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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002

Chinese, when convenient

HONG KONG -- In an unusual move, China in recent weeks twice denied visa applications by a group of South Korean lawmakers. Relations between China and South Korea have been good in recent years, so it is strange that Korean legislators who wish to visit China should be denied the chance to do so.

The reason for the visa denial has to do with a sensitive issue: the several million ethnic Koreans who live in China. The South Korean legislators want to discuss with Chinese officials the status of these Koreans; they also hope to visit their "compatriots" in China.

The legislators' interest stems from South Korea's consideration of a bill governing ethnic Koreans living abroad. The bill, if passed by the National Assembly, would give special rights to overseas Koreans living in China, Japan and elsewhere. They would be able to freely visit South Korea and will have the right to live and work there.

On Jan. 17, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi explained the Chinese position on the matter. China, he explained, is a country with 56 different ethnic groups. "Ethnic Koreans are members of the big family of the Chinese nationality," he said. "They are Chinese citizens." And the South Korean bill under consideration by the National Assembly "has put Chinese citizens into the category of Korean compatriots."

China's ambassador in Seoul, Li Bin, also explained last month that China "does not allow dual citizenship" and Chinese who obtain foreign nationality "will be treated the same as any other foreigners."

China's sensitivity about ethnic minorities is understandable. After all, many of the minorities live in border regions, some of which have historically been subject to territorial disputes. These minorities include Mongols in the north as well as sizable numbers of Uighurs, Kazaks, Uzbeks and other minorities living in Xinjiang. If other countries, such as Mongolia, Turkey, Kazakstan or Uzbekistan should claim a special relationship with these people, it could lead not only to the division of the Chinese population but, conceivably, to fragmentation of the country itself.

Interestingly, however, China itself claims a special relationship with ethnic Chinese around the world, often not distinguishing between those who are foreign nationals and those who are not. Thus only a few days ago the online edition of the People's Daily reported that a conference on the peaceful reunification of Taiwan and mainland China was held in South Africa on Jan. 19, attended by both "overseas Chinese" and "Chinese expatriates." The headline over the story read: "Johannesburg Declaration Calls on Overseas Chinese Worldwide to Promote Peaceful Reunification."

The article referred to the participants of the conference as "sons and daughters of the Chinese nation." China's ambassador to Ghana, Li Zupei, told the participants: "More than 30 million Chinese all over the world getting together once again for a unanimous opposition to Taiwan independence and advocacy for reunification of China is of great political significance, which will certainly make great contribution to and exert profound influence on the peaceful reunification across the strait."

Use of the phrase "30 million Chinese all over the world" is significant because it includes not just the relatively small numbers of Chinese nationals living abroad, but presumably ethnic Chinese around the world, regardless of nationality. Most of these live in Southeast Asia; outside of Asia, the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese live in North America.

It seems difficult to reconcile Li Zupei's remarks on "30 million Chinese" and the statement by Li Bin that China does not recognize dual nationality and that ethnic Chinese who are foreign nationals "will be treated the same as any other foreigners." China regularly claims that its positions are "principled." On this issue, however, it appears that Beijing takes whatever position is most convenient to it at any particular time.

Another example of the ambiguity of China's position on ethnicity and nationality is reflected in its position on Hong Kong residents. The Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress in 1996 issued an "interpretation" of China's nationality law that, strangely enough, applies only to Hong Kong.

The interpretation, which is legally binding, says that "Hong Kong residents who are of Chinese descent" -- the Chinese version actually uses the term "Chinese blood" -- "and born in Chinese territory (including Hong Kong)" are Chinese nationals. That is to say, despite Li Bin's assertion that Chinese who become naturalized as foreign nationals "will be treated the same as any other foreigners," they actually will be regarded as Chinese nationals. They are therefore in the peculiar position of being legally Chinese while in Hong Kong and legally foreigners if they travel to mainland China.

The fact that the nationality law means one thing in mainland China and something else in Hong Kong makes it extremely difficult to discern what principle underlies China's "principled position" on the nationality issue.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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