Trend assessment: Rising anti-Chinese sentiment poses challenge for Beijing

The estimated 50 million-strong Chinese diaspora, scattered across Southeast Asia and beyond will have been alarmed, or at least unsettled, by the re-emergence of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment.

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Indicators

23 December: Indonesian President Joko Widodo called on the police to investigate the source of social media reports spreading fake news that ten million Chinese workers had entered the country and that China was using ‘biological weapons’ to destroy the country’s chilli crop.

7 January: Sri Lankan police used water cannon to try to break up violent skirmishes between government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone in which China will have a major stake.

10 January: The blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as ‘Ahok’, resumed. An ethnic Chinese and a Christian, Ahok is accused of insulting the Koran, Islam’s holy book, but his race and deeper political machinations are likely the real reason for efforts to prosecute him.

10 January: The Chinese embassy in Malaysia rebutted the political opposition’s claims that Prime Minister Najib Razak was ‘selling out’ the country to China after attracting huge loans and investment pledges from Beijing. Such charges are toxic in racially divided Malaysia.

20 January: Police broke up an anti-China protest in the capital Hanoi, arresting 20 protesters. The protest marked Beijing’s seizure and continuing occupation of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in 1974.

Analysis

As the estimated 50 million-strong Chinese diaspora, scattered across Southeast Asia and beyond, prepares to celebrate the incoming Year of the Fire Rooster at the end of January many will have been alarmed, or at least unsettled, by the re-emergence of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment. What will be of particular concern is the expression of what can be interpreted as suspicion towards them by majority communities in countries not previously – or at least not recently – associated with such sentiments.

From Australia to Zambia, elements within local ethnic Chinese communities are accused of a range of economic and cultural offences that are certain to have left many of the recipients bewildered, defensive and often angry.

However, there is now a powerful player whose support for persecuted or unwelcome Chinese communities is increasingly evident, if still largely untested: China. A combination of resurgent nationalism, Beijing’s view that all ethnic Chinese are ‘sons of the Yellow Emperor’ who owe a degree of loyalty to the motherland regardless of their actual nationality and the country’s growing military means to intervene across the globe appears to offer previously absent leverage and protection to the hǎiwài huárén, or overseas Chinese, regardless if they want it nor not.

Historically, almost all Chinese who ventured beyond the borders of their homeland have faced varying degrees of prejudice, ranging from massacre in the Philippines in the early 17th century to discriminatory laws or legislation in countries as diverse as Siam and the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries to the recent imposition of financial strictures in the 21st century in countries such as Canada and Australia, concerned over the impact of Chinese wealth on property prices.

Historically, almost all Chinese who ventured beyond the borders of their homeland have faced prejudice

The irony here is that the original concerns among host countries dealing with inward migration from China were that the immigrants’ poverty, and therefore their ability to destabilise the native economy through low pay, has given way to concerns that wealth will serve as a catalyst for social and political dislocation among the host majority and their politically dangerous response.

The impact varies, but it is most pronounced in those countries nearest to China that have received the bulk of the outward migration over the past few centuries. These countries, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, have all experienced either extensive historical restrictions on ethnic Chinese settlement, widespread antipathy among the indigenous population or outright violence towards the community.

Indonesia

The efforts to convict the present governor of the capital Jakarta, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, in what is likely a power play ahead of 15 February’s gubernatorial election for capital’s political leader – the second most important elected post in the nation – has drawn heavily on his Chinese ethnicity and Christian faith. An unprecedented wave of manifestly false news carried to millions through social media has also revealed the anti-Chinese default position within Indonesia’s political culture and population.

While there has been no repeat of the violent anti-Chinese pogroms of May 1998, which led to an unknown number of deaths and hundreds of cases of assault and rape, mainly in Jakarta, Medan and Solo, the subsequent two decades of calm and signs that the Chinese community was becoming increasingly integrated have been eroded by recent events. An incident in late July 2016 heightened this sense of threat when five Buddhist temples and two monasteries in Tanjung Balai near the city of Medan in North Sumatra were burned down by local Muslims angered over a perceived insult to their faith by an ethnic Chinese.

However, the underlying cause of this and past violence has far less to do with religious sensibilities than the acknowledged disparity of wealth between the Chinese communities scattered throughout Indonesia’s large cities and small rural towns and the country’s Muslim majority. Further, what makes such sentiments prejudicially rather than economically motivated is that often the poorer members within Chinese communities, rather than its wealthier individuals, become the victims of intercommunal violence.

Malaysia/Singapore

Events more than 45 years ago continue to reverberate through Malaysia’s – and a lesser extent Singapore’s – Chinese communities. In May 1969, well-organised Malay mobs attacked Chinese areas in Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding region, killing a still disputed number of men, women and children: the official death toll was around 200, but many Chinese put the figures in the low thousands.

Since May 1969, successive governments have, through a combination of affirmative action and distributive economic polices, sought to either ‘elevate’ or placate the Malay majority. This has succeeded in at least preventing a repetition of the 1969 riots but has largely failed to remove the political utility of repeatedly accusing the country’s large Chinese minority of disloyalty, avarice, cultural insensitivity and other offences. One result has seen many Chinese increasingly ignore the politicians from their community who form part of the ruling National Front coalition and give their support to opposition parties more willing to confront prejudice and discriminatory policies. Unsurprisingly, this response has helped further fuel the formation and conduct of extreme Malay nationalist groups, often with strong links to the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) that has dominated the country’s politics since independence from the U.K. in 1957.

Philippines

There has been a significant Chinese presence in the Philippines for centuries, as trading and employment opportunities during the Spanish colonial era attracted thousands of merchants and artisans into the archipelago, where their industry and business acumen quickly unsettled both the European and Filipino communities. This culminated in the so-called ‘Sangley massacre’ (Sangley was the local term for Chinese in the Philippines) in 1603 when a pre-emptive rebellion by the Chinese community in Manila, fearful that the Spanish were planning to attack their community, led to a brief conflict in which around 20,000 Chinese were slaughtered.

While the local Chinese community, often referred to as ‘tsinoy’, is reasonably well integrated, its perceived wealth and often inward-looking attitudes continue to make it a target for some politicians and many criminals. Ethnic Chinese are the favoured targets of the country’s numerous kidnap gangs, many linked to police or military personnel, leading those who can afford it to move into well-protected gated communities that further distance them from the general population and adds to popular prejudices over their exclusivity and wealth.

Further, President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent moves towards securing closer diplomatic ties with and greater investment from China risks increasing antipathy from among middle-class and professional Filipinos, concerned that their economic interest and status will be compromised by such a change in national policy.

Thailand

The Chinese community in Thailand, which dominates trade, finance and the professional classes, is generally well integrated, reflecting in part the ethnic composition of the Thai population, as well as broadly shared cultural and religious perceptions and beliefs. The ruling Chakri royal dynasty has Chinese antecedents, reflecting the custom of men migrating to the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries and marrying Thai women to create a distinctive Sino-Thai community. This group has lost many of its original unique qualities following the arrival of significant numbers of Chinese women in the 20th century, leading to the evolution of a more ethnically homogenous Chinese community and severing links with at least some aspects of Thai culture and society.

What can be broadly identified as at best negative and at worst virulent anti-Chinese sentiments continue to emerge across the world

Nevertheless, the Chinese became, as elsewhere, a ready scapegoat for local nationalists seeking support from the indigenous population, who accused the newcomers of economic exploitation, usury, opium trafficking and tax farming. Many of the accusations were true, not least because other avenues of employment were closed to the migrants, but they coloured relations between the largely urban-based Chinese and the rural Thais until well into the 20th century. This antipathy was at last partially reversed among the poorer rural Thais during deposed Sino-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administrations, which sought to ensure their interests were met in exchange for their vote. This modern use of public funds was a major factor in the traditional Thai elite and its military and urban middle class allies’ decision to remove him from power.

Others

In addition to nativist attitudes towards local Chinese communities in the principal Southeast Asian diaspora countries, what can be broadly identified as at best negative and at worst virulent anti-Chinese sentiments continue to emerge across the world. This partially reflects suspicions of the motives and methods of China’s sustained and growing efforts to acquire corporate power, overseas investment opportunities and technologies at a unpreceded pace and with seemingly unlimited funds.

The nature of the opaque communist Chinese leadership and its often strident criticism of the very countries where state-owned enterprises seek acquisitions can fuel such attitudes at the national level. Closer to the ground, the view is often less nuanced, reflecting concerns and resentments over the disruptive impact of ethnic Chinese migrants or investors on North American, Australian, New Zealand and European property markets, the consequences of huge infrastructure and extractive projects across Africa and the Indian sub-continent as well as the actions of Chinese traders outcompeting indigenous merchants across much of the developing world. Opposition is frequently couched in open or coded language that emphasises ethnic rather than economic objections.

It is within this context of heightened antipathy towards China, and by extension many ethnic Chinese, that Beijing now appears to be struggling to find the means to both further and then protect its own national, diplomatic and economic overseas interests while also fulfilling its self-declared role of being the ultimate defender of the wider ethnic Chinese community.

Assessment

China, as with any other major powers, has two basic models for dealing with the rest of the world – cooperation or confrontation, or in present parlance, ‘soft’ or ‘hard ‘positions, tempered with nuanced gradations.

Soft

China’s historically preferred mechanism of dealing with the wider world was to either largely ignore it and concentrate on domestic imperial issues, or seek fealty through suborning surrounding kingdoms, satraps and tribes through financial subventions on the pragmatic basis that it was far cheaper to pay for obedience and the ‘Pax Sinica’ than fight for stability along the country’s extensive borders and in its regional markets or sources of key commodities.

China’s present regional policy closely follows this imperial template, either by design or default. Chinese state banks offer huge loans at often preferential rates for Chinese companies to build huge infrastructure projects that often make little economic sense to the receiving countries while serving Beijing’s own perceived strategic interests. The ‘one belt, one road’ policy is based on this premise, as well as employing underutilised Chinese construction capacity. To date, this policy – which will take decades to reach its full potential or be shown to have been a colossal economic miscalculation – has largely favoured the existing political and commercial elites in the target countries while often increasing resentment among their opponents, local nationalists and those affected by the often hugely disruptive projects.

These attitudes are frequently reflected in anti-Chinese sentiment directed variously towards the projects themselves or at long established resident communities, often on the basis that their loyalties are divided between their country of residence and their ancestral homeland. Beijing’s policies of blurring the distinction between being of Chinese origin and being of Chinese nationality – with the implied obligations – has become a growing source of concern within regional countries, as well as causing unease among their Chinese citizens.

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