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Tea Leaves

For diaspora, there is more than one China

Hong Kong turmoil presses a sensitive button for overseas Chinese

Protesters hold hands to form a human chain during a rally at Mongkok, in Hong Kong, on Aug. 23.   © Reuters

As the clock struck midnight on June 30, 1997, I was glued to the TV in my parents' bedroom in Manila as we watched the British Union Flag being lowered in Hong Kong, symbolizing the end of 156 years of Western rule and the return of the territory to China the following day.

"At last! Hong Kong is back with us," said my father, who was born in China but moved to the Philippines to escape his native country's tumultuous politics. Other members of his family made new lives in Hong Kong and Singapore; countless others from China's southern coast emigrated to Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Now 92, my father has stepped on Chinese soil just once since he left his hometown in Fujian as a young man, but the pull of the motherland has remained strong, and China is still "us" to him. For me, born in the Philippines, it is different. I identify as both Chinese Filipino and as huaqiao (overseas Chinese).

I'm not sure how many others still use that Mandarin term, but the Chinese character qiao, which refers to living abroad, is also close to the character for the word "bridge," which has always evoked for me the image of a literal connection between Southeast Asia and China.

For huaqiao like me, Hong Kong's present turmoil is not just another item on the news or social media. The world may see the protests as a pro-democracy revolt but for us, the unrest pushes a more personal button. While we are not of China, there is Chinese in us. So there is no thrill as we watch events in Hong Kong, knowing the value of our own countries' imperfect experiments with democracy and thus supportive of the Hong Kong people's struggle, but horrified to see "us" fighting "us."

Chinese ethnicity among the huaqiao has long been a shared identity marker, even if we have different citizenships. It linked overseas Chinese across countries, even though they spoke Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew with slightly different accents. Even our elders who fled communist rule in China admired the rise of talu -- the mainland.

But Hong Kong's resistance to mainland China's demands -- and the way in which the overseas Chinese are processing it -- shows how the idea of a Chinese identity that connects them with their "Chineseness" does not necessarily imply affinity, empathy or nationalistic ties to China itself.

The Hong Kong protests are hot topics among the overseas Chinese, whose numbers are often put at more than 40 million. "So messy," one 80-something overseas Chinese grandmother said, looking confused. Some say that if China sends in troops, Taiwan will opt for formal independence. Tibet is watching closely, and so is Xinjiang, say others.

In many conversations, Hong Kong's existence as part of China and its tarnished "one country, two systems" formula is not in doubt. But the point is no longer China's sovereignty, or what it can do in its territory, but whether China has space for differing Chinese identities.

Seven decades after communist rule began in China in 1949, two generations in Taiwan have grown up as Taiwanese. Many Hong Kong Chinese call China their country, but cling also to a specific Hong Kong identity. And in Southeast Asia, second- and third-generation overseas Chinese identify themselves mainly as citizens of their countries of birth who are of Chinese descent.

Angst about integration or assimilation in the societies they were born into -- valid up to two decades ago -- has largely disappeared. Gone too are the days when ethnic Chinese communities found themselves the subject of a tug of war between China and Taiwan. (Echoes of those times remain in the use of written Mandarin -- some overseas Chinese learnt the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan, while others learnt the simplified characters now used in China.)

Hong Kong must be China's worst nightmare, a challenge tougher than the trade war with the U.S. because the political strife is unfolding among its own people, on its own sovereign territory. But the unrest in the Special Administrative Region also highlights a wider shift in the makeup of overseas Chinese.

Many of us are conscious of our ethnic, cultural and historical roots, but do not feel the political pull of mainland China and are not attracted to the concept of a "Chinese mega-nation" of some sort. Many of us frown on China's militarization of the South China Sea, for example, seeing Beijing as an international bully, and harboring a mistrust of the Chinese presence in Southeast Asia.

We are totally comfortable with seeing, and experiencing, different Chinese identities. Beijing's "One China" principle will undoubtedly persist as a political idea, but for the overseas Chinese, there has not been one China for a long time.

Johanna Son is a Chinese Filipino journalist based in Bangkok.

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