Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist
After the disappearance last December of Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond asked Beijing for information on his whereabouts, pointing out that the 65-year-old was a British national. China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, responded that Mr. Lee was "first and foremost a Chinese."
Subsequently, Mr. Lee appeared on Chinese television and said he wanted to give up his British citizenship.
Similarly, Gui Minhai, Mr. Lee's colleague in the bookselling business, a Swedish national who mysteriously disappeared while in Thailand, popped up on Chinese television and asked the Swedish government not to help him – certainly an odd thing to say from someone who was clearly in deep trouble with the Chinese government.
These cases illustrate a change made 20 years ago in China's nationality law, a change not widely appreciated in foreign capitals or even in Hong Kong itself.
What China did in 1996 was to change the nationality law so that it meant one thing in the mainland and a different thing entirely in Hong Kong.
Thus, Article 9 of the nationality law says: "Any Chinese national who has settled abroad and who has been naturalized as a foreign national or has acquired foreign nationality of his own free will shall automatically lose Chinese nationality." However, in Hong Kong, the law means something else: "Where a Hong Kong resident is of Chinese descent and was born in the Chinese territories (including Hong Kong) … he is a Chinese national."
Recently, China has been putting on the pressure. Holders of foreign passports are reporting that Chinese officials are "advising" them not to use their passports when travelling to the mainland, but to instead use China-issued travel documents that acknowledge them as Chinese nationals. (Even the holder of a foreign diplomatic passport has been refused a visa and told to use a re-entry permit. As a result, some are choosing not to travel to China.)
Much has been said about China's growing nationalism but little attention has been paid to its increasing assertion of something akin to sovereignty over ethnic-Chinese who are citizens of other countries. While this is particularly noteworthy in Hong Kong, it is also true in the United States, Australia and other countries.
What China wants is for foreign citizens of ethnic-Chinese background to be loyal to the "motherland" – meaning China – regardless of their citizenship and to work to further the interests of China. This was disclosed in the People's Daily a couple of years ago when it encouraged "more and more overseas Chinese to participate in the local political life."
It referred specifically to Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, who was born in the United States of immigrant parents, as someone "participating in politics in foreign countries." The Chinese government wants to make use of foreign politicians who happen to be of Chinese extraction to support its causes, such as in its territorial dispute with Japan.
The Chinese consul-general in San Francisco, Luo Linquan, at a reception last December for U.S. families who had adopted Chinese babies, reminded the American girls and young women that China was the land of their birth and that China would never forget them. "You grow up speaking English," the Chinese diplomat said, but then added, "Yet your black eyes, black hair and dark skin all remind you that you are Chinese." He encouraged them to learn Chinese and to develop a "Chinese spirit."
About 100,000 Chinese babies have been adopted by American couples in the past 25 years. Being able to win the sympathy and support of this large group of Americans would be a great boost to Chinese influence in the United States.
In Australia, there have been charges that official Chinese propaganda was being used to influence the opinion and behaviour of Australians of Chinese background. "Beijing's clandestine intrusion into our local Chinese press will have an impact on national security if it is not rooted out," the Age reported in 2014.
The Chinese Communist Party's propaganda bureau, the newspaper reported, was "buying up radio stations and newspapers across the country and channelling the voice of Beijing into them from editorial offices in China." Of course, this would primarily influence immigrants rather than native-born Australians, but such an influence should not be discounted. China clearly considers this to be important.
What all of this means is that China is trying very hard to extend its influence abroad by using ethnic-Chinese overseas, appealing to their sense of being Chinese, even though they are foreign citizens and have left the country of their birth.