Overseas Chinese: Hostages of Geopolitics and Victims of Racism and Exploitation

The geopolitical ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have increased the pressures on overseas Chinese. This growing group is caught between China’s quest for international influence and the racism and exploitation in their host countries. With the launch of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the sharp rise in young Chinese studying abroad, and the entering-into-effect of China’s National Intelligence Law in 2017 – obliging Chinese citizens to assist national intelligence work – the relationship between overseas Chinese and the politics of their home country has been thrown into sharp relief. It is crucial that opinion makers in the West do not lose sight of the deeply human aspirations that motivate Chinese migrant workers and students.

Chinese living overseas make up the third largest diaspora in the world, after those of Germans and Irish. The Chinese diaspora includes migrants who left China decades ago and many of the Chinese living overseas lack citizenship of the PRC. In recent years, their numbers have swelled with the addition of migrant workers, who have left China temporarily to work on labor projects. The share of low-skilled workers has decreased, with highly skilled migrants now dominating outbound migration from China. Yet  laborers who are sent abroad to work on, for instance, BRI infrastructure projects still total around one million on a yearly basis since 2015, when their numbers reached a plateau.

In 2016, Dudley L Poston Jr and Juyin Helen Wong used data from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council in Taiwan to estimate that Chinese living overseas in 2011 numbered 40.3 million, with two thirds of them living in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the United States. This number included all individuals with any Chinese ancestry who do not live on the Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. In the early 1980s, the number stood between 26.8 and 27.5 million. The growth of Chinese living overseas is roughly comparable to the relative growth of China’s overall population.

Meanwhile, the number of Chinese students abroad has continued to rise. According to official Chinese statistics in 2017 alone 600,000 students went abroad, up from some 40,000 per year at the start of the millennium. 

Students as Propaganda

China’s state-owned media has reported widely on the racial discrimination that Chinese students abroad face. The narrative that is advanced by the Global Times, the Communist Party of China’s most hardline outlet which in particular targets Australia as well as the United Kingdom, has obvious political overtones and purposes. Nonetheless, racism is real and it should be recognized that the way Chinese students are treated in their host countries offers the Chinese regime a propaganda tool.

The social composition of Chinese expatriate students has become more diverse as the number of Chinese students abroad has increased. While sending a young student abroad to study at an expensive Anglo-American university is still not within the reach of an ordinary Chinese family, the continued expansion of China’s middle class has nonetheless opened up new opportunities for families in the lower income brackets. Indeed, students from families in the 13,700-41,000 USD annual income bracket are the largest growing group.  

Workers in Limbo

While the racism that expatriate Chinese students face is readily exploited in Chinese propaganda, the conditions of Chinese migrant workers is an altogether different story. BRI projects have been known to cause friction in the host countries due to excessive reliance on Chinese workers as opposed to locals, poor working conditions, and the creation of Chinese “enclaves” in local areas. Unlike the well-off, highly skilled migrants who now make up the lion’s share of Chinese outbound migrants, low-skilled Chinese migrant workers tend to find themselves on the losing end during and after their sojourns at construction projects abroad, many of them located in Southeast Asia and Africa.

These workers often have to pay fees and sign one-sided contracts that leave them without appropriate rights. Chinese migrant workers have been found illegally working under tourist visas, a scheme designed to allow the employer to withhold payments. Because of the illegal visa status, the worker is unable to make any lawful claims, a practice, for instance, that was exposed at the work on Forest City in Malaysia – a residential development project under the BRI. In Europe, similar practices have been revealed at the construction of the Pelješac bridge in Croatia. Desperate to find work abroad, some Chinese workers turn to informal networks of subcontractors who operate in China, and charge workers money to match them with their infrastructure developers abroad. This matching can cost as much as 30.000 RMB.

Keeping in Mind Human Aspirations for Betterment

There is no doubt that Chinese people living overseas face racism and exploitation. Moreover, they risk being seen by their host countries as instruments of China’s geopolitical ambitions, even as foot soldiers in a quest for international influence. Within the current, charged international atmosphere, it is imperative that analysts and opinion makers keep in mind the deeply human aspirations for better livelihoods that motivate Chinese migrant workers and students, and do not fall into simple stigmatization which leads to blanket discrimination. Indeed, analysts and opinion makers alike should be mindful that discrimination will ultimately bolster the strident nationalism that the Chinese regime seeks to promote.