The Mystery Behind Singapore’s Expulsion of a Chinese-American Academic

The Singapore government’s decision to expel a high-ranking Chinese-American academic on the grounds of working for an unnamed foreign power has raised questions for which answers might not be obvious. It also raised an issue so sensitive that it is seldom openly discussed.

The individual was Huang Jin, a former Brookings Institution Fellow and head of the Center for Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. A China-born US citizen, his actions were said to “deliberately and covertly advance the agenda of a foreign country at the expense of Singapore.”

Huang was stripped of his permanent residence and his wife declared a prohibited immigrant. They are barred permanently from Singapore. Needless to say, Huang disputed the charges, which will not need to be tested in a Singapore court.

That left open the question: Were his alleged clandestine activities on behalf of China, the US or some other country?

The most obvious explanation was that as Dr Huang was well-known for defending the positions of China on international issues, he was judged to have overstepped the academic mark and been found communicating clandestinely with Chinese officials. This theory also fits with the current somewhat uneasy state of Sino-Singapore relations.

Whatever the problems of being a US ally in the era of Donald Trump, Singapore’s leadership continues to follow the Lee Kuan Yew policy of engaging China but favoring alliances which counteract Beijing’s ambitions in Southeast Asia. His activities would thus likely have been also contrary to US interests.

But perhaps the scholar’s overt pro-Beijing positions were just a cover. Was he actually a US agent? And if so was Singapore trying to show unhappiness with a US where a judge in March accorded political refugee status to Singaporean blogger, 18-year-old Amos Yee? The argument is stretched but not impossible. In which case, the event is of little longer term consequence.

However, if the first explanation gets any political traction in the US itself at a time when emotional nationalism is on the tip of Trump’s Twitter feed, and fears of foreign plots abound, there could be nasty repercussions down the road. These might in particular fall on the heads of the approximately 2.5 million mainland Chinese who have migrated to the US from mainland China in the past 20 years.

There have been other cases of Americans of Chinese origin caught allegedly providing secrets to Beijing, many of them specious and generated by an overly fearful US anti-spy apparatus.

For sure, almost all these Chinese people migrated entirely for their own betterment, as Chinese have been doing for the past 200 years. Yet it is clear that a few are deliberately planted by the PRC to gain access, particularly to technology, whether civilian or military. Others may have been seduced by arguments about the ethnic and cultural unity of Chinese people to assist the motherland, even though they may still disapprove of its current regime.

Australia has also provided evidence of use of recent migrants as instruments of Beijing propaganda, -- for example on the South China sea issue – and in opposition to the views of successive Australian governments.

Issues about loyalty of migrants to their new country are not of course exclusive to Chinese. Many Muslims are suspect on account of the dedication of a few to propaganda in behalf of jihadists and Salafists, or rejecting the liberal, non-sectarian principles (not always practiced) of the US. Trump’s effort at excluding Muslims from certain countries is an example of the mix of emotionalism and irrationality now so close to the surface in the US.

China is another matter. It is no IS but clearly aims to use whatever means necessary to challenge the US in technology and military power to undermine its global position and in particular Washington’s sway in east Asia. If it is perceived to be using ethnic Chinese, and especially recent migrants as a Fifth Column, trouble is in store.

There is a philosophical as well as power divide here. The US is a nation of immigrants supposed to subordinate their original cultures to US mores and interests. China has an ethnocentric concept. Immigrants are almost non-existent and minorities are subservient to the Han culture. Dual citizenship in principle is not permitted, but in practice all China-born ethnic Chinese are viewed as though they should be loyal to the “motherland.”Their academics and journalists are easy prey to the canard that Southeast Asian countries for centuries were tributaries of China and buying into the “victimhood” narrative of current mainland nationalism.

These are no help to the Chinese minorities in the region.

Nor is this all the fault of the Chinese state. Despite histories of periodic massacres, most notably in Indonesia, not a few successful ethnic Chinese businessmen who have made fortunes in Southeast Asia are singularly insensitive to local feelings. They make merit by building schools and hospitals in China, not in the countries where they made the money and whose passports they hold.

Singapore is forever alert to these issues. It has a 70 percent ethnic Chinese population, is a home-from-home for rich Southeast Asian Chinese – and some mainlanders as well who wish to hide their wealth from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. But Singapore lives in a Malay sea, is closer geographically to India than China and sees itself as a globally-engaged city anxious for business with west and east. In that context, its expulsion of may send a bigger message.