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Beijing’s “Overseas Chinese” in Singapore: Working as China’s Effective United Front

As China rises on the world stage, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly exploiting all levers of influence to achieve and secure its national objectives along its periphery and globally. To achieve and secure those objectives, the CCP is employing political warfare. Set within a broader discussion about how CCP engages in influence operations in Asia, Singapore presents a valuable case study for understanding the means by which the CCP engages in influence operations that target a majority ethnic-Chinese state.

An editorial on the 11th National Congress of Returned Overseas Chinese in People’s Daily calls it a “major event” and says that “it is of great significance to unite the strength of the overseas Chinese community and promote the united struggle of Chinese people at home and abroad.” The article praises the leadership of the CCP with Xi as the core for having led the “cause of the Party and the country to achieve historic achievements and undergo historic changes” since the 18th Party Congress, ensuring that “the Chinese nation ushers in a great leap from standing up, getting rich, to becoming strong.” It also praises the contribution of returned overseas Chinese and their relatives as well as overseas compatriots.

“Overseas Chinese” as Beijing’s United Front:

The primary avenues for CCP influence operations in Singapore are found in business associations, clan associations, and grassroots organizations. CCP propaganda efforts in Singapore that flow through these organizations aim to promote the narrative of a “greater China”—one that includes all people of Chinese descent, irrespective of nationality—and therefore, one in which ethnic Chinese persons of all nationalities should show affinity and loyalty towards the Chinese state represented by the PRC. The CCP’s fundamental purpose, therefore, is to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore so that it will align more closely with the PRC’s expanding interests. Xi’s approach confers primacy to blood rather than to citizenship: no matter how long ago their forebears left China, ethnic Chinese are considered to have a duty to their ancestral land.

Clan and surname associations in Singapore are important links through which the PRC conducts outreach: through cultural exchanges to revolutionary history sites in China, concerts for singing communist songs, “birthright” village/home visits, and so forth. These exchanges are endorsed by local offices operated by CCP united front organizations. Business associations in Singapore act as the most powerful lobby for Chinese interests. In Singapore, these organizations include the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Singapore Business Federation. The PRC exerts leverage over Singapore businessmen by making it harder for them to get contracts, licenses, permits, loans, etc.—especially in the real estate sector, where Singaporeans hold significant investments in China. It is evident from their ability to influence and detest Lee Hsien Loong’s private and unofficial visit to Taiwan in 2004 and Singaporean military training in Taiwan during 2016-17.

Promoting these communities as a vehicle for China’s geopolitical ambitions has become something of a mantra in Beijing, often wrapped in bland rhetoric like building a “shared future.” However, in seeking to incorporate citizens of other countries into its vision, critics say, Beijing is stoking divided loyalties, and their potentially destabilizing consequences, across Southeast Asia — home to more than 80 percent of the ethnic-Chinese people outside China and Taiwan.

Former Chinese envoy to Singapore, Sun Haiyan, who received her credentials in 2022, arrived from the International Liaison Department, a wing of the CCP that manages relations with political parties, rather than the Foreign Ministry. Soon after taking up her position, she established an “AmbChina.sg” Facebook page. She posted there at least once a day. Among Sun’s first engagements was a meeting with a group of Chinese-language online outlets where, according to an editor present, she asked that they steer clear of sensitive topics, including China’s actions in Xinjiang and Tibet, where the United Nations found evidence of wide-ranging human rights abuses and forced assimilation.

Role of Chinese businesses in Singapore:

According to a 22 Nov 2022 Financial Times report, at least 500 Chinese companies have chosen to quietly re-domicile or register themselves in Singapore as a hedging move against US trade sanctions on mainland Chinese businesses. This “Singapore-washing” has been accepted as a pragmatic economic strategy by the city-state, which has never been shy about exploiting its global image as a Westernized gateway-to-Asia middleman destination akin to Hong Kong. Even so, the Singapore government has always been cognizant of the potential negative reputational risk that comes with its facilitation of Chinese corporate efforts to “de-Sinicize” their business operations and backgrounds, even as it attempts to spin it as a matter of “Singapore-stamping” or “Singapore pivoting.”

The recent incidents include the grilling of TikTok CEO Chew Shouzi in a US Congressional hearing over the company’s move to Singapore and whether he is a potential CCP agent or PRC proxy; a bombshell investigative article in the Singapore-based Straits Times regarding a Chinese company using an unmarked rented office to coordinate distribution of illegal e-cigarette/vaping products to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region; and a long-running money laundering scandal involving multiple Chinese nationals with foreign passports.

What looked like economic pragmatism on Singapore’s part in accepting Chinese businesses and money seeking safe haven or alternative business conduits to Western markets is shaping up as a headache as the geopolitical waters between China and the West, particularly the US, become increasingly choppy. Three incidents, two within a week, highlight the diplomatic and reputational consequences in what has become known as “China Cuckooing.” It is a reference to the way cuckoos take over other birds’ nests to lay their eggs, a form of parasitic behaviour like the practice of using Singapore to mask their Chinese origins.

Law enforcement nuisances:

Singapore on 4 Oct 2021 passed legislation to counter foreign interference in the internet-era (FICA), becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to enact such a law (came into force on 7 Jul 2022) amid growing global concern about states utilising digital tools and campaigns to covertly advance their own national interests abroad. The government has been extremely careful not to specify if the new law was targeting a specific government or country. In publicising the bill’s introduction on 13 Sep 2021, the Ministry of Home Affairs referenced two real world scenarios that matched alleged Chinese-linked activities in Australia and the European Union.

Singapore authorities have been targeting Singaporeans suspected as a potential channel of Chinese influence. In 2018 Huang Jing, an academic at the Lee Kuan Yew school at the National University of Singapore, was expelled from the country for his ties to China’s security ministry. Philip Chan, a naturalized Singaporean citizen, has been designated a “Politically Significant Person” (PSP) as the first target of Singapore’s law against foreign interference, the nation’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced on 2 Feb 2024. The Registrar of Foreign and Political Disclosures under the MHA “assessed that Chan has shown susceptibility to be influenced by foreign actors, and willingness to advance their interests.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long earlier made a speech painfully emphasizing how Chinese in Singapore are very different from the Chinese in China, in terms of both history and identity. Singapore is learning to its sorrow that there is peril as well as profit in turning a blind eye to Chinese interference activities through “overseas Chinese”. It is the region’s only majority-Chinese state, with ethnic Malays, Indians and others in the minority. It is a rare state founded on multiracial principles.

Racial identities are celebrated but racial harmony is demanded and policed. Chinese interference, as Singapore’s ruling party sees it, poses a threat to the very idea of Singapore because it challenges that multiracial compact. It is crucial for Singaporean official and public discourse to contextualize social issues beyond an ethnic lens and minimize the chances for opportunistic Beijing to use monolithic claims that widen rifts between ethnic groups in the island city-state. After all, the most effective means to counter foreign influence is for citizens themselves to recognize and denounce its ungrounded arguments.