Guest Column

Myanmar and China: The Citizenship Question

By David I. Steinberg 3 May 2023

Citizenship issues are a vital element in any state’s sovereignty. Countries vary and individually adapt under the two generally recognized systems of law: jus soli (right of the soil—where one was born) and jus sanguinis (right of blood—one’s heritage). States continuously redefine the qualifications, such as whether—and how—the male or female blood line applies, religious beliefs, historical records, and the issue of dual citizenship.

Myanmar has a unique system based on its 1982 citizenship law. Under it, only taingyintha (literally, “sons of the land,” called “national races” (actually ethno-linguistic groups) long and traditionally resident in Burma/Myanmar are full citizens with whatever rights such status stipulates. Members of other ethnic groups, such as Chinese or Indians, may, depending on a number of factors such as length and proof of family residence before 1823, become citizens, but that number must be small. The remainder may become associate or naturalized citizens with less status and rights. The Myanmar government until the coup of Feb. 1, 2021 has regarded the Rohingya as alien Bengalis. The issue is now under dispute. So, the system in Myanmar is a type of modified and combined jus sanguinis and jus soli system. But what happens when another country with extensive expatriates has a different system, and seems more intent on recognizing its perceived authority over them? The case is China, with important implications for Myanmar, and indeed far beyond Myanmar to those Chinese resident in the West.

In May 2019, in a highly significant event basically ignored by the international media, President Xi Jinping attended the 9th World Ethnic Chinese Association Conference in Beijing, jointly sponsored by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council and the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese. The conference called for “the members of the association of Chinese in the world to follow the guidance of the Xi Jinping socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era…” (Xinhua News).  He seemed to demand political and economic orthodoxy for worldwide Chinese—some 60 million in about 200 countries and regions—under his and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This has historical Chinese roots. Starting in 1909, the Chinese Qing Dynasty regarded Chinese anywhere in the world as theoretically subject to Chinese central government authority to ensure “perpetual allegiance to the state”; i.e., jus sanguinis. This policy was reaffirmed under the Chinese Nationalist (KMT) government until it was overthrown in 1949 by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which continued the policy for half a dozen years after its founding.

The Burmese civilian government was disturbed by this policy, as China at that time was regarded by the Burmese military as its only external threat and indigenous Chinese as a potential fifth column. It regarded the status of Chinese residents in Burma as one of the four major problems with the new PRC, the other three being a disputed border demarcation, Chinese support for the Communist Party of Burma, and the residual KMT forces that had retreated into northern Burma. It was only after Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reassured Prime Minister U Nu in the mid-1950s that the Chinese ought to obey Burmese law and customs that the Burmese government’s fear of Chinese residents was assuaged, at least until China exported the Cultural Revolution into Chinese schools in Burma, resulting in anti-Chinese riots and many deaths in Rangoon in 1967.

The overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia are a critical component of governance and the individual and collective economies of the region. Ethnic Chinese residents in Myanmar and Southeast Asia are more than simply numerous. In Myanmar, illegal Chinese immigration has resulted in several million Chinese (perhaps 4 percent of the population), excluding Sino-Burmese who are also very numerous. Chinese play extensive roles in the retail trade, even though the Burmese census of 2014 has not released their figures but regards them as essentially minimal. By 2000, there were some 25,000 Chinese firms involved in the retail trade in household sundries. In Indonesia several decades ago, scholars estimated that overseas Chinese controlled 80 percent of private capital in that country. Although the Chinese in Thailand have been better integrated into that society than in any other regional state except Singapore, which is largely ethnically Chinese, they remain profoundly important in the region.

In at least the first two decades of the PRC, communist control over large swathes of the Chinese-language school system in Southeast Asia was evident, causing concern that they could be an internal fifth column for PRC influence or control. Attempts to counter this was evident through the supply of anti-communist textbooks to a large number of schools by Taiwan, Hong Kong, and third-force Chinese, often with foreign support.

Under Deng Xiaoping the tensions eased, shifting to the more recent “soft power” attributes of the Confucius Centers designed to teach Chinese language and culture essentially to the ethnically non-Chinese. But now Xi seems determined to bring the overseas Chinese into line. China does not allow dual citizenship, so in many countries in the region the PRC can only bring moral suasion to their expatriates, although the power of China and the forces of family, the economy, and group identity are important. In Myanmar, the situation is complex, as the Chinese are essentially not Burmese citizens. Given the alacrity and vigor with which the Chinese bureaucracy responds to perceived commands from the top of its very steep hierarchy, we may expect some additional pressures and tensions to surface. Recent reports have indicated increased official worldwide Chinese surveillance of Chinese, and current indications demonstrate the dictates of Xi cannot be easily ignored.

If China pushes the overseas Chinese in Myanmar to adhere to the dictates of the CCP, the problems of the past, which resulted in some riots but more recently strong anti-Chinese sentiments because of its aid program, may well intensify. Chinese surveillance and attempted control worldwide are dangers to expatriate host states. It needs to act more discreetly and carefully on these issues everywhere, but especially in fragile countries like Myanmar.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University in Washington.