THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME SEMINAR
Thursday, 19 July 2018 – Dr Lee Kian Cheng spoke at an ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Thailand Studies Programme seminar on findings from his six years of research on Chinese capitalism and transnational entrepreneurship in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. His talk addressed the implications of that research for public policy and diplomacy. In particular, the seminar provided an overview of transnational Chinese entrepreneurship, economic cultures, smart city development, tourism, and cultural and citizen diplomacy from both Thai and PRC Chinese perspectives.
Dr Lee Kian Cheng sharing his findings on the continued relevance of guanxi networks and on other socio-economic issues relating to Chinese capitalism and its political economy in Southeast Asia (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Lee began his seminar by sharing his findings on the continued relevance of guanxi networks and on other socio-economic issues relating to Chinese capitalism and its political economy in Southeast Asia. He observed that Thai-Yunnanese entrepreneurs mobilise their guanxi networks to attain economic rewards and to achieve upward class mobility in Chiang Mai. They accumulate social, cultural and economic capital through those networks, and they translate that capital into symbolic capital to elevate their status in the local business community. At the same time, they also understand the need to remain sensitive to and aware of ongoing political dynamics, if they are to convert their accumulated capital into symbolic power.
From left to right: Dr Benjamin Loh and Dr Lee Kian Cheng (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
According to Dr Lee, China’s rise as a global economic power has created competition and posed challenges to overseas Chinese entrepreneurs across Southeast Asia. He argued that transnational Thai-Yunnanese entrepreneurs are not generally risk adverse, however, and that they adapt effectively to economic opportunities and political dynamics as they seek to accumulate capital. They also employ multiple strategies to mitigate the challenges posed and to seize the opportunities presented by the influx of PRC Chinese entrepreneurs into Chiang Mai province. These strategies give rise to “non-unilineal trajectories” in the expansion of their enterprises. Dr Lee introduced a typology of the different strategies––resistance, collaboration, mutual exploitation and romanticization––adopted by this group of entrepreneurs.
For example, some Thai-Yunnanese may choose to “collaborate” with transnational Chinese entrepreneurs for mutual benefit, while others prefer “mutual exploitation”, which sees the two sides taking advantage of each other for their own gain. Thai-Yunnanese may also have a “romanticized” view of transnational Chinese entrepreneurship and therefore be eager to play a productive role in furthering entrepreneurial ties between China and Thailand. This view and eagerness may result in their assisting and advising PRC Chinese entrepreneurs in the establishment of business ventures in Chiang Mai.
Members of the audience intently taking down notes during the presentation (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Lee’s seminar also covered issues relating to “smart city” initiatives, transnational connectivity and innovation policies in Chiang Mai. He noted cultural differences between Thai and PRC Chinese entrepreneurs in the understanding of smart city initiatives, and he suggested that Thailand’s smart city initiatives might gradually reconcile these cultural differences. Dr Lee argued that an ideal approach to developing smart city initiatives in Chiang Mai would include feedback from long-term PRC Chinese visitors such as students, entrepreneurs and investors, who frequent Thailand’s smart cities for extended periods and may therefore be able to play a constructive role in facilitating a bilateral exchange of ideas. As a form of “smart diplomacy, he suggested that governments should provide transnational entrepreneurs with the necessary resources and support to bridge cultural differences in transnational entrepreneurial activities.