Assessing the Chinese Diaspora as Key to Southeast Asian Human Factor Influence Through 2035

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.


Tom Perkins is a 2010 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He commissioned into the U.S. Army as an Infantry Officer and served at the Platoon, Company, and Battalion level. He is currently serving as a Southeast Asian Foreign Area Officer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing the Chinese Diaspora as Key to Southeast Asian Human Factor Influence Through 2035

Date Originally Written:  June 17, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  August 17, 2020.

Article and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from a U.S perspective concerning partnership in Southeast Asia vis-a-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Summary:  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to define the “Chinese” identity. This gives the CCP human factor influence over ethnic Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. The PRC can use these community relationships to influence and even manipulate nations throughout Southeast Asia. Chinese Americans, as credible Chinese voices, can build relationships and define cultural norms that are not dictated by the CCP.

Text:  The Chinese Diaspora, or Chinese abroad, is a concept that developed from Chinese immigration throughout history but particularly the 19th and 20th centuries. This concept created tight knit, and in some places, large communities outside of China. The largest of these communities are in Southeast Asia. These communities traditionally defined their identity based on family, language, business, food, and traditional practices such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism etc. The large number of ethnic Chinese in various countries made the community a significant force for political mobilization. The most overt example of mobilization is the ethnic Chinese led Malayan Communist Party which waged a communist insurrection in Malaysia throughout the second half of the twentieth century[1].

Even when large scale political mobilization does not occur, the existence of these communities at times causes conflict in the host nations. Ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia are perceived to be better connected in business than the local ethnic majorities of the countries they live in. As a result, distrust and resentment has occasionally erupted into the local ethnic majorities protesting and engaging in violence against the Chinese communities. There is no easy solution to such a conflict. Historically, efforts to force assimilation of these communities were generally unsuccessful at reducing conflict and erasing Chinese identity. Starting in 1966, under the Suharto presidency, Indonesia orchestrated a series of policies meant to discourage Chinese identity and culture in an attempt to forge a more nationalist Indonesian identity.  However, since the reform period in Indonesia, these policies have been rescinded[2]. These historical trends suggest overseas Chinese communities will continue to exist and grow as an independent cultural and social network into 2035.

The growth of China into the world’s second largest economy has given it a new level of prestige. China’s real economic power as well as soft and sharp power will continue to increase through 2035. The ability for the CCP to influence human factors among and through overseas Chinese is more favorable than it has ever been, and will continue to be more favorable into the future. The increased economic wealth of people in China makes them a natural source for business ties among the diaspora. It is conceivable that the CCP will leverage such relationships in the future to gain political influence throughout Southeast Asia. This leveraging can be an alarming prospect when one considers a long-term U.S partner, such as Thailand, has an ethnic Chinese population of around 7 million, which is approximately 10% of the population[3]. Actions by the CCP signal a desire to gain influence in Southeast Asia. Traditional soft power programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative promulgated by Xi Jinping are supplemented by more subtle gestures such as establishing Confucius Institutes. The latter being an example of the CCPs manipulation of human factors to increase political capital by using Confucius institutes as a communications platform for signaling Chinese cultural values.

The heart of the issue is that the CCP is able to define the Chinese identity. Thus, anyone who identifies as Chinese, will have an affinity for the culture, and will be more susceptible to CCP messaging. This is an old struggle in a new context. The Republic of China, aka Taiwan, has been raging against the CCP’s attempts to define what is and is not Chinese since the Chinese Civil War. The strategy throughout history was to lay claim to the terms “Chinese” and “China” with its own branding. The issue is that the CCP has been very successful at stamping out such branding attempts. This is why even well-traveled and educated Americans are surprised to learn that China Airlines is not based in China, it is based in Taiwan, and why there is nothing weird about some “Chinese” people marching into an Olympic stadium under a banner labeled “Chinese Taipei.”

The U.S is in a good position to address the CCP dominance of Chinese culture in Southeast Asia. The U.S is home to a large and relatively affluent ethnic Chinese population. The Department of State and accompanying agencies can make efforts to reach out to community and business leaders to empower them to define what it means to be overseas Chinese. By empowering ethnically Chinese Americans the United States can lead the overseas Chinese movement in Southeast Asia and prevent the business networks, family ties, social networks, and overall population from being tools of CCP sharp power. In popular culture influence, Chinese Americans could be leading the production of Mandarin language cinema and music. Southeast Asian Chinese could look to Chinese American businesses for capital investment as well as future markets. Additionally, U.S government messaging can reconsider usage of the term “Chinese” because of its implicit affiliation with the CCP. The word “Sino” sufficiently distinguishes the ethnic affiliations from national affiliations associated with the PRC. These actions are an effective start to neutralizing CCP appropriation of the ethnic Chinese identity.

As PRC state power grows, its ability to wield influence outside of its boarders increases. The State Department and supporting agencies can take initiative to combat messaging that implies the CCP monopolizes Chinese culture. The U.S can foster real relationships between Sino Americans and ethnic Sino populations throughout Southeast Asia. By doing this the U.S can deny the CCP human factor influence among partner nations in Southeast Asia.


Endnotes:

[1] Opper, M. (2020). People’s Wars in China, Malaya, and Vietnam. Washington D.C: University of Michigan Press.

[2] Kitamura, Y. (2019). The Re-recognition of Confucianism in Indonesia: An Example of China’s. In M. S. Dioko, H. M. Hsiao, & A. H. Yang, China’s Footprints in Southeast Asia (pp. 172-193). Singapore: NUS Press.

[3] Goodkind, D. (2019). The Chinese Diaspora: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Trends. Washington D.C: U.S Census Bureau.

2020 - Contest: Civil Affairs Association Writing Contest Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Civil Affairs Association Minority Populations and Diasporas Thomas Perkins

Options for Managing Xinjiang Uighur Ethnic Tensions

Daniel Urchick is a defense and foreign policy analyst.  Daniel tweets at @DanielUrchick.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Unrest and separatist tendencies amongst the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang Province, People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Date Originally Written:  March 08, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the perspective of a PRC government official offering options for countering ethnic violence, separatism, and extremism amongst the Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

Background:  Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs comprise an estimated 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 19 million.  Uighur unrest was historically sporadic and easily suppressed but since 2008 Xinjiang has seen a slow, but noticeable rise in violent activity that appears to be aimed at local actors, such as the local government structure, state security forces, Han immigrants, and Uighur “collaborators,” rather than at the Chinese Central Government in Beijing.  Some Uighurs have called for total independence from the PRC due to cultural oppression.

Uighur terrorism has allegedly occurred across the PRC, including dual bombings in Yunnan Province in 2008, a bombing in Tiananmen Square in 2013, and a knife attack at Kunming Airport in Yunnan that killed 29 and injured 143 in early 2014.  In late February 2017, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video of Uighur members who claimed they would shed rivers of blood in the PRC and avenge the oppressed[1].  This video marked the first time Uighur militants had officially been tied to ISIS[2].

The PRC has increasingly relied on a heavy-handed and repressive approach to security operations in Xinjiang.  The arrests and detention of protesters, even peaceful ones, are estimated to be well into the tens of thousands, with an estimated 1.8 executions occurring weekly in 2008[3].  Tens of thousands of PRC security components currently operate in Xinjiang[4].

Drivers of Uighur unrest may include being barred from 95 percent of the civil-service positions in Xinjiang[5], being forced to teach Mandarin in Uighur schools, and, until recently, anyone under 18 was prohibited from entering a mosque.  Despite efforts to placate the Uighurs with promises of foreign direct investment, increased employment opportunities, and modernization projects, the majority of these opportunities are still reserved for the Han Chinese.

Significance:  Xinjiang links the PRC to Central Asia and the greater Middle East geographically, ethnically, and religiously.  The problems of ethnic separatism and religious extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia flow into Xinjiang.  For this reason, in addition to poor administrative practices, there is a small, but growing problem with separatism and terrorism in the region.  Fear of an ISIS-like organization forming in Xinjiang, combined with a theoretical collapse of adjacent Tajikistan, has spurred the PRC into creating an entire security organization: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Option #1:  The “Alaska” model— Reward the Uighurs with economic dividends based on exploiting Xinjiang’s resources.

Risk:  Economic dividends have historically been reserved for Han Chinese who may grow agitated with the loss of an exclusive “perk,” causing them to lash out at the local and Central Government.  Unhappy Han may direct their frustrations towards the Uighur population, who may respond to violence with greater violence, exacerbating the situation.

Gain:  Opening resource management to the Uighur population will co-opt Uighur elites and likely remove environmental concerns and wealth imbalances as a historical justification to protest resource exploitation in Xinjiang.  Option #1 places the onus of environmental degradation on the Uighur elites vice the local and Central Government.

Option #2:  The “Scotland” model— the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains direct control of international and interprovincial trade, as well as military and police functions, but cultural autonomy exists in exchange for loyalty.

Risk:  This model allows the Uighur identity to grow unchecked, which may develop to a point of seeking greater separation from the rest of the PRC.  Misplaced faith in Uighur officials by the CCP could create Uighur opposition leaders in future periods of unrest and rising tensions.  The granting of such a high-level of autonomy to Xinjiang may spark calls for similar policies in other ethnic minority regions in the PRC.

Gain:  The PRC government maintains control of local security apparatus while receiving maximum economic benefit to be distributed as it sees fit.  True autonomy for the region reduces international and domestic criticism of PRC governance in the region.

Option #3:  The “Hawaii” model— Calls for the creation of an “indigenous people’s organization” to communicate with local officials about ongoing and future disputes with the government or Han population.

Risk:  The creation of the indigenous people’s organization could result in a legitimate alternative authority to the Central Government in Beijing, which, in turn, could eventually organize the Uighur population to formally challenge PRC government authority.  This organization may create avenues for Uighurs who support violent extremism to move into positions of authority.

Gain:  This indigenous people’s organization places an administrative barrier between the local government and Uighur population’s criticism and frustrations.  Both the Central Government and local government can use this organization as a scapegoat when tensions flair, while staffing it with vetted personnel. 

Option #4:  The “Australian” model— Special privileges are granted to minorities, such as no birth restrictions, tax exemptions, and assured education.

Risk:  Special privileges conferred to the Uighurs risk increasing resentment among the Han population towards the Uighurs, leading to increased hostility and even greater inter-ethnic violence.  Even more worrisome, the Han populace in Xinjiang, and around the PRC, may become resentful of the Central Government for withholding highly coveted privileges.

Gain:  Removing restrictions that apply to the rest of the country promotes a sense of exceptionalism in the Uighur population, encouraging loyalty to the PRC.  Assured education encourages educated Uighurs to become local elites and support the Central Government that supported them.

Option #5:  The “West Bank” model— Government promotion of cultural and Islamic tourism to Xinjiang Province.

Risk:  Exposes a larger portion of the PRC populace to Islam, increasing the potential for conversion to a religion that believes in an authority other than the Central Government in Beijing.  Islamic tourists to Xinjiang could bring ideas about Islam and its role in society and government that the PRC government views as destabilizing, further increasing tensions.

Gain:  Uighurs are potentially exposed to more moderate Islamic ideas on a wider scale, rather than radical Islamist ideas that proliferate under or due to government suppression.

Other Comments:  The models presented above can be found with greater detail in Dru Gladney’s 2003 paper “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” published in the Mongolian Journal of International Affairs (http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123).

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Katie Hunt and Matt Rivers. “Xinjiang violence: Does China have a terror problem?,” CNN, December 02, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/asia/china-xinjiang-uyghurs/

[2]  Ryan Pickrell. “ISIS Vows To ‘Shed Blood Like Rivers’ In First Threat Against China,” Daily Caller, March 1, 2017. Retrieved from: http://dailycaller.com/2017/03/01/isis-vows-to-shed-blood-like-rivers-in-first-threat-against-china/

[3]  Drew Gladney. “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” The Mongolian Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123

[4]  “Xinjiang deploys over 10,000 armed police in latest show of force after terror attacks,” South China Morning Post, February 28, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2074711/china-stages-another-huge-show-force-xinjiang-wake

[5]  Preeti Bhattacharji. “Uighurs and China’s Xinjiang Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 29, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.cfr.org/china/uighurs-chinas-xinjiang-region/p16870

China (People's Republic of China) Daniel Urchick Minority Populations and Diasporas Option Papers Uighur