THE sun never sets on the Overseas Chinese commercial empire.
One of the great production and trading forces in the world today, its influence stretches from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, Sydney to Taipei to Vancouver, San Francisco to London. More than 30,000 ethnic Chinese millionaires (mostly from Hong Kong) live in Toronto. There are as many Changs as Chavezes in the Panama City phone book.
The hub of this very informal empire continues to be Hong Kong - with a gradual shift to Shanghai, and other coastal cities from Quangzhou to Dalian. A major part of its importance lies in its future relations with, and influence on, Beijing's too slowly changing ancien regime.
China's government can survive without Overseas Chinese investment funds, business know-how, and world contacts. But it - and almost one-quarter of the people on Earth - cannot prosper to the degree they have in the past decade and a half without that support.
That's why Washington and others seeking to influence the course of China's leaders should more often harness the self-interest of this admittedly apolitical force. Leaders of Overseas Chinese business are not interested in rocking the boat in Beijing. But they are not oblivious to the injury that Beijing's saber-rattling toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, petulant suppression at home, and quarrels with neighbor nations over the Spratly Islands can do to their business.
Certainly, these ethnic Chinese business leaders are interested in: a stable Chinese government, further development of fair commercial laws, more freeing of education, accelerated privatizing of inefficient state industries, crackdowns on bureaucratic corruption, reliable pricing of commodities still controlled by the state, and the ability to reward workers according to skill and performance.
All of which should put a brake on Beijing's often pugilistic, King Kong approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It has long been assumed that if China's leaders want to woo Taiwan into a closer but still privileged relationship with the mainland they will have to make Hong Kong a showcase of kid glove handling after China takes possession in 1997.
Beijing's denunciation of Hong Kong's recent democratic elections was anything but. Ditto Beijing's handling of the once quite improved relations with Taiwan. Missile-testing off its coast has certainly driven Taiwan further away from the old 'one China' creed.
We've said in the recent past that the US and its partners should continue, even increase, hardheaded dialogue with present and future leaders in Beijing. We urged calmly holding the line on matters such as the informal US visit of Taiwan's president and the detention of Harry Wu - but also keeping in focus the progress in relations over the past 15 years.
Current proposals for a US-China summit will make sense if that same hardheaded, dispassionate approach continues. It's in that context that we urge diplomats, businesses, and human rights watchers not to ignore the long-term interests and potential influence of Overseas Chinese. Their interest clearly calls for a stable Confucian China, not a xenophobic, neo-Maoist one. And that's a worldwide interest.
Importance of the Overseas Chinese 'empire' lies in its potential influence on Beijing.