Is loving China one and the same as loving the Chinese Communist Party?

That question has weighed increasingly heavily on minds of many Chinese diaspora as a rising China flexes its economic muscles and promotes its cultural soft power on the international stage.

On the one hand, many overseas Chinese have shown pride in the considerable economic achievements China has made over the past four decades, allowing it to become the world’s second largest economy. On the other hand, they also harbour deep-rooted suspicion and disapproval of the party’s authoritarian approach and its intolerance towards dissent or media freedom.

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Hence, when talking politics, those overseas Chinese like to highlight that their love of country is in no way related to a love of the Communist Party. This is particularly true in Hong Kong where tens of thousands of people gather on the anniversary of the party’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 to hold a vigil and demand more democracy.

But recently many of them, particularly those who have businesses or relatives in China, have faced subtle – and at times not so subtle – pressure to accept that love of party and love of country are one and the same.

Indeed, the Chinese government spends billions of yuan each year to strengthen its so-called overseas-oriented propaganda targeting people outside China, while its cabinet-level ministries, including the Overseas Chinese Office and the United Front Work Department, have a particular agenda aimed at wooing the diaspora.

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Ironically, the biggest discomfort for the overseas Chinese is not from the Chinese Communist Party but from politicians and media in the host countries where they live.

Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power more than five years ago, he has tightened the party’s domestic control and projected a more assertive stance on territorial disputes overseas. He has declared that China’s governing model, which combines the party’s authoritarian rule with economic reforms, would enable the country to become a world power by 2035.

Concerned about China’s intentions and its assertions, Western countries led by the United States have pushed back and have begun stricter scrutiny of Chinese investments and Chinese government-backed cultural initiatives, such as the Confucius Institutes, sprouting in foreign countries.

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As part of the pushbacks, some Western politicians and mainstream media have started to raise troubling questions over the loyalty and allegiance of their own citizens and long-term residents of Chinese descent. They seem to suggest those overseas Chinese, many of whom have lived in their countries for generations, are susceptible to brainwashing by the Chinese government and could be turned into agents to further Beijing’s agenda and interests.

Such innuendos are unfair and dangerous, to say the least, and reek of racism, to say the worst.

A recent example of such careless remarks was made last month by John Howard, a former Australian prime minister. He told an intelligence gathering in London that although more than one million Australian Chinese were “terrific” citizens, China was “very interested in the capacity to use those people to further her power and her influence”.

What is even more startling is that Howard’s remarks, reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, failed to trigger any meaningful debate in the media or among analysts, suggesting his statement was something to be taken for granted.

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The strongest rebuttal came from Jason Li, an Australian Chinese, who pointed out in an op-ed piece in another newspaper that Howard implied that every one of the one million or so Australians of Chinese heritage were patsies for the Chinese Communist Party. He said such loose labelling risked putting them off Australian political life and leaving them open to China’s appeal. Kudos to Li for speaking out on this important issue.

Historically, the evolution of diaspora can be traced back to the mid-19th century and since then, waves of Chinese migrants have moved to other countries for economic or other reasons. They established themselves in their host countries long before the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

In fact, many were forced to flee during the first decades of the People’s Republic because of famine and the party’s gross mismanagement of economic policies.

Those people and their dependents hardly had any charitable feelings towards the party but their cultural identity, heritage and kinship have enabled many of them to wish for a prosperous China.

Even those who migrated overseas in the past few decades, particularly wealthy Chinese and relatives of the ruling elites, and the fact they are willing to forgo their connections and move their massive funds out of one of the world’s fast growing economies, is hardly a sign of confidence in the party, let alone intention to seek closer ties with it.

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Another element of the paranoia in the West about the supposed Chinese government influence is to suspect recent Chinese immigrants and scrutinise their links with the Communist Party. Some Western media and politicians like to play up those links with the party to paint certain immigrants in a bad light. It is also grossly unfair.

As mentioned before, the party controls almost every aspect of the Chinese society and it is hard for anyone, particularly businessmen, not to interact with government officials on any given day. Some shrewd businessmen have been particularly good at ingratiating themselves with the bureaucrats to get things done, which is part of life in China really. Does that mean that they have become Communist Party stooges now that they reside in different countries?

Until recently, the Chinese government had adopted a pragmatic attitude towards wooing overseas Chinese, appealing to their sense of kinship while respecting their aversion to the party and their own diverse opinions.

But in recent years Chinese officials’ attitudes have become more assertive. At home and abroad, some officials have begun to preach that true patriotism comes from not only the love of one’s country, but also of the party. This new rhetoric makes it easier to label someone unpatriotic if he or she opposes the party’s policies and challenges its legitimacy.

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This has created an uneasiness among some overseas Chinese as they feel pressure to choose sides. Anecdotal evidence has shown that in some Chinese communities in the western countries, Chinese-language media outlets backed by the Chinese government have started to adopt propaganda slogans and fulsome praise of the party.

In some instances, the propaganda borders on the ridiculous. When Jeremy Hunt was appointed as Britain’s new foreign secretary earlier this month, many Chinese reports carried headlines calling him China’s foreign son-in-law because he married a China-born girl Lucia Guo a decade ago. Some even enthused how this would help improve the Sino-British relations. This recalls another interesting episode in which the Chinese media went over the top when Gary Locke became the first Chinese American to serve as ambassador to China in 2011 – even though he spoke little Chinese and knew much less about China than his predecessor, a Caucasian American, who spoke fluent Chinese.

In its efforts to reach out to the diaspora, Beijing may want to take some cues from Israel in the way it manages its relationship with Jews around the world.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper