Overseas Chinese and Their Economic Impact: Weaponizing China’s Diaspora?


Everything’s big in… not Texas, but rather China. Here on ChinaFund.com, we have referred to more than enough metrics which indicate just that, whether it’s China’s roughly 1.4 billion population, its GDP (#2 worldwide in nominal terms), its dominance with respect to a wide range of industries/dimensions, from “usual suspects” such as infrastructure spending to unexpected fields such as wind and solar energy (with China being the #1 producer as well as consumer worldwide).

But what if we venture outside China for a moment?

In other words, wouldn’t there be tremendous merit associated with putting overseas Chinese or if you will the Chinese diaspora under the proverbial microscope?

The ChinaFund.com team most certainly believes so and as such, we have decided to dedicate an entire article to this very topic. And the numbers seem to be clearly on our side, in light of the fact that based on 2012 data, there are 50 million Chinese living abroad and according to more recent numbers, the figure is closer to or even north of 60 million.

As a more plastic perspective, let’s just say that if China’s diaspora were a country, it would represent the world’s #25 nation ranked by population. In terms of financial prowess and potential, things seem even more optimistic, in light of the fact that overseas Chinese control assets that amount to over $2.5 trillion. To put it differently, China’s diaspora would hold an even more impressive #8 global rank alone based exclusively on assets.

Do the Chinese authorities understand the potential of this economic as well as demographic force?

History as well as current economic data and trends seem to indicate that yes, the authorities are more than aware how much potential there is on the table. This should come as no surprise in light of the fact that for example, the wealthiest overseas Chinese tend to have their origins in Fujian, a region close to Xi Jinping’s heart in light of the almost two decades he spent there. If we dig even deeper, we realize that Sun Yat-sen himself, who overthrew the last of China’s imperial dynasties back in the earlier part of the 20th century, ultimately chose Hawaii as his final destination.

In-between these two historical reference points, we have countless more or less influential leaders who made it clear that reaching out to China’s diaspora should represent a strategic priority. Overseas Chinese represented a significant variable in Deng Xiaoping’s international outreach strategy (with China finally becoming willing to partake in the global economy as a key player), with rather spectacular results.

While we know where the authorities stand, what about overseas Chinese themselves?

Those of you who are accustomed to the Chinese modus operandi when it comes to public relations know all to well that the authorities rarely shy away from speeches where they depict the glorious present as well as future of China and in our case, also the key role the Chinese diaspora can and should have in this equation.

A mistake that tends to be made by the authorities themselves as well as various observers is assuming that the Chinese diaspora is a monolith, a highly homogeneous entity which consists of individuals who see the world around them in the exact same manner and are looking forward to somehow contributing to China’s glorious future… a perspective one can consider short-sighted at best and downright childish at worst.

There is a world of difference between someone who is ethnically Chinese and simply ended up abroad on a temporary basis (for career-related reasons, to pursue a certain degree and what not) and someone who is also ethnically Chinese but comes from a family that has been living abroad for multiple generations. Needless to say, the former is multiple orders of magnitude more connected to the Chinese status quo than the latter.

The various exchange programs China has started so as to warm up the ties to its diaspora occasionally make this crystal-clear once feedback from the individuals in question is analyzed, feedback which makes it clear they are closed to being tourists than let’s say glorious allies or key players in China’s economic future.

As tends to frequently be the case when it comes to all things China, trends and realities are frequently exaggerated. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous potential on the table for China by going after closer ties with as many overseas Chinese as possible, even let’s say “Westernized” Chinese diaspora members who have pretty much nothing in common with today’s China value-wise. On the contrary, identifying common denominators may very well end up being a fascinating endeavor for both parties involved.

However, “nuance” is the operative word. While the Chinese diaspora is a more than potent collective financial force and while there are generation-defining opportunities to be had bridging the gap between China and them, overseas Chinese are most definitely not a homogeneous entity that can act as a universal panacea. The same way, many overseas Chinese are not exactly as eager to partake in projects meant to enrich China’s economic future as the average Chinese citizen and even more so, may very well prove to be hostile to any such idea for political reasons revolving around sensitive topics such as China’s track record with respect to key issues such as human rights.

As always, the ChinaFund.com team is at your disposal should you and/or your organization be interested in additional clarity on this topic and especially guidance with respect to the many opportunities associated with the Chinese diaspora. To find out what we can do for you, simply visit the Consulting section of our website or if you already have a certain request in mind and would like to get in touch quickly, send us a message by accessing the Contact section of ChinaFund.com and we will get back to you as soon as possible.