Overseas Chinese contributed to China’s development before – and can do so again
Chi Wang says generations of overseas Chinese supported each other and the country during tough times, and this is something the younger generation – and President Xi Jinping – should remember amid calls for ‘national rejuvenation’
The China I left to go to the United States in 1949 was a country just ending a civil war following the devastation of the second world war. I was a high school student, and one of the few lucky enough to study abroad. I did not intend to stay in the US forever.
Encouraged first by my parents and later by China’s Ministry of Education, I planned to study hard and return to China to continue my education.
My plan was derailed because the political situation in China prevented me and many other Chinese nationals from coming home. I stayed in the US, watching as China changed from a destitute country into the economic powerhouse it is today. The standard of living has risen, children have access to better education and China is among the most economically influential countries today.
Because of our shared experiences, overseas Chinese cared just as much about other Chinese living outside the mainland as for the families they left behind. Many overseas Chinese offered me support throughout my younger days: jobs, opportunities, places to live. No matter their wealth or social status, people felt connected by our shared culture and community. When I was still a student, the unofficial “mayor” of Chinatown in Washington offered me a free room. This was the culture of old overseas Chinese.
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Today, hundreds of thousands of young Chinese come to the US to study or do business. However, today, those lucky enough to study abroad are usually the privileged few, supported by wealthy families. They are not coming from war. Living in wealthy neighbourhoods, these young elite go abroad to make money for themselves, not for China. They only associate with other elite – then complain about a tough life in America. This is a stark change from the communities of my student days. When I arrived in 1949, Chinese students had no wealthy families to cushion us. The help we received from the overseas community gave us the assistance we needed to survive. No matter our differences in economic status, my countrymen helped me feel I was surrounded by family. Young wealthy students now don’t behave the same.
Older Chinese also never failed to forget about friends and family back home. During economic hardships, those who were working abroad sent money to families there; during the second world war, this included sending money to help fight the Japanese invaders. When China opened up economically, they were among the first to contribute foreign direct investment when few trusted China’s economic potential. Overseas Chinese continue to play a large role in international businesses, and by sharing Chinese history and culture they’re able to promote understanding of China and friendships with people abroad. Even Chinese leaders have recognised the importance of engaging people abroad, whereas younger generations have not.
Former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao all paid attention to overseas Chinese. When visiting other countries, they all took time to engage overseas communities and recognised their importance to China. Jiang and Hu both met groups of Chinese, including older residents and students during state visits to the US, and Jiang asked the Chinese embassy to invite Chinese scholars like me to talk to him.
Although President Xi Jinping indicates his belief in the importance of overseas Chinese contributions, including a mention in his speech at the 19th Party Congress in October, mentions and indications do not necessarily translate into policy. In a national meeting on overseas Chinese affairs last February, Xi called on overseas Chinese to assist with rejuvenation of the nation. This is the role overseas Chinese have always played. Though Xi was comfortable asking for their support and said that party authorities ought to protect these groups, he has not voiced any clear policy regarding overseas Chinese. When he has visited the US, Xi has only met small privileged groups of Chinese Americans. Unlike his predecessors, these meetings have not been public.
Xi was not wrong in recognising the need to call on young Chinese abroad to turn more attention to their homeland.
The lack of support among elite young students for each other must not translate into a lack of support for family and country. But I hope Xi will make more effort to reach out to all overseas Chinese and encourage them to support their communities. If not, the younger generations are unlikely to make the effort themselves, and Chinese living overseas and on the mainland will all be worse off if they lose mutual support.
I hope Xi and his new leadership will continue to reach out to the Chinese living overseas. I also hope young Chinese students studying abroad will remember to support each other. Overseas Chinese can still feel connected to and proud of their motherland. The young elite abroad now may need a push in that direction, but with a little effort it will not be impossible to remind them. That China is successful now does not mean it should forget about its people abroad, who have never forgotten about China.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation