Overseas Chinese magic: Lessons for India



The strength of the Chinese population can be gauged by the very fact that today around 19.3 per cent of world population is Chinese.

But then, such a figure based on the law of averages hides more than what it reveals. The figure that talks volumes about the Chinese sphere of influence, at least with respect to human capital, is that of 50 million plus overseas Chinese who are settled in various parts of the world and playing their bit in accelerating the fast-paced Chinese economy. Today, overseas Chinese not only pump money into the Chinese economy but also facilitate Chinese ambitions of global cultural and political colonisation. Overseas Chinese have made themselves inimitable in almost all spheres of influences – from heading many hard power areas by chairing vital positions in global forums, military and political institutions of many nations to being the face of various soft power areas of influence. One may not be well versed with the Chinese powers-that-be, but at the same time, very few would be not well versed with the likes of Jackie Chan!

The emigration of Chinese dates back to the Ming dynasty, but the real wave of Chinese diaspora started in 1840s when thousands of Chinese left China and made their way to the United States, especially after the discovery of gold in California. Initially, uneducated and unemployed Chinese labourers left their homes and moved to the US (for mining and railroad jobs); but then, during the late nineteenth century, the scenario changed. Instead of labourers, those were skilled and educated Chinese who moved out to avoid the ill effects of poverty and famine – which were haunting China in the late nineteenth century. However, this time the destination was not confined to the US or the West; many Asian nations suddenly made it to the destination list of Chinese. Among all the nations, Southeast Asia and Australia (apart from US) attracted the most Chinese. With more and more Chinese moving out of China, most of the big cities across the world saw a huge inflow of Chinese.

Gradually, these people moved and settled down in a more organised manner and formed strong communities across the globe. So much so that most of the renowned cities (in almost all nations) have a China located somewhere – which today we call ‘Chinatown.’

A Chinatown by no means is just another shopping destination but is a hub of overseas Chinese in a particular city. This is one place where overseas Chinese and local residents both can find everything that China manufactures. It is basically a one-stop-solution for all overseas Chinese when it comes to purchasing Chinese products, and above all, being close to their roots. Given the economies it generates, it’s a fact that in many nations, Chinatowns are of mammoth proportions – for example, the Cherkizovsky Market was considered the largest market in Europe; in July 2009, the Moscow government decided to replace it with a Chinatown shopping centre. China is reportedly investing $1 billion in the construction that would give employment to 70,000 overseas Chinese directly and would allow China to sell products worth a whopping $5 billion. Leading the race, Dubai is all set to construct the world’s biggest Chinatown spread across an area of 800 hectare – it’s worth around $47 million! There are around four major, recognised Chinatowns in Africa, over 35 in Asia, over 30 in UK and Europe, 15 in Latin America and over 50 in the US and Canada besides hundreds of more such markets across the world. Most of the goods sold in Chinatowns are imported from China (thus, pumping back huge revenues into China). Additionally, millions of Chinese working in these communities remit more millions back home to their families.

The remittance doesn’t end here. Besides millions of dollars flowing in through non-official and unorganised channels (in smaller denominations), overseas Chinese billionaires donate millions to the Chinese government through official and transparent routes. Li Ka Shing has recently donated a medical university to China; many such donations and relief funds (during disasters) are common for China. The cultural and family ties play a major factor in this and the overseas Chinese are largely driven by the verve to do something for their motherland. It might not be a panacea, but this solidarity of overseas Chinese towards their families back home has helped the Chinese economy to a great extent. The 55 million overseas Chinese across 135 countries contribute nearly 60 per cent to the total Chinese FDIs! China’s total foreign reserves were around $194 billion and total FDI was $61 billion (in the year 2004) with a GDP growth of 10.7 per cent (in 2006). The preceding decade (1990-2000) too experienced a rapid progress with average annual growth rate of 9.6 per cent mainly because of its diaspora’s benefactor-effect. The contribution of overseas Chinese in development of their homeland is a matter of historical and cultural patriotism. Between 1985 and 2008, foreign investment in China reached a figure of $898 billion making it the foremost nation in the world to attract foreign investment for 18 consecutive years! OECD estimates reveal that a resounding 45 per cent of foreign investment in 2004 came from overseas Chinese. In 2010, the FDI figures rose to a record breaking $105.7 billion. By August 2011, China’s forex reserves had reached $3.2 trillion.

All thanks to the deep running cultural roots that create a propensity for the diaspora to invest or establish business networks with their hometown. In Jinjiang province for instance, many entrepreneurial initiatives have been taken based on not only the government compensation but also on the remittances from the overseas relatives of entrepreneurs! Therefore, migrant business networks are fully exploited by the diaspora with the help of cultural and ethnic linkages for the overall development of mainland China. In 2006, overseas Chinese sent $22.5 billion to China as remittance, a figure which is now estimated to be more than $50 billion every year. The Chinese diaspora generate more than $500 billion in Southeast Asia alone and are playing a very pivotal role in the development of the Chinese economy. A huge part of this money is being redirected as remittances and donations; and to this extent, this community helps in the formation of a bridge that allows overseas and domestic Chinese to share intellectual and investment know-how and thus opens avenues of business opportunities.

The diaspora too are received with conscientious warmth and encouragement by the Chinese authorities as cross border migration is greatly encouraged and their experiences are shared with the local population. The Chinese government realized that this point needs to be driven home with the diaspora – therefore, they opened up a special cabinet ministry to solely deal with overseas Chinese. As reparation to the damage caused by Mao Tse Tung during the cultural revolution by dissolving the ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission’ (OCAC), the commission was reopened in 1978 with the name changed to ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs Office’. A new federation was also opened in 1978 (All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese) to help the overseas population integrate with their families and help in the transfer of funds (read: remittances).

China also organises several conferences and meets that allow overseas Chinese to come together and expand their network. Almost every year, the Chinese government awards and honours overseas Chinese who contribute significantly to the Chinese growth story. China has in the past issued medals and certificates to around 100 overseas Chinese-funded enterprises and regularly honours eminent non-resident Chinese.

The government has also tweaked its policies to ease FDI and trade investments for overseas Chinese. The government further encourages philanthropic contributions and has started several banks all across the world to facilitate investments and remittances, which keeps adding to the $3 trillion Chinese forex reserves. The Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs on a regular basis organizes seminars, conclaves and meets to reach into the diaspora. Most of these events talk about investment opportunities back in China and about Chinese government policies that would support such ambitions. Starting 2003, this office started sessions on “Advanced Training for Young Generation Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs.” These are sessions for select overseas Chinese youth to train them in entrepreneurship and leadership. Moreover, the Chinese government has set up over 70 business parks exclusively for overseas Chinese and have also eased their entries to numerous SEZs.

Well, the role of overseas Chinese in fortifying their homeland is not only multidimensional, it goes beyond conventional ways of sending money back home. Overseas Chinese today are bringing China to the world’s center-stage by helping the nation in spreading its reach in all avenues of geopolitics. In fact, unlike in India’s case, the Chinese government saw an opportunity even in the ‘Brain Drain’. Instead of perceiving this syndrome as an outflow of human capital, they saw it from a different dimension and called it “outsourcing.” This outsourcing shifted the expenditure on education from China to Western universities – thus, instead of China awarding scholarships to Chinese students, those were the Western universities that started awarding the same. China tapped these overseas Chinese students (and ex-students) to have an access to western technology and scientific breakthrough. China further created a window via which transfer of technology and skills was made convenient. Today, China is encouraging their students abroad to stay outside and assist the mainland in their technological ambitions. Their old strategy of “hui guo fuwu” (returning to serve the country) has now become “wei guo fuwu” (serving the country). Strategically, they have converted the loss of brain drain to their advantage! The Chinese government leaves no stone unturned to make Chinese comfortable in foreign countries.

The Chinese embassies distribute close to a million pamphlets to all emigrants where all possible Do’s and Don’ts are mentioned that would allow the Chinese to be safe and comfortable in a foreign land. The booklet also talks about the way a Chinese should interact and modulate oneself in order to keep their image and reputation (along with the country’s reputation) high! The success of this paradigm shift is evident from the fact that in 2005, more than 15,000 Chinese research papers were coauthored with foreign researchers. Today, China publishes arrays of journals and research papers, which are widely referred to in foreign universities. This has become possible due to the presence of overseas Chinese professors in almost all reputed universities across the world. Further, overseas Chinese students and communities help China organise exchange program and conclaves for ethnic Chinese speakers and thought leaders. The Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (CSSA), which is spread all across the world (there are more than 100 such recognised associations in the US alone), works as a ‘welcome team’ during the visit of any Chinese leader and lobbies for such above mentioned programs. These bodies are indirectly funded by the Chinese government. For instance, 75 per cent of the University of Tennessee CSSA funding in 2004 came from China while CSSA at North Carolina State University and other Ivy League schools too receive regular donations from Chinese embassies. The same Chinese students, after joining Western companies, facilitate Western-Chinese mergers and business deals; a few return back to China (after absorbing years of experience) to escalate Chinese firms to new zeniths. It’s an astute example of how the government’s vision and encouragement has helped the overseas population reshape their homeland’s economic map!

Overseas Chinese have enveloped many pivotal positions across the world, which directly or indirectly helps China in reaping benefits out of its diaspora. From the current president of African Union (Jean Ping) to president of the Philippines (Corazon Aquino), all are Chinese. So much so that one or the other Chinese has served as a premier or leader for almost all major countries in the world. As of now, more than 80 overseas Chinese are holding powerful political positions in the world besides holding several other political and administrative positions. Today, people of Chinese descent are serving as president, state councillor, ministers, advisors, secretary, governor, state treasurer, mayor, member of the city council, attorney general, lieutenant governor and many more in countries across the world. There are over 30 actors/actresses who are known faces in various movie industries across the globe – with names like Jackie Chan, Rosalind Chao, Jessica Henwick, Richard Loo and many more being the most expensive and sought-after celebrities of the world. This is not including more than 10 celebrated directors and 20 globally heard musicians.

The success of Beijing Olympics was quite vivid, especially given the number of medals China won. But then, there were a couple of Chinese athletes who were competing against their own country. Today, more than 40 globally recognised Chinese are playing for other nations too! To top it up, there are more than 50 successful businessmen, 25 established writers and authors, 20 famous scientists and engineers (including Nobel laureates) and hundreds of other global names who are doing their bit to make the heat of the Chinese dragon felt across the globe. Many of these people use soft power to influence the world about Chinese products, culture, ideologies and practise; one of them being the recent fad across the world – Feng shui. Actors through their movies, musicians through their music, artists through their art, writers with their books and businessmen thorough their products are bringing China to each and every home across the world. Lobbying by the overseas Chinese – the feeling of nationalism is so strongly embedded that their are protests against anti-China movements – is quite normal. During the Beijing Olympics, when a couple of groups started their protests against the games, there were these overseas Chinese community members who in return protested against such a protest – a feeling that is rarely seen in any diaspora community! In Canberra, processions in favour of the games comfortably outnumbered and dwarfed anti-Chinese sentiments. Similar support for mainland China was seen in Seoul, Nagano, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Hong Kong. In almost all these cities, overseas Chinese students, communities and youth came out and demonstrated their support for Beijing Olympics, thus crushing any probable mushrooming of anti-Beijing Olympics sentiments!

These pro-China movements were supported by big names in the Chinese communities. So much so that one of the most loved overseas Chinese Hollywood actors, Jackie Chan, openly criticised these protestors! Further, one day before the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, Chan personally unveiled an official Olympic music album named “Official Album for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games – Jackie Chan’s Version” and also refurbished the Chinese image by talking positively about China to the international media network. Even the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi supported Chan in his initiative. For the uninitiated, Zhang Ziyi is one actress who has metamorphosed the conservative image of a Chinese woman to a career-oriented and glamorous woman (who is in no way inferior to any Western women) and today is seen as a face of the Chinese women. Director John Woo (director of movies like Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2 and many more) facilitated the Beijing International Film Festival where 60 Chinese films (including Hollywood blockbusters) were showcased, thus helping China in promoting their movie culture and businesses. China today is relying heavily on these established movie makers/ actors for their film industry. Chan and Ziyi who are well know faces in Hollywood are also working in many Chinese movies – thus providing the Chinese movie industry with that initial torque it requires. For that matter, Woo has directed many Chinese movies that have received critical acclaim in international forums!

Today, these expatriates have created such a wave that on one hand where all nations are encouraging their students and kids to learn English and then appear for TOFEL to make their way to Western universities, then on the other, the West is encouraging their kids to learn Mandarin. As of 2007, more than 30 million people were learning Mandarin. Confucius institutes have their branches today in almost all nations and are playing an important role in promoting Chinese Proficiency Tests (HSK) – the Chinese TOFEL. Teachers in China are even trained (and handed booklets) on how to teach Mandarin in Western countries!

The imperativeness of the Chinese has risen up to such an extent that in 2006, even the then President Bush declared the Chinese language to be a strategic language in the National Security Language Initiative; he allotted $114 million towards the promotion of this language – and this could not have been possible without the soft power created by the overseas Chinese and without their help in building a Chinese fashion in the West. Today, learning Mandarin, knowing Kung-fu, adopting Feng shui and using chopsticks are seen as elitist hobbies in the West – nothing can speak volumes than the wave that Buddhism has created across the world. And all this soft power helps China grow economically too, as the commodities that can make these soft powers tangible are all made in China!

China has always inculcated the passion of nationalism in their citizens. The 5,000 years old unshakable history echoes the way the country has successfully kept all Chinese, irrespective of wherever they live, under the same umbrella. The Chinese across the world still follow their culture and are known for their own unique ‘Chinese way’, which is quite vivid – one stroll down any Chinatown or watching a movie made on China...

even by Hollywood, would be enough to prove that! As the Chinese are disciplined and connected to their roots, most of the overseas Chinese at some point of time paid back to their motherland. And this one cultural teaching has made China grow economically and intellectually. Thus, if the Great Wall of China represents how China is not very open to the Western culture, then the likes of Jackie Chan represent how there is a China in all spheres of life. Here is one country which is emotionally, strategically and diplomatically squeezing the maximum out of its expatriates and also has been successful in simultaneously keeping them united. Above all, it has kept the feeling of ‘Chineseness’ intact! I personally believe that keeping aside all the criticism over the Chinese hardline regime, India must try to learn from the positives they have been able to create! If India can replicate the positives of the Chinese while remaining the world’s largest democracy, it will become not only the world’s most powerful democracy but also the world’s greatest democracy.