China populations in the world. A 2016 poll by the Medeka Center in Malaysia showed 70% of Malaysians had a favourable impression of China. Malaysian Chinese are particularly pro-CCP on cultural and value-related issues, and often display spontaneous grassroots support for the Chinese state. Examples include death threats and accusations of race treason from employees at the United Chinese School Committees’ Association towards Falun Gong supporters in 2012; the 2013 delegation from Malaysia's biggest ethnic Chinese political party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), to the CCP; and the MCA launch of two Belt and Road centres in 2016 and 2018. The Malaysian Chinese provide fertile ground for the CCP’s ‘Publicity’ Department.

Whilst the reasons for this anomalous behaviour are not immediately clear, a look into Malaysian Chinese history is enlightening. Malaysian Chinese have been persecuted by the Malay majority for decades, and have been the subject of racially discriminatory legislation, some of which continues to the present day. Malays dominate the political apparatus. Thus, the Malaysian Chinese have not felt like considerable stakeholders in an ostensibly democratic system. Indeed, their very status as a persecuted minority group means that they have found solace in the rise of China as a source of pride and ethnic self-confidence.

Similarly, Chinese South Africans developed a stronger sense of ethnic identity when the Apartheid government enforced segregation according to racial group. In light of evidence that, because of massive cultural and linguistic differences and often open discrimination, international students from mainland China live ‘parallel lives’ and find it incredibly hard to integrate, it should come as no surprise that they often act in extreme ways on flashpoint issues.

However, the dire situation in Malaysia is not yet irrecoverable. Malaysian Chinese youth are much more pro-Western and attach themselves to liberal democratic values such as freedom and the rule of law. From this point of view, the rise of China and its developmental model is seen as enabling the Malaysian government to do whatever it wants to them. The vitality of this nascent movement has been made public on several occasions, such as during the protests over the death of dissidents such as Li Wangyang, and support for Hong Kong protesters. Frequent social media comparisons between Li Wangyang and Teoh Beng Hock, a Malaysian Chinese journalist killed under questionable circumstances illustrate the youths' denouncement of the authoritarian model in general. This call for the protections of the democratic system should be heeded by the Commonwealth. If Malaysian Chinese are shown that like-minded nations sympathise with them, matching rhetoric with action to strengthen the rule of law in Malaysia, they will be much more likely to champion these values.

Canada and New Zealand – Identity problems and opportunities

Having dealt with the small handful of Singapore-style nations, let us return to the quintessential Chinese diaspora context of Australia-style nations. Canada’s situation mirrors that of Australia quite closely: Chinese Canadians total 1.7 million, making up 5% of the population. They are also concentrated in urban centres, making up 10% of Toronto's population. This ethnic group is not broken down further in official censuses, but based on primary language data, we can see that 700,000 speak Mandarin as their mother tongue; if we approximate and assume these are mostly recent PRC immigrants, this group numbers 40% of the Chinese Canadian population. Similarly, there are 600,000 Cantonese speakers, corresponding to Canada’s historic Hong Kongese community. This leaves a remaining 400,000 naturalised Chinese Canadians that speak English primarily, and a 40/60 split into mainlander and non-mainlander.

When it comes to political views, Australia is again the mirror image: 51% of Chinese Canadians are concerned about Chinese political influence. 53% do not trust China, whilst 40% do, corresponding to the estimated 40% of PRC immigrants. However, as seen in Australia, there is broad trust in the host nation, straddling both sides of the divide – 3/5ths trust Canada’s government. And again, long-term immigrants and multi-generational communities are more likely to distrust China whilst retaining ethnic pride in being Chinese. All this serves to support my thesis of an identity amongst non-mainland Chinese which straddles both Western and Chinese self-perception, aligning more broadly with Western values, and of the mainlanders as latent supporters of China, endorsing the host nation but liable to be spurred into subversive action when conflicts arise.

In an almost mirror scenario, Chinese Kiwis make up 5% of the population, numbering 250,000, half of whom abide in Auckland, making up 10% of its population. Of this number, 52% are Chinese nationals, the rest a motley assortment of Taiwanese, Malaysian Chinese, Hong Kongers, and Singaporean Chinese, an almost 50/50 split. Naturalised, English-speaking Chinese New Zealanders unsurprisingly feel much more Kiwi but, as above, still retain Chinese identity derived from their ethnic heritage. And again, there have been campus clashes between mainlanders and non-mainlander Chinese.

CCP policy has further driven a wedge between mainlanders and local Chinese. for instance In 2007, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington conspired to evict local Chinese reporters over coverage of Falun Gong demonstrations, once again highlighting the values-based differences between historical Chinese populations and recent PRC arrivals. Such rifts have shored up Chinese New Zealander identity, and present a prime opportunity for creating a narrative whereby the Chinese people have a special place in our Commonwealth family of nations. This narrative must be based on a shared mindset, shared values, and laud the diaspora’s contributions to host nations, combatting the CCP’s propaganda narrative of a PRC ethno-state which is the sole representative of the Chinese people. This would represent a first step in the journey of a thousand miles that is the fight against the CCP’s bid for hegemony.

Building on what we have seen in the Malaysian context, interviews with Chinese New Zealanders indicate a consolidation of Chinese ethnic identity in the face of discrimination, where positive experiences of inclusion and acceptance have fostered an increased attachment to a New Zealander identity. This points to the need for a targeted and coordinated approach towards Chinese diaspora groups in the Commonwealth. In the face of discrimination and even Chinese governmental intimidation - 1 in 6 Chinese Canadians report having been intimidated by the Chinese Embassy – the Commonwealth of Nations should ensure democratic protections of minority groups, further a narrative of real and substantial inclusion, and make real efforts to integrate Chinese communities into the fabric of society. Whilst Chinese Canadians have a large presence in politics, for instance, the British public would be hard-pressed to name any British Chinese political figure, showing how far we have yet to go.

Conclusion: time for co-ordinated action?

In conclusion, from youth in Malaysia to the Singaporean Chinese and on, there is a space for the Commonwealth amongst the historical and Commonwealth Chinese diaspora. All it requires is a narrative separation of government and people, that places the Chinese of the Commonwealth firmly in the centre of a web of shared values, reminding them that their fate is not dictated by the CCP. Ethnic ties and affinity are latent forces upon which CCP can draw, but there are also forces tying these groups to their host nations, which can be equally drawn upon by a concerted and comprehensive narrative as described above. One is reminded of the War of the Sixth Coalition, when European powers combatting Napoleonic tyranny managed to sever the links that Napoleon had created between his person and the French nation. Napoleon was not France and France was not Napoleon.

However, the loyalties of mainlanders lie with the Mainland. They do not have historic or cultural ties to the Commonwealth and often do not share our values. Drastic efforts must be made to integrate this group, fast, or vastly reduce their presence in society, before the latent forces of Chinese patriotism are ignited by a geopolitical conflict that looks ever more imminent.

On a lighter note, I will be going to a British Library exhibition on the history of the British Chinese this weekend. The exhibition is an unexpected surprise and a welcome gift; I hope to see more of the British Chinese in our cultural fora in the future. It is high time that we took the Chinese diaspora seriously and, if we are serious about the Commonwealth, this is a perfect opportunity to craft concerted policy which will strengthen our family of nations from the Strait of Malacca to Cape Town and Cape Leeuwin.

Well-versed in the study of Chinese history, politics, and society, the Centre's China Correspondent has chosen to remain anonymous, in light of the difficulties of writing candidly on China.

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