Global anxieties towards China have escalated, as evidenced in the U.S. government’s increased scrutiny and pressure on TikTok, including the “Chineseness” of its Singaporean CEO. However, Chinese identity has always been fluid and diverse, and is increasingly contested.
On 27 April 2021, the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, appeared before a U.S. Congressional hearing to address concerns about online mis/disinformation and the potential threat that the mobile application posed to U.S. national security and data privacy. Owned by ByteDance, a Chinese multinational internet technology company, TikTok has become one of the world’s most popular social media apps, with over 1 billion monthly active users worldwide. Caught in the crossfire of the ongoing U.S.-China competition, TikTok has faced increased scrutiny and pressure from the U.S. government, which has threatened to ban it.
There has been a rise in Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. and other countries since the outbreak of Covid-19, which was first identified in Wuhan, China. This has led to incidents of racism and discrimination against people of Chinese and East Asian descent, including verbal and physical assaults. Former U.S. President Trump was criticized for encouraging hate crimes by referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus”. At the crux of the issue is what constitutes so-called Chineseness and its implications for domestic politics and international relations.
As a concept and lived reality, Chineseness is constantly reinvented. It is also diverse, even in so-called Greater China (encompassing mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) where populations commonly identified as ‘Chinese’ reside. Overseas Chinese, long detached from the mainland, relate to Chineseness in many ways, including cultural-linguistic affinities which they can deploy to tap into economic opportunities offered by China.
As a concept and lived reality, Chineseness is constantly reinvented. It is also diverse, even in so-called Greater China.
Chineseness is not solely a matter of self-identification. Indeed, Chineseness is increasingly responding to impositions and assumptions by the “Other”. In the case of Singapore, the “Other” is represented by various entities or phenomena, most consequentially, the Malay world, a rising China, and now the U.S.-China rivalry.
Although the Biden administration has taken steps to address Sinophobia and anti-Asian discrimination since taking office, racial prejudice seems to be deeply entrenched in the U.S., surfacing in the assumptions made at Chew’s congressional hearing. Some U.S. lawmakers assumed that the Chinese background of Chew and his company are evidence of ties to China and the Chinese government. Never mind that Chew is a Singaporean citizen who was born and raised in Singapore, that TikTok operates independently of its Chinese parent company, and that user data is not stored in China but in the U.S. and Singapore. Once derided for its perceived lack of science and technology, China has developed a creative industry whose global reach has become too much to bear for the West. It was not expected to succeed, so its success is met with skepticism if not suspicion.
With the rise of China and the increasing presence of new Chinese migrants, global anxieties towards China have escalated. This has induced societies to revisit and renegotiate Chineseness, as addressed in two recent publications. Our book, Contesting Chineseness: Ethnicity, Identity, and Nation in China and Southeast Asia, compares the construction of Chineseness in China and among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, in historical and contemporary contexts.
In Singapore, for instance, the postcolonial state managed Chineseness cautiously to avoid being perceived as a third “China” among its Malay-majority neighbours. A period of “de-sinicization” took place from 1965 to 1979 with the marginalization of Chinese-educated elites, which culminated in the eventual closure of Nanyang University in 1980. Seeing the possibilities in China’s post-1979 Reform and Opening Up policy, Singapore swiftly altered its course to promote Chinese language and values, and emphasized the city-state’s Chinese heritage. A series of policies were implemented to “re-sinicize” Singaporeans, including the Speak Mandarin Campaign, Confucian campaign, Asian Values and Special Assistance Plan (SAP) Schools to develop bilingual students with traditional Chinese values.
Nevertheless, as a result of its global talent acquisition policy and cultivation as a global migration destination, Singapore has experienced what anthropologist Steven Vertovec referred to as “superdiversity”. This means that it now faces not only inter-ethnic challenges but also intra-ethnic politics, for instance, the tensions between Chinese Singaporeans and mainland Chinese migrants in Singapore. This situation has contributed to a more complex and contested notion of Chineseness in Singapore as Sylvia Ang has addressed in Contesting Chineseness: Nationality, Class, Gender and New Chinese Migrants. The book examines the dynamics between the new and old Chinese immigrant communities in Singapore.
Recent scholarship on Chineseness has established that the concept is fluid. However, the case of Shou Zi Chew shows us that Chineseness increasingly goes beyond self-identification. It is also contingent upon assumptions made by the Other and the power politics surrounding it. With the current shift in global economic power, we can only expect that Chineseness will be even more contested than before, and such contestations will invariably involve the competition of big powers.
Chang-Yau Hoon is Professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Ying-kit Chan is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore, and Visiting Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UBD.