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Overseas Chinese Face Suspicion In Native and Adopted Lands

Although a driving force behind Asia's economic success and proud investors in a dynamic China, Chinese living abroad find their loyalties questioned

By StoriesSheila Tefftstaff / March 23, 1994


LIU JINFENG lives out her father's broken dream in China.

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On a warm June day in 1957, the teenage, eldest daughter of an ethnic Chinese family in Indonesia was bundled into a boat by her emigre parents and, like millions of other young overseas Chinese, returned to China for education.

Ms. Liu's idealistic father, homesick and smarting from Indonesian dicrimination against the Chinese, sent four of his 11 children back in answer to Chairman Mao Zedong's clarion call to come home and build a new China. But, as she said goodbye in the Indonesian port of Surabaya, Liu could only lament, ``Why do I have to go back?''

During the next 33 years, that question haunted Liu Jinfeng.

Instead of the anticipated warm welcome, returning overseas Chinese found only pain and prejudice. Because of Liu's overseas ties, education and career doors were shut.

During the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 - a decade of internal turmoil and xenophobia - many returned overseas Chinese fled to Hong Kong and beyond. Trapped in China by a disastrous marriage to a military officer, Liu, the mother of two small daughters, endured mental and physical abuse for her ``bourgeois'' background.

For years Liu, who was afraid to write of her suffering and worry her parents, had little contact with the family in Indonesia. And when Indonesian Chinese flooded the mainland to escape the anti-Chinese pogrom that followed an abortive coup attempt in 1965, she was convinced that returning to her family was no longer an option.

Her first visit back to Indonesia in 1990 was an encounter with a family she did not really know.

``Because we were separated from each other for so many years, we have embraced different values. This is an invisible split in the family.''

Nor does she feel accepted in China. ``I had expected a hero's welcome, but I got only disillusionment,'' she says sadly.

``I was able to overcome whatever hardship there was in day-to-day life. But what I will never be able to forget is the political discrimination against me as a returned overseas Chinese,'' she says.

Rootless in China and abroad, the Lius and millions of other overseas Chinese seek a new niche in a world they are helping to transform.

Estimated to number 30 million to 40 million, more than half of whom live in Southeast Asia, the overseas Chinese have long been likened to the Jews: They thrive at commerce, live exiled from a motherland to which they still nurture strong cultural links, and suffer rejection and persecution in their adopted countries.

But what energizes the overseas Chinese today is the awakening of China with its 1.2 billion people and with the geopolitical and economic clout to make it a power epicenter in the next century. Mainland ties both boost and complicate shifting overseas Chinese fortunes.

The Chinese diaspora that has thrived in Southeast Asia for centuries drives East Asia's economic boom and has become a pan-Asian financial force second only to the Japanese.

In Indonesia, where Chinese account for only 4 percent of the population, they control 20 of the 25 biggest business groups. Although only about 10 percent of the population in Thailand, they own 90 percent of commercial and manufacturing capital and half of the banking capital in the country.

As the source of much of the direct investment, technology, management skills, and exports markets for China, they underpin the emerging ``Greater China,'' a mighty economic engine linking the powerhouses of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and southern China with the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia.

Of the $68.5 billion in foreign capital pledged to China in 1992, more than two-thirds of that was from overseas Chinese. That amount is expected to double again for 1993, according to China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.

Although the region's new wealth is concentrated among a handful of powerful Chinese magnates, smaller businessmen also aspire to a piece of the action in China, Asian economists say.

For the first time, families like the Lius are tapping into ties among the estimated 30 million returned overseas Chinese and their relations and exploring business prospects on the mainland.

But intertwined with the economic euphoria is apprehension of a political backlash against overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. For centuries, the Chinese, who have often bankrolled the powerful without wielding political power themselves, have been intermittent targets of enmity and violence.

Among local peoples, the Chinese were suspect because of an apparent superiority complex, a ghettoized lifestyle, and their commercial success. After World War II, Chinese were viewed as accomplices in China's designs to foment communist revolutionary outbreaks in Southeast Asia.