In this webinar, Professor Leo Suryadinata discussed the position of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, their similarities and differences, and the impact of a rising China and new Chinese migrants on the process of nation-building in the region.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Monday, 22 February 2021 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held this webinar moderated by Dr Siwage Dharma Negara (Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute). The webinar featured the insights of Professor Leo Suryadinata (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) on the impact of China’s changing overseas Chinese policy on the process of nation-building in the Southeast Asian region, as the new policy blurs the distinction between Chinese nationals and foreign nationals of Chinese descent.
First, Dr Suryadinata explained about Beijing’s changing policies. During the Zhou Enlai era (1950s) the Luodi Shenggeng policy (Settle Down and Take Root) was introduced. Chinese migrants were encouraged to assimilate themselves within the local society and adopt local citizenship. This facilitated integration into society without the complexity of maintaining dual nationalities. However, Dr Suryadinata pointed out that since the 2000s, Beijing began to blur the distinction between huaqiao (Chinese citizens living abroad) and huaren (foreign citizens who are Chinese by descent and ethnicity). The new policy was known as ‘Luoye guigen’ (Return to the Original Roots) which advocated the idea of a unified Zhonghua Minzu (Chinese Nation). He listed the World Huaqiao Huaren Businessmen and Industrialists Conference held in China as an example of Beijing’s efforts to rally the support of Ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asia.
Dr Suryadinata then laid out the different characteristics of five Southeast Asian nations and delved into the position of the ethnic Chinese residing there. In Indonesia, the younger generation of Indonesian Chinese dissociates themselves from China. Despite China’s efforts to engage Indonesian Chinese individuals by encouraging them to learn the language or inviting them to memorialize their ancestral homes in China, the uptake and interest were low. For the case of Malaysia, Dr Suryadinata noted that the Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang referred to China as the ‘maternal home’ of the huaren and huaqiao during his 2015 visit to Malaysia. Such remarks led to vigorous debates among Malaysians about belonging. Furthermore, Dr Suryadinata mused about the possibility of new migrants from China forming a separate enclave in Malaysia instead of being integrated into the local society.
For Singapore,Dr Suryadinata observed that the excessive focus on nation-building since independence has ensured the ‘Singaporean Chinese’ identity is prioritized and emphasized through school textbooks and the new Chinese cultural centre set up in 2017. In the Philippines, the huaren are far more integrated within the local society and the huaqiao seem to be distinct. Dr Suryadinata suggested that this may be due to the economic nature of the recent wave of Chinese migration, with a large number of migrants concentrating on urban centres with high technological industries. In Thailand, the huaren are the most integrated population and Beijing’s new policies seems to have no bearing on them. A strong sense of Thai citizenship appears to overpower any sense of Sino-Thai ethnicity. While noting that the lack of glass ceiling for the huaren enable such dynamics, Dr Suryadinata highlighted that new Chinatowns seem to be being built in Thailand. Such separate areas for the huaqiao may prevent assimilation. Dr Suryadinata also pointed out that although the largest number of Confucius institutes may be found in Thailand, the spread Mandarin language has not been successful.
Dr Suryadinata concluded his presentation with the observation that Beijing’s initial policy of encouraging migrants to take up local citizenship in Southeast Asian countries was pursued when China was a weak state. The current policy of ‘Luoye Guigen’ (Return to the Original Roots) is being implemented when it is rising in the region as a formidable economic giant and political presence. However, Beijing’s single citizenship law still prevails and the Huayi card which allows foreign citizens of Chinese ethnicity to become permanent residents of China has yet to be enforced. Dr Suryadinata’s final remarks were that Beijing’s new policies may harm nation-building processes in Southeast Asia and create ethnic tensions which in turn may affect political and economic stability in the region.
The webinar concluded with an engaging Question and Answer session. The audience asked Dr Suryadinata several questions such as how integration can be measured, the economic inequalities among huaren and huaqiao, the role of social media in influencing overseas Chinese communitiesand the effects of the Belt and Road Initiative. 181 participants attended this webinar.