22 March 2017

Playing politics with diasporic communities: Southeast Asia's lessons for the EU

Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make Turkey great again!
Mr Recep Erdogan has been organising, in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, an unprecedented series of campaign rallies for the upcoming Turkish national referendum to confer unprecedented powers in the presidency.

And even though the European Union has a thing for suicide pacts (yes to unlimited immigration, yes to no checks on refugees, yes to imposing debt bondage on the PIGS, yes to an illogical currency union!), European leaders are mostly not amused. Erdogan's rallies have been completely banned in Austria, cancelled in Germany, and created a victory for the right in the recent Dutch elections (which the media has spun as a loss for the far-right because Geert Wilders didn't win big).

Erdogan is not amused either. So much for EU-Turkey relations (Germany's secret deals notwithstanding), and so much for Turkey's EU membership ambitions? Not quite.

But first, let's explain why this referendum campaign is an issue anyway, and one that won't go away even when the campaigning stops.

Sovereignty and extra-territoriality

As opposed to the vast majority of the EU, the basis of nationality in Turkey is jus sanguinis. This means the Turkish diaspora in Europe are Turkish citizens, eligible to vote in Turkish elections and referenda. Erdogan does not have sufficient votes in Turkey to push through his power grab political reforms, hence the rallies in the European Union.

On a general level, all individuals are entitled to freedom of speech, even political speech. This much is enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But how about the freedom of states to conduct popular politics in other states? There is the Vienna Convention that Erdogan has stated in his defense, It regulates the conduct and legal scope of diplomatic missions, and forms the basis for the conduct of international diplomacy.

Mr Erdogan is either ill-advised or barking up the wrong tree by suggesting that sending his ministers to campaign for Turkish elections and referenda in the EU is the equivalent of a "diplomatic mission". The member states of the EU are right to call him out on it.

One of the oldest rules of the game of international diplomacy: my country, my rules, my national politics. Don't play your domestic politics into my domestic sphere, my country is not your backyard. Hence, the immediate reaction from the non-failed EU states to Erdogan: you have no right to conduct your election rallies on our soil; your rallies will continue under our explicit toleration of their impact on our internal security. Of course, the jus sanguinis law of Turkey complicates things greatly, and will be problematic for some time, given Erdogan won't be going away any time soon, and given that Turkey is much stronger than the European Union and will remain so until the EU is radically reformed.

Imperium in imperio, then and now

For all his political cunning, Erdogan has not invented a new way of winning. It's really an old strategy, and one that has been neutralised before right here in Malaya. The name of the game is Imperium in Imperio, a state within a state. Like the EU, the Straits Settlements had a jus solis policy while Chinese nationality, then as now, follows jus sanguinis.

Both the EU and Malayan versions involve the loyalties of established diasporic communities being called upon and regulated by a motherland they have seen in their lives, their parents' lives, or even their grandparents' lives. This game is played most effectively when the migrant or diasporic community is so far removed from daily life and political realities in their "motherland", they become prone to nostalgia and romanticism of the motherland, and may support, without question, whichever strongman is in charge of the newly-powerful motherland. Malayan Chinese were happy to champion whoever won China and made it great again, whether it was Sun, Chiang, or Mao. The same will go for Turks in the EU.

Contrary to state narrative of the long "century of humiliation", the late 18th to early 20th centuries were a time of Chinese expansionism. Huge wealth was repatriated to the mainland from ethnic Chinese trade networks shorting the commodities markets leveraging on free trade in Southeast Asia. Company towns and virtual colonies like the Lanfang Republic were set up in Borneo.

It is true that neither Sun Yet-sen nor Chiang Kai-shek insisted that Chinese ethnics in Malaya vote in Chinese elections. But the Chinese imperium in imperio was so deeply rooted that by the time the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, Chinese exporters and manufacturers in British and Dutch colonies were subject to Chinese laws banning all Japanese materials and labour in the supply chain (of which a sample certificate of origin is on exhibit at the Singapore's WW2 museum). And by the time Mao conquered the mainland, Chinese leaders and merchant princes were sent letters encouraging patriotic repatriation of their wealth to the communist state, signed by no less than entrepreneur, Chinese agent, and saboteur Tan Kah Kee, a member of the communist government's "Commission for Overseas Chinese Affairs", and delivered by agents of the murderous guerilla Malayan Communist Party.

Lessons from Malaya to the EU: How to stop Erdogan

From the late 19th century to the 1970s, Chinese attempts at an imperium in imperio were met with resistance once the Dutch and British colonial states saw it as a security problem to be neutered rather than a racial problem to be tolerated and managed. The EU's success in dealing with Erdogan's attempt to turn the EU's Turkish citizens into a fifth column lie in taking a similar vision and enacting similar actions.

Secret societies were first tolerated, then proscribed, then rooted out by the Settlements and their successors. Clan associations were first tolerated (because of their association with secret societies), then appreciated (when they took over secret society assets), and then eventually sidelined because they had facilitated the Chinese imperium in imperio. Independently-run Chinese language schools were tolerated and appreciated because they served a public good that the early colonial administration could not pay for itself, and then eventually incorporatised when they became the site of Chinese nationalist indoctrination in the interwar years, then nationalised and sidelined when they became the sites of "student radicalisation" in the postwar years.

Socially, the colonial states reinvented the Chinese from guests and sojourners to compradors and the "King's Chinese", providing them buy-in and identity independent of a faraway motherland. Those who didn't buy-in but kept to themselves were tolerated. Those who didn't buy-in and agitated for self-rule were surveilled. And those who claimed to fight against colonialism but were furthering communist imperialism were rightly detained and then deported.

Enlai got punked by Pak Soekarno!
The end of the Chinese imperium in imperio in Southeast Asia though is written in the postcolonial era, when Chinese premier Chou Enlai was outmanoeurvred by the collective diplomacy of Southeast Asian leaders and their Non-Aligned allies to make his Bandung declaration, that the great Republic of China recognises that "overseas Chinese" owe their primary loyalty to their home nation and not China. But the real victory is the implied acknowledgement that the Chinese state has no claim or power over overseas Chinese; they are not Chinese citizens even while the PRC (and ROC, for the matter) still technically operates on jus sanguinis. And that should be the case for the EU and Turkey.

The solution to Erdogan's imperial challenge to the EU has already been written, and the endgame has been published. And it is a Very Good Thing. It is only a question of the political will of Europe's leaders.

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