28 September 2021

ThinkChina China Study Project Policy Brief: The Long Umbilical Cord

The Long Umbilical Cord: The role of race in China’s diaspora politics in Australia

Incidents in recent years that involve China exerting extra-territorial control over foreign citizens of Chinese descent has given rise to two concerns. Firstly, Beijing appears increasingly willing to insert itself into the domestic affairs of other jurisdictions and, secondly, the Communist Party leadership seems to regard all ethnic Chinese, regardless of citizenship, as within their domain. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Australia, where intelligence agencies have flagged a suspected widespread campaign by Beijing to assert influence over and through the country’s Chinese diaspora, and where several high-profile incidents involving Chinese-Australians in recent years has spurred Australia to revamp its anti-interference laws and in turn dialed up the tensions on the two country’s bilateral relations. Some of these events include the suspected efforts by Beijing to interfere in local elections by mobilizing Chinese voters, the seemingly arbitrary arrest of two Chinese-Australians in China, violent protests over Hong Kong at university campuses, and the expulsion from Australia of a Chinese businessman and suspected agent for Beijing.

This paper by Colin Peebles Christensen, MPhil, Chinese Society and Politics from the University of Oslo, explores how China blurs the lines between ethnicity and citizenship. It proceeds by outlining the Chinese government’s use of racial narratives and definitions of Chineseness in official communication, and whether they function as a tool for PRC diaspora mobilization and hence as a channel for political influence in Australia. The research is based on government communication and media texts as well as coverage by diaspora media in Australia.


Key takeaways:

  • Beijing is blurring the distinction between Chinese citizens and foreign nationals of Chinese descent through efforts to define Chinese identity, belonging and loyalty in racial terms.
  • Racial narratives are frequent and pervasive in official government communication, with Chineseness defined along primordial lines — centered on family and lineage, yellow skin, blood connections, and myths of descent.
  • Beijing employs racialized narratives in official government communication to mobilize diaspora populations towards achieving PRC political objectives.
  • Diaspora media platforms in Australia frequently echo the Chinese government’s racial discourses of Chineseness, thereby exporting PRC narratives of belonging and political loyalty to Australian audiences. This is at times expressed as political allegiance to China over Australia in issues involving bilateral conflict.

Download and read here.