From Indonesia to Singapore, China’s rise is affecting ethnic identities in Southeast Asia

Sun Online Desk

18th June, 2021 09:44:01 PM printer

From Indonesia to Singapore, China’s rise is affecting ethnic identities in Southeast Asia

From Zhou Enlai to Deng Xiaoping, Beijing’s policy towards Chinese overseas was luodi shenggen (to take local roots), which encouraged them to take local citizenship and integrate themselves into local society.
In the 21st century, following the rise of China, this policy changed with a new wave of xinyimin (new migrants). Beijing advocated a policy of luoye guigen (return to original roots), thus blurring the distinction between huaqiao (Chinese nationals overseas) and huaren (foreign nationals of Chinese descent), and urging Chinese overseas, regardless of citizenship, to be oriented towards China and to serve Beijing’s interests.

China began calling huaqiao and huaren, especially people in business, to help China support the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Belt and Road Initiative, and to return and develop closer links with China.
Responses from ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand have been muted, as they are localised and are participating in local politics. Beijing’s new policy did not attract the attention of some Southeast Asian governments which were too occupied with domestic issues.

This new policy can impact ethnic Chinese identities in Southeast Asia and cause ethnic tensions which would undermine domestic political and economic stability. It can also make it more challenging for new Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia to integrate locally. In countries such as Singapore, this policy – if it continues – will cause ethnic tensions and affect the nation-building process.

It should be noted that these new migrants differ from the earlier migrants in a number of ways. They are better educated; some of them have large amounts of capital and special skills, and hence are more mobile. They are often considered “transnational Chinese” and may not settle in the country, as is particularly the case with those who come to Southeast Asia, a region they often use as a stepping stone to go to more developed countries when opportunities arise.

These new Chinese migrants include businessmen, professionals, students, family members, refugees, workers and illegal migrants. In Southeast Asia, migrant workers, who are often called foreign workers or guest workers, are legally not allowed to settle permanently in the country where they work. But in reality, some of these workers can become settlers due to weak legal systems and rampant corruption.

The number of Chinese migrants leaving China since its rise is estimated to be between 5 million and 6 million, with about 80 per cent of these now living in developed countries, especially the West. The rest went to Southeast Asia. While the former group has resulted in the emergence of new migrant Chinese societies in the West, where new Chinese migrants outnumber the local-born Chinese population, in Southeast Asia the number of new migrants in proportion to local ethnic Chinese is small and therefore has not transformed local Chinese communities.

Based on the above information, the problem of new Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia should not be serious as they are only a small fraction within the local ethnic Chinese community, whereas Beijing’s new overseas Chinese policy would have a greater impact on the identities of ethnic Chinese, potentially undermining sociopolitical stability in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, due to racial/ethnic prejudices and negative local perception of Beijing, new Chinese migrants often become a political issue and hence have had a significant impact.

The Chinese in Indonesia are divided into Peranakan and totok Chinese, respectively those who speak Bahasa Indonesia and those who speak in the Chinese language. The 32 years of President Suharto’s rule, during which he pushed an assimilation policy and the elimination of the three Chinese cultural pillars, have turned the majority of Chinese Indonesians into Peranakan by definition. In other words, most Chinese in Indonesia have lost active command of the Chinese language and often use Indonesian or some local language for communication.

Chinese embassy officials are able to maintain close ties with some Chinese-speaking groups, but not Chinese Indonesians in general. When prominent Indonesian Chinese businessmen were invited to China to attend Huaqiao Huaren businessmen gatherings, few participated. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch relay in Jakarta, very few old Chinese Indonesian businessmen participated.

Unlike in the past, anti-Chinese groups in Indonesia focused their recent opposition and attacks on local Chinese tycoons and mainland Chinese workers whom they claim to have stolen Indonesian jobs. According to the Indonesian Manpower Ministry, last year there were only 35,781 Chinese workers in Indonesia, constituting 36.18 per cent of total foreign workers. They were supposed to cover gaps in expertise unavailable in Indonesia, but opposition politicians and Indonesian workers’ federations have insisted that much of the work could have been undertaken by Indonesians.

There are also hundreds of mainland Chinese students and teachers in Indonesia, as well as many mainland Chinese businessmen.

Malaysians of Chinese origin tend to possess a much stronger Chinese cultural identity. Most of them, with the exception of the Peranakan, are still able to speak Chinese dialects. Where identity is concerned, they tend to be locally oriented, and those who feel an orientation towards China are very few, and of advanced age.

In 2015, then Chinese ambassador Huang Huikang visited Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur and encouraged Chinese Malaysians to stand up against racism; in another speech, he mixed the terms huaqiao and huaren and said China was their “maternal home”. Many intellectuals criticised Huang for being insensitive and Malay youths expressed anger over his statement.

Malaysia has in place a successful retirement and residence scheme for foreigners which attract, among others, mainland Chinese. It is worth noting that Xiamen University in 2015 established a branch in Malaysia, which was not made into an issue by any local political parties or radicals. Nevertheless, some projects under the Belt and Road Initiative became a political issue during the 2018 general election, and were renegotiated under the second Mahathir administration. The topic of China and new immigrants can easily be made into an issue in Malaysia.

Singapore is unique for being a migrant state, with ethnic Chinese making up the majority of the population. The Peranakan Chinese community is small in number, and the Chinese-speaking group is large. Nevertheless, because of the national education system, the working language in Singapore is English.
China’s soft power is thought to be influential in Singapore. However, the Singapore government is eager to promote its own culture. The country’s political identity has also grown strong, and young Singaporeans have a much stronger sense of national identity than their forefathers.

Migration has been a hot issue in the past few general elections, resulting in the government tightening up its migration policy while continuing to recognise that new migrants are needed for the country’s prosperity and development. 

As the relations between xinyimin and Chinese Singaporeans are sometimes less cordial, the government has emphasised multicultural education for Singaporeans and created mechanisms to facilitate the integration of new migrants into the main streams of Singapore society.

The Philippines
The Chinese in the Philippines are diverse, with some being well-integrated and even assimilated. This community is known as Chinese mestizos. But while Peranakan Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia are still considered a separate group from the indigenous population, Chinese mestizos are regarded as Filipinos, including the likes of former president Cory Aquino and the late Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin.

Most Philippine Chinese are colloquially referred to as Tsinoy, and many have embraced Catholicism, just like most Filipinos. In the 21st century, however, the Chinese embassy established close ties with the Philippine Chinese community, especially those who still speak Chinese. Although China’s rise has attracted those who have business links with the country, most Tsinoys still identify with the local population.

A considerable number of new Chinese migrants are mainly businessmen and workers in certain commercial sectors, particularly in the gaming industry. While this industry contributes significantly to the Philippine economy, it nevertheless also provides ample opportunities for crime syndicates to operate and has sparked an increase of illegal migrants, which often gives rise to ethnic tensions.

These tensions can be found not only between the xinyimin and indigenous Filipinos, but also between xinyimin and Tsinoys who complain that new Chinese migrants have spoiled the good relationship between Tsinoys and Filipinos. The issue is further complicated by the South China Sea dispute between Beijing and Manila, which has often impacted Chinese-Filipino relations.

Ethnic Chinese in Thailand are the most assimilated in the region, and it has been argued that Buddhism is a key factor in this process. New Chinese migrants live separately, mainly in so-called new Chinatowns. They are better educated than the older Chinese migrants, with many holding a university degree. Many others are students as it is generally easier to get into Thai universities than those in China. There are also numerous Confucius Institutes in Thailand.

Since the ethnic assimilation of people of Chinese origin is very high in Thailand, the government is convinced that these Thais will not become China-oriented, and that new migrants will eventually assimilate into Thai society. However, some scholars do not think this is the case, with one noting that it would be better to give new Chinese migrants a sense of belonging to Thailand – something that remains a big challenge in a globalising world.

Beijing’s attempt to blur the distinction between huaqiao and huaren and urge Chinese overseas to be oriented towards China increasingly disregards their difficult position in Southeast Asia. Beijing might not be fully aware that Southeast Asian ethno-nationalism remains strong, and ethnic Chinese are facing these pressures and tensions.

China’s new policy may inadvertently affect ethnic Chinese identities in the region, undermining political and economic stability. Moreover, the presence of xinyimin has also complicated the local sociopolitical landscape, and this new policy may slow down their integration into local communities. If this was the intention of the new policy towards the xinyimin, then Beijing may have achieved its objectives.


Source: South China Morning Post