22 Jan 2013
Topics Asia
Immigration is a hot-button issue. Prof Wang Gungwu, an expert of Chinese history, speaks to Claire Leow as he takes a long view and casts an eye back on the history of the Chinese in Southeast Asia, for some instructive lessons.

Professor Wang Gungwu narrowly defines diaspora to refer to those of Chinese descent who have made their homes and settled as nationals in a variety of countries, specifically in Southeast Asia, in contrast to those who reside outside China but retain Chinese nationality. The latter are not central to the question of the Chinese diaspora's role in modern history, he said.

Of the estimated 40 million Chinese who have settled outside China, more than 75 percent have settled in Southeast Asia, he said. The earliest of these had come to this region hundreds of years ago. They began actively and regularly trading there since the 12th century and many settled to become part of Southeast Asian society. There is historical evidence that some of them laid the foundations for a long-lasting relationship with their countries of adoption.

Initially the numbers were very small, and characterised by commercial activities between the ports of China and the ports of Southeast Asia. The numbers grew steadily over the centuries and they became a vital part of the region’s economy, even after the arrival of the Europeans and their trading companies. Over time, these ethnic Chinese also adapted themselves to European power and political control. It was only after the 19th century that the numbers of Chinese began to rise substantially, following the forced opening of the China ports after the 1840s.

As a result, the earlier relations underwent radical change. China declined rapidly. After the early 20th century, its imperial system was overthrown, and the republican government that followed was weak and divided.

For the next three decades, the country was subject to external interventions and invasions. In reaction, the people became nationalistic. These patriotic sentiments spread widely and influenced the Chinese who had gone abroad to work and live. This was particularly striking among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia where large numbers of them had penetrated beyond the trading ports and had gone inland to engage in a wide range of agricultural, mining and other economic activities.

Colonial Rule & Aftermath

During the 20th century, the majority of the Chinese, except those in Thailand, were operating in areas under the administration of colonial powers. Thus the traditional relations between Chinese and the indigenous ruling classes changed fundamentally. In the larger context of centuries of relations with local peoples, this was an aberration that lasted for only a little more than a century. During that period, most Chinese had to learn to deal with new administrations and technologies, as well as new ideas and laws that were introduced by the colonial powers.

In many parts of Southeast Asia after the middle of the 19th century, there were large numbers of new arrivals, the sinkeh or “new guests”. They were mostly very poor coolie labour who had no history of interacting with local ruling classes but had to deal largely with European officials and employers who were Europeans or merchant Chinese. Most of them were illiterate or knew only the respective Chinese dialects and had to be assisted by the local-born and settled Peranakan or Straits Chinese who had totally adapted to Southeast Asian ways. But the newcomers were numerous and, in the early 20th century, were more inclined to identify with and respond to political developments in China. Most of them were industrious and thrifty and the more entrepreneurial among them soon became wealthy and influential.

Both Peranakan and sinkeh experienced very difficult times under Japanese occupation in the years 1942-45. When the colonial period ended after the Second World War, many of the sinkeh chose to return to China and some of the Peranakan re-migrated to Europe and elsewhere. But those who remained adjusted quickly to the new phase of history when the modern nation-state was introduced to the region. The new generation of local nationalists was determined to abandon the older feudal structures and pre-colonial systems to build new nations within the borders that the colonial powers had drawn.

Thus all those of Chinese descent had to recalibrate their positions in Southeast Asia. Those who were local-born could, on the while, adjust to the changes more readily since they had adopted many indigenous customs and were familiar with local norms. The rest had a more testing time adapting. Everyone faced with the nation-building process had to deal with nationalism, concepts of sovereignty, citizenship, political loyalty and new parameters of national economic development.

The local-born learnt quickly to be citizens in the nation-states and found roles they could play by accepting their new responsibilities. These were a small minority in most territories until the 1960s. After that, local-born new citizens became the majority among the Chinese diaspora. Today, the majority of these ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia identify with their countries of adoption and not with the countries of origin. Their loyalties and identification are with the countries to which they belong. This has made them clearly different from the newcomers who have come to the region since the 1980s. The latter have come to do business, do not have loyalties to their countries of temporary residence and are not considered diaspora, Prof Wang argues in making distinctions for research purposes.

Changing Composition

A hundred years ago, ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia were mainly merchants who had decided to settle in the region. They had come in small numbers. But with industrialisation, with new agricultural and mining produce in great demand, they came in larger numbers. The composition of the newcomers was also different in that some of them were educated, contrary to past migratory practice when educated Chinese did not leave China. But those who came in the early 20th century included many who came to enlighten the merchants and workers and educate their children. Some of them worked to increase consciousness among the Chinese about the modern Chinese nation. They used Chinese textbooks and systems adopted from China to arouse patriotism among the people they called sojourners or hua chiao. Their work often left a deep impression not only among those of Chinese descent but also showed the local peoples how nationalistic many Chinese had become.

Since the 1980s, many more of those leaving China are better educated, quite unlike the emigrants of the past. This is particularly noticeable among those who left China to go to North America, Western Europe and some other parts of Asia, and also those who are going to Africa and Latin America. However, new Chinese migrations to Southeast Asia have been relatively few, especially when compared to the numbers who came in the past.

Throughout history, it has been young Chinese of South China in search of business opportunities who led the way to work in Southeast Asia. Merchants had a lowly legal and social status, and were very dependant on the goodwill of officials and local notables in China who usually came from the literati ruling class. The few merchants who were successful and able to acquire landed wealth were better able to relate to mandarin officials, but most of them were highly constrained in their activities. Outside of China, however, where traders were considered assets to the rulers and chiefs, their status was enhanced. This is one of the reasons why many of the early venturesome Chinese who became wealthy in Southeast Asia chose to settle in their adopted homes abroad.

The importance of trade was proven by the success of the European powers, especially by the Dutch and English East India Companies during the 17th and 18th centuries. They respected enterprise, their legal processes and contractual agreements offered protection of property, and they recognised the importance of technical and professional skills; all these impressed the Chinese diaspora. Furthermore, the nature of education also changed. Traditional Chinese education was focused on passing examinations in the Confucian classics so that the graduate could become an official in the Imperial Chinese government. It was a very exclusive education that emphasised classical learning. By the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th, however, the Chinese outside encountered new kinds of education – in science and technology, in training for industrial and managerial competence, and other practical skills. This was not merely Western education but really education for a modern world, a world of nation-states, of transnational trade and one that dealt with a global market economy. The Chinese diaspora realised that this kind of education is not only good for China but also for their children if they were to cope and prosper in that world. It was a major factor in the change in composition of the Chinese who left China in recent times.

Today we see the rise of the middle class of the Chinese diaspora. Not just the merchant class of the last century but professional classes adjusting to new nation states that appreciate that such skills are necessary if they are to become modern, prosperous and strong. This is part of a larger global shift but, in Southeast Asia, the ethnic Chinese were quick to respond to this shift and this greatly encouraged their focus on an education for the modern world.

Now that the status of merchants was higher, ethnic Chinese developed a greater interest in education as a means of adapting to modern, industrial capital systems. The process of adjusting from traditional business values to highly competitive business skills has changed the lives of the younger generation. Most of them are able to operate as useful modernisers in their respective countries.

The Adaptability of the Chinese

Through their history of trading and settling in the region, the Chinese have shown that they are extremely adaptable. They have not been so much concerned with identifying with their regimes in China as with the practical advantages of loyalty to family and family-based businesses. These values are not peculiar to the Chinese, and it would be wrong to think that it is unique among them. The norm for most of history everywhere had been for business to depend on the cohesion within a larger kinship group, enabling each group to adapt to business methods and institutions. From studies of the Chinese family businesses in Southeast Asia, it is clear that their family-centered focus has enabled them to stand up to great challenges. The studies also show how they have transformed the large family system suitable for an agrarian society to the smaller families that characterise modern urban societies. However, the idea that the individual by himself is weak and that family support is what makes each individual life meaningful remains strong. It is in that context that individual Chinese work hard, and seek to gain the trust of others. If successful, individuals embody the qualities that the family, the community and society in general would find valuable and useful. Such Chinese are likely to promote the values that they believe had enabled them to succeed.

Underlying all this is skepticism towards the opposite ideal of encouraging individuals to place themselves above family and society. This skepticism is strong enough to resist those trends that glorify the individual as sacred and it has led ethnic Chinese to contest any idea that such kinds of individuals are necessary for people to become modern.

The Chinese heritage regards loyalty to the family as a basic building block for harmonious relationships and social cohesion. Although the Chinese outside China today are very different from their ancestors, and they have moved beyond being just merchants and traders and can be found in every field of endeavour, they are able to enjoy the greater freedom they now have to develop as individuals and feel that their achievements are primarily rooted in the family as a social unit. On the whole, they still believe that this is why the Chinese heritage remains of great value to everyone in the societies they live in.

Chinese Diaspora and Governments

Chinese people everywhere have been re-adjusting relationships with their respective national governments.

Traditionally, the Chinese in China steered clear of officialdom, and their imperial dynastic rulers may be described in today’s terms as running “small governments”. Mao Zedong (b.1893-d.1976) changed that by establishing a revolutionary state that tried to force his people to serve his vision of a proletarian paradise. However, the revulsion against its worst excesses has produced something different again. During the past 20 years, the government in China has been undergoing reforms, and there is more freedom for local initiatives in most fields of work and play.

For ethnic Chinese outside, it is instructive to see that one of the most stable features of Chinese socio-political life is being revived in China, despite the country’s rapid rate of industrialisation and urbanisation. Those of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia are concerned to see how the family as a unit is respected again, especially in rural life, and the family is still playing an important role in supporting local government and commerce. They are encouraged to see the way communities are once again managing their own affairs, in areas such as health and welfare, basic education and local economic activities. Some may even see conditions that are now once again close to the autonomy the Chinese enjoyed in the past.

That governments should do more for their people is a modern concept. The nation-state in the West is very different from older feudal states. Ever since the French Revolution, the relationship between individuals and the state has become increasingly important. People demand more from their governments, and governments provide more, so much so that some have also become more authoritarian and autocratic. But many also realise that states are not good at controlling too much or providing too much; when they do, that makes societies dependant and weak.

Today people in every society are trying to achieve a balance, one that allows for more participation by people who can say to their leaders that there should just be that much state power and no more. The Chinese diaspora have learnt from their experiences that such a development is good and are trying to achieve that balance. They have observed what happened to China under Mao Zedong; they have seen how the Chinese have learnt a hard lesson. Living outside China and experiencing the various paths to modernity, they are aware that the balance is necessary if a society is to be healthy, stable and prosperous.

They have also seen that, in the West, some nations have gone too far the other way, where too much power rests with the people and how that has weakened governance structures and the states that depend on them. Ethnic Chinese have had to learn to live in different kinds of states and have devoted much of their time to master the skills needed in these modernising societies and to learn about modern institutions, especially about modern education. As they adjust to life in these societies, and try and contribute to their adopted countries, they have learnt to play important roles in each of them.

Adapting to Modern Ways

This process of adapting to modernisation deserves close attention. It is important to understand the ways they are trying to fulfill their responsibility to their adopted countries. Today’s global economies and relationships are not only between states and peoples, but also between large transnational enterprises. The capacity to deal with a rapidly changing world has to be cultivated in new ways. The Chinese diaspora have done this much more successfully than their ancestors could have dreamt of. They are now achieving that as loyal groups in the new nations they have chosen to belong to, offering their new skills that can link up with the world beyond at various levels and in different ways. They are part of a global middle class that link up readily and easily across national and continental boundaries and bring benefits in ways that were not possible in the past.

The potential of the Chinese diaspora to benefit Southeast Asia is fulfilled by education, an ability to adjust and adapt, and the skillfulness in harnessing modern life. That can become a great asset to their adopted countries.

Prof. Wang Gungwu is a historian of China and Southeast Asia, chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, and Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University.

Topics Asia