Tea Leaf Nation
China Has Its Own Birthright Tour
Young members of the world's largest diaspora can attend camps in their ancestral homeland — now on Beijing’s dime.
Young overseas Chinese can now go on an (almost) free two-week trip to China. Since 1999, the Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs (OOCA), an office of China’s powerful State Council, has organized annual trips, called “root seeking camps,” to help Chinese children growing up abroad stay in touch with their national heritage. Many of these camps used to charge tuition and fees. But this year, the Chinese government has decided to cover most expenses, excluding airfare. The move may be part of a government push to expand ties with the approximately 60 million Chinese who live overseas, comprising the largest diaspora population in the world.
The program’s stated goal is to increase young overseas Chinese people’s understanding and interest toward their home culture. It has wide appeal – to date, more than 400,000 Chinese abroad have attended the camps. (Then again, some seem to have attended involuntarily at their parents’ urging). OOCA, which also drafts policies on returned overseas Chinese, work with Chinese schools and global Chinese associations all over the world to recruit participants. Most campers must be between the ages of 12 and 18, must identify as at least part ethnically Chinese, and must speak basic Mandarin or a local dialect.
OOCA holds the camps in several Chinese cities each year. Themes vary widely city to city. A camp held this year in the central province of Henan focused on martial arts, while young participants in the coastal city of Ningbo learned about Chinese calligraphy and the art of paper cutting. A camp in the metropolis of Nanjing features trips to Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which commemorates the 1937 slaughter of about 300,000 Chinese by the invading Japanese army; several local museums; and Fuzimiao, a famous Confucius temple.
Kuang Lihong, a participant back in 2000, said her trip changed her “previous prejudice against the country.” Cong Zhongxiao of Atlanta, Georgia, told Hong Kong-based news outlet Phoenix Media in July that she didn’t like Chinese culture on her first trip and had refused to talk to anyone Chinese. But eventually, Cong said, she grew to care for the country and the language; 2016 marked her fourth time attending.
China’s global image is mixed, with decades of stunning economic growth marred by a poor human rights record and a growing reputation for regional bullying. President Xi Jinping has made improving China’s image a priority, and influencing the huge Chinese population abroad looks like a good place to start. In July 2010, Xi, then vice president, greeted summer camp students in the Great Hall of the People, where China’s legislature sits. In February, the Chinese government issued a directive demanding that Chinese students, even those studying abroad, receive a solid “patriotic education.” In March, Li Wei, the chairman of the Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese in the southern province of Guangdong, said that China should allow dual citizenship to make it easier for overseas Chinese to maintain ties.
China isn’t the only nation to court its diaspora by organizing such trips. Armenia, Iceland, Israel, and Taiwan also hold birthright programs for their diaspora populations. But China’s effort is especially noteworthy given the vast size of its overseas community.
The program isn’t just a soft power play; it does appear to help youngsters of Chinese descent understand their place in the world. One third generation Chinese-American participant, Brandon Louie, was able to visit his grandparents’ ancestral hometown of Taishan during his participation in the Chinese program. “For me, it’s important to have a connection to your past, to know where it started,” Louie told Dissent Magazine in 2012. “I know it’s cliché, but it’s about knowing where you began.”