The Chinese Communist Party Is Still Afraid of Sun Yat-Sen’s Shadow
A relentless war on free spaces for Chinese exiles stems from past revolutions.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1896, while on his regular stroll along the streets of London, the exiled Chinese dissident Sun Yat-sen was approached by fellow Chinese who he thought were interested only in conversation. It wasn’t until the door shut behind him that he realized he’d been steered into the Chinese legation by Qing officials. They had planned to smuggle him aboard a Chinese vessel, sail him back to China, and execute him for his involvement in a failed uprising the year before.
But Sun was just one leading member in what had become a global network of Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries committed to reforming or overthrowing the failing Qing dynasty. Their ideas, at first crushed within the borders of the Qing, flourished abroad as dissidents founded like-minded communities in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. The Chinese government still remembers that legacy today—and that affects its determination to control the Chinese diaspora worldwide and to crush any potential resistance from abroad.
Sun made it out of his improvised prison, thanks to British government intervention. He went on to direct numerous uprisings from abroad, eventually culminating in the overthrow of the Qing and the establishment of a new Republic of China in early 1912, with himself as provisional president.
But the existential danger posed by dissident communities abroad—and the potential for the ideas they cultivate to seep back into China and gain popular support—became a lesson later Chinese governments, from the Nationalists to the Chinese Communist Party, learned well. Both claimed descent from Sun; both were determined that nobody should repeat his success. Since 1989, when pro-democracy movements shook the country to its foundation, and with even greater intensity since Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the party has embarked on a massive global campaign to neutralize anti-party organizing abroad and prevent the rise of another Sun.
By silencing overseas dissidents, establishing powerful party-led networks throughout the Chinese diaspora, buying out independent Chinese-language media, and rewarding pro-party community leaders with status and business opportunities, the party has undermined ideological opposition and ensured that most messaging entering China from overseas Chinese communities bolsters rather than undermines its legitimacy.
From Singapore to Canberra to San Francisco and New York, those efforts have, to a large degree, succeeded.
The Long Reach of China’s Anti-Dissident Effort
The Tongmenghui (“United League”) was built overseas by Chinese dissidents in foreign cities, depicted here in yellow, to challenge the Qing government. Today, the Chinese government has built an extensive network of associations and centers, shown in red, to ensure influence over Chinese people abroad.
1905: Number of cities per square
Today: Number of cities per square
After two failed uprisings, Sun founded the Tongmenghui, or United League, in 1905, which brought together under one umbrella many Chinese secret societies dedicated to revolution. The Tongmenghui expanded rapidly around the globe, with more than three dozen offices in Southeast Asia alone, also forming chapters in Honolulu, Vancouver, Montreal, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, New Orleans, Havana, and Wellington, New Zealand. The Tongmenghui organized a series of rebellions that eventually culminated in the Wuchang Uprising in October 1911, which directly led to the Xinhai Revolution and the founding of a democratic Republic of China.
It’s hard to imagine how the pro-democracy movement could have succeeded without safe havens outside of China where activists could develop their ideas and strengthen their networks. Many of the most famous thinkers from around the turn of the century spent intellectually formative periods overseas, where they were free to study, write, and organize. Tang Qunying, the first female member of the Tongmenghui, joined while she was in Japan. The founding members of Cai Yuanpei’s Restoration Society, another anti-Qing organization, first planned its founding while they were in Tokyo. Sun fundraised extensively in the United States. Even Chen Duxiu, later to become one of the co-founders of the Chinese Communist Party, cut his teeth on revolutionary organizing while he was studying in Japan, where he was exposed to socialism and founded two revolutionary societies.
Numerous Chinese students in Japan became radicalized and, in the first few years of the 20th century, brought that radicalism back with them to China in waves. They founded a succession of local revolutionary groups across the Yangtze River valley, and, as the historian Marie-Claire Bergère writes in her biography of Sun, these groups “played an important part in the eventual weakening of imperial power, encouraging local officials to move on to political and dynastic opposition.”
Publications dedicated to reform and revolution in China flourished overseas as well. Renaissance Daily was the Tongmenghui’s newspaper in Singapore; San Francisco’s Great Harmony Daily promoted similar ideas. Liang Qichao, a key figure in early Chinese journalism, founded his most famous publication, New Citizen, in Japan. Qiu Jin, an activist and feminist executed in 1907 for her role in a thwarted rebellion in Anqing, edited a revolutionary journal while she studied in Japan.
While the Chinese Communist Party officially venerates many of the leaders who brought about the fall of the Qing dynasty, including Sun Yat-sen, Qiu Jin, and Cai Yuanpei, it has also drawn lessons from them—namely, to fear what Chinese people are doing beyond China’s borders.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 up until reform and opening began in 1978, the country was mostly closed off from much of the outside world and engaged only nominally with Chinese diaspora communities. Chinese who fled abroad during this time had, for the most part, escaped the clutches of the party.
Yet the huge pro-democracy movement that ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 changed all that. A mass exodus of Chinese students and supporters of democracy ensued as they sought refuge abroad, especially in Western countries. And a thoroughly shaken, internationally isolated Communist Party saw that as a clear and present threat to the party’s future within China, to the party’s image abroad, and to China’s future prosperity (since Communist officials—like Kang Youwei a hundred years earlier—viewed overseas Chinese and their skills and financial capital as vital to China’s economic development).
“The Tiananmen Square Massacre had sent shockwaves throughout the [overseas Chinese] diaspora,” writes James Jiann Hua To, a political scientist from New Zealand, in his book, Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese. “Vehement protests against the CCP erupted all across the globe. Most (if not all) of these demonstrations were led and dominated by [overseas Chinese] groups. Beijing saw an urgent need to win back their confidence and loyalty, and immediately went into damage control.”
So began a decades-long effort to manage, guide, control, organize, and at times coerce overseas Chinese communities into either standing with the party or, at the least, not getting in its way. Chinese government officials and their proxies have systematically sought to weaken every method that the late Qing revolutionaries, and later the Nationalists, used abroad to organize and promote their message. The party has replaced independent organizations and societies with party-aligned ones, bought out or sidelined independent Chinese-language media outlets, co-opted local Chinese community leaders, and punished those who have resisted.
This aim has been made easier by the fact that China today is, of course, a far cry from the weak, collapsing empire it was a little over a century ago. For the past 40 years, the Chinese Communist Party has presided over an increasingly prosperous and powerful China, and after a prolonged period of ideologically induced chaos under Mao Zedong, it finally brought a degree of stability and economic growth that neither the Nationalists during the republican period nor the Qing emperors before it could deliver. That has brought the party a great deal of legitimacy, and China has moved from being somewhere that Chinese abroad want to change to somewhere they want to profit from. Additionally, a strengthened China has made a point of offering overseas Chinese, who have historically faced discrimination and repression in their host countries, what it was not able to a hundred years ago: support and protection in the face of danger or persecution.
In place of international reformist groups, there are now thousands of chapters of various Beijing-aligned organizations in cities all around the world—from party fronts such as peaceful reunification societies, now located in more than 70 countries, to Chinese business associations and other community groups founded with the party’s blessing. Chinese students abroad have been a particular target.
There are more than 100 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) in the United States alone and many more in other countries; these on-campus organizations proliferated after 1989. They usually receive funding from the nearest Chinese consulate and maintain close ties to consular officials, who sometimes send political directives or quietly organize students into pro-Beijing demonstrations. The dominant role that CSSAs play on many campuses allows the party to set the tone of on-campus discussion and organizing among Chinese students while simultaneously signaling to would-be dissidents that they are surrounded by party allies. It effectively silences anti-party organizing, pushing would-be student critics to express themselves with strict anonymity—or not at all.
When a Uighur activist gave a talk about China’s mass detention of ethnic minorities at Ontario’s McMaster University in February, a group of Chinese students organized to disrupt the talk and to film it; they also contacted the Chinese Embassy, which asked them to find out if any Chinese nationals were involved in organizing the event. The McMaster CSSA also released a statement riddled with party jargon that condemned the talk as promoting “separatist activity.” When the University of California San Diego invited the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to give the 2017 commencement address, the school’s CSSA helped lead Chinese student opposition to the speaker and issued a statement condemning the invitation—also mentioning that they had contacted the Chinese consulate over the matter. The Chinese consulate gave the UC San Diego CSSA an award at an annual ceremony that May.
Beijing has also set about systematically acquiring, co-opting, or silencing independent Chinese-language publications. Such publications, common in every major overseas Chinese community, now overwhelmingly parrot party lines or at least don’t cross them, as the Australian scholar John Fitzgerald, New Zealand scholar Anne-Marie Brady, and U.S. researcher John Pomfret have pointed out. Except for those with ties to Taiwan or to the exiled Chinese religious group Falun Gong, few have managed to maintain true independence from the party. Chinese state media outlets have systematically bought out independent Chinese-language outlets around the world, gaining control over their editorial content, or have offered generous content-sharing agreements or free equipment to struggling local papers—offers easily withdrawn if the outlet publishes content the party views as inflammatory. Chinese businesses with ties to the mainland have come under pressure to remove their ads from local news outlets that refuse to abide by party guidelines, resulting in revenue losses for those outlets. With this guidance over what can be read and published among Chinese communities abroad, according to To, the author of Qiaowu, “Beijing’s main objective is to encourage reunification, stimulate nationalist pride and to oppose anti-[Chinese Communist Party] movements.”
The Chinese government has also learned how to actively cultivate relationships among leaders in overseas communities. Consular officials the world over are tasked with forging connections and learning as much as possible about the ethnic Chinese communities in their region. Emerging business and community leaders are offered trips, business opportunities, and status if they are willing to be friends of the party. These extensive commercial connections abroad have helped the Chinese government with its ambitious economic development plans. But befriending overseas Chinese entrepreneurs and community leaders has another purpose as well. “The Party also needs to prevent such individuals or groups from becoming actively rebellious or conduits of what it considers ‘polluting’ Western political ideals,” writes the Australian scholar Gerry Groot, an expert on party activities abroad.
For groups that resist, such as Tibetans, Uighurs, supporters of Taiwanese independence, and human rights activists, the party has shown itself capable of KGB-level coercion and violence. These groups are subject to surveillance and harassment, even those living in Western democracies. People with family in mainland China may see their relatives threatened or detained. And the party has even taken to kidnapping particularly troublesome individuals, putting them aboard planes or cargo ships back to China.
These combined efforts have achieved success, particularly among more recent Chinese immigrant communities. (Those who immigrated several generations ago are less vulnerable—and also have little reason to engage in anti-party organizing in the first place.) The pro-democracy movement that rumbled across China in the 1980s, then seeped abroad, is effectively moribund. That’s not to say that ethnic Chinese around the world all love the party; they, like any other set of far-flung immigrant communities, hold a great diversity of views—or don’t care at all.
The Chinese Communist Party has preemptively neutralized opposition. It has eroded the safe harbors and poisoned the soil that once nurtured the likes of Qiu Jin, Liang Qichao, and Sun Yat-sen and more recent Chinese reformers in the 1980s and 1990s.
But it remains a highly repressive regime where corruption festers and socio-economic inequality is expanding, where more than a million ethnic minorities have been disappeared into internment camps in the past two years alone, and where the economically marginalized have little ability to address grievances. The people of China deserve more than this, and they deserve a free space to imagine and plan together what that might look like. But those free spaces abroad, once ample, have shrunk.