China's ruling Chinese Communist Party appears to be stepping up its monitoring of citizens with overseas links following a massive restructuring of state agencies earlier this month to bring them under direct party control.
Among the changes are an expanded and more visible role for the party's formerly secretive United Front Work Department, which works to ensure cooperation from groups outside the party and government apparatus.
The department has absorbed the functions of the state bureau managing "overseas Chinese affairs," and is charged with the "investigation and study of overseas Chinese affairs at home and abroad," the official news agency Xinhua said, listing the organizational changes voted through at the recent National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.
"[This will enable the department] to broaden and unify the links between [its work with] overseas Chinese and citizens, and those returning to China," it said.
As the party took over "united front" work with Chinese citizens overseas, a residential compound in Beijing announced that any residents who are overseas Chinese, or returnees from overseas work or study, should register with the authorities.
According to a March 20 directive from the Wangjing Street neighborhood committee in Beijing's Chaoyang district, all long-term residents of the Daxiyang residential community who have returned from overseas work or study, or who are ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries, were required to register with the compound management by March 26 as part of "an investigation into the situation."
An employee who answered the phone at the Daxiyang compound residential committee office on Monday said the orders had come from "higher up."
"They have to fill out some basic information such as their name and date of birth, and where they studied overseas, which institution and which country," the employee said.
The Wangjing "international talent community," launched to attract foreign experts to work in China with special living environments, consists of 22 different residential compounds and a total resident population of 260,000.
But a local resident surnamed Wu said he was reminded of the political targeting of anyone with overseas links during the political violence and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
"[This move] has made quite a lot of people start thinking about the mentality of the Cultural Revolution era, when large numbers of returned and overseas Chinese, or people with overseas ties, were labeled and struggled to within an inch of their lives, leaving them traumatized," Wu said.
He said people are particularly worried about such a move at a time of heightened political sensitivity, as President Xi Jinping, no longer curbed by presidential term-limits, boosts the Communist Party's ideological controls over every area of Chinese life.
"At such a politically sensitive time, when they are holding high the banner of ideology, it is going to make people anxious," Wu said.
"Maybe the Chinese Communist Party is starting to draw the lines of a class structure, to stop people and capital from escaping overseas."
A strong reaction
Earlier this month, authorities in Shanghai announced a crackdown on residents who hold permanent residency, or a "Green Card," in another country.
The city announced that from May 1, it would revoke the household registration, or "hukou," of anyone known to hold permanent residency overseas, essential for access to public services such as health care and education.
Now, the city's police department has announced that it will suspend implementation of the rules indefinitely, following a public outcry.
Transfers of one's hukou to another place are theoretically possible, but highly sought-after cities like Beijing and Shanghai have in place labyrinthine and expensive bureaucratic barriers, as well as population caps and a quota system for migrants, which make them very hard to regain.
A notice posted to the Shanghai city police department's official website had called on any residents "settling abroad or acquiring other nationalities," to report to police.
China initially made these requirements nationwide in 2003, but they were rarely implemented.
U.S.-based political commentator Liu Qing said the announcement had provoked a "very strong reaction."
"It has to do with [classing people as] patriotic or unpatriotic," Liu said. "There are also a lot of economic interests involved, because a lot of people who do have overseas passports or green cards are getting the best of both worlds."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.