Concerned over its shrinking population, China is proposing new legislation to encourage ethnic Chinese around the world to relocate to China, bringing with them technical and entrepreneurial skills learned abroad.
Changes aimed at creating a more welcoming environment for millions of "the Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad" are laid out in an April 24 report to the National People’s Congress. However, critics fear the new policy could also open a back door to increased monitoring and harassment of overseas Chinese.
The proposed legislation comes after China reported in January that its population had fallen for the first time in six decades, a decline that began a decade or so earlier that will have profound implications for its economy and the world.
Frederic Rocafort, an attorney and former U.S. consular officer in Guangzhou, said while declining population numbers may not reach a level of concern that calls for large-scale immigration, any country can benefit from adding talent to its workforce.
"Overseas Chinese could also play a role in increasing Han populations in certain areas. Meanwhile, Overseas Chinese could help China address demographic challenges by encouraging settlement in China by members of the diaspora," Rocafort, international practice group chair at Harris Bricken, a law firm based in Seattle, told VOA Mandarin via email on April 26. "At the same time, there are also economic reasons, such as encouraging the diaspora to invest in China — it is also a way of accelerating technological development. Members of the diaspora could also contribute favorably to China's economic agenda."
Han are the dominant ethnic group within China.
Overseas Chinese total 10.7 million, according to a UNESCO report. If the descendants of Chinese immigration that began on a large scale in the 16th century are included, there are about 60 million overseas Chinese, according to the report. The UNESCO report says, "Since the 1980s, over two-thirds of the foreign investment accepted by the Chinese government has come from expatriates."
The government-affiliated Global Times, says the 60 million overseas Chinese are found "across 200 countries and regions." The proposed legislation does not define who is "overseas Chinese," saying only that “the profound Chinese culture is the common soul.”
It is unclear whether the new legislation will regulate the details of the overseas activities of Chinese government organizations.
The report also suggested continuing to promote "the construction of harmonious overseas Chinese communities and guiding overseas Chinese to abide by the laws of the country where they live."
Last month, the FBI arrested two New York City residents for allegedly operating an underground, illegal police station for China's Ministry of Public Security in one of the city’s Chinese enclaves. Both men are American citizens and one had "a long-standing relationship of trust" with the Chinese government, according to prosecutors.
The station, one of more than 100 that China operates worldwide, allegedly monitored and harassed Chinese activists and dissidents in the United States as part of what U.S. prosecutors call China's "transnational repression" campaign.
SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA's Henry Ridgwell
Rocafort said strengthening ties to the diaspora is a way of counteracting the increasing negativity toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in countries like the U.S.
"Overseas Chinese might be perceived within China as more receptive to more nuanced views on the CCP, which they could then transmit to audiences in other countries where they have ties," he said.
Rocafort believes that irrespective of how this proposed law may define overseas Chinese, it is almost certain that many American citizens who are ethnically Chinese will fall under the category.
He urged the United States government to consider the implications of American citizens being more tightly brought into the Chinese government's orbit and to take notice of any provisions that call for activities overseas by any Chinese government organizations (or organizations potentially linked to the Chinese government), "even if ostensibly benign, as they could help deepen CCP influence abroad."
"Countries like the United States must be vigilant and carefully monitor any attempts by the Chinese government to increase its influence abroad under the guise of protecting diaspora communities," he said. "Their potential as advocates for the CCP is likely part of what is behind efforts to promote integration by overseas Chinese."
Teng Biao, a former human rights activist in China who is now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, told VOA that one purpose of the legislation is to protect Chinese people who break local laws in foreign countries.
He said if the legislation passes, China's "infiltration and overseas surveillance will be intensified. The lure of overseas Chinese, including foreign citizens of Chinese descent, always functions together with the harassment and attacks against overseas activists and dissidents."