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Reuters is reporting today that President Barack Obama will appoint Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as his next Ambassador to China, replacing the outgoing (and possible Presidential candidate) John Huntsman.

I think the choice will generally be regarded as a good one: Locke is an experienced Chinese-American politician with an understanding of the country and its history.  But rather than delve into what we can expect from a Locke ambassadorship, let’s take a look at another side to this story:  America appointing an ethnic Chinese person to one of its most prestigious overseas postings.  Not a big deal, I can hear you saying, and you’re right… non-white people have earned positions of power in the western world for quite some time.  But as @niubi mentioned on Twitter:  “When will the Chinese appoint an ambassador of ‘laowai’ descent, to any country?”

It was also mentioned on Twitter (by @shanghailaine) that besides not being appointed to foreign posts, laowai are often not even able to become a “full fledged member” of China.  She just scratched the surface of a fascinating topic: no matter how long foreigners live in China, or no matter how well they speak Chinese, they will always be outsiders.  I’ve quizzed people from time to time on whether foreigners can join the CPC, for instance, and get vague answers ranging from “I don’t think so” to “Yes, but it’s really really hard.”  And if a foreigner wants to become a Chinese citizen, how could one do that?  And even if a foreigner received Chinese citizenship and a passport, would he/she then be considered “Chinese”?

Admittedly, China is a very unique case, because to be “Chinese” signifies a nationality and/or an ethnicity.  I am from Canada, a place that was originally built by immigrants largely from Anglo-Saxon countries, but today, from places like India, China, Vietnam, and Pakistan.  Unlike China, Canada does not embody an ethnicity.  If I saw an Indian face tell me he/she is Canadian, I would not question it.  But I reckon if they told me they were Chinese, I would say “No you aren’t.” There is no doubt that Chinese feel a strong blood bond with each other on some other level which can never be shared by an outsider.  But surely, eventually, outsiders should be able to “join” the country and receive exactly the same treatment and opportunities as born-and-raised Chinese, in the same way  Pakistanis are treated as full-fledged Canadians?

I am not optimistic about this happening anytime soon.  Throughout my time in Mainland China, I worked for several companies, both state-run and privately-owned.  There was definitely always the feeling of a glass ceiling.  Foreigners are welcome in China to share their expertise, but never to be trusted with actual power.  As a young man in my mid-20s at the time, I didn’t quite care, as long as I could live in China, study the language, and have fun.  But after a few years, I balked at this; I wanted to work in a place with the potential for upward mobility, more responsibility, and a higher pay package.  Maybe on some level, I wanted to be taken more seriously, rather than be a token foreign face with English input here or there.  Good, upwardly mobile positions exist in China in the private sector, largely with foreign-owned companies, but less so with Chinese enterprises (which are the obvious majority).

Not all of Greater China operates this way, however.  While there are obviously reasons for the differences, let’s compare it with Hong Kong:  The CEO of the territory’s flagship and internationally-renowned airline, Cathay Pacific, is currently Tony Tyler, who was born in Egypt and raised in Britain; the Chairman of the Securities & Futures Commission, a top government statutory body overseeing the financial markets, is Martin Wheatley, also from Britain; one of the most successful businessmen in the territory, the “Father of Lan Kwai Fong”, Alan Zeman is from Canada; Winfried Englebrecht-Bresges, from Germany, is the CEO of Hong Kong’s biggest money-maker, the Hong Kong Jockey Club; and I could go on. Today, foreigners in Hong Kong continue to have senior positions in Hong Kong companies, sit on many boards in Hong Kong, and even within the Hong Kong government.  Late last year, a foreign resident won election to the South Island District Council, proving that foreigners can even earn the respect and trust of Chinese voters.

In fact, Cecilie Gamst Berg, who hosts a popular podcast on RTHK called Naked Cantonese, noted that foreigners who become Hong Kong residents are eligible for “home return permits”, which are the de facto long-term visas Hong Kongers use to enter Mainland China.  And when foreigners with these permits do so, they are to be treated as Chinese citizens.  In other words, hotels which are not approved for foreigners must accept a white face if he or she is carrying a permanent Hong Kong ID card and Hong Kong passport.  Yep, they are real compatriots – bonafide Chinese – in nationality, at least.

Yes, Hong Kong has a very different history to the Mainland.  But it is now part of China, and the refreshing thing about living here is there seems to be no deep-seated suspicion of foreigners and their intentions.  Hong Kong people live and work alongside people from countries all over the world; sometimes the foreigner is a boss, sometimes an underling, but we all work together, and, for the most part, all have equal opportunity.

I don’t suspect China will embrace this model anytime soon.  The suspicion of outsiders  runs too deep.  But this is to the country’ s own detriment: not only does it cut itself off from valuable differing views and perspectives, it fails to create a competitive environment that lures the best and brightest from other countries to live and work in China long term.

 
 

12 Comments

  1. @kitmention says:

    Yes, true. Chinese society does not open itself to foreigners in the way that American or Canadian societies do. Foreigners can never be Chinese in the way that they can become Canadian or American.

    But for context, have a chat about this issue with Europeans. I think you will find that, in the same way that no foreigner can become Chinese, neither can a foreigner become Spanish, Polish or Greek. (Britain is a notable exception — its incredible political correctness allows anyone to become truly British.) It seems to me that societies exist on a continuum at which American and Canadian societies, real outliers whose extraordinary level of acceptance of foreigners comes from their roots as “immigrant nations,” are on one end and China is on the other. Almost everywhere else in the world is somewhere in the middle. Foreigners, even foreigners adopted as infants, likely could not become fully Portuguese or Ukranian, but their careers seem less likely to be hobbled by mere fact of their citizenship.

    Additionally, could it not be unfair to expect mainland China to accept foreigners at the same level as more developed countries? For all its development, Chinese society at large is still unused to foreigners. With a few years, this, like everything else here, will likely change.

  2. George says:

    Interesting article.

    Imho, it is not actually a matter of “suspicion of outsiders runs too deep” …in other words I do not agree it is some kind of incurable prejudice…

    It is indeed the case that most Chinese people and most laowai in China would agree with that pervading sensation that there is a permanent and impossible to eradicate “exclusivity” of some mystical Chinese-ness causing inseparable “them and us”.

    But then that is what everyone in non racially mixed societies around the world thinks and says, and historically has been true about western cultures before increased multiracial immigration and inevitable integration of more cultural and ethnic types into normal society.

    So I agree “I don’t suspect China will embrace this model anytime soon” but then that is what everyone would have said about a black American president not so long ago, and since the world is getting smaller and more mixed more quickly, China might be unrecognizable in these respects in a mere generation’s time…

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  4. mikes says:

    Love the blog in general, but is this really a big deal that countries are different? That it’s easy to become an Canadian, legally and socially, and that it’s almost impossible to become Chinese, also legally and socially, is part of what makes Canada Canada and makes China China.

    Also, I dont know who Cecilie Gamst Berg is or her podcast, but I’m not sure what you report her saying is correct. My understanding is that foreigners in Hong Kong can get “right of abode” which gives the right to settle in and not be kicked out of Hong Kong, but that unless of Chinese descent they can NOT get a Home Return Permit or Hong Kong passport. (People settled in HK before 1997 are probably different.) Foreigners who get right of abode are required to keep their existing citizenship and passport. (http://www.gov.hk/en/residents/immigration/traveldoc/permit/faqpermit.htm#/q1 for home return, http://www.gov.hk/en/residents/immigration/traveldoc/hksarpassport//faqpassport.htm#/q1 for passport). Germain to your original point, Hong Kong people are Chinese citizens, and the Hong Kong passport is a passport that only Chinese citizens can get. The minimum criteria seems to be to have been born overseas to one parent who had Chinese citizenship and hadn’t lost it by acquiring foreign citizenship. In fact, the Hong Kong government website defers pretty much entirely to mainland law for determining who is a Chinese citizen for purposes of acquiring a home return permit and passport. http://www.gov.hk/en/residents/immigration/chinese/nationality.htm. Reasonable enough, I think. America and Canada are immigrant countries, and that makes them great and strong, but not every country needs to be.

  5. Harland says:

    Chinese is not a nationality, it is a race and a culture. Don’t think of China the way that you think of immigrant mongrel nations.

    • alreadyasleep says:

      You sound like Hitler. Someone should kick you off the internet before you embarrass yourself and your family members any further.

  6. alreadyasleep says:

    Gary Locke is all American. There’s actually no need to refer to him as Chinese-American. He has Chinese heritage, true, but his naitonality should not be hyphenated!! I find the title of this article completely insulting to both Chinese and American citizens!!

  7. xian says:

    I appreciate this direct analysis sans any political correctness. It is spot on. China will remain its current demographic makeup in the foreseeable future.

  8. FOARP says:

    “There is no doubt that Chinese feel a strong blood bond with each other on some other level which can never be shared by an outsider. “

    Actually there are quite a lot of good reasons to doubt this. The first being that this “blood bond” often seems to be a simple assumption that anyone with the same general Han-like appearance is Chinese (rather than Korean/Viet/Japanese etc.) which the subjects may not share. The second being that this does actually add up to a “blood bond”, rather it is seemingly just an assumption as to what someone’s nationality is of the kind which could only arise in a relatively racially homogenous society in which people have little or no contact with foreigners (by which I mean people from other countries, rather than the Chinese usage which often seems synonymous with “white people”). Finally, despite all the linguistic flourishes, people don’t actually treat other members of society as if they genuinely have a “blood bond”.

    “But after a few years, I balked at this; I wanted to work in a place with the potential for upward mobility, more responsibility, and a higher pay package”

    There’s an easy solution to this – move to Hong Kong.

    @kitmention –

    “But for context, have a chat about this issue with Europeans. I think you will find that, in the same way that no foreigner can become Chinese, neither can a foreigner become Spanish, Polish or Greek. (Britain is a notable exception — its incredible political correctness allows anyone to become truly British.) It seems to me that societies exist on a continuum at which American and Canadian societies, real outliers whose extraordinary level of acceptance of foreigners comes from their roots as “immigrant nations,” are on one end and China is on the other. Almost everywhere else in the world is somewhere in the middle. Foreigners, even foreigners adopted as infants, likely could not become fully Portuguese or Ukranian, but their careers seem less likely to be hobbled by mere fact of their citizenship.”

    Nonsense. It is very possible for a foreigner to become Spanish, Polish, or Greek. Even a few moments research on this page shows the various ways of doing so, most taking 5-10 years for full naturalisation:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Nationality_law

    PRC Nationality law allows naturalisation under the following article:

    “Article 7: Foreign nationals or stateless persons who are willing to abide by China’s Constitution and laws and who meet one of the following conditions may be naturalized upon approval of their applications:

    1. they are near relatives of Chinese nationals;
    2. they have settled in China; or
    3. they have other legitimate reasons.”

    The question is whether approval is ever received for such applications. There are some foreigners who have assumed Chinese citizenship, but every one of which I am aware was a CP member who played some role in the civil war or its aftermath. My suspicion is that, of the very few people who wish to give up their present citizenship to become PRC citizens, fewer still, or perhaps none, have their applications approved. As for CCP membership, my understanding is that you have to be a citizen to qualify.

    Finally I’d like to give a shout out to Taiwan expat supremo Robin Winkler ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Winkler ), founder of Winkler Partners, Taiwanese Green Party member (not to be confused with the Pan-Greens), and, as far as I am aware, the only white person ever to even be considered as an electoral candidate in a Taiwanese election.

  9. zubin says:

    If you don’t like China, don’t live there. Don’t bring your American equal rights stuff to China, we will crush you. Get out!

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