Poverty once drove their mass emigration, but the overseas Chinese now revel in the status and wealth of their homeland

Already 2008 has proved a tumultuous year in terms of global perceptions of China, and there are still 59 days to go until the Beijing Olympics. The tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake followed hard on the heels of the riots in Tibet and the demonstrations surrounding the Olympic torch relay. Sympathy and compassion, combined with admiration for the rescue efforts of the Chinese government, served to soften the harsh memory of the riots in Lhasa and the blue-tracksuited Chinese officials. The world is having a crash course on China.

Inevitably, our view of these events is shaped by our western mindset. The problem is that as the global centre of gravity tilts away from the west, it is becoming increasingly important to look beyond our assumptions and gain a wider picture. We failed miserably in this respect on the Burma cyclone, behaving as if all that counted were western attitudes and aid, and only belatedly recognising that the key to unlocking the junta’s resistance was the cooperation of its neighbours, together with the UN. In our indignation over Tibet we also largely failed to notice that in a large majority of cities the demonstrations in support of the Olympics were much bigger than those against.

True, in London, Paris, Athens and San Francisco pro-Tibet demonstrators greatly outnumbered those expressing support for the games. In Canberra, however, 10,000 demonstrated in favour of the games, hugely outnumbering the protesters. In Seoul thousands turned out in support, as they did in Nagano in Japan, in both cases dwarfing the number of protesters; likewise in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong. Everywhere, those demonstrating support for the Beijing games were overwhelmingly comprised of Chinese – either students from the mainland or people from the local Chinese community.

The Chinese diaspora is long established in many countries, sometimes dating back to the 19th century, or much earlier in south-east Asia. It is often very diverse, combining several-generation settlers from Hong Kong and southern China with a large wave of new migrants, many poor and illegal; growing numbers of students; and those connected with China’s burgeoning overseas economic interests, who are especially to be found in the countries around its borders. It is estimated that there are now at least half a million Chinese living in Africa, most of whom have arrived very recently. There are more than 7 million Chinese in each of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, more than 1 million each in Burma and Russia, 1.3 million in Peru, 3.3 million in the US, 700,000 in Australia and 400,000 in this country – about 40 million in all, which is almost certainly a considerable underestimate.

Notwithstanding the diversity of their communities – in terms of origin and length of stay – the overseas Chinese enjoy an extremely strong sense of shared identity as well as a powerful attachment to China, feelings that tend to override regional and political differences. This affinity finds expression in many ways. The overseas Chinese have played a crucial role in China’s economic growth, providing the lion’s share of inward investment since the late 1970s. According to the World Bank, in 2007 China received more remittances – nearly $26bn – than any other country except India.

In the case of many diasporas, those living overseas tend to enjoy greater prestige than those at home; the reverse is true of the Chinese. Status emanates from the Middle Kingdom, to the extent that more recent migrants tend to enjoy higher esteem than longer-established members of an overseas community. Until recently, indeed, China tended to look down upon those who had left its territory, but since the reform period began almost three decades ago the government has increasingly come to value Chinese overseas communities and sought to establish closer cultural and economic links with them.

It is not difficult to imagine the pride that many overseas Chinese take in China’s rise. After two centuries during which their homeland was synonymous with poverty and failure, it has risen to a position of great global prominence and allure in a remarkably short space of time. Television channels the world over are pouring out programmes about China, and in many countries people are signing up in large numbers to learn Mandarin. Not surprisingly, the gravitational pull exercised by China on its overseas communities has increased markedly as a result. My son’s Sunday Mandarin school decided to cancel lessons for the day in order to proudly join the London festivities for the Olympic relay. For them China was coming home and being embraced by their adopted city. There was genuine delight in China’s achievement and the global recognition that the Olympics signified.

In taking to the streets in so many cities and in such large numbers in support of the Beijing Olympics, the overseas Chinese proved a powerful political force both in their adopted countries and for the Chinese government. This kind of phenomenon, of course, is neither new nor particularly Chinese: diasporas in many countries have long played a significant role in support of their homeland, the most striking recent example being that provided by the Jewish diaspora for Israel.

The Chinese diaspora, however, has three characteristics that together mark it out as distinct. First, it is numerically large and spread all around the globe, from Africa to Europe, east Asia to the Americas. Second, for historical and cultural reasons, it enjoys an unusually strong identification with the Middle Kingdom. Third, China is already a global power and destined to become perhaps the most powerful country in the world. And as its rise continues, as Chinese worldwide interests grow exponentially, the Chinese diaspora is likely to expand greatly; become increasingly prosperous, buoyed by China’s own economic success; enjoy growing prestige as a result of China’s rising status; and feel an even closer affinity with China.
Even then, however, to retain a sense of historical proportion, the Chinese diaspora will remain far less influential than the European diaspora. Such is the latter’s ubiquity and longevity that we tend to take it for granted, often even failing to recognise its existence, let alone its huge influence and unique nature. Unlike the Chinese diaspora, whose growth hitherto has overwhelmingly been driven by China’s poverty, the European diaspora was largely a function of Europe’s colonial expansion. The European diaspora’s most important monuments are those countries in which white settlers managed to establish themselves in the majority, once they had effectively eliminated the host population; namely the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Today we habitually speak of the west and the western world, but these, in fact, are more or less synonymous with Europe and its diasporic lands, or what the economic historian Angus Maddison describes as “western offshoots”. That west, as we are aware, has dominated the world for the past 200 years. However powerful China might become, it seems inconceivable that its diaspora will ever exercise the kind of influence that Europe’s has.