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 , staff

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

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?''

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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.

Hungry for overseas Chinese investment and better relations with Asian neighbors, Beijing has in recent years abandoned its insistence that overseas Chinese owe first loyalty to China and its objections to Chinese becoming citizens elsewhere.

Valuing them as conduits for foreign investment, it has undertaken to soothe past injustices against returned overseas Chinese.

Still, Asian and Western analysts warn that growing competition for foreign funds in Asia could make the rush of overseas Chinese into the China market a potential regional time bomb.

In a recent speech in Hong Kong, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's elder statesman, cautioned, ``China's success can generate fears that it will dominate the region, especially if it is seen to be a competitor for investments rather than a partner in regional prosperity.''

Concerns that China will attract capital needed to keep Southeast Asian economies growing and political unrest in check, compound the simmering fears of China's military ambitions in the region.

The controversial presence of powerful ethnic Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia ``has affected nation-building in the Southeast Asian states.... So this [the overseas Chinese minorities] is a problem that will come up again and again,'' says Leo Suryadinata, a historian in Singapore.

``The future will depend on the policies of China toward Southeast Asia and the region's Chinese, and how China uses its economic, political, and military might,'' Mr. Suryadinata says.

For centuries, the overseas Chinese have been ambivalently caught between their native China and Southeast Asia, known as Nanyang, or south of the South China Sea. From the 3rd century BC, Chinese traveled to the region as compradores, middlemen, business advisers, and later coolie labor, even when such travel was frowned upon by imperial courts.

But Nanyang was always just a frontier to be explored and exploited, never to be settled. Chinese living overseas were called huaqiao, a term referring to a sojourner who retains ties and national loyalty to China.

After British gunboats forced open a closed China during the Opium wars, a flood of Chinese labor in the late 19th century finally forced China's imperial rulers to recognize the right of Chinese to travel overseas. The growth of significant Chinese minorities also raised fears in Southeast Asia of a strong Chinese nationalism, as anticolonial struggles gave birth to new nations after World War II.

Just how well the Chinese have assimilated in each country depends upon their numbers and relations with the ruling elite. In the Philippines and Thailand, the ethnic Chinese dominate business life and move easily among the political and social elite. In contrast, the Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia have born the brunt of popular resentment during times of political crisis and economic want.

In Southeast Asia, anticommunist Indonesia has the most brittle and complex relations between ethnic Chinese and indigenous people. After the 1965 aborted coup attempt that the government blamed on China, thousands of Chinese were massacred or forced to flee to China and other countries.

The overseas Chinese themselves are not always like-minded: They are often at odds over how much to assimilate, if at all. In some Southeast Asian countries, small businessmen who have been the hardest hit during anti-Chinese violence resent the high-profile tycoons whose actions stir popular resentment and who, in the future, could endanger the entire Chinese minority once again.

Overseas Chinese businessmen may be lured increasingly to the new glitter of China's booming coastal economy and are forging closer links with the multinational business community. But many worry it will bring closer scrutiny by their governments at home.

``The ordinary Chinese overseas are divided among themselves and are still straining to adapt to their very complex local societies,'' says Wang Gungwu, a historian at the University of Hong Kong.

``Whatever the appeal the idea of Greater China may have for them, it has always had to be screened through the many layers of their own new national loyalties and their decades of separation from their ancestral homes.''

Among older overseas Chinese, a reinvigorated China stirs a resurgent pride and boosts confidence to practice the old traditions hidden in the past. For the young, ethnic pride remains strong, but the Chinese identity, linked to mainland China, is on the wane.

As a returned overseas Chinese, Liu Jinfeng says she can never feel the unquestioning loyalty of her parents, who spent most of their lives outside China.

``My father regretted sending his kids back to China, but he still wanted China to become strong and prosperous,'' she says. ``My mother complains about politics, but she would never say this to outsiders or foreigners. She says I can't blame my own country.''

``As for me, China is still my motherland. But the concept of motherland should be separated from the regime.''

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