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June 28, 2007

Chinese Minorities and Their Reputation
There is not a country in ASEAN that does not have a significant community of ethnic Chinese. For centuries, maybe millennia, Chinese have been emigrating to Southeast Asia in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. The degree to which they have integrated themselves into local society varies significantly from country to country: in Singapore and Malaysia, for example, ethnicity is of first-rank importance in determining various societal and employment circumstances. However, in Thailand, Chinese extensively integrated into local society, marrying into Thai families and changing their own names so as to blend in more completely. Even so, ethnic Chinese have tended throughout history to have maintained a fairly low profile and generally avoided politics or public service to concentrate on economic activities, although with some very notable exceptions.

Despite their long-term presence and place in Southeast Asian society, ethnic Chinese are nevertheless subject to sporadic outbreaks of violence and open persecution, together with endless casual bigotry and ethnic stereotyping. The riots in Indonesia in particular in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis are one very stark example of this, which recreated shamefully the Khmer Rouge persecution of ethnic minorities decades before. The military coup in Thailand in 2006 was in part caused by the anti-Chinese racism of many in the Bangkok power elites who brought the army into play. Is this just symptomatic of atavistic fear of the other or are there deeper motives in play?

To some extent, the Chinese communities have always been held in suspicion, because of fears that they might be treacherous in some way or else for jealousy of their often superior economic success and personal diligence. Many Chinese communities were largely focused on remitting moneys back to their home communities and maintaining links with their places of origin. To maintain these links, Tongs were created. Tongs were secret societies dedicated to the well-being of their members – it was necessary for them to be secret because they were involved in moving moneys from one country to another unofficially in such ways as to avoid paying taxes and excises wherever possible. In the course of time, the Tongs tended to mutate from being self-protection societies to being unofficial leeches and parasites involved in illicit activities, notably extortion of local businesses. Thus Tongs became Triads and their activities are still evident in many local mafias across the ASEAN region, although the Chinese are from the only people to participate in organized crime.

Historically, wherever Chinese may go, the Chinese emperor might still claim suzerainty over them. The extent to which this obligation was felt by the Chinese communities involved is moot but the issue underwent a resurgence with the Communist revolution and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party that finished the civil war in 1947. In subsequent decades, Chinese communities across Southeast Asia were subject to suspicion that they were working to bring a communist revolution in their adopted homes – in some cases, of course, they were indeed working to bring this about. However, Chinese were far from alone in wishing to bring about revolution and represented convenient targets for state governments happy to squander hard-won civil limits in order to buttress their own power, supported in many cases by the USA or by colonial or former colonial powers.

With the spread of globalization and the opening of China’s economy to the outside world, the presence of ethnic Chinese, their language ability and their propensity to create and foster network links with institutions and individuals back on the mainland are all championed as competitive advantages. Nevertheless, the level of casual bigotry in vocabulary and discourse employed throughout the region remains substantial. Encouraging people to be more tolerant and inclusive is a long-term challenge for the educational systems of every ASEAN state, some of which do not yet recognise the problem.


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