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The PRC and the Overseas Chinese

  • Published
  • By Captain Alexander C. Pumerantz

In March 2018, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was to be absorbed into the United Front Work Department. This reorganization brought international attention back to the concerted effort the People’s Republic of China was making to connect with the populations of Overseas Chinese. The Overseas Chinese, also known as the Chinese diaspora, is the largest diaspora in the world with 10.7 million Chinese living overseas, 60 million if their descendants are included.[1] While this important group has historically provided China with the means for economic growth and accelerating technological change, it could give the PRC the ability to effect global change if it can mobilize and control this population.

With population centers in most countries around the world, the PRC envisions using the Overseas Chinese to reach their long-term strategic goal of changing the world order. While the United States has been ensuring that the world order follows Western norms, the PRC seeks to replace American hegemony with a Chinese-centric one. Ascribing to a Gramscian view of hegemony, the PRC wants to transform its interests and values into the new global norm.[2]

The PRC looks to do this through its soft power institutions and its economic strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative. While PRC primarily plans on using the Overseas Chinese to carry out its soft power operations, it will also look to this population to support the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Changing Face of the Overseas Chinese

Through multiple waves of emigration over the centuries, the Overseas Chinese community has spread across the world, but it is by no means a homogenous group. Although some early overseas Chinese communities were formed by traders in the mid-14th century, the first mass migration did not occur until the mid-17th century. With the fall of the Ming dynasty and subsequent invasion by the Manchus in 1644, some escaped the destruction by fleeing to the Chinese communities abroad.[3] Although the Qing dynasty attempted to limit outside influence, Western powers eventually forced China to open its markets and provide territorial concessions through the mid-19th century Opium Wars, which resulted in another important wave of emigration.[4] Primarily consisting of poor laborers from southern Cantonese-speaking regions of China, this wave of emigrants sought to improve their economic standing through opportunities abroad, particularly in the United States. 

Twentieth-century Chinese emigration waves were heavily tied to the creation of the PRC and its subsequent policies. In the early 20th century, warfare among warlords and later the civil war between the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party led to another large wave of emigration, particularly to Singapore and Malaysia.[5] The victorious People’s Republic of China (PRC) instituted an emigration ban that lasted until it launched the Four Modernizations program in the 1980s, which aimed to reform the agricultural, industrial, technological, and defense sectors that had been neglected under Mao.[6] Thousands of students received visas to study abroad in institutions at the leading edge of scientific research around the world. In the hope of accelerating Chinese economic growth in the early 2000s, the PRC further reduced restrictions on overseas studies, which led to an exodus of Chinese students.[7]

In the early 21st century, the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy led to the latest wave of Chinese emigration comprised of wealthy investors and tourists. This new wave of migrants were mostly investor and entrepreneurial migrants who would maintain business operations in both the PRC as well as the host nation.[8] The rapid accumulation of wealth also made international tourism possible for a wider Chinese audience. While the tourists themselves rarely remained in the countries they visited, they created a demand for a network that could support their tourism. Tour businesses were founded, local stores began hiring Chinese sales staff, and physical infrastructure was built to support their needs.[9] This formed a self-supporting cycle as Chinese investors began to invest in local infrastructure to support Chinese tourism which led to more tourism in those areas.

These waves of migration have led to a bifurcation of the Overseas Chinese community. While early Chinese migrants were mostly poorly educated low-skill laborers, the highly skilled and wealthy have made up “more than 80 percent of recent emigrants.”[10] Furthermore, while early migrants came mostly from southern China and spoke Cantonese, modern emigrants come from the wealthier northern regions and speak primarily Mandarin. Finally, the destination of choice has shifted from the immediate developing nations in Southeast Asia to the modern industrialized nations.[11] As these recent migrants have spent the majority of their lives under the PRC, the PRC believes they are more amenable to PRC propaganda than those migrants who came before them.

PRC Intentions

The Overseas Chinese propensity for maintaining their “Chinese-ness” and avoiding assimilating to the local customs has been both a blessing and a curse for the PRC. Initially, the PRC viewed the diaspora as a liability to inter-Asian cooperation. Although the PRC initially continued the earlier policy of dual citizenship, several Southeast Asian countries grew resentful that Chinese migrants refused to assimilate but retained most of the wealth.[12] In response, the PRC enacted the 1980 Nationality Law which revoked the citizenship of any Chinese nationals who became citizens of other nations. While this placated the Southeast Asian countries to an extent, as Overseas Chinese were no longer Chinese citizens, there remained an air of suspicion against the Chinese.[13]

With the end of the Cultural Revolution, the PRC changed its attitude towards the Overseas Chinese to an asset that could be leveraged and supported for domestic enrichment. President of the PRC, Xi Jinping, has stated that one of his key policies is “Grand Qiaowu” which employs a whole-of-government approach to Overseas Chinese Affairs. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was absorbed into the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CPC in order to leverage the greater funds and reach of the latter. Although many believed that the CPC was placing a greater emphasis on the Overseas Chinese, it is possible that this reshuffling of governmental offices is “less a signal about the increased policy significance of Overseas Chinese, and more about an organizational streamlining of policy processes related to overseas Chinese affairs.”[14] To this end, President Xi has stated that maintaining the United Front is key to uniting the Chinese people both at home and abroad and bringing China into superpower status.[15]

While the CPC wants to leverage the Overseas Chinese to support the growth of the Belt and Road Initiative, it primarily wants to use them to promote China’s cultural soft power. With the country’s reputation tarnished by civil rights abuses against its own population as well as its one-sided international partnerships, the CRC has turned to soft power to improve its image. In his public speeches, President Xi emphasized the role of the Chinese abroad to help strengthen the soft power of China through creative forms of communication and media to increase the appeal and credibility of China.[16] For this purpose, the PRC has used its students studying abroad, as well as organizations such as the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms. The students themselves have served as ambassadors to their schools, often spreading and defending CPC narratives. It is possible that these actions may reduce other students’ opposition to these views and give a more favorable impression of China.[17] The Confucius Institutes supplement this by ensuring state-sponsored narratives are promoted in Chinese outreach courses. Although the United States Government put pressure to shut them down, Chinese soft power achieved some success as most American colleges and universities continued some form of collaboration with other various Chinese institutions.[18]

Not only has it become a core strategy of the PRC to gradually transform opposition from within, but the PRC has demonstrated an increasing amount of control and influence over the Overseas Chinese communities. For example, while most of the early Chinese students who went abroad to complete degrees never returned and settled abroad, in 2017 80% of students who left to study abroad returned to China.[19]The CPC has also been in the business of cultivating favorable foreign media outlets by handsomely rewarding Overseas Chinese outlets that cover CPC interests favorably with economic and political privileges and strong-arming or outright acquiring those who do not.[20] By curating the media that diaspora populations consume, the CPC  has an increased ability to conduct operations to influence the Overseas Chinese to support the party’s views and interests.

Surprisingly, force and coercion are being used to support the soft power efforts. Chinese embassies abroad take a much more active role in state-sponsored espionage aimed at attacking or discrediting opposition voices. While maintaining very close ties with the Overseas Chinese, they pro-actively manipulate and influence them to construct an international environment friendly to China’s ambitions.[21] With knowledge of where many of the Overseas Chinese work or go to school, the CPC is often able to manipulate them by either exploiting their Chinese nationalism or by threatening to harm their families back in China. This has been especially prominent in the communities connected to sensitive topics. For example, a Uyghur man was detained and interrogated for 10 hours after returning to China for a visit. While they offered to reward him for cooperating, they also threatened that lack of cooperation would prohibit him from returning to see his family. While he feigned cooperation to escape, he understood that he would never be able to return once he informed the Canadian authorities. [22] Other Overseas Chinese, however, have cooperated and passed on intel about the affairs of dissidents abroad. These coercive actions have enabled the PRC to gather the information needed to stop the spread of negative opinions about China’s culture and values.

The CPC also seeks to leverage the commercial capabilities of the Overseas Chinese to support the Belt and Road Initiative. Known as the “Bamboo Network,” Overseas Chinese communities have thrived thanks to business ties forged along familial and cultural ties. Rather than focusing on brand building and expansion, these family-run businesses remain small and favor trade, investment, or manufacturing of intermediate goods. Their informal connection based on trust and interpersonal ties allows them greater freedom to maneuver in unpredictable legal environments.[23] Although they played a huge part in forming the global Chinese market and are often proud of the rise of China, most of these businesses have had little to no involvement with state-directed projects.[24] However, the CPC is looking to use them to support its new economic strategy.

The Belt and Road Initiative, also sometimes referred to as One Belt One Road, was started by President Xi Jinping as part of a greater strategy of the “China Dream” which intends to make China as strong and relevant as it was in ancient times. By developing international economic corridors, the PRC seeks to both expand the ability to send Chinese goods abroad and feed China’s growing need for raw materials.[25]  In addition to investing heavily in the infrastructure of both overland and maritime trade routes, the PRC founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to assist in funding all the efforts. China’s hope is that these Belt and Road countries would come to rely on China more than the other advanced Western powers for their economic security and development with the ultimate goal to replace a Western hegemony over Asia with Chinese control.[26]

While many Chinese politicians believe the Overseas Chinese would be a key factor in working with these nations, many of the migrants have not complied as they had hoped. By mobilizing the economically powerful Overseas Chinese residing in Belt and Road countries, the CPC has sought to use them as both a source of investment as well as a bridge between the PRC and the other governments. However, their success has been limited as many Overseas Chinese have found it more prudent to undertake joint projects with local businesses and workers to guarantee their investments against possible anti-Chinese backlash rather than working with Chinese state-owned enterprises.[27] Therefore, the brunt of Belt and Road Initiative projects, especially those in Africa and the Middle East, have been run directly by state-owned enterprises using migratory Chinese laborers.[28] It is yet to be determined how much more support the Overseas Chinese will provide to the Belt and Road initiative, especially in the less developed nations.


If China can leverage the Overseas Chinese to their full potential, the PRC may be able to achieve its overall goal of hegemony in Asia. Further research could examine the efficacy of Chinese cultural outreach programs to see if Chinese culture is becoming more palatable outside of Asia or if Chinese pressure has been having the opposite effect of turning people away. Having secured a historic third term as General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping will likely continue the current strategy and intensify pressure on the Overseas Chinese communities.

Captain Alexander C. Pumerantz
Capt Pumerantz has served in a variety of technical roles in the Air Force ranging from Electronic Warfare Reprogramming to Cybersecurity Assessments. He earned an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, an MS in International Relations from Troy University, and is currently pursuing his PhD in Political Science at Stanford University where he intends to lead the innovation of international technological partnerships through researching the intersection of emerging technologies, international relations, and security studies.



[1.] Zhuang Guotu, “The Overseas Chinese: A Long history” The UNESCO Courrier 2021, no. 4 (2021),

[2.] Andreas Antoniades, “From ‘Theories of Hegemony’ to ‘Hegemony Analysis’ in International Relations” (presentation, 49th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), San Francisco, CA, March 2008), 4.

[3.] Pyau Ling, “Causes of Chinese Emigration,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 39 (1912): 80.

[4.] Adam McKeown, “Conceptualizing Chinese Diasporas, 1842 to 1949” Journal of Asian Studies 58, no. 2 (1999): 313.

[5.] John Pike, “Chinese Civil War,” Global Security. Last modified July 15 2011,

[6.] Patricia Ebrey, “A Visitual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization” University of Washington, 2010,

[7.] Qian Song Qian and Zai Liang, “New Emigration from China: Patterns Causes and Impacts.” Dang Dai Zhongguo Yan Jiu = Modern China Studies 26, no. 1 (2019),

[8.] Steven B. Miles, Overseas Chineses: A Social History of Global Migration. New Approaches to Asian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 233.

[9.] Ibid., 242

[10.] Daniel Goodkind, “The Chinese Diaspora: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Trends”  United States Census Bureau, August 2019, 3,

[11.] Leo Suryadinata, The Rise of China and the Chinese Overseas : A Study of Beijing's Changing Policy in Southeast Asia and Beyond (Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2017), 10.

[12.] Ibid., 27.

[13.] Xiao An Wu, China's Evolving Policy Towards the Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia (1949-2018)  (Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 13.

[14.] Ibid., 19.

[15.] “Xi Focus: Xi Stresses unity of Chinese at home, abroad to pool strength for rejuvenation,” Xinhua News Agency, July 30, 2022,

[16.] “China to promote cultural soft power,” China Daily, January 1, 2014,

[17.] Christine Han & Yaobin Tong, “Students At The Nexus Between The Chinese Diaspora And Internationalisation Of Higher Education: The Role Of Overseas Students In China’s Strategy Of Soft Power,” British Journal of Educational Studies, 69, no. 5: 586.

[18.] Rachelle Peterson, Ian Oxnevad, and Flora Yan, “After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education,” National Association of Scholars, June 15, 2022, 16,

[19.] Timothy Heath, “Beijing’s Influence Operations Target Chinese Diaspora,” War on the Rocks, March 1, 2018,

[20.] Sarah Cook, “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence since 2017,”Freedom House, 2020,

[21.] Han & Tong, “Students at the Nexus,” 589.

[22.] Paul Mooney and David Lague, “The Price of Dissent” Reuters Investigates, December 30, 2015,

[23.] Swee Hoon Chuah, Robert Hoffmann, Bala Ramasamy and Jonathan H. W Tan, “Is There a Spirit of Overseas Chinese Capitalism?” Small Business Economics : An Entrepreneurship Journal 47 (2019): 1100,

[24.] Pál Nyiri, “’Belt and Road’ and the Globilisation of Chinese Migration,” Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto, April 12, 2021,

[25.] Suryadinata, Rise of China, 168.

[26.] Hal Brands, “Xi’s Total Control Over Foreign Policy Is a Big Problem,” Bloomberg, October 25, 2022,

[27.] Suryadinata, Rise of China, 179.

[28.] Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman, "Chasing Ghosts: Rumours and Representations of the Export of Chinese Convict Labour to Developing Countries," The China Quarterly 210 (2012): 398-418,

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