Chinese new year lanterns in chinatown, firecracker celebration (Photo by Toa55 from Shutterstock.com).

“Lies are lies”: China denies conducting influence operations in Singapore … but what about its students here?

“Lies are lies,” said a spokesperson for the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Singapore last Fri (19 Jul), just a day after an article by The Straits Times titled “Report flags how China conducts influence operations in Singapore” was published.

The article, which cited a recent report by the Jamestown Foundation, claimed that China carries out influence operations on Chinese Singaporeans via business associations, Chinese clan associations, cultural organisations and the Chinese-language media in Singapore.

The spokesperson emphasised that contrary to speculation regarding China’s purported aim to exert Chinese hegemony over Singapore, China respects Singapore’s identity as “a multi-cultural and multi-religious state” and “will remain committed to developing friendly relations with Singapore on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit”.

Thus, claims such as those made in the Jamestown Foundation report, said the spokesperson in a statement, “are groundless and distorted from truth”, as the aforementioned channels merely “reflect the amicable relations between the two countries and are attributed to the joint efforts by the two governments and all sectors of societies” including the economy, trade and society as a whole.

“The unique connections in history and culture between China and Singapore, a natural advantage in promoting bilateral cooperation, are unfortunately taken by someone as an excuse for attack, thus hurting not only China but also Singapore.

“Lies are lies. The more they are repeated, the more nonsense they are. This report is absurd, but the purpose is clear. That is to alienate the friendship of our two peoples and hinder normal exchanges between the two countries,” added the spokesperson.

China becoming “increasingly assertive” as an emerging world economic and political powerhouse; evident in attempts to influence Chinese diaspora worldwide via conferences and study abroad programs: New York Times

The New York Times observed a phenomenon whereby China has grown “increasingly assertive in its efforts to appeal to the vast Chinese diaspora to serve the country’s national interests and gain influence abroad” as it builds its reputation as a world political and economic powerhouse.

“Already, there has been evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to manipulate political activity among Chinese populations in countries like Canada, the United States and Australia,” according to NYT, adding that “some scholars and former diplomats worry that this island nation could be an especially tantalizing target for the Chinese government’s influence efforts” with an almost 75 per cent ethnic Chinese-majority population.

“In recent years, China has stepped up people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, helping to organize conferences bringing together overseas Chinese, arranging visits for Singaporean Chinese to their ancestral villages and coordinating study abroad programs and “roots-seeking camps” for young Singaporeans,” NYT added.

Associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore Ian Chong told NYT that “[a] more generous reading” of such arrangements is that they are simply “people-to-people exchanges”, but “a more skeptical reading” would postulate that they are efforts by China to “exert soft-power influence” on Singapore.

While there appears to be no substantial documentation of China’s alleged meddling in Chinese associations and clans in Singapore as stated by the Embassy earlier, reports on China’s links with its students in Singapore have nonetheless surfaced.

Radio Free Asia quoted US-based “Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping” author Yu Jie as saying that more than half a million mainland Chinese students may serve as a gateway for the Chinese Communist Party to “wield influence on overseas university campuses”, as many of those students are members of the government-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) worldwide.

Citing a Zhejiang Daily News report in Apr last year, RFA highlighted that the Zhejiang-based Yiwu Industrial & Commercial College has “established a number of temporary party branches overseas” for its students – including three “temporary party branches” in Singapore, Canada and New Zealand – to provide “full coverage” for the party’s education and management of foreign students.

China-linked academics, possibly including former NUS professor Huang Jing, also part of Beijing’s alleged “influence operations”?

Even China-linked academics working in Singapore have demonstrated possible links to Beijing as seen in the case of China-born US academic Huang Jing, who had served as director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, and as professor at the Lee Foundation Professor on US-China Relations at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP).

The Ministry of Home Affairs revoked the permanent residency status of both Huang and his wife Shirley Yang, and cancelled both of their entry and re-entry permits in 2017 under Section 14(4) of the Immigration Act after he was identified as “an agent of influence of a foreign country” who had “knowingly interacted with intelligence organisations and agents of the foreign country” to “influence the Singapore Government’s foreign policy and public opinion in Singapore”.

“To this end, he engaged prominent and influential Singaporeans and gave them what he claimed was “privileged information” about the foreign country, so as to influence their opinions in favour of that country. Huang also recruited others in aid of his operations,” said MHA in a statement on 6 Aug that year.

While MHA did not specify the country Huang had allegedly co-operated with in said influence operations, it is of note that Huang is currently serving as the dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, which could further solidify the speculation around his alleged role in serving China whilst teaching in Singapore at NUS.

South China Morning Post reported Huang as saying on 17 Jun this year that he has “worked the whole year in Washington DC” where he considers his “home” to demonstrate that he is “not what Singapore implied” him to be.

“Right now, Singapore has not clarified which foreign country I work with, so I wanted to show that at least the US doesn’t think I am working for whoever,” he told SCMP on the sidelines of a forum held in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China ties.

Beijing’s links with its students in Singapore a cause for concern due to gov’t sponsorship of students from China

The possibility of Beijing maintaining links with students from mainland China who are obtaining their education in Singapore may serve as a cause of concern, as the Singapore government courts international students to study mostly in local schools and public universities by offering scholarships, as well as permanent residency or even citizenship.

Through the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Senior Middle School Scholarship (SM1) exam, which was established in 1991 with the aim of sponsoring mainland Chinese students to study in Singapore, around 300 Chinese students will be recruited from selected middle schools in various provinces in China, according to Baidu.

Under the SM1 system, students from a number of China’s senior middle schools would be recruited to study in selected secondary schools in Singapore such as Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School – which were paired with their middle schools in China – from Sec 3 to JC 2.

More than 200 middle schools in China and a number of secondary schools in Singapore are included as a part of the initiative. The selection process is through a common ‘SM1′ examination as well as interviews. Interviews are conducted by the schools’ own teachers and principal.

Baidu reported that the living expenses of SM1 students are set at S$2,200 per year for the first two years, and S$2,400 per year for the next two years. The tuition, accommodation and food expenses are borne by MOE, and are not included in these living expenses.

Singaporeans ought to be wary of China’s attempts to “assert the Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore”: Former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan

Former Chairman of NUS’ Middle East Institute and former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan last July emphasised the importance of maintaining vigilance against any threat of foreign influence upon the Singaporean identity, as he cited China’s attempts to “assert the Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore”.

Reiterating a point in a speech a month prior, which drew flak from China’s Ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong, Kausikan suggested in his speech that Chinese influence operations aim to pull people abroad toward China’s stance, thereby advancing Chinese hegemony and interests.

Pro-China entities frequently perpetuate the narrative that Singapore should be on China’s side regarding the political war between the Asian giant and the US due to Singapore’s racial demographic, which is predominantly Chinese, according to Kausikan.

Kausikan rejected the narrative, calling it a “simplified grotesque distortion of a much more complicated and complex reality”.

“The system we have has to be continually defended. There will never be a time when you can say, ‘Job done, we don’t have to worry about it.’ The best defence is if you are aware of it.”

Kausikan also highlighted that the apparent spread of Chinese hegemony is not only confined to Singapore, but is also making ripples throughout Southeast Asia.

However, Kausikan also warned that it would be “foolish” for Singapore to cease any of its engagement with China.