The Chinese government has frequently shifted its attitudes towards Chinese citizenship in the past. Now, foreign-born Chinese people by the government are seen as both an asset and a liability, said Prof. Charlotte Brooks, history, of CUNY Baruch College.
Brooks explored this tension between foreign citizenship and Chinese ethnicity in her lecture titled “By Choice and Coercion: The Problem of Dual Citizenship in Modern China,” on Monday.
The lecture, hosted by the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative, examined how the Chinese government has manipulated the definition of citizenship for political and economic gain over the past century.
This topic was influenced by political turmoil in China, a “long history of racist immigration law” in the United States and other Western countries, Brooks said during a question and answer session.
Brooks said that although China’s recent policies appear to be moving towards methods used in previous regimes of the early 20th century, she does not believe that “history [is repeating] itself.” Rather, she said, the Chinese government today is operating under different motivations and a changing global context.
The first concept of Chinese citizenship in the 20th century was developed in 1909. Back then, any child with a Chinese father was counted as a Chinese citizen, even if they were born abroad and regardless of “how they thought of themselves.”
The Chinese government also capitalized on the status of foreign-born Chinese individuals. In 1950, after the end of the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist Parties, both sides “tried to use overseas Chinese to show their legitimacy” as the rightful authority of the country.
However, in the following decades, China sought to change its global reputation from one of “revolution and radicalism” to that of a “good and peaceful neighbor.”
Eventually, the People’s Republic of China encouraged foreign-born Chinese to transfer their loyalty from China to the nations of their birth or residence. According to Brooks, the PRC has also frequently “fudged” its own policies, echoing the same possessive attitudes of the Nationalist leaders from the early 20th century.
This repetition of the past is due to China’s rapid economic development in the late 20th century, Brooks said, which attracted many foreign-born Chinese to China for professional opportunities, who have used their ethnicity for personal benefit while working in China.
Additionally, starting in 2012, President Xi Jinping has been focusing on his policy visions such as the “Chinese Dream” and the government’s United Front Work Department, both of which emphasize strengthening China’s global presence and influence.
Foreign-born Chinese are seen by the Chinese government both as assets for their skills and potential social disruptions, Brooks said.
The “asset” part is evident in the special five-year work visas provided to ethnic Chinese around the world. The government’s desire for social control is also seen when the government subjects foreign-born Chinese to PRC authority without foreign aid, Brooks said.
Unlike the Nationalist Party’s policies from the past, the current Chinese policies are a show of dominance and its ability to “violate international laws” and its own laws to advance its goals.
“It’s the story of two very different regimes, operating under two very different contexts, but drawing on the shared language about overseas compatriots’ assumed ties to the motherland, to use those people to achieve the nation’s goals,” Prof. Brooks said.