The Case of Cheng Lei: China Blurring the Lines of Ethnicity and Citizenship

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Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

The Case of Cheng Lei: China Blurring the Lines of Ethnicity and Citizenship

China has effectively created a Schrödinger’s Chinese Australian, where a person’s nationality is simultaneously Australian and Chinese depending on which serves the CCP’s purposes. 

The Case of Cheng Lei: China Blurring the Lines of Ethnicity and Citizenship
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

As a country with a significant ethnic Chinese minority — around 1.2 million people — Australia finds itself in a dangerous predicament created by the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing use of ethnic nationalism as its organizing principle. Authoritarian parties, regardless of their initial ideals, almost always turn to nationalism as the easiest and most effective tool for maintaining control. The outcomes of this have been on stark display in Xinjiang and Tibet, where minorities are subject to repressive policies solely due to their difference from China’s Han majority. Yet the CCP’s ethnic nationalism is also becoming extraterritorial, seeing a person’s ethnicity as taking precedence over their citizenship. This is creating difficulties for Canberra in being able to protect its citizens.  

This approach to foreign nationals is more than the CCP seeing itself as being the sole voice for all ethnic Chinese, an attempt to encourage all people of Chinese backgrounds to identify with Beijing and to work for the CCP’s interests. It is also an attempt to exert physical sovereignty over any ethnic Chinese people who are citizens of other countries. 

The most recent example of this has been the arbitrary detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei. It is not clear exactly what the Chinese government wants with Cheng just yet, as her reporting for China Global Television Network (CGTN) worked within the constraints expected of a state broadcaster. Beijing’s vague claim that she was “endangering national security” seems unlikely. Her arrest instead seems to be part of the continued attempts by Beijing to shift Australia’s posture to one of deference toward China. 

But this is where the lines that the Chinese government is trying to blur come into the picture. Chinese Australians now form a murky category that the CCP is seeking to exploit. Chinese Australians are deemed a group that the CCP feels it has sovereignty over due to their ethnicity, but due to their citizenship they can also be used as leverage against Canberra. 

Beijing considers Cheng Australian enough to use to create pressure on Canberra, but Chinese enough to not warrant any special consideration by China under international norms. China has effectively created a Schrödinger’s Chinese Australian, where a person’s nationality is simultaneously Australian and Chinese depending on which can be best used for the CCP’s purposes. 

This makes it incredibly difficult for the Australian government to respond, as Australia would treat these detainees as Australian citizens, but China would not respond to them in the same way. The two countries will talk across each other in any diplomatic engagement concerning detained Australian citizens because they both define these people in different ways. 

Canberra has been aware of the unique threats that Chinese Australians face for some time. Prior to Australia issuing a travel warning for all Australians in China, it had a specific travel warning for Australians of Chinese descent, stressing that they should always travel on an Australian passport and always identify themselves as Australian. The advisory notes that “If you’re a former Chinese citizen, authorities may treat you as a citizen and refuse access to Australian consular services.”

This challenge to international norms is a consequence of the CCP’s understanding of politics as simply the exercise of raw power. The party doesn’t bind itself to principles that would restrict its use of power the way liberal democratic societies do, and the way a liberal international order should. This makes the targeting of random citizens of other countries to be taken as hostages fair game. At the same time, the party’s ethnic nationalism it makes targeting ethnic Chinese an essential tactic, one designed to establish loyalty to Beijing through bullying and intimidation. 

In its attempts to make the world safe for ethnic nationalism, the CCP is making the world a far more dangerous place for Chinese Australians. Interaction with family and friends, or even professional engagements like Cheng’s, come with enormous risks. 

The CCP might believe this fear is useful, that it can be an instrument of governance internationally in the same way it is used domestically. The party seems to have made the decision that China has now amassed enough power that its international reputation is inconsequential to its goals. Coercion, rather than persuasion, is seen as its most effective diplomatic tool. An internally distracted United States, unable to exercise global leadership, makes these tactics easier to pursue.

However, the world has become accustomed to the habits of liberalism and the notion that different states and citizens of different states should be able to interact in a relatively trustworthy manner. It will prove a difficult proposition for the CCP to break these habits of trust, and or even break the aspirations of people who wish to live by this trust. Those who have migrated from the People’s Republic to Australia have demonstrated the power of these aspirations. Punishing them for continuing to interact with China — as Beijing has with Cheng — will only confirm the virtue of their decisions.