China Tries To Woo A Sprawling Global Chinese Diaspora

Oct 29, 2018
Originally published on January 7, 2019 5:12 pm

"Salute! Embrace the moon! White clouds float overhead! Step forward and push with palm!"

A coach barks out these martial arts moves in an auditorium at a private school in Taishan, a city in southern China's Guangdong province.

Two parallel rows of students kick, block and punch in sync with the commands.

One row comprises students enrolled at the school. The other is made up mostly of visiting ethnic Chinese kids from Boston, New York, San Francisco and other U.S. cities. Many are descendants of emigrants from Taishan, one of the biggest and earliest sources of a Chinese diaspora that officials estimate is 60 million strong.

The kung fu class is part of a "trace your roots" tour organized by a Taishan government department in charge of diaspora affairs. The tour is intended to help the kids understand the culture and homeland of their ancestors — and witness China's rise, in hopes that they will eventually support and participate in it.

"In order to give China some positive publicity," says Zeng Xiaoxian, a Taishan official in charge of the program, "I think it's really necessary to bring these kids back to have a look, and let them see exactly how we have become wealthy and powerful."

China's central and local governments have been running the tours for nearly 20 years, primarily in large sources of out-migration in southern China. The kids' families pay the airfare to get to China and the government pays for everything else. The tours have been compared to "birthright" programs run by Israel, Greece and other nations.

Local students as well as ethnic Chinese students from abroad attend a Chinese calligraphy class.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR

China is extending its reach into emigre communities overseas in remarkable ways, in another manifestation of its emergence as an economic and geopolitical powerhouse. Harnessing the energy, know-how and capital of ethnic Chinese emigres and their descendants, analysts say, is one more facet of President Xi Jinping's "Chinese dream," which he has described as the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

"Now China is building up, it's rising, Xi Jinping has proposed the China dream. And it wants the Chinese overseas to become part of this Chinese nation, in support of this China dream," says Leo Suryadinata, an expert on China's diaspora at the Singapore-based ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute.

He says that China's rise has altered its relationship with the diaspora, enabling the country to leverage ethnic Chinese living overseas to promote its interests.

The "roots-tracing" tour offers young people a window into a changing nation, and a chance to consider what, if anything, it has to do with them and their future.

Of course, not all the participants ruminate so profoundly about such questions.

Sean Lin, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based student on the tour who has relatives in Taishan, says he enjoyed the culture and martial arts classes, but he adds he didn't really have a choice about participating in the trip.

"My dad kind of just bought the ticket and told me I was coming," he says.

Taishan is known as the "first home of overseas Chinese." Many students on the tour are the offspring of Taishanese who emigrated to the U.S. long ago. The local environment is not familiar to them, and they are unclear about China's place in or importance to their lives.

"The school was sorta cool, but there was this one restaurant we ate at, the bathrooms were kind of nasty," recounts seventh-grader Theresa Pham. "And I don't like the squatting toilets," she adds.

Pham is traveling with her mother Judy Ng, who agrees that Taishan feels foreign because the tour group members "are so Americanized" after generations of living in the U.S.

But she signed up for the trip because she believes China is becoming a force to be reckoned with, and understood.

"I do see that impact, and that's why I want my kids to learn to speak Chinese. ... They can decide later if they want to continue," she says. "But I think China, because of the population, and their impact on industry, in the world, they're going to be a significant power."

Ng says some of her ancestors from Taishan helped build the continental railroad in the U.S., and some of them died and were buried in the Midwest.

Students on the trip visit a memorial to Chinese-American volunteers, who fought the Japanese in China with the Flying Tigers unit during World War II.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The tour visits several monuments and sites that share a common theme: Taishan emigres who returned to China to make important contributions.

In a local park, there's a monument to Chinese-American U.S. military pilots who fought the Japanese in World War II as members of the famed Flying Tigers volunteer aviator group.

Downtown, there's a statue of Chen Yixi, a Seattle-based railroad engineer and labor contractor who came back in the early 1900s to build one of China's first private railroads.

Just outside the city is the Mei (spelled Moy in Cantonese) family estate, a town built in the 1930s in a hybrid Chinese and Western architectural style, by returned Taishan emigres.

Richard Mei, a descendant of that family, now works as a tour operator in New York. He's one of the tour leaders.

A statue in downtown Taishan commemorates Chen Yixi, the city's native son who returned after decades in the U.S. to build the area's first railway.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR

He explains Chinese local and central government departments in charge of overseas Chinese enlist tour participants through the Chinese consulate, which liaises with Chinese-American civic groups, often in Chinatowns throughout the United States.

Until a couple of decades ago, Chinatown civic groups, generally composed of people from the same clan or hometown, were largely conservative, anti-communist organizations with ties to Taiwan's long-ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.

Most of China's early immigrants to the U.S. were poor, uneducated and overwhelmingly from the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Many other migrants resettled across Southeast Asia, which to this day is home to the majority of the diaspora.

Today, emigrants are from all over China. They are increasingly urban and middle class, and are increasingly choosing to immigrate to developed nations, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Zhuang Guotu, an expert on overseas Chinese at Xiamen University, estimates that waves of emigrants in the last 40 years account for 7-8 million people.

Despite the diaspora's growing diversity, Chinese officials occasionally ignore or blur the distinctions between Chinese citizens living overseas and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry.

"We all share the same ancestors, history and culture, we are all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, and descendants of the dragon," China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi told members of a roots-tracing tour[linked web page in Chinese] in 2013. "I hope you will aspire to lofty ideals, and become builders of our national renaissance," he added.

During the recent tour in Taishan, students in music class zero in on a popular song: Descendants of the Dragon.

"With brown eyes, black hair and yellow skin, we are forever descendants of the dragon," say the 1980s-era lyrics.

Ethnic Chinese students from the U.S. and Indonesia exchange gifts with local students during a "roots-tracing" trip in Taishan.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Suryadinata, the expert on the Chinese diaspora, is ethnically Chinese and was born in Indonesia. He says officials confuse citizens of China and ethnic Chinese holding foreign nationality at their peril, because the two have very different cultures and views.

"For the Chinese overseas who are the nationals of their adopted lands, the China dream is in fact a foreign dream," he says.

The contents of Xi's "China Dream" rhetoric are vague. They certainly imply a resurgent China, regaining its place as Asia's pre-eminent power.

The dream also includes Xi's signature policies to build infrastructure linking China to more than 70 countries, projects that have China actively courting the participation of overseas Chinese investors and entrepreneurs.

It may also imply the leadership of the Communist Party over just about everything, "north, south, east and west," as Xi himself puts it.

Students from the U.S. and Indonesia play drums in a music class in Taishan.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Suryadinata says if the party asserts its primacy and requires the political loyalty of all ethnic Chinese, this could put emigrants and their offspring in a difficult place.

In many Southeast Asian countries, ethnic Chinese dominate large swaths of the economy, disproportionate to their numbers, and this often leads to tensions with non-Chinese residents. Many of these residents have not forgotten how, under Chairman Mao, China supported communist insurgencies in their countries.

In a recent government reshuffle, the Communist Party's United Front Work Department took over responsibilities of a cabinet office in charge of overseas Chinese affairs. Critics accuse the party department of masterminding foreign influence operations.

To the young students on the roots-tracing tours, though, the intricacies of policy are nowhere to be seen, and there is no overtly political content in the events.

And that's just as well, says Suryadinata. His advice to Chinese officials trying to attract foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry is simple: Focus on the Chinese culture — but skip the politics.

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Students make their way down the road near athletic fields at the Biguiyuan private school in Taishan City.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR


China is a major world player with commercial and strategic influence around the globe. It wants the roughly 60 million ethnic Chinese living outside China to recognize its growth. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on one way the government is trying to attract Chinese-Americans and others in the diaspora.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In the southern city of Taishan, a group made up of mostly Chinese-American middle and high school students and a few of their parents attends culture classes at a local school. The music class focuses on one song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "With brown eyes, black hair and yellow skin, we are forever descendants of the dragon," say the lyrics. In other words, all ethnic Chinese are part of the same nation, no matter what citizenship they hold.

This tour group is part of a program that the Chinese government has run for nearly two decades. It helps foreign nationals of Chinese descent to trace their roots with culture and language classes and visits to historical sites. The students pay for the airfare to China. The Chinese government covers the rest.

Zeng Xiaoxian, a Taishan city official in charge of the program, says it helps to dispel overseas Chinese kids' misconceptions about China.

ZENG XIAOXIAN: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "In order to give China some positive publicity," she says, "I think it's really necessary to bring these kids back to have a look and let them see exactly how we have become wealthy and powerful."

In 2013, State Councilor Yang Jiechi addressed kids participating in the program and called them descendants of the dragon.


YANG JIECHI: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "We all share the same ancestors, history and culture," he says. "I hope you will aspire to lofty ideals and become builders of our national renaissance."

Taishan is known as one of the earliest and biggest sources of Chinese emigration, including to the U.S. Almost all the monuments here commemorate Taishanese sojourners who went overseas, then returned to help their hometown with their newly acquired skills and wealth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: A tour guide shows the kids a monument to Chinese-Americans who fought as fighter pilots with the famed Flying Tigers unit in World War II. Many of the kids, though, appear listless in the subtropical heat. Some admit that they're on this trip because their parents signed them up for it.

Seventh-grader Theresa Pham gives the trip mixed reviews.

THERESA PHAM: The school was sort of cool. But, like, there was this one restaurant that we ate at that sort of - the bathrooms were sort of nasty. And I don't like to squat in toilets because it's so hard to pee in.

KUHN: Pham came here with her mother, Judy Ng. Ng says that her ancestors left Taishan to go build the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. over a century ago. She and her daughter came on this trip, she says, because she believes China is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

JUDY NG: I do see the impact, and that's why I want my kids to learn to speak Chinese. How good they are - they can decide later if they want to continue. But I think China, because of the population and the impact on industry in the world, they're going to be a significant power.


KUHN: You can see this in downtown Taishan. It's been turned into a brightly lit pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants. When Ng's ancestors left here, it was poor, and most immigrants were uneducated farmers. China's new immigrants are increasingly well-educated and middle-class. And China is trying to woo them back and leverage them to help develop the country and advance its national interests.

Leo Suryadinata is an expert on the Chinese diaspora at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

LEO SURYADINATA: Now, China is building up, rising. Xi Jinping's proposed what you call the China Dream, (speaking Chinese). And he wants the Chinese overseas to become part of this (speaking Chinese), the Chinese nation, in support of this China Dream.

KUHN: One problem, Suryadinata says, is that China's government sometimes fails to distinguish between Chinese citizens living overseas and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry. And these two, he points out, have very different cultures and views.

SURYADINATA: For the Chinese overseas, who are the nationals of their adopted lands, China Dream is, in fact, a foreign dream.

KUHN: The other is that in many countries, ethnic Chinese face strong anti-immigrant attitudes, and that includes questioning their political loyalty. Suryadinata says that by demanding their political loyalty, China would be putting emigrants and their offspring in a difficult position.


KUHN: Back at the school in Taishan, the Chinese-American kids are wowed by a kung fu demonstration. There's no explicitly political content in this particular tour, and that's exactly what Leo Suryadinata advises China to do. If you want to attract foreigners of Chinese descent, focus on the Chinese culture, and skip the politics. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taishan, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.