Late last year, a court in Beijing banned US diplomats from attending an appeal hearing for Chinese-born American citizen Xue Feng, a geologist accused of violating state secret laws. His crime was obtaining a database containing information on 32,000 oil and gas wells in China and giving it to his employer, US-based energy consultancy IHS (IHS.NYSE).
The substance of citizenship: Beijing and Chinese-born foreign citizens
Xue Feng’s lawyers have argued that the information that Xue gathered was only classified as a state secret after he had collected it. Regardless of the facts of the case, Xue is not being treated as a US citizen, and he he not alone: The same can be said for many other Chinese-born carriers of foreign passports who have run afoul of mainland authorities.
How to deal with Chinese returnees is a tricky issue for Beijing. China needs returnees to help lead its domestic companies in their charge abroad; they have international experience, (usually) better educations and are multilingual. It has therefore encouraged them to return, and returnees now form the leadership core of China’s emerging IT and pharmaceuticals industries. However, cultural attitudes and mutual distrust complicate the relationship, especially when the returnees have changed citizenship while abroad.
Historically, Chinese leaders had little use for ethnic Chinese communities outside China. One Ming emperor went so far as to call for all Chinese residents of Southeast Asian countries to be repatriated for execution. Similar attitudes persist today in labels for returnees like “seaweed.” When Chinese cinema grand dame Gong Li took Singaporean citizenship, she was denounced as a traitor by many.
To this way of thinking, to be Chinese is to have a Chinese mother and father and to live in China. What to do with those who go abroad, obtain foreign passports, and come back to work in China while expecting to be treated like foreigners?
The list of those who have swapped passports is long, distinguished, and embarrassing; it includes top-ranking business leaders and the children of many top officials. The daughter of Wahaha CEO Zong Qinghou, China’s wealthiest man, is a US passport-holder, and Zong is a legal US permanent resident. Jet Li has a Singaporean passport. Basketball star Yao Ming’s wife was a US birth tourist; their infant was born American. Twenty-one of the 172 stars in the Party-sponsored back-patting epic Founding of the Republic hold foreign passports.
To many in the West, China’s attitude seems backward. But in China, as in much of Asia, while business may be globalized, identity is not. An American passport is all one needs to be American, but Beijing considers ethnicity the substance, and the passport the paperwork. The logic is similar to that applied to Chinese companies headquartered in tax havens: If a Chinese person changes passports to evade the law, the foreign document is a mere legal trick.
Beijing’s position is not groundless. Much of Chinese demand for foreign passports is indeed driven by a desire to evade the Chinese legal system, for reasons both morally defensible and otherwise.
Of course, by charging Xue with a vaguely defined economic crime frequently used to silence dissent, and conducting the hearing behind closed doors, Beijing only buttresses that desire. The problem is not how China treats foreign citizens, but how it treats its own. A Chinese netizen put it concisely: “When people cannot vote, they vote with their feet.”