The Price and Promise of Specialness, Jin Li Lim revises narratives on the overseas Chinese and the People’s Republic of China by analysing the Communist approach to ‘overseas Chinese affairs’ in New China’s first decade as a function of a larger political economy.
Jin Li Lim shows how the party-state centred its approach towards the overseas Chinese on a perception of their financial utility and thus sought to offer them a special identity and place in New China, so as to unlock their riches. Yet, this contradicted the quest for socialist transformation, and as its early pragmatism fell away, the radicalising party-state abandoned its promises to the overseas Chinese, who were left to pay the price for their difference.
This article uses heretofore unavailable or unexamined archival documents to offer new insights into and analysis of two specific historical questions concerning Tan Kah Kee. The first question has to do with the precise circumstances and motivations that underpinned Tan’s departure from Singapore in 1950, which turned out to be a permanent return to China. The second question has to do with a more recent revisionist argument that suggests that Tan tried — and failed — to escape from China in 1954 and 1957. Both questions have a certain historical significance in that they are closely connected to how Tan has been, and is, remembered in the modern histories of Singapore, the People’s Republic of China (prc), and the Chinese overseas.
The prevailing historiographical view on Tan’s permanent return to China in 1950 is that it was essentially the product of both “push and pull” factors; that is, that Tan was both pushed out of Singapore by the increasingly hostile political situation after the British pressure that was placed on him as a result of the Malayan Emergency, and attracted back to China by the “pull” that the establishment of New China (in 1949) exerted on his patriotic sentiments. Based on a close reading of archival evidence, this article demonstrates that Tan was not pushed out of Singapore. He left on his own terms, and because he wanted to play a part in New China.
The New Biography of Tan Kah Kee suggests that Tan attempted to escape to Singapore in 1954 and 1957, because he had become disillusioned with the radicalizing political situation in China, and thus decided to leave Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party behind. In this narrative, Tan’s escape ultimately fails because, in 1954, Zhou Enlai uses political blackmail to force Tan to stay and, in 1957, the British authorities in Singapore ban him from returning. This article demonstrates that this narrative is unsupported by archival evidence. Tan only made one attempt to travel to Singapore in 1955, and it was neither an escape attempt nor was it blocked by the Chinese Communists or the British. Rather than fleeing the prc, Tan was likely trying to travel to Singapore on behalf of the prc.
The book begins by detailing Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 attempt to whitewash the history of Overseas Chinese policy, by blaming its failures on the Cultural Revolution, and by claiming that it had been blamelessly benevolent in the 1950s. This contextualises the main questions—and revisionism—of my book, and is the starting point for discussion of my argument, sources, methodology, and the lacunae in CCP orthodoxy and English-language historiography.
The opening backdrop to this chapter rests in the combination of the heady CCP rhetoric heralding New China’s advent, its call for a united front and New Democracy, and the Overseas Chinese response to this long-anticipated fulfilment of their ‘rights and interests’. Against that backdrop, the chapter (1949–1950) shows how Soviet orthodoxy and CCP economic realism combined in the New Democracy. This was the basis for the Overseas Chinese inclusion in the united front, and the policy (and institutions) that was created to govern their affairs.
This chapter (1950–1953) situates the nascent policymaking in the context of the PRC’s coming to terms with its external pressures, domestic volatility, and the internal logic of the Chinese revolution. Overseas Chinese policy practitioners were confronted by the negative impacts of socialist transformation (i.e. Land Reform) and foreign pressure (i.e. the Korean War), specifically for Overseas Chinese remittance flows. Yet, this coalescence of pressures was key for recognising the transnationality of the interests that underpinned remittances, with the domestic interests of the Overseas Chinese as the crux. From this Overseas Chinese policy thus rationalised the convergence between ‘favourable treatment’ of Overseas Chinese interests, and the financial utility of this approach to the party-state.
This chapter (1953–1955) shows that while Overseas Chinese policy practitioners justified the positive discrimination ‘favourable treatment’ policies by a discourse of supposed Overseas Chinese ‘specialness’, there was a contradiction. For the party-state, the strategic imperative underpinning the ‘favourable treatment’ meant accepting its ideological aberrations. Yet, this did not always mean effective implementation at local levels, nor was such privileging always well-received within the Party. Earlier socialist transformation had negatively affected the Overseas Chinese in China; local Party cadres and officials had clearly failed to rectify ‘left deviationist’ excesses, or implement ‘favourable treatment’ provisions; and the CCP’s General Line (1952) for agrarian collectivisation, private industry and commerce, had only created new complications. Yet, Overseas Chinese policy practitioners—with the approval of the party-state leadership—responded by doubling down: on propaganda, on rectification, and above all, on the ‘favourable treatment’.
As this chapter (1956–1957) reveals, despite the party-state’s attempts, it was unable to reconcile Overseas Chinese policy (and ‘favourable treatment) with socialist transformation. Indeed, policies that seemed to create bourgeois—or at least, non-socialist—exemptions were made even more contradictory by Mao’s ‘socialist high tide’ and its drive to intensify and accelerate socialist transformation. Yet, Overseas Chinese policy persisted with ‘favourable treatment’, and it was encouraged in this by the party-state’s turn away from the ‘high tide’. ‘Favourable treatment’ had rationalised privileging as the means to securing Overseas Chinese economic utility, and this rationality combined with a growing sense amongst party-state leaders that Mao’s ‘high tide’ was an irrational path to calamity. Yet, this turn was illusory. In the upheaval of 1957, as Mao leveraged crises abroad (in Hungary) and at home (post-Hundred Flowers) to re-assert his authority, the link between Overseas Chinese policy and anti-‘high tide’ sentiments was a liability in a new Anti-Rightist mood, and Overseas Chinese policy practitioners were forced to repudiate ‘favourable treatment’.
This chapter (1958–1959) shows the radical change in Overseas Chinese policy after Mao’s heralding of ‘politics in command’ returned the party-state to the older ‘high-tide’ vision, especially in economic policy, and to an ideologically Maoist basis for policymaking. Previous ideas of convergence between Overseas Chinese and party-state interests were abandoned, and Overseas Chinese ‘specialness’ and/or ‘favourable treatment’ were deemed Rightist, while the pressures created by the Great Leap Forward for even more hard currency led Overseas Chinese policy to turn instead to coercive and exploitative methods. This was unwise at best; but with the turn towards large-scale, accelerated collectivisation and economic gigantism, this new variant of policy was self-destructive, and there was a drastic fall in remittances by 1959. Yet, while party-state and Overseas Chinese policy practitioners in particular flirted with reform and a return to ‘favourable treatment’, the Lushan Conference led to a renewed Anti-Rightist backlash instead, and this quickly resulted in the abandonment of reformist ideas. Even if Overseas Chinese policy was now clearly counterproductive, the party-state was set on Mao’s utopianism—and so the Overseas Chinese suffered.
The book concludes by pointing out that by 1960, and despite the PRC’s grand display of solidarity in the repatriation of Indonesian Overseas Chinese refugees, promises that New China had offered to the Overseas Chinese had been broken, and even being Overseas Chinese was a liability. The story of the Overseas Chinese and the PRC through the 1950s reveals that even as the CCP lurched from cynical utilitarianism to radical coercion, even ‘favourable treatment’ neither succeeded in catering to Overseas Chinese interests, nor raise remittance levels. Thus, by the decade’s end, all that had transpired was the payment of a heavy price, for very little in return. This, as the book concludes, places contemporary exhortations by the PRC to the modern-day Chinese diaspora in problematic light, and demands that the historical bases for PRC Overseas Chinese policy be more properly understood.