April 3, 2017 10:00 am JST
Interview

Xi's secret economic weapon: Overseas Chinese

Scholar says today's 'new immigrants' can boost China-US ties

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that overseas Chinese play a huge role in shaping the country's economy and politics. That view is no doubt informed by the large contribution Chinese immigrants in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere have made in driving China's spectacular growth during Xi's tenure -- a time marked by his increasingly strong grip on power.

Many of those overseas Chinese originally hail from the southern province of Fujian, where Xi spent 17 years in high-level government posts. He became the vice mayor of Xiamen in 1985 before going on to serve as mayor of Fujian's capital, Fuzhou, and later governor of Fujian, a post he held until 2002.

One person who shares Xi's views about the importance of Chinese immigrants is Zhuang Guotu, 64, a chair professor at Huaqiao University, a distinguish professor at Xiamen University and a leading expert on the subject. His research helps the government formulate policies for engaging with those overseas communities. Xi even wrote the introduction to one of Zhuang's books.

The Nikkei recently spoke with Zhuang about the roles overseas Chinese play in Xi's China.

Q: What roles do ethnic Chinese living abroad play for Xi?

A: The number of Chinese immigrants, including those who have changed their nationalities, is estimated at about 60 million. The number continues to rise as more people study abroad. In terms of population, 60 million is nearly equivalent to the world's 25th-largest country. As a whole, they hold the eighth-largest amount of assets in the world, meaning they can exert the same amount of influence as a developed country. We estimate they own more than $2.5 trillion in assets.

The richest Chinese immigrants come from Fujian, where Xi spent 17 years. It's where most of the affluent people in the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore originally hail from.

Thailand has a large population of Chinese born in the Guangdong Province city of Chaozhou, which is culturally close to Fujian.

Chinese immigrants have been involved in most of the economic development projects in Xiamen and Fuzhou, so Xi regards them as enormously important. 

Q: What is Beijing's policy toward overseas Chinese, specifically?

A: Their role in Chinese history has been huge. Sun Yat-sen [who led the 1911 revolution that overthrew China's last imperial dynasty], for example, had immigrated to Hawaii.

Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded China's reform and opening-up policy [in 1978] also placed importance on Chinese immigrants. That's why, to attract more investment, he created special economic zones in areas where large numbers of them originally hailed from.

Were it not for Chinese immigrants, the reform and opening-up push would have taken much more time to bear fruit.

Foreign companies slowed their investment in China since June 4, 1989, but Chinese immigrants more than picked up the slack.

[Xi's father] Xi Zhongxun is the first politician to recognize the value of Chinese immigrants. At a meeting in 1984 that brought together executives from rural areas in charge of matters related to their communities, he said Chinese immigrants were equipped with financial, technological and business management abilities, and that China needed to entice them to play an active role in building the country's economy.

Xi's Belt and Road Initiative [to develop infrastructure along economic corridors connecting Asia and Europe] comprises land and maritime routes. The land route is of great significance to national security. The maritime route is even more important in that it has not only security but also economic significance because it passes through areas with large populations of Chinese immigrants.  

Because Xi understands the importance of those overseas Chinese, he wanted the initiative to include the maritime route.

For the undertaking to succeed, Xi needs the countries along the routes to understand his aims and partner with China. Its success depends on the ethnic Chinese in these countries, because they have a deep understanding of the local situations and run business there. They are the guides, go-betweens and participants in the initiative.

China is also moving forward with the creation of a new development zone aimed at harnessing the financial and technological power of that community.

Q: Now that Donald Trump is the U.S. president, what role will Chinese immigrants play in terms of China's policy toward the U.S.?

A: The U.S. is seeing the fastest increase in the number of Chinese immigrants, who now number an estimated 4.6 million. The figure is forecast to swell to 6 million in 10 years, and to 10 million in 20 years, meaning they could be the deciding factor in the U.S. elections. Today, many of those immigrants used to work in mainland China, with around 1 million coming from Fujian.

The number of Taiwanese going to the U.S. to study has been growing since the 1960s, with the cumulative total reaching about 600,000.

Many Chinese immigrants in the U.S., including those from Taiwan, hold high-level government posts. Given the large number of mainland Chinese studying in the U.S. in recent years, I assume such positions will increasingly be taken up by them.

Whether they are from Taiwan or China or Southeast Asia, I don't think they will want to see a deterioration in the relationship between Beijing and Washington and will contribute to improving bilateral ties.

We call the people who have moved from the mainland as a result of the reform and opening-up policy "new immigrants."

They now total an estimated 15 million people, many of whom share three characteristics: they are highly educated, wealthy and helping forge close relations with mainland China. These characteristics are unique to that group, and because of those attributes, I think they will play a big role in enhancing the China-U.S. relationship.

The bulk of Chinese immigrants do not want the South China Sea dispute to flare up, because if it does, anti-Chinese immigrant movements could erupt in the surrounding nations.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Shunsuke Tabeta

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