Does Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council Have a Role in Countering China’s United Front “Active Measures” Operations?

Does Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council Have a Role in Countering China’s United Front “Active Measures” Operations?

Does Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council Have a Role in Countering China’s United Front “Active Measures” Operations?

“The Republic of China” (ROC) is a nomenclature that insidiously engenders profound and universal diplomatic misunderstanding. For understandable reasons, most Taiwanese today are not enthusiastic about an “official” name that their country inherited from a war they had nothing to do with. And, for similar reasons, Taipei strives to eschew the words “China” and “Chinese” from its foreign policy lexicon. In 2006, the administration of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) changed the English name of the ROC’s cabinet-level “Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission” (僑務委員會) to “Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission” (OCAC) and limited its role to assisting Taiwanese who lived overseas and to persons of Chinese descent who “identified with” the ROC. No longer would the OCAC propagandize among overseas Chinese enclaves against the “Communist Bandits” or for the restoration of “Free China.” 

Chen’s successor, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who welcomed the idea that Taiwan was part of “China,” changed the English name back to “Chinese”—all this despite the fact that the cabinet office’s name, in Mandarin, wasn’t changed at all. “Ch’iao” (僑) basically means “citizen living abroad,” and it always has. But it was difficult for President Ma to justify expending the money of Taiwan’s taxpayers for the aid and succor of Chinese from Shanghai living abroad. Or, for ethnic Chinese in third countries who had vague ties, if any, with Taiwan.

Any historian of Chinese diplomacy appreciates the overseas Chinese diaspora’s central role in Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) fundraising, political mobilization for Chinese nationalism against Manchu imperialism, and the success of the 1911 Revolution. [1] Virtually all of Sun’s support came from the Chinese diaspora and much of it was managed in discreet, covert secret societies through the Nationalist Party’s “Ch’iao Wu” (僑務) apparatus. Dr. Sun and his Chinese Nationalist Party bore a lifelong debt of gratitude to the world’s “Hua-ch’iao” communities whose low-keyed public profiles minimized frictions with host governments. The Nationalist Party and the ROC government built their decades of deep community-organizing among the diaspora into political and electoral leverage, which supported the Nationalists’ priorities across the globe.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had, by the 1920s, mirrored the Nationalists’ underground political organizations abroad via Moscow’s in-place Communist International networks and successfully assembled underground “United Front” (統一戰線) networks throughout overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

During the nearly half-century of de-colonization after World War II, newly emerging states were urged to radicalize by Chinese Communist “United Front” work within their local Chinese populations. Malaya, Indonesia, and other governments worked with Taipei’s Kuomintang (KMT) “Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission” apparatus to counteract Beijing’s influence in often brutal or violent ways, but this cooperation was central to Taipei’s cooperation with its East Asian neighbors. In the 1980s and beyond, Beijing’s potent influence within the superwealth of Southeast Asia was perceived as an existential threat. Governments and militaries believed that Communist Chinese undergrounds in their cities could only be neutralized with the help of Taipei’s overseas mobilization work. In early 1994, President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was still able to make virtual “state visits” in Southeast Asia, golfing with the presidents of the Philippines and Indonesia, and dining with the king of Thailand, all of whom feared rising influxes of Chinese mainland migrants into their non-Chinese lands.

The late Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki (岡崎 久彦), Japan’s envoy to Bangkok in the early 1990s, gathered vast intelligence on both Beijing’s and Taipei’s overseas Chinese work among Southeast Asian Hua-Ch’iao communities. In 2003, he made a persuasive case that, into the 1990s, Taiwan’s primary strategic importance to its Southeast Asian partners was Taipei’s uncanny ability to neutralize communist party influence in local Chinese communities. [2] Ambassador Okazaki bemoaned the fact that, as Taiwan’s own domestic politics had become estranged from a broad Chinese diaspora that never had ethnic, cultural, or economic ties to Taiwan, Taipei’s “Overseas Compatriot” work focused increasingly on Taiwan’s citizens abroad, and left the “Overseas Chinese” to Beijing.

With the field completely free to China, Mr. Okazaki warned, Asia’s Chinese diaspora—its wealthiest and most dynamic demographic segment—now identifies solely with Beijing and has forsaken the democratic principles, such as they were, of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

The profound historical significance of overseas Chinese work in Asia simply cannot be overemphasized. Overseas Chinese enclaves have been a fact of life in Southeast Asia for a thousand years, and for almost as long, Chinese emperors and republics alike recognized the value of giving succor and support to these outposts. In 1293, Mongol fleets attempted to subdue kingdoms in the South and “Great Western Seas” and while not wholly successful, they did establish tributary alliances with local chieftains in need of imperial legitimation. In 1295, a legate of the Great Khan to Angkor remarked that several Chinese “men of the sea” had settled in the Cambodian city, possibly remnants of the Kublai Khan’s tribute wars in Java. Around a century later, the Ming Emperor welcomed tributary envoys from Southeast Asia, including, oddly, a Chinese “Pacification Commissioner” (宣慰使) representing not a foreign king, but the overseas Chinese community in Palembang, a southern Sumatran port city known in the Ming court as “Old Harbor” (Jiugang, 舊港). The “Commissioner,” elected by his compatriots in the Palembang enclave, had been commissioned by the Imperial Admiral Zheng He and conveyed to the Great Ming Empire for his investiture. Indeed, “Hua Ch’iao” communities have prospered in the Asia-Pacific region for a thousand years, and today are probably the single most dynamic, prosperous, and cosmopolitan forces for modernization in their ancestors’ adopted lands.

In fact, the Chinese diaspora was so fundamental to the 1911 revolution that the Republican government enshrined their care, support, and suffrage into the 1947 Constitution. Article 141 of the Constitution states that “The foreign policy of the Republic of China shall, […] protect the rights and interests of Chinese citizens residing abroad, promote international cooperation, advance international justice, and ensure world peace.” It gives overseas Chinese (僑居國外) voting rights, separate legislative and electoral representation, requires that the state shall “foster and protect the development of their economic enterprises,” and “give encouragement and subsidies” to “educational enterprises which have been operated with good record by Chinese citizens residing abroad.”

The Constitution of the People’s Republic mentions the state’s protection of Chinese nationals residing abroad and, because of the terrifying ordeals during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution suffered by those with “overseas connections” (海外關係), grudgingly admits that “family members [in China] of Chinese nationals residing abroad” also have “rights” (Article 50). It also obliges the national legislature to establish “an Overseas Chinese Committee” (Article 70), as necessary. [3] But it certainly does not afford “Overseas Chinese” the special status of the ROC Constitution.

That said, for the past 30 years, beginning with Jiang Zemin’s “Important Doctrine of the Three Represents” and culminating with Xi Jinping’s particular identification of “Overseas Chinese” as “patriotic” compatriots who share China’s “roots, soul, and dream” with Chinese at home, the diaspora is an essential pillar for Beijing’s foreign policy and national security strategy. [4]

Beijing’s version of “Overseas Chinese” affairs is the “United Front Work” and is the sole province of the Chinese Communist Party (a vestigial “Overseas Chinese Affairs Office,” misplaced for decades somewhere in the State Council, was stamped out in 2018). The United Front Work Department (統一戰線工作部) is now “China’s secret ‘magic weapon’ for worldwide influence.” “Like mushroom tendrils spreading unseen for miles beneath the forest floor,” the network of China’s recent emigrés abroad, students, engineers, researchers, and professors seeks not simply to shape the conversation about China in their foreign residences, but also to bring foreign technology and expertise back to China by any means necessary. “While the effort is driven by the Party, crucial to its implementation is an opaque and little-known Beijing-based agency known as the United Front Work Department.”

Throughout the Pacific, large migrations of Chinese emigrés have established retail hegemony in most of the Pacific islands’ tiny markets, freezing out native entrepreneurs and services while Chinese embassies, trade offices, investment officials, and military delegations suborn local governments. [5] The United States government has become so alarmed that it has taken the desperate move of calling on all friendly states that still maintain ties with the ROC, to keep them, and to resist Beijing’s blandishments to break with Taipei. In May, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy went on record forcefully and repeatedly to encourage the Solomon Islands to “maintain the status quo” with Taiwan. [6] 

This suggests, however, that Taipei itself has considerable diplomatic work to do, both directly in island nations targeted by Beijing, as well as with fellow Pacific democracies like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. It also means that the “Overseas Community Affairs Commission” must reestablish its own outreach with whatever is left of the overseas Chinese diaspora that is not already fully within the discipline of the Chinese Communist Party’s UFWD organization.

Since Tiananmen in 1989, and now, more urgently, with the recent Hong Kong demonstrations, there surely must be profound uneasiness among the traditional “Waku” (“Hua Ch’iao” [華僑]) enclaves of the Pacific, which have for decades and centuries intermarried and integrated into their newly adopted lands. Taipei’s OCAC has the constitutional responsibility to foster renewed trust, friendship, and hope with all the resources it can muster. For the Asia-Pacific region’s democracies, it is a matter of resisting China’s hegemony; for the “Hua Ch’iao,” it is a matter of maintaining a heritage of freedom and democracy; and, for Taiwan it may be a matter of survival.

The main point: Over the years, Taipei has become estranged from a broad Chinese diaspora that have a played a pivotal role in the government’s history. There is unleveraged diplomatic potential in the overseas compatriots community.

[1] O. Edmund Clubb, Twentieth Century China (Columbia University Press, 1964),  34-37 et seq.

[2] Japan’s former ambassador in Bangkok, Hisahiko Okazaki, made this case persuasively in an address entitled “The Strategic Value of Taiwan” delivered at The Heritage Foundation, July 31, 2003.

[3] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (Adopted 4 December 1982 by the 5th Session of the 5th National People’s Congress) https://www.track.unodc.org%2FLegalLibrary%2FLegalResources%2FChina%2Flaws%2FChina%2520Constitution%25201982%2520(As%2520Amended%25202004).pdf 

[4] For further reading see: Ren Guixiang (任貴祥), ed., Overseas Chinese and Ethnic Chinese Abroad and China’s Reform and Opening (海外華僑華人與中國改革開放)  (Communist Party History Publications, Beijing 2009); Li Qirong (李其榮), What The Legacy and Innovations of Xi Jinping’s analyses of Overseas Chinese Affairs has had on the Compatriot-Work Thought of the Party’s and the Nation’s Leaders (習近平僑務論述對黨和國家領導人僑務思想的繼承與創新) (Lishui 麗水University, Zhejiang, 2017).

[5] Most recently, an illuminating exposé by Nick Perry, “In China’s purse, strings for Tonga, Pacific nation faces debt, displacement as byproduct of aid,” The Associated Press, The Baltimore Sun, July 13, 2019, p. 31.

[6] Murphy made the same general observation on March 22, 2019, in an interview with Voice of America. “China changing ‘status quo,’ US official warns,” Taipei Times, March 24, 2019,  https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2019/03/24/2003712071. The Author speculated privately that the impetus likely came from the National Security Council and was told in an email by an anonymous source, apparently not authorized to speak on the matter, that the “The impetus also comes from the 7th floor of HST.”