For nearly half a century, China’s relations with foreign countries were predominantly rhetorical. Its trade and investment were negligible, and its political interests were relatively myopic, focused on reunification, restoration and defense. Oh, for the times when it was all so simple.
Today, Chinese investors, traders and workers are spread over the globe in a new diaspora, seeking natural resources and business advantage. This state-sanctioned emigration has exposed record numbers of firms and individuals – 718,000 in March according to the Ministry of Commerce – to the politics and prejudices of foreigners. Beijing needs to protect its own overseas – for economic reasons, if nothing else – but this need is complicated by its bumper-sticker principle: "non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs."
The non-interference principle has been always been interpreted flexibly. In the 1970s, China supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and then invaded Vietnam for tossing the Khmer Rouge out. More recently, Beijing disclosed to the Burmese government the location of an arms factory run by (ethnic Chinese) rebels in northern Myanmar, precipitating a military raid and a refugee crisis. The arrest of Chinese traders in June for selling illegally imported products in Moscow – and the seizure of US$2 billion in Chinese goods – prompted Beijing to send an official delegation to lobby in response. Certainly one could argue that any and all of the above actions constitute "interference."
The question is how far Beijing is willing to go. In the past, ethnic Chinese targeted by violence were rarely Chinese citizens, and not Beijing’s legal responsibility. Today, those most at risk are native-born citizens working abroad on limited-term projects in politically unstable countries. China must try to balance its position on sovereignty against its obligations to its people.
Chinese citizens have recently been attacked in Algeria and murdered elsewhere in Africa; oil operations are being sabotaged in Iraq; the Chinese population in the Solomon Islands was mostly evacuated in 2006 following riots against Chinese business interests. That same year, Michael Sata ran for the presidency of Zambia on an anti-China platform, and his defeat prompted anti-Chinese rioting. Sino-Russian relations are also souring slightly; one Russian official referred to the burgeoning Chinese population in far eastern Russia as a "threat."
Aggravating the challenge for Beijing is the massive expansion of Chinese media coverage and internet use. It is increasingly difficult for the government to micro-manage the emotional reaction of its citizenry, raised on a diet of nationalism, to the sight of Chinese being mistreated by foreigners.
Whether the government will be able to resist calls to take more aggressive action to protect Chinese citizens abroad depends on how Beijing explains to them what it means when it says "non-interference." More clarity is sorely needed.