The Political Economy of Overseas Chinese Policy in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1959
In 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.

本文利用不可多得或迄今为止未经细查的档案文献, 为关于陈嘉庚的两个具体的历史问题提供了新的见解和分析。第一个问题围绕陈嘉庚在新加坡的种种境遇和其1950年离开新加坡并永远留在中国的动机。第二个问题有关于一个近代修正主义争论, 它指出: 陈嘉庚曾试图在 1954 年和 1957 年逃离中国, 但都以失败告终。这两个问题对陈嘉庚如何在新加坡现代史, 中华人民共和国史以及华侨华人史中被记录有着密不可分的联系, 因此具有特殊历史重要性。

对于陈嘉庚于 1950 年回归中国这历史事件, 主流观点认为这是 “推力与拉力” 两者共同作用的产物: 面对马来亚紧急状态, 英国对陈嘉庚施压, 从而加大陈嘉庚与当下政治局势日益敌视的关系, 最终迫使其被 “推” 出新加坡; 与此同时, 1949 年新中国的成立激发了他的爱国情感而将他 “拉” 回中国。基于对档案证据的仔细阅读, 本文论证了陈嘉庚并没有被 “推” 出新加坡——他的离开出于自愿, 因为他希望为新中国做出贡献。

《陈嘉庚新传》一书中提到, 中国激进的政治局势使陈嘉庚感到理想破灭, 于是他决定离开毛泽东及中国共产党。之后他分别在1954和1957年试图逃返新加坡, 但都以失败告终: 在 1954 年, 周恩来利用政治因素威胁陈嘉庚留下; 而在1957年, 新加坡的英国当局禁止他返回。本文证实此书的叙述不能被档案证据所支持。事实上, 陈嘉庚仅在 1955 年试图前往新加坡; 作为仅有的一次“离开中国,” 它不具有逃跑的企图, 陈也未被中共和英国阻拦, 反倒更像是代表中国出访新加坡。

This article is in English.

In: Journal of Chinese Overseas

Abstract

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.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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’.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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’.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness

Abstract

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.

In: The Price and Promise of Specialness