Friday, September 30, 2011

Must Chinese S'poreans support China's rise?

AS A journalist who writes on military and geopolitical affairs, I have written many commentaries on the implications of China's growth and concurrent military development. These draw responses - sometimes angry ones - from readers and Chinese officials.
By William Choong, Senior Writer

Earlier this month, I wrote about the United States' so-called AirSea Battle concept that would offset China's military power. I argued that if such a strategy resulted in the US reducing its presence in Asia, it would be bad news for many Asian countries, given growing Chinese assertiveness.

An irate reader berated me: 'Who are you? Are you an Angst Mor (sic) or what? Are you not born to Chinese parents? Do you not have Chinese roots?'

Earlier this year, at a seminar in Beijing on arms control, I asked a Chinese academic to explain just what China understood by the phrase 'military transparency'. A Chinese diplomat took umbrage at this and asked: 'Whose question is this? I wonder (about) his identity. This question should have come from North America or Western Europe.'

Should a writer on world issues who happens to be ethnically Chinese, think along racial lines? To cut to the chase, should he be more welcoming and less questioning about China's rise?

The answer is clearly 'no'.

Beijing at various times in its history may choose to celebrate the kinship and ethnic links between mainland Chinese and their global diaspora estimated to number 50 million, termed huaqiao or overseas Chinese. Much was made, for example, of the new US ambassador to China Gary Locke's Chinese origin, even though he was born in the US and is an American citizen. No one except the naive would assume from his ethnicity that he would be less likely to be a vigorous champion of American interests vis-a-vis China.

China itself practises a double standard when it comes to treating huaqiao. Initially, Beijing warmed to the idea of Mr Gao Xingjian winning the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature. But its reception turned frosty when Mr Gao, who became a French national in 1997, was described as a Chinese political dissident.

Huaqiao should not expect to get any special treatment in China. China scholars note that two prominent huaqiao - Australian mining executive Stern Hu and American geologist Xue Feng - were detained for various reasons in China, and their treatment was less than ideal.

China - and modern nations - may not have been party to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But China and Singapore, and most countries today, understand that in a global order founded on the nation-state, national interest trumps ethnicity.

Two years ago, netizens in China chose to be unhappy with remarks made by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, when he said the US should remain engaged in Asia to 'strike a balance' vis-a-vis China.

Speaking to Asahi Shimbun newspaper later, Mr Lee said: 'I am saying what I am saying not because I am Chinese or because I am anti-China, but because I represent Singapore, and this is in my national interest - that there should be a balance in the Pacific.'

In the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, he stressed that there was a clear distinction between mainland Chinese and their Singaporean cousins. 'Are we Chinese? Yes, ethnically. Can we sit down with the Chinese and really feel part of them? Not possible. Because you speak Chinese? No. Your major premises are in your mind.'

This is not to say that ethnic Chinese should not feel a sense of kinship with China. Beijing's success in hosting the 2008 Olympics for example, was celebrated by many Chinese of all nationalities worldwide. Many ethnic Chinese also want to go to China, if only to see for themselves what the land of their ancestors has become.

But sentiments aside, it would be a foolish diplomat or trade negotiator, who lets race colour his view of just what is in the national interest.

And it would be a very foolish - and not credible - journalist who lets his race shape his assessment of global trends.