Project Description

“Control the globe and let the world hear our voices”:
The ideological conflict for the hearts and minds of Chinese Overseas (Part 1) 

China’s attitude towards Chinese Overseas has evolved with the political will of the time. In this two-part adaptation of his dissertation at the University of Oxford, our Research Officer William Langley contrasts the stances and policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. His first post discusses Beijing’s neglect and Taiwan’s embrace of the Chinese Overseas throughout the post-1949 era. His second post will examine Taiwan’s changing heart as Beijing begins to re-welcome the diaspora. 


Just as the Chinese Overseas have played a crucial role in the creation of modern China, so too has the emergence of a modern China affected the Chinese Overseas. Indeed, the two have been intertwined since the late 1800s, when the Imperial Qing court announced it would grant protection to the Chinese Overseas population across the globe. From then on, they enjoyed a status in their ancestral homeland, which survived the fall of the last Imperial dynasty, the birth of the Chinese Republic (1912) and the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950). Even as the War came to a stirring end, many young ideological Chinese Overseas returned to their homeland, eager to participate in building the new China. 

However, in the early years of the People’s Republic, Beijing turned its back on the Chinese Overseas.  

Newly socialist, Beijing viewed the diaspora as ‘bourgeois’ and traitorous and gradually dismantled its system of favourable treatment. By 1955, it renounced the principal of jus sanguinis, which automatically granted citizenship rights to any person who could prove their Chinese ancestry, and eventually prohibited migration entirely.   

Indeed, after dissolving the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commision 侨务部, Beijing’s only official contact with the Chinese Overseas came through the Overseas Liaison Office 外联部; a global propaganda unit that sought solely to propagate the ideals of an international Maoist revolution. 

In the 1950s, the propaganda wing distributed 800,000 copies of Mao’s Little Red Book in as many as 117 countries across the globe. Meanwhile, Beijing Radio broadcasted fervent revolutionary speeches to the diaspora in Southeast Asia in Hokkien, Teochow, Hakka and Cantonese, hoping, as Mao himself explained, to “control the globe and let the world hear our voices.” 

A leaflet dropped on Communist insurgents in Malaysia in 1953 offering them a $1000 reward for handing in their Bren machine guns. Source: UK Department of Information.

However, while Beijing’s efforts were successful in encouraging ethnic Chinese-led Communist insurgencies across Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Thailand, the more profound effect was unintended: to push communities of Chinese Overseas further away from their ancestral homeland.  

This was because, during the Cold War, Chinese Overseas often found themselves facing persecution on two fronts: their economic prosperity and their perceived communist ideologies.

In Myanmar, for instance, the Chinese population – who controlled a disproportionately large share of the country’s businesses – was hit hard by Ne Win’s nationalisation of the economy. Yet, four years later in 1966, they found themselves targeted again in the infamous 626 anti-Chinese riots (六二六事件), triggered by Burmese anger at the insistence of pro-PRC Chinese students on wearing Maoist badges to school campuses. The riots resulted in the deaths of dozens of Chinese, the looting of the Yangon Chinatown and the sacking of the Chinese embassy. 

This persecution was a common story across Southeast Asia. Not only did “prosperous” Chinese Overseas communities suffer discriminatory policies under the newly independent ethno-nationalist governments of the 50s and 60s, but they were also held in contempt and suspicion for fear that they may hold communist sympathies. Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s near-constant broadcasting of revolutionary propaganda met with an icy reception from the Chinese Overseas. 

In stark contrast to the PRC, the ROC was nothing short of doting during this period. Seeking to both contain the flow of mainland Chinese communism and to gain global recognition as the “one true China,” the ROC’s Kuomintang (KMT) government actively courted the Chinese Overseas. They not only retained the principle of jus sanguinis, but also offered to those who could prove Chinese ancestry lower fees and easier entrance standards to Taiwanese universities. In Southeast Asia and the United States, the ROC even sponsored Chinese schools, language classes and teacher-training centres. 

It was a likely pairing: the Chinese Overseas had been heavily involved with the nationalist cause since its inception, funding everything from Kang Youwei’s ambitious attempts to create a constitutional monarchy during the “Hundred Days Reform” programme in 1898, to Sun Yat-Sen’s Tongmenhui 同盟会 (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance) and even its later evolution into the Kuomintang 


Sun Yat-Sen with a group of Chinese Overseas in Singapore in 1908. According to Sun, “The Chinese Overseas were the mother of the Revolution.” Source:

Once again, the KMT-led government in Taiwan was happy to pick up the hearts and minds that Beijing had rejected. As early as the New Life Movement in the 1930s, Chiang Kai-Shek framed China’s internal struggles as a battle between the Nationalists, who hoped to preserve and revitalise Chinese culture, and the Communists, who would destroy it.

This idea was one the KMT would return to throughout the Cold War.  

In 1966, just as Mao launched the iconoclastic Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命), inciting youths to ransack any physical or ideological tenets of the old China, the KMT launched the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement (中华文化复兴运动), which set out to promote classical Chinese literature, uphold Confucian virtues of filial piety and protect historical relics. 

Meanwhile in Taipei, the ROC branded the CCP as communist bandits, selling itself as the sole legitimate bearers of Chinese democracy and republicanism. The message to Chinese Overseas was clear: supporting the PRC meant the loss of traditional culture and the destruction of their roots, while associating with the ROC was to uphold tradition and sustain democracy. 

Thus, while the PRC’s credentials to the home Chinese culture, and by extension, the roots of the Chinese Overseas, were deliberately destroyed, the KMT replanted them in Taiwan. 

Many Chinese Overseas were eager to be affiliated with the ROC, especially those living in the newly independent anti-Communist nations of Southeast Asia and McCarthy-era America. Not only did the ROC’s rhetoric of traditional culture and values likely resonate, but public association with the passionately anti-communist KMT might spare them from the widespread political persecution enacted against the Chinese Overseas during the early Cold War era. 

Late Qing reformer Kang Youwei gained support and funding for his “100 Days Reform Movement” from the Chinese Overseas. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

Fortunately for the KMT, its links with the Chinese Overseas could be traced back to the late Imperial period. After retreating to Taiwan, however, it extended them further. In 1952, Chiang Kai-Shek established the Overseas Chinese Save the Nation Federation (中华民国华侨救国联合总会), seeking to “bring together the strength of the world’s Overseas Chinese population in protecting Sun Yat-Sen’s vision of the ROC” and to “popularize patriotic movements, support the government and promote the thriving development of Overseas Chinese society.” The Save the Nation Federation, which still exists today, acted as a parent organization for the numerous ROC-affiliated Chinese Overseas associations across the globe. It coordinated the government’s outreach and organized its efforts with the explicit goal of maintaining a sense of Chinese nationalism among the diaspora.

The ROC hence saw its interaction with Chinese Overseas as beneficial to its ideological conflict with the PRC. Just as the Communist Party hoped to use Chinese Overseas to promote global revolution, the Nationalists sought to infuse them with Chinese patriotism, underpinning a sense of global fraternity and support for the ROC’s nation-building initiatives. 

This ideological conflict has played out across the world, often in surprising circumstances. Historian J.S. Wang notes how the date on which a given Chinese Overseas community celebrates National Day is telling of its political orientation. Those in favour of the Nationalists in Taiwan celebrate on the 10th of October, commemorating the start of the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, which led to the overthrow of the Imperial Qing regime and establishment of the Republic of China the following year. Those aligned with the Communists in the Mainland, on the other hand, celebrate on the 1st of October, in honour of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In recent years, many Chinese Overseas communities have fallen in line with the mainland celebration on October 10th, but many Chinatowns, such as San Francisco and Chicago, continue to celebrate two separate Chinese National Days – a present-day reminder of the ideological conflict that tore through the heart of the Greater Chinese world in 1949. 


San Francisco Chinatown in 1965. Source:[email protected]/4061824394

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