Repatriates Transform Economy, Yet Endure Persistent

As millions returned to China in recent decades, their expectations collided with harsh realities. Now Beijing seeks to help returned Chinese finds opportunities. Resentment

`Let me call again to the huaqiao overseas Compatriots to the distant ends of the earth Only because of the need to feed yourself Did you leave home to wander the seas.'

--Song of Revolution, early 20th century

LIU JINFENG is one of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution.

After leaving her native Indonesia for schooling in China in the late 1950s, Ms. Liu hoped to study mathematics at one of Beijing's prestigious universities. But amid the political confusion and economic disaster of China in the 1960s, her plans went awry.

As China reached out to foster ties with the developing world, Ms. Liu was assigned to study Turkish for a career in radio announcing at a broadcasting academy. ``At the academy, the majority were mainlanders, so overseas ties became sensitive, first with the administrators and later with the students. Whenever we made mistakes, we were told we had `bourgeois tails,' '' she recalls, referring to the Cultural Revolution phrase meaning they were middle class. In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong and his supporters launched the decade-long factional struggle known as the Cultural Revolution, which brought terror and chaos and rent families asunder.

Upon graduation, Liu was recruited to join the People's Liberation Army (PLA). But when she was identified as an overseas Chinese, or huaqiao, she was rejected and relegated to a foreign language publishing house where many with ``problem'' backgrounds were assigned. ``The authorities said, `She's huaqiao, how can she go to the PLA?' '' Liu recalls.

In today's China, Ms. Liu and millions of other overseas Chinese no longer carry the stigma they once did.

As economic changes overshadow past disappointments, millions of overseas Chinese once again look homeward to China, lured by the riches of the robust economy and tugged sometimes by the deep emotions a reinvigorated China stirs.

Like modern China's founding fathers - Sun Yat-sen, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao - paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has galvanized prosperous overseas Chinese with a new vision of China.

By replacing Marxism with market reform, Mr. Deng has reaped billions of dollars in overseas Chinese investment and a flurry of new schools, hospitals, and other philanthropy. Accounting for 70 to 80 percent of foreign investment in China, overseas Chinese who were once persecuted for their foreign ties are now wooed by central and local officials across China.

Western and Asian observers contend the growing overseas Chinese presence in China, focused in booming coastal provinces, feeds the growing instability in China. Their secretive, backroom dealings fuel corruption in the Communist Party and the government. And their privileged status makes them targets of local resentment.

``Overseas Chinese are the engine behind the corruption and bribery rampant now in China,'' says an Asian banker in Beijing.

Still, in a country with nascent capital markets, rapid change, and no rule of law, the insider dealing and network of connections of overseas Chinese provide efficient channels for China's economic modernization. ``Overseas connections are a good thing,'' Deng said in a goodwill pronouncement a few years ago.

In a gesture to right past wrongs and placate overseas investors, the government decided earlier this year to implement a controversial plan to aid returned overseas Chinese.

Although many were alienated by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and fled, in a second exodus, to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other countries, China still has about 30 million returned citizens and their relatives. About three-quarters came from Indonesia; they left after persecution during the 1950s and 1960s and were barred from returning.

The measures to aid overseas Chinese require local officials to help provide jobs, give priority in college enrollment and housing allotment, support their enterprises, end discrimination in conferring professional titles, and settle for houses confiscated in the past.

BUT local officials often oppose what they see as special treatment. Despite government goodwill, returned overseas Chinese say local Communist officials continue to restrict travel and discriminate in jobs.

The government admits that injustices of the past still have not been redressed.

In a recent speech, Xu Yongsheng, director of the Beijing overseas Chinese office, said that because prejudice remains, ``returned overseas Chinese and their relatives still have lingering fears.''

``Mainlanders think we're cutting into the cake. So if we leave, they will get a bigger share,'' Liu Jinfeng says.

Yanjing Overseas Chinese University, established in Beijing to expand educational opportunities, has difficulty placing its graduates because it lacks government accreditation. Unable to raise money in China, the university is building a new campus with the help of overseas Chinese from the Philippines and Indonesia and expects to get accreditation this year.

``It is hard to get jobs without a college education, and this is the problem that many children of returned overseas Chinese have,'' Yanjing provost Wu Yinshao says.

Recently, the official Outlook Weekly reported that an overseas Chinese woman in Guangdong was dismissed for allegedly fabricating charges that her boss was stealing public funds. When she went to court demanding reinstatement, her case was dismissed after local officials interfered. The official Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs and the quasi-official All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese refused interview requests.

``China regards overseas Chinese as dogs.... When the Nationalists came, the dog returned because of its attachment to the land. When the Nationalists wanted to kill the dog, it ran away again. When the Communists came, the same thing happened,'' says Lie Siong Tay, an Indonesian industrialist who fled to Jakarta when the Communists came to power in China in 1949. ``Whenever the policy changes for the better, the dog returns.''

Still, cynicism does not stop Mr. Lie from spending $10 million to open schools in his native Fujian Province, endowing a university, and planning joint-venture motorcycle production plants in three Chinese cities - Fuzhou, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.

For an oppressed Chinese minority in a country like Indonesia, donations and investment in China provide both self-esteem, which has been difficult to attain in their adoptive country, and inclusion in the vast Chinese family that needs and courts their money.

``I still feel rootless. I guess that's why I still feel attachment to the motherland,'' says Lie, who now goes by the Indonesian name Susanta Lyman.

Indonesian Chinese, who comprise the largest group of returnees, turned homeward during the 1950s and 1960s for education and refuge from tumult in Indonesia. In the early 1950s, Chinese were drawn not so much by patriotism as China's good universities.

Amid brutal anti-Chinese violence after Indonesia's abortive coup in 1965, many Chinese youths fled. But they found little refuge in a China plunging into the Cultural Revolution.

``They left Indonesia only to end up in the sheer chaos of China. They ended up in special zones in the south, coping with ... difficult circumstances,'' says Michael Godley, an Australian historian studying returned Indonesian Chinese.

Liu Jinfeng was part of a second wave of naively idealistic Chinese who left Indonesia amid anti-Chinese tensions in the late 1950s. Seasick and depressed during her voyage on a steamer carrying 3,000 Indonesian Chinese, Jinfeng and her younger sister, Qiuping, survived on a vision.

``Illusions permeated the ship. We pictured life in China as so rosy,'' recalls Liu, a soft-spoken woman with a girlish giggle. But the sisters, who joined an older brother already in China, found nothing idyllic in hurly-burly Canton, their first stop. Life was more difficult and precarious than in Muslim Indonesia. Some of the goods their parents had given them for bartering were stolen.

Disillusionment grew as she was forced to do manual labor - digging a reservoir, building a government guest house, forging iron at a blast furnace - during the disastrous communization and mass mobilization campaign known as the Great Leap Forward.

``Food was scarce. I was hungry, but there was nothing to eat,'' she recalls.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution erupted. As Liu found herself confined by her background in a job she didn't want, her life that year took another troubled turn. She married a Chinese soldier, a fellow student who she later believed worked as a military intelligence officer. The first of her two daughters was born later that year.

Liu's overseas ties, which almost prevented officials from sanctioning the marriage in the first place, became her husband's brutal weapon. He insisted on showing her letters to Indonesia to his bosses, so she stopped writing. When his application for Communist Party membership was held up due to her family background, he blamed her. Once, after she bought a pottery set, ``he chased me around the house, reading [Mao's] little red book.''

LIU was barred from attending meetings at her workplace and isolated from her colleagues. When a school friend committed suicide, Red Guards implicated her. At her job and during several work stints in the countryside, she was the frequent target of ``struggle sessions,'' at which people were brutally criticized to make them ideologically pure.

When her younger brother - who returned from Indonesia in the early 1960s - was sent to the countryside and decided to flee to Hong Kong, Liu and other family members intervened to keep him from going. They feared Liu's husband would take retribution against those who stayed behind.

As the Cultural Revolution ended and China's economic reforms took shape in the late 1970s, Liu's life also changed. She lost her job because China stopped exporting the revolution and the propaganda she translated.

Two years later, she divorced. Today, remarried and retired, she lives in Beijing in a small apartment with her husband, a college professor, and her youngest daughter. Just outside are the tattered suitcase and the old Dutch-made bicycle she brought from Indonesia.

``The overall policy may have changed, but in fact there is no fundamental change in the attitude to overseas Chinese....No matter how hard the overseas Chinese tries, she won't be able to make it,'' she says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Repatriates Transform Economy, Yet Endure Persistent
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today