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China is a major world player with commercial and strategic influence around the globe. It wants the roughly 60 million ethnic Chinese living outside China to recognize its growth. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on one way the government is trying to attract Chinese-Americans and others in the diaspora.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In the southern city of Taishan, a group made up of mostly Chinese-American middle and high school students and a few of their parents attends culture classes at a local school. The music class focuses on one song.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "With brown eyes, black hair and yellow skin, we are forever descendants of the dragon," say the lyrics. In other words, all ethnic Chinese are part of the same nation, no matter what citizenship they hold.
This tour group is part of a program that the Chinese government has run for nearly two decades. It helps foreign nationals of Chinese descent to trace their roots with culture and language classes and visits to historical sites. The students pay for the airfare to China. The Chinese government covers the rest.
Zeng Xiaoxian, a Taishan city official in charge of the program, says it helps to dispel overseas Chinese kids' misconceptions about China.
ZENG XIAOXIAN: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "In order to give China some positive publicity," she says, "I think it's really necessary to bring these kids back to have a look and let them see exactly how we have become wealthy and powerful."
In 2013, State Councilor Yang Jiechi addressed kids participating in the program and called them descendants of the dragon.
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YANG JIECHI: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "We all share the same ancestors, history and culture," he says. "I hope you will aspire to lofty ideals and become builders of our national renaissance."
Taishan is known as one of the earliest and biggest sources of Chinese emigration, including to the U.S. Almost all the monuments here commemorate Taishanese sojourners who went overseas, then returned to help their hometown with their newly acquired skills and wealth.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: A tour guide shows the kids a monument to Chinese-Americans who fought as fighter pilots with the famed Flying Tigers unit in World War II. Many of the kids, though, appear listless in the subtropical heat. Some admit that they're on this trip because their parents signed them up for it.
Seventh-grader Theresa Pham gives the trip mixed reviews.
THERESA PHAM: The school was sort of cool. But, like, there was this one restaurant that we ate at that sort of - the bathrooms were sort of nasty. And I don't like to squat in toilets because it's so hard to pee in.
KUHN: Pham came here with her mother, Judy Ng. Ng says that her ancestors left Taishan to go build the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. over a century ago. She and her daughter came on this trip, she says, because she believes China is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
JUDY NG: I do see the impact, and that's why I want my kids to learn to speak Chinese. How good they are - they can decide later if they want to continue. But I think China, because of the population and the impact on industry in the world, they're going to be a significant power.
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KUHN: You can see this in downtown Taishan. It's been turned into a brightly lit pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants. When Ng's ancestors left here, it was poor, and most immigrants were uneducated farmers. China's new immigrants are increasingly well-educated and middle-class. And China is trying to woo them back and leverage them to help develop the country and advance its national interests.
Leo Suryadinata is an expert on the Chinese diaspora at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
LEO SURYADINATA: Now, China is building up, rising. Xi Jinping's proposed what you call the China Dream, (speaking Chinese). And he wants the Chinese overseas to become part of this (speaking Chinese), the Chinese nation, in support of this China Dream.
KUHN: One problem, Suryadinata says, is that China's government sometimes fails to distinguish between Chinese citizens living overseas and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry. And these two, he points out, have very different cultures and views.
SURYADINATA: For the Chinese overseas, who are the nationals of their adopted lands, China Dream is, in fact, a foreign dream.
KUHN: The other is that in many countries, ethnic Chinese face strong anti-immigrant attitudes, and that includes questioning their political loyalty. Suryadinata says that by demanding their political loyalty, China would be putting emigrants and their offspring in a difficult position.
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KUHN: Back at the school in Taishan, the Chinese-American kids are wowed by a kung fu demonstration. There's no explicitly political content in this particular tour, and that's exactly what Leo Suryadinata advises China to do. If you want to attract foreigners of Chinese descent, focus on the Chinese culture, and skip the politics. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taishan, China.
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