2023/21 “From Laissez Faire to Restriction to Cooperation: A History of Thai Responses to China’s Influence on Thai Chinese Education” by Sivarin Lertpusit

Facebook Page of Confucius Institute at Chiang Mai University清迈大学孔子学院, at https://www.facebook.com/ConfuciusInstituteatChiangMaiUniversity. Accessed on 24 March 2023.


  • Education was employed as an effective soft power[1] tool in developing ‘Chinese nationalism’ among overseas Chinese in Thailand from the early 1900s through to the 1940s.
  • Some schools had ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). Political ideologies, communism and Sun Yat Sen’s Three Great Principles were taught secretly in Chinese schools, and these schools also served as the nerve centre of Chinese activism in Thailand.
  • In an effort to stem the spread of political ideologies from China, Thai governors introduced ‘control’ laws in the 1930s and encouraged ‘assimilation’ in the 1940s. During the 1960s, Chinese nationalist sentiments waned as ethnic Chinese assimilated into Thai culture.
  • Since the establishment of Sino–Thai ties in 1975, educational partnerships have been formed. The 2000s saw active government-to-government cooperation between the Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) and Thailand’s Ministry of Education.
  • The People’s Republic of China (PRC) provided comprehensive support for Chinese language education in Thailand, including Confucius Institutes (CIs), Confucius Classrooms (CCs), volunteer teachers, scholarships, exchanges and the assignment of working committees.
  • Educational cooperation has been advancing as relations between Thailand and the PRC strengthen. Language proficiency in Chinese is essential for maintaining commercial ties between the two countries at both the provincial and institutional levels.

*Sivarin Lertpusit is Assistant Professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Thammasat University and a former Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/21, 27 March 2023

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As home to around 7.5 million people of Chinese ancestry, Thailand tops the list of countries with the most significant Chinese diaspora population.[2] Making up the largest ethnic group in Thailand, people of Chinese ancestry exert a significant influence over the country’s economy. However, unlike the Chinese in Singapore or Malaysia, Chinese ethnic minorities in Thailand typically cannot speak their ancestral languages. Between 1930 and 1950, the Thai government had imposed strict regulations on Chinese educational institutions, causing the transmission of the Chinese language to be lost.

In recent years, however, the bond between Thailand and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been strengthened. The Thai and Chinese governments enjoy a rather high degree of cooperation in the educational field. Thailand is home to the most prestigious Confucius Institutes (CIs) in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Furthermore, Thai students are the second biggest group of foreign students furthering their studies in China. As a direct result of the collaboration between the two countries, a significant number of Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) and educational institutions have been established. Thus, the question arises: How and why has the PRC succeeded in ‘reconnecting’ the cultural link with Thailand?


The arrival of Chinese in Thailand dates to the 19th century. Nonetheless, the very first Chinese school, the Hua Eah school, was not founded until 1908, following the visit of Dr Sun Yat Sen. During his four visits to Thailand between 1903 and 1908, he attempted to persuade overseas Chinese in Thailand to embrace the revolution in their homeland.[3]

With the support of the Zhong Hua Association and the Tong Meng Hui (Sun Yat Sen’s Revolutionary Alliance), four Chinese schools, one library and a lecture hall were established. Curricula were adapted from reformed Chinese education, and Sun Yat Sen’s Three Great Principles were promoted by the teachers, who were themselves revolutionaries. It soon became obvious that the Hua Eah school had been established for political reasons, and the school was shut down in 1911, in the wake of the political revolution in China. After the revolution, these teachers returned to China to serve the new Republic of China (ROC).

Following the closure of the Chinese schools established by Sun Yat Sen, local Chinese groups established dialect schools to retain their Chinese identity and networks, as illustrated in Table 1. Chinese dialect schools grew significantly, from 30 in 1920 to 271 in 1933. After 1933, however, the number of Chinese schools in operation fluctuated greatly.

Table 1: Local Chinese Schools 1911-1921

YearSchoolDialect Groups
1911Xin MinFive Dialects
1913Jin-TeKejia (Hakka)

Source: Skinner 1957 and Kajadpai 1974

Prior to the 1930s, the Nationalist Party (KMT) dominated Chinese schools in Thailand. By 1929, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had emerged and begun to participate in nationalist struggles alongside KMT.[4] Both parties cultivated their political beliefs within the networks of their respective schools. As a result, the Chinese schools in Thailand were a useful tool to instil Chinese patriotism among the overseas Chinese. KMT-influenced schools included Huo Kiew Kong Hug, Puey Eng, Puey Huo and Dong Huo Kong Hug. Meanwhile, schools such as Jin Tek, Eeng Chai, Hiep Yuk Two and Mi Gang were suspected of having ties to the Communist Party.[5]

As the number of Chinese schools grew, the Thai government began to closely monitor the political activities in Chinese communities, especially in Chinese schools. The political shifts in China were reflected among Chinese activists in Thailand[6]. Chinese nationalism grew in response to political tensions in China and the Japanese invasion of mainland China in 1931. In 1933, approximately 270 Chinese schools also served as secret headquarters for Chinese activists.


Chinese nationalism in Thailand emerged after the 1911 Xinhai revolution. Nurtured in the Chinese schools in Thailand, Chinese nationalism soon came into conflict with Thai nationalism. King Rama VII, the monarch of Siam, mentioned the Chinese as a key issue in a communication to Francis B. Sayre on 23 July 1926. While he acknowledged that his country had profited from the existence of the Chinese people before the Xinhai revolution, he thought that the subsequent emergence of Chinese nationalist sentiments  had resulted in an unmanageable state of chaos.[7] Another prominent figure, Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, a notable Thai leader renowned for his anti-Chinese and pan-Tai sentiments, promulgated policies to minimize the economic influence of the overseas Chinese and implemented the Occupation Act of 1941 that reserved jobs for Thai citizens.[8] In 1939, he announced his intention to liquidate all Chinese schools.[9]

The Private Schools Act of 1918 and the Primary School Act of 1921 were the first laws passed in Thailand which explicitly sought to promote Thai nationalism through the educational system. These acts required Chinese schools to be nominally under the supervision of the Thai government.[10] They also required all teachers, including foreign ones, to be fluent in Thai and to commit at least three hours per week to teaching Thai. After Pibulsongkram came to power, the acts were made more stringent. In addition to Thai language proficiency requirements, the Private Schools Act of 1936 prohibited political activities on school grounds.[11]

To further suppress the Communists and to some extent, keep the KMT in check, the Communist Act of 1933 was enacted.[12] Between March 1933 and August 1935, 79 schools were closed due to many violations[13] such as the presence of unqualified teachers and materials teaching political ideology[14] (see Table 2).

Table 2: Number of Chinese schools from 1920-1938


Source: Skinner 1957 and Penpisut 2007

By 1939, the hours of Chinese language instruction had been reduced to just two hours each week.[15] Between 1938 and 1940, 242 Chinese schools were forced to close their doors as a consequence of the acts.[16]The final suppression in 1940 resulted in the closure of all Chinese schools in Bangkok.[17]

After World War II ended, the Free Thai Movement, a coalition partner of the KMT, came to power,[18] allowing for overseas Chinese in Thailand to open their schools again. In 1946, Thailand and China signed a treaty of amity, and it led to the opening of roughly 430 Chinese schools in Thailand.[19] However, the return of Communist activities in the Chinese schools led to the resurgence of anti-Communist sentiments among Thailand’s rulers. Pibulsongkram, returning to power in 1948 with the help of the United States, began to suppress Chinese schools again.[20] The Private Schools Act of 1948 was amended, and a quota system was introduced, capping the number of Chinese schools at 152 institutions. Concurrently, school inspectors conducted rigorous investigations, banning certain Chinese textbooks.[21] In 1949, the civil war in China led to the political split of Taiwan from China, with the KMT dominating in Taiwan and the CCP in China. Amidst subsequent political changes in China, strict regulation of Chinese schools in Thailand was continuously enforced until the late 1980s. By 1988, only 120 Chinese schools remained in operation.[22]


The Thai government’s mistrust of ethnic Chinese political movements decreased in the late 1970s due to assimilation policies and warmer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Internally, the communist movement flourished in rural areas far into the 1970s, but was undercut by the 1980 proclamation of amnesty for communists under 66/23, which eventually repealed the ban on Chinese language and Chinese schools.[23] Internationally, Thailand and the PRC established diplomatic connections in 1975, a few years after the Nixon Doctrine. The two countries signed the first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) related to the Thai–Sino Joint Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation in 1978. After that, cooperation in educational affairs began to develop.

In 1992, the Thai government led by Anan Panyarachun approved the use of the Chinese language at all levels of instruction in private schools.[24] In the national education strategy for Thailand (1992–96), the Chinese language was now perceived as a language with economic benefits.[25] In 1997, the Chinese language was listed in the curriculum plan for high schools across the country. The following year, it was included as a subject on the university admissions exam, and allowed for inclusion in all degree programmes[26]. Subsequently, the Chinese language curriculum was formally listed in the National Education Act of 1999 and included in the medium curriculum in 2001.[27]

In 1999, China and Thailand released a declaration outlining their cooperation strategy for the 21st century, which included education. The MOU for cultural exchange, signed in 2001, addressed student exchange programmes, scholarship provision and the development of cultural studies.[28]

The shortage of skilled Chinese language teachers and textbooks has been a major barrier to the expansion of Chinese language education in Thai schools and universities since the early 2000s. In 2006, however, the PRC began providing Thailand with Chinese educators, curriculum advisors and educational resources, such as elementary and secondary-level Chinese textbooks published in collaboration with China Higher Education Press.[29] From the MOU between the Ministries of Education in 2009, China also sponsored a Chinese language training programme for Thai teachers in Thailand and China. MOUs were also signed in 2013 and April 2022 between the Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) and three Thai organizations: The Ministry of Education, the Office of the Vocational Education Commission and the Office of the Higher Education Commission.[30]

Presently, 16 Confucius Institutes (CI) are located in Thai higher education institutions and 21 Confucius Classrooms (CC) operate in Thai schools.[31] Founded by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban, the objective is to spread Chinese culture and language. Thailand was not only the first nation to host a CC, at Wat Trai Mitre, Bangkok, but also the first country to receive Chinese-teaching volunteers, in 2003.[32] The number of these volunteers grew from 23 in 2003 to over 17,000 in 2019. Additionally, the partnership also enabled the exchange of professors, students and individuals through scholarships. Chinese language training programmes to cultivate Thai instructors in Chinese emerged as well. In 2018, Thai students were the second largest group of international students studying in China, after students from South Korea.

Besides government-to-government cooperation, collaborations have also formed at the provincial and institutional levels between the two countries. The provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi from China have become significant players in this aspect.[33] Under the Greater Mekong Subregion framework, collaboration between Yunnan institutions and Thai tertiary organizations have been promoted by the Yunnan government. At the institutional level, hundreds of partnerships have been launched, such as the MOU between the Open University of Fujian and Wilailak University to open an overseas Chinese college in Bangkok. The institution is to focus on Chinese language and vocational training.[34]

Since the restoration of Sino–Thai relations in 1975, collaboration between Thailand and the PRC has tightened in the academic sphere. Meanwhile, the severing of diplomatic ties between Thailand and Taiwan reduced the activities, support and collaboration with the latter. The consequences include the replacement of simplified Chinese characters in Chinese textbooks and sources of information in Chinese newspapers[35]. In response, Taiwan employed the Southbound policy in 2016 to develop Omni-relations with Thailand, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The ongoing policy aims to increase collaboration between Thailand and Taiwan through the Zhong Hua Association, the Taiwan Education Center and the Thai–Taiwan Technological College.[36] Nonetheless, the influence Taiwan’s educational system exerts in Thailand lies a long way behind the PRC’s.


When it comes to projecting soft power, the Chinese have long used Thailand’s educational system as an ‘instrument’. The first movement was initiated by several political organizations, including the KMT and CCP, which advocated Chinese nationalism and their respective political philosophies among overseas Chinese. The Thai government took a hard stance against the dissemination of political ideology through traditional Chinese schools, which ultimately led to the shuttering of these institutions. The turning point in the perception of Chinese schools came after the normalisation of Sino–Thai relations in 1975.

In the second period, educational cooperation and aid between the two nations increased significantly. Strong economic and political links acknowledge and value the growing cultural connection, and education—through CIs, CCs, scholarships and Chinese volunteer teachers—has become a vehicle for spreading mainland Chinese soft power in this era. Furthermore, since the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Thailand) officially certified Chinese as a second language choice in 2001, the PRC’s influence on Thai education has grown dramatically.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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