We Need to Be Careful about How We Use the Word ‘Chinese’

In recent years, the growing reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) political influence abroad has prompted numerous countries to reappraise their engagement with China. Optimism about Chinese convergence with international norms has been replaced with concerns over C.C.P. influence strategies in the wider world. As the pendulum swings from naivety to vigilance, dangers abound, not least to overseas Chinese communities. In some cases, these communities face both suspicion in their own countries and pressure from Beijing to present an image of China that accords with the C.C.P. narrative. Observers of China need to be much more careful when discussing the influence tactics of the Chinese Party-state in order not to implicate vast swathes of people identified in various ways under the umbrella term “Chinese.” We ought to pay greater attention to the difference between “official” China and “unofficial” China—that is, between the position of the state on the one hand and the often obscured lived experience of Chinese people in the private realm and in the diminishing space beyond officialdom’s grasp.

Too often, when discussing strategy and influence that emanates from the highest echelons of the Chinese Party-state, we say “Chinese” when in most cases we are referring only to a small group of individuals atop of the C.C.P. who are Han, male, middle-aged (or older), and extraordinarily wealthy.

The hazards of using the word “Chinese” emerge especially clearly in discussions of what media and scholars alike call “Chinese influence.” Reportage on then CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s warnings about covert Chinese influence, to quote but one example, referred to “Chinese efforts to exert power over the West.” This becomes problematic because the notion of Chinese nationality and Chinese ethnicity are to some extent contested terms in scholarly circles, including the fields of geography, history, and lexical semantics, amongst others. This issue of fuzzy categorization is compounded by the fact that it sits within a sensitive debate on foreign influence. Failure to consider the implications of labeling risks tarnishing members of our own communities who already have much to lose from the growing ubiquity of Beijing’s conception of what it is to be Chinese.

Difficulties stem not only from defining the group in question but also from the rapidly changing landscape of state-influencing behavior. We must move beyond theatrical notions of espionage and communist censorship in Eastern Bloc countries and more squarely confront the advanced Chinese Party-state strategies that have the capacity to influence the behavior of a wide range of actors regardless of race.

The Chinese Party-state elite is the key constituency in this arena. Since the launch of the Reform and Opening policy after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the C.C.P. leadership has edged ever further from the core tenets of communist ideology. As a result, the C.C.P. has refashioned itself as a guardian of Chinese civilization in a bid to retain the credibility and legitimacy to rule. In this game, concepts such as ethnicity, ideology, and nationality are better understood as tools that can be employed by the elite, most commonly as part of the wider cultivation of a narrative of cultural victimhood at the hands of aggressive Western countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This self-validating story paints China as the historic victim of Western imperialism saved only by intervention of the C.C.P. As self-appointed arbiter of concepts such as ethnicity and nationality in the Chinese realm, the C.C.P. presents itself as the central authority on what it is to be politically, ethnically, and culturally Chinese, as well as who ought to be loyal to the Chinese state. While the elite core no doubt contains some true believers in the C.C.P. cause, this endeavor isn’t primarily about ethnicity, ideology, or civilization. It is about politics and power. And it is from this point that we should commence analysis.

Fears of “Chinese influence” take many forms, some justified, some tinged with hypocrisy. As China’s market grows, so does its influence over foreign stakeholders. This often translates to impact in other realms, such as international publishers’ avoiding topics unacceptable to China’s censors in order to protect their Chinese market share. The same is true of film, where China’s content guidelines affect not only films destined for China but also preoccupy studios with interests in China, translating into a deeply pervasive censorship across the board. In the field of education, the banning of books that promote “Western values” at Chinese universities does not cause a great deal of concern in the West beyond China specialists, but attempts by Chinese embassies to halt debates and ban guests on university campuses outside of China have rightly drawn wide censure. There is also a fear in some quarters of crony capitalism that goes beyond opaque deals and ask-no-questions foreign policy. A recent example would be the spectacle of American companies such as IBM and General Electric defending Chinese interests in the U.S. Senate to protect their own interests in China.

As the effects of C.C.P. power reach further and wider, it is only natural that greater attention is paid to the Chinese Party-state’s influence abroad. However, it is vital that we acknowledge that the power and influence under discussion is that primarily of the highest echelons of the governing party, rather than the entire Party membership or the population as a whole, and less still the diaspora spread across the globe.

The interplay of developments at home and abroad mean that now is the time for a reckoning with the influence exerted by the Chinese Party-state. Recent constitutional changes allow Xi Jinping to stay on as Chinese leader indefinitely if he so chooses, endangering one of the genuinely positive achievements of the C.C.P. in recent times: peaceful leadership transition. The move raises the stakes in the game of power amongst China’s inner-Party political factions, a worrying development given the country’s modern history. It adds further rigidity to the political apparatus of state by potentially removing the change of personnel that at the very least offered a prospect of renewal—a prospect that elicits optimism among those frozen out by the status quo. Correspondingly, by increasing the rewards and penalties of political participation at the highest level, the change may mean that the oscillations of Chinese political life will peak higher and fall further when internal disputes arise.

A significant number of countries are now considering a broad range of measures to better protect themselves from Chinese Party-state interference, and not without good reason. However, as someone who has openly called for greater vigilance, I would also urge caution when considering the precise measures to adopt. Few leaders of liberal democracies would seriously entertain the Chinese government’s assertion that loyalty to the motherland flows through the blood, but if those leaders employ policies that place ethnicity before the agency of the individual, they will be signalling that they too view allegiance to the Chinese state as a matter of ethnic heritage. Moreover, any policy that treats ethnically Chinese people as politically suspect on grounds of ethnicity would only feed the victim narrative that serves to validate C.C.P. control in China. Policy should proceed from an acknowledgement that the Chinese experience contains many departures from the P.R.C. government’s official conception of Chineseness.

In late 2017, Chinese officials threatened Australia with a “consumer-led boycott” of Australian products. The nature of the threat, delivered by state officials, betrays a fascinating dynamic between elite and mass in China itself, whereby the latter appears almost an instrument of the former. Still, it would be a mistake to believe that the official conception of what it is to be Chinese goes unchallenged in the mainland. One need only look to the still contested periods of history where despite Party domination of education and media, electronic journals exploring the Cultural Revolution (such as Jiyi) and works contesting history as presented by the Party-state to the population, such as Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, are still created (if not widely disseminated). More recently, an embryonic #MeToo movement has begun to focus attention on the prevalence of male control over the state’s position on what it is to be Chinese in general and to be a Chinese woman in particular.

As a large constituency of mainland citizens abroad, students from the Chinese mainland risk becoming a political football. The case of Yang Shuping, who praised “the fresh air of free speech” of America, is illustrative here. The University of Maryland Chinese student faced an extraordinary backlash at home and was eventually compelled to apologize for her comment. Such incidents (and my own personal experience teaching Chinese students here in the U.K.) suggest that the characterization of the cohort as monolithic thinkers is a generalization. There are very real dangers to consider, most notably the capacity for coordination between the Chinese Party-state and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). There have been CSSA-organized instances of aggression toward well-known groups and individuals that the Chinese state demonizes, as well as intimidation of Chinese and non-Chinese citizens. Such action by the CSSA on non-Chinese campuses, combined with the increased dependence of prominent Western universities on income from Chinese mainland student recruitment, would suggest there is also a threat of creeping C.C.P. influence over university strategy and recruitment generally. Further scrutiny and considered action by both Western governments and universities is most certainly required, but the suggested policy of increased restrictions on visas for Chinese students who hope to study in the U.S. casts an entire group as a national security threat. This move echoes the tendency to generalize on the basis of ethnicity and race for which Chinese policymakers are justifiably criticized in the West.

The Chinese diaspora includes a wide spectrum of views from those fiercely loyal to their country of ancestry to those for whom China is a very distant place indeed, both geographically and conceptually. Even the tiny straight of water that separates the mainland city of Xiamen and Republic of China-administered Kinmen Island represents a huge gulf in the lived Chinese experience. One cannot fail to notice the radical differences between two locations so near, not least the abundance of small temples on Kinmen Island spared the ravages of the Cultural Revolution that saw the destruction of so many just across the water.

Within the mainland itself, we must not confuse repression of non-official voices in China with tacit endorsement by the population at large. For observers of China to unquestioningly accept the totalitarian stance that state and society are totally converged would not only betray the agency of the Chinese individuals included in such a definition, but would feed the self-justifying and erroneous narrative cultivated by China’s elite group that Party, nation, and people are indivisible. Hopefully it is clear that to categorize members of the overseas Chinese communities into the same group would be even greater folly. While there are very real dangers of increasing Chinese Party-state influence beyond China’s borders, all those engaged with the issue must remember that this problem is rooted in politics rather than ethnicity.

The debate also reaches into the raw legacy of colonialism. As ever, better acknowledgement and understanding of this legacy supports constructive debate, but this facet of the debate can also bring its own problems. As an example, Australian politicians were humbled when very reasonable criticism of Chinese aid programs in the Pacific region was strongly rebutted by the Samoan Prime Minister. An obvious and presumably well-intentioned effort to avoid appearing “colonial” shapes Australian engagement in the region. However, the broader Samoan population would surely benefit from a wider hearing that in some cases the leaders of these Pacific nations that welcomed Chinese engagement appear to have directly benefited financially, as the complainants argued. The lines of division between factions are unclear here, but shared interests between elite groups across national boundaries will continue to be a feature of C.C.P.-led Chinese expansion efforts in countries along all points of the development continuum.

By carefully defining where we are referring to the Chinese Party-state position rather than using “Chinese” as a term that encompasses both “official” and “unofficial” China, we not only distinguish between the various hues of the Chinese experience but also expose the elite group to some extent. Inevitably, such a move will prompt a reaction. Those who contest the term might expect criticism not only from official channels inside China itself but also from elites of other countries who benefit from the status quo, as well as the intermediaries that act between the two. Criticism of those who attempt to unpick the C.C.P. official line includes the drawing of false equivalences between the acts in question and the actions of other nations, as well as cultural difference arguments that often lazily dismiss valid questions. Increasingly, these retorts to valid criticism of C.C.P. conduct have included accusations of racism, such as the response to increasing Australian concern over Chinese Party-state influence. Oftentimes, Chinese Party-state responses themselves come to resemble the supposed prejudice they call out. Carefully wrapped in the language of mutual respect, values, and human rights, the pieces betray a position that the mainland Chinese population cannot be allowed to know its own history, cannot aspire to plural debate, and cannot hold power to account.

That’s not to say any “Western” model is perfect, but the vast majority of international China watchers are not afraid to be vehemently critical of their own countries and values. Without exception, the American and British China watchers I have communicated with recently have been deeply troubled by events in their own countries, and they have openly and widely expressed such opinions. Long may such sincerity continue. Deployed correctly, arguments that interrogate the concentration of power are founded not upon notions of racial distinction but on shared experience and the jeopardies of universal human flaws.