War of Soft Power
China’s economic boom requires support from the world, China knows this very well. This is why they focus on their hard power, soft power, and most recently sharp power in order to extend its influence around the world. Whilst it is easy to attract foreign direct investments by luring multinationals with its huge, extravagant and lucrative domestic market, China is struggling to persuade foreign people to learn the language and culture, unlike its Asian counterparts, Japan and Korea, with a huge cultural following.
Nevertheless, China has found an easy target for its cultural exportation — the Chinese diaspora. With about 50 million overseas Chinese scattered in different parts of the world, they can serve as a stepping stone for the expansion of China’s soft power. Obviously, in present days the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not attempt to export its political ideology explicitly as it did during the Cold War era. Rather, it plays the heritage card and presents the country as the only remaining ancient civilisation with a continuous history, hence the name of the infamous Confucius Institute (see this article for more comments).
Having improved its image by drawing a connection with its ancient past, the CCP now seems less hostile to the overseas Chinese community, some of whose ancestors fled the country exactly because of the authoritarian regime. Despite its great cultural purge during the Cultural Revolution which lasted for a decade, the Chinese Communist Party has been forgiven and even regarded as the legitimate successor of the Chinese culture by some overseas Chinese, who, at the same time, are seeking their root.
Brief background of the Chinese diaspora
The Chinese diaspora grew with several waves of emigration since the New Imperialism period in the 19th century through indentured labour (the coolies) sold to Southeast Asia, Americas and Australia. More "recent" waves include the refugees who fled during the Chinese Civil War between the Chinese National Party (KMT) and the CCP.
Regardless of their background, the community as a whole has faced institutional, political and cultural discrimination by the government, the society and their neighbours. Discrimination still exists even centuries after their settlement and eventual integration. Most of these overseas-born Chinese are well integrated and some do not even speak their ancestral language. Nevertheless, their effort to blend in has not been recognised and they still face racism in their daily lives. Facing an identity crisis, they seek a sense of belonging. Responding to their search for a saviour, the CCP offers a one-stop solution.
During a brief voyage to some ancient landmarks and modern cities, your mind is boggled by the grandeur of traditional Chinese architecture and the progress of the long-awaited modernisation since 1978. Being served by some friendly local business owners who keep smiling at you, your heart melts in their warm welcome. Following an intense discussion with an English-major student about the Chinese boom and the stagnation of your country, you doubt why your parents did not return to China 20 years ago. Instead, you have had to face discrimination and work extra hard in your "host" country for twenty-odd years. Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore, because you are finally "home" in China.
Obviously, this is a caricatural account of an overseas Chinese who embarks on a root-finding journey. There is nothing wrong with understanding one’s roots; however, one’s knowledge of their ancestral country should not be built upon superficialities. When foreigners travel, most of them only go to pretty cities and tourist attractions. Even if you go to a village for rural volunteering, it is often pre-arranged by an organisation to ensure a smooth operation and optimal satisfaction. Disneyfication of travelling is not unique to China, but if a dictator takes advantage of it to gain more supporters, it becomes a dangerous weapon.
People believe what they see more than what they read. After enjoying their stay in the prosperous parts of China, some tourists feel that China is not that bad after all and start to disbelieve the depiction of poverty and social injustice in China by the western media. How about the 600 million Chinese who earn less than €120 a month? ( https://www.courrierinternational.com/revue-de-presse/pauvrete-600-millions-de-chinois-tres-loin-detre-bling-bling )They live in the poorest parts of China in which no tourist is interested. Even if the tourists were aware of their existence, they would still sympathise with the Chinese government. Look at it the other way round: "the CCP already done a good job by lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty."
Sympathisers are also victims
True, CCP sympathisers are not exclusively ethnically Chinese people; they can be of any nationality, any ethnicity or any background. Nevertheless, given their subtle bonds to their ancestral country and their struggles in their "host" country, overseas Chinese are vulnerable targets and can easily fall victims to the CCP nationalist propaganda machine. Eventually, with biased knowledge of China presented by the CCP, some overseas Chinese start to believe in the authoritarian Chinese social model and unconsciously criticise the democratic western model.
To be fair, can we blame the overseas Chinese for being sympathisers? Not really. Overseas Chinese people’s vulnerability and hatred towards the West do not come out of nowhere. The CCP just saw them and simply exploits them. At most, we can only blame the CCP for fuelling more hatred, but we can never blame the overseas Chinese, who are in fact victims. The root cause is discrimination.
Take Malaysia and the United States for example. These two countries have some of the largest Chinese diaspora community in the world. In Malaysia, 90% of preparatory school places are reserved for ethnic Malays, while Chinese Malaysians comprise a quarter of the country’s population. In other words, Chinese Malaysians cannot really go to public universities even if they score higher than the Malays, not to mention their opportunities in politics and civil service. Ironically, when they leave Malaysia for opportunities which they deserve, they are called traitors. In the United States, discrimination is more covert. Despite having been to the best schools, Asian Americans still face the bamboo ceiling which bars them from the top management.
If western countries really want people to believe in meritocracy, democracy and liberty, everyone must be provided with equal opportunities. If the supposedly impartial authorities indulge in racism against minorities, they are playing with fire and will have to expect more enemies from within.