war on the rocks

Beijing’s Influence Operations Target Chinese Diaspora

March 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in “Ministry of Truth,” a special series on state-sponsored influence operations. Catch up on the series here

In September 2015, tens of thousands of Malaysian pro-government “red shirt” protestors thronged Kuala Lampur’s Chinatown, where they shouted slogans denouncing the country’s ethnic Chinese community and leaders. China’s ambassador reacted angrily, warning that his country “will not sit idly by” as others “infringe on the national interest of China.” His statement, employing language suggestive of threats to use military force, outraged Malaysian leaders, who promptly summoned the ambassador to demand a clarification.

As U.S. officials continue to grapple with Russian interference in domestic politics, growing attention has turned to Chinese influence operations. Although much attention has focused on Beijing’s efforts to fund pro-China propaganda, the incident in Kuala Lumpur highlights that some of the more troubling activities the government has undertaken have been those targeting the Chinese diaspora.

For Beijing, much of what Westerners call “influence operations” is captured in the concept of “external propaganda,” which consists of media efforts aimed at cultivating popular support and weakening political foes as well as the activities of the “United Front,” a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. Notably, China’s influence operations are explicitly intended to support a project of “rejuvenation”: restoring China’s status as a wealthy and powerful country ruled by the CCP. As the United Front Department’s Research Office put it in a 2017 article, its “new direction” consists of “the three tasks of serving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, safeguarding the state’s core interests, and maintaining the long term stability of Hong Kong and Macao and completing the unification of the motherland.”

This focus on China’s rejuvenation can help us better understand what exactly makes these activities pernicious. Russia’s interference aims to damage political institutions and foment instability in countries Moscow considers unfriendly. Beijing does not appear to be involved in such activities. However, what Beijing regards as necessary to support revitalization does include some measures that oppose the interests of the United States and other countries. Beijing’s efforts to cultivate support in and control diaspora communities, in particular, threaten to exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions, aggravate problems of political and social polarization, and harm the civil rights and freedoms of citizens in other countries. For these reasons, such activities merit much closer attention by democratic governments seeking to counter China’s influence operations.

Rejuvenation and Influence

How does Beijing think national rejuvenation can benefit from influence operations? First, China’s leadership seeks to extend its influence and the appeal of China and its culture. Second, the CCP hopes to weaken political foes and advance its narrative for all Chinese people. Third, the party hopes to persuade Chinese around the world to contribute directly to the country’s development through contributions of resources, skills, and knowledge. Global media attention has focused primarily on the first category of activities, but the second and third categories arguably provide more reason for concern. These latter two also depend more on interactions with the Chinese diaspora.

Chinese leaders regard increased international influence and the appeal of China and its culture as an important element of revitalization. The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress report, China’s most authoritative strategy document, states that by mid-century, China wants to be “a global leader” in “international influence.” The report similarly outlines ambitions for Chinese “cultural soft power” to have “greater appeal” by 2035. Media coverage has already drawn considerable scrutiny to Chinese efforts to promote traditional culture and benign views of the country through investments in movies, advertising, exhibits, and activities related to the Confucius Institutes, which are Chinese government funded educational organizations aimed at promoting Chinese culture and teaching Mandarin Chinese. How much these activities pose a threat to U.S. security remains a topic of intense debate.

The activities that mainly target the Chinese diaspora generally draw less attention, but could pose far bigger threats. Such activities may affect people of Chinese descent in North America and Europe, but the impact is likely to be felt more strongly in countries with large populations of Chinese migrants, especially those in areas closer to China that have economic and strategic value to Beijing, such as those in Southeast Asia and Australia and New Zealand.

Influencing ‘Overseas Chinese’

The Chinese diaspora now numbers about 60 million, of which more than 70 percent are in Asia, especially Southeast Asia. This marks a decline from the 1990s when 90 percent of ethnic Chinese lived in Asia, and signals the diaspora’s increasingly global distribution. The Chinese diaspora, like those of other ethnicities, is a heterogeneous group with diverse views, values, and identities. Many regard themselves as of Chinese heritage but feel no allegiance to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a point that commentators in countries with large Chinese populations, such as Singapore, have frequently pointed out. Acknowledging this reality, Chinese academics have urged officials to pay more attention to the roughly 15 million migrants who have left China since the start of reform and opening up, a group that Chinese academics regard as potentially more sympathetic to the CCP’s agenda. Zhuang Guotu, a scholar at Xiamen University, characterized this group as the “new migrants” whom he described as “highly educated, wealthy, and willing to forge close relations with mainland China.”

Chinese authorities have prioritized efforts to cultivate support of the diaspora as well as all of its citizens who study and live abroad, which state media has collectively referred to as “overseas Chinese.” At a national work meeting on overseas Chinese held in February 2017, President Xi Jinping called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese dream. State Councilor Yang Jiechi explained in a 2017 article on United Front outreach to overseas Chinese that strengthening relations with this group had become a “pressing need.” To supplement the United Front’s work, the Chinese government has established an “Overseas Chinese Affairs Office” responsible for carrying out related tasks. In recent years, the office has coordinated with various Chinese ministries to develop preferential policies to entice overseas Chinese professionals to return to the mainland. Incentives have included financial support, preferential access to desired schools, protection for intellectual property, and business support.

The efforts appear to be paying off. Last year, 80 percent of students who left to study abroad returned to China, a dramatic shift from previous decades when most Chinese students who left the country never returned. While these returning students are Chinese citizens, not diaspora members, the trend suggests that China’s marketing efforts are succeeding. Beijing has also provided virtually free two week-long “birthright tours” to over 400,000 foreigners of Chinese ancestry since 1999 to encourage the diaspora to develop emotional ties to the People’s Republic.

Chinese officials hope these overseas Chinese will cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP and advance the party’s political agenda. In his 2017 article, Yang highlighted the importance of working with overseas Chinese to “counter ‘separatist forces’” and carry out “pro-reunification activities.” Already, Chinese officials have made gains in consolidating control of diaspora media, often using strong-arm tactics. For instance, reporters in China who provide content to independent diaspora media sources may face harassment, detention, or imprisonment. Beijing has also pressured advertisers, foreign diplomats, and media broadcasting partners, including European satellite companies, to curb the reach and access of independent diaspora media. Chinese Canadian journalists have reported growing pressure to muzzle criticism of Beijing, in part due to threats from China’s consulates and from pro-Beijing advertisers. News reports have also highlighted efforts by Chinese students to intimidate fellow students, again often with the apparent encouragement of embassy officials. Incidents in which Chinese netizens harass and intimidate ethnic Chinese in other countries who express any criticism of the CCP and its policies have also garnered attention.

Authorities have long regarded diaspora Chinese as important sources of capital and technology who can contribute to national development. In recent years, however, officials have started to see the diaspora not only as a key conduit for high-end technology through involvement in Chinese-led multi-national technology development initiatives, but also as a way to realize broader geo-economic ambitions. Chinese leaders regard the diaspora as critical enablers of ambitious projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). One Chinese academic explained that the success of the initiative will depend on ethnic Chinese communities in countries along the route serving as “guides, go-betweens, and participants” because they “have a deep understanding of the local situations and run business there.” In 2016, authorities began to hold an annual “business conference” for overseas Chinese involved in the BRI. Underscoring the political importance of the event, Premier Li Keqiang attended the second conference last year.

Regional Reverberations

The importance that CCP leaders place on ties to the diaspora suggests these activities will only increase in coming years. Taiwan, an island populated with ethnic Chinese, has long felt the weight of intrusive PRC efforts to dominate its media, interfere with political campaigns, and strong-arm its leaders — all of which has exacerbated political polarization and social tensions. Others are beginning to feel the pressure as well. Australia and New Zealand, for example, continue to grapple with the Chinese government’s efforts to influence domestic politics. Australia’s security services have reported efforts by Chinese agents to infiltrate policymaking circles and strengthen Beijing’s influence over the country’s Chinese diaspora community.

Indeed, Chinese officials have signaled their intention to advance more policies to earn the loyalty and goodwill of diaspora communities — in part by scrutinizing their treatment by foreign governments. Yang Jiechi stated in his article that it had become “necessary to actively push the governments of countries of their residence to build a favorable environment for Chinese compatriots.” In the past few years, PRC diplomatic officials in Malaysia have carried out regular visits to ethnic Chinese communities, endorsed pro-China political candidates, and attended high level meetings by political parties dominated by ethnic Chinese.

Beijing’s influence operations cynically exploit the diversity of other countries for the CCP’s own ends. Coercion and intimidation of Chinese living abroad harms their civil rights and freedoms and damages their political institutions. The efforts by the People’s Republic to muzzle critical diaspora Chinese media voices, infiltrate and manipulate policymaking, and encourage the formation of pro-Chinese political factions not only harms the sovereignty of other countries, they can also exacerbate social tensions within pluralistic societies and encourage polarization. In Malaysia, for example, efforts by Chinese government officials to generously fund Chinese language schools and endorsements of particular candidates have stirred resentment on the part of some ethnic groups who see such actions as interference in the country’s internal affairs. This tension contributed to the 2015 protests in Kuala Lumpur. Chinese government efforts to recruit agents also threatens to encourage unfounded fears and racism towards individuals of Chinese heritage.

Policymakers and commentators may be tempted to focus on those Chinese influence operations that are most visible to elite opinion makers, such as the activities of the Confucius Institutes and Chinese involvement in Western media. However, it is dangerous to neglect Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and dominate diaspora communities. Overseas Chinese populations who resist Beijing’s demands could experience more harassment, coercion, and fear, which could lead them to feel vulnerable and alienated from their governments and fellow citizens. On the other hand, diaspora communities who comply with Beijing’s demands could find themselves the target of harassment, racism, and coercion by members of their host countries, which could in turn drive them into the arms of the PRC. Mishandled incidents involving diaspora communities could spur Beijing to weigh in, potentially through the use of diplomatic and economic coercion. To minimize the risks of Chinese influence operations, governments will need to demonstrate leadership and courage in affirming the rights of their fellow Chinese heritage leaders, journalists, and citizens to live free from coercion and in a manner consistent with the rights and freedoms due to them as fellow countrymen.


Timothy R. Heath is an international and defense research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: Travis Chau/Flickr