Dr Lee Kian Cheng, an Assistant Professor in the School of International Affairs of the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University, Thailand, delivered the lecture on the social embeddedness of transnational Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Bangkok.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME
Wednesday, 11 September 2019 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a seminar on “Transnational PRC Chinese in Bangkok”. Dr Lee Kian Cheng, an Assistant Professor in the School of International Affairs of the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University, Thailand, delivered the lecture on the social embeddedness of transnational Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Bangkok. The event was attended by more than 20 people from the diplomatic corps, the civil service, educational and research institutes, and the public.
Dr Lee Kian Cheng (right), Assistant Professor in the School of International Affairs of the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University, elaborates on the two distinctive groups of recent migrants: the “old” and the “new” Chinese. Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap (left) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Lee pointed out at the start of his lecture that scholars have discussed recent patterns of Chinese migration largely in relation to the opening up of China’s economy. Dr Lee, instead, looked at the transnational flows of PRC Chinese to Bangkok between 1980 and 1989, and from 2000 onwards. His preliminary findings lead Dr Lee to posit forth two distinctive groups of recent migrants: the “old” and the “new” Chinese. These groups have emerged from older waves of migration (before 1980) and the more recent wave of migration (1980s onwards), respectively. He also underlined the different contexts that explain the migration patterns of these two groups, while also noting the socio-economic background and capital that differentiates the old from the new Chinese migrants. Since many of the Chinese migrants who arrived prior to the 1980s have assimilated into the Thai community, there is a desire among them to distance themselves from the PRC Chinese identity and the community of more recent migrants. According to Dr Lee, many of the old Chinese saw the new Chinese as others and viewed them as uncivilized and backward.
Dr Lee also discussed the evolution of spaces in Bangkok, and how these places reflect the histories and constructed identities of the different communities of the Chinese diaspora in the city. For instance, Chinatown, situated in Sampheng, Yaowarat, was originally settled by those who arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it is one of the oldest urban settlements in Thailand. This is in contrast to places such as new Chinatown in Huai Khwang, which is more commercialized and where most of the newer settlements of Chinese migrants from Guanxi and Yunnan provinces find residence. At the same time, Dr Lee emphasized that the nature of these spaces is also changing because of burgeoning Chinese tourism.
After setting the context of the Chinese community, Dr Lee outlined a typology of transnational PRC Chinese sojourners in Bangkok. The first category, the “student-preneurs”, refers to PRC students who plan and are already engaging in businesses, ranging from property dealings, to factory production and import-export trading. The second group is the small medium enterprises (SMEs), registered under Thai nationals’ names and involved in transactions of mostly local products. The third category consists of the professionals, who are in Bangkok on work visas and employed in sectors such as academia, private companies and international organizations. Investors who are registered with the Board of Investment (BOI), with assets of at least 1000 million baht, make up the fourth category of transnational PRC sojourners. The fifth group is composed of PRC Chinese who use their student status or visas to conduct their own illegitimate businesses. This typology is useful to understand the characteristics of transnational Chinese migrants in Thailand.
In discussing the growing presence of transnational PRC Chinese in Bangkok, Dr Lee also touched upon the soft power exerted by China. Besides the state-sponsored Hanban (under whose auspices Confucius Institutes operate), diplomatic ties have also emerged organically. Dr Lee shared that “folk diplomats”, a term that materialized from the conversations that he had with ordinary people, are also agents of cultural exchange who serve as bridges between the Thai population and China.
The 45-minute presentation was followed by a dynamic question-and-answer session with the audience. Discussion revolved around the patterns of migration among the PRC Chinese, especially from the turn of the present century. Members of the audience were also interested to uncover the changing state narratives towards the Thai Chinese and/or Chinese migrants, particularly since China is now a major power. Besides attempting to understand the perceptions of Thais towards the Chinese community, audience members also asked about how Chinese politics played out in the local context, particularly among Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong and PRC. They also raised questions regarding the soft power that China was exerting through PRC Chinese sojourners, not only in Thailand but also in the rest of the world. Questions then followed regarding the role of the Chinese diaspora and its socio-economic and political influence in the communities in which its member have settled. These questions reflected the overarching interest among audience members in the growing Chinese presence in Thailand and elsewhere around the world.
Some of the audience at the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)