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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

Political influences of the Chinese communities

Ratanaporn Dhammakosol

Texte intégral


1With its 1.3 billion inhabitants and stable economic growth, China is becoming a very significant country. One might have heard of China being referred to as the Dragon, the Big Brother, or the World Market, the names reflecting on the country’s position. One thing is clear, though, even when considering the purchase of one item, the numbers become enormous when multiplied by 1.3 billion, which is why the name “China” works as an eye-opener.

2Not so long ago, when someone talked about communist and socialist countries, two names had to be taken into consideration: the Soviet Union and Mainland China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, China’s assessment of the world situation appeared to place the country in an advantageous position. As the representative of Communism, the most powerful ideological survivor state which theoretically was to confront Capitalism, and with the Communist Party as the instrument of change, China was supposed to derive leverage from contradictions between the US, Japan and Europe.

3The differences with the neighboring countries and the military threat from the North receding, China’s external security environment has further stabilized and become relatively peaceful. This has provided China with an excellent opportunity to devote its attention to economic issues, and the economic success alone would legitimize China’s policies of holding back political reforms in the name of “building socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics.”

4In the past, as a closed country, China’s policies were based on 6 political organizations: National People’s Congress (NPC), President, State Council, Central Military Commission, Supreme People’s Court and the Parliament, with NPC as the most significant Institution to appoint persons to the other five organizations. This has made China very successful in developing programs in any region of the country.

5Only in China the government can designate a group of people for any developing projects, such as the building of the biggest dam in the world, the Yangze Dam Building Project. How to move 60 million people along the river without an argument? It is only possible in China with the help of NPC. Moreover, China conducts economic reforms quietly. Since the year of the country’s opening, 1979, China has become the Big Brother of ASEAN countries without doubt again.

6In contacts with the South-East Asian neighboring countries, China behaves in a very friendly, humble and helpful way concerning economic and diplomatic approaches, with the exception of Taiwan and Hong Kong. China’s approach towards the countries of South-East Asia has been very soft and unthreatening, not asking very much of the region. It could be said that such actions use a combination of both bilateral and multilateral approaches. Even though, as a region, South-East Asia has tried to play the US and China against each other, China continues to keep a humble and kindly approach.

7In this regard, the United States policy in South-East Asia is too solely focused on the single issue of the war on terrorism, battling terrorism continuing to be its major concern. At the same time, the US economic, political and security interests in the region go well beyond the issue of terrorism, and American policies and programs must be formulated with these interests firmly in mind. The US bilateral treaties with Thailand and the Philippines are examples of hands-on commitment in this region.

8While the US does not seek to dominate the region, it would be basically against the US interests if any other nation, including China, were to do so. In this situation, the tools to promote the US interests include bilateral, multilateral, and regional approaches. In general, a win-win situation would be far more successful in South-East Asia than a confrontation or zero-sum approaches. Would you not agree?


  • If your country is the largest in the world, like China, how do you maintain your own characteristics of humble, gentle and unthreatening to your neighborhood or others?

  • How many Chinese in your own communities, could be accounted for or classified?

The Chinese Diaspora in South-East Asia


10There are more than 20 million Chinese in South-East Asia, most of them in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam respectively. Originally from the Southern China they had come to trade and finally settled in South-East Asia over a period of thousand years. Now, the Chinese are a minority ethnic group in each of the SE Asian countries.

11Asian countries, except for Singapore, tend to see themselves as the Chinese people who settled in many countries outside China, without maintaining any links with their motherland.

12The Chinese migrants in South-East Asia have shown their economic strength and business prowess. More than that, they have contributed significantly to their host countries’ GDP. Out of the 50 top businessmen in South-East Asian countries, more than half are Chinese, which made local politicians willing to have associations with them for political reasons.

13The Chinese migrants normally do not exert much political influence in their host countries, as they are usually a minority group. However, in the recent years, we have seen a growing acceptance of the Chinese into the higher political strata in the host countries, alongside the indigenous inhabitants. Some have been appointed important political functions, as in the case of the former Prime Minister Chuan Leek-Pai in Thailand. At a lower political level, the Chinese can influence government policies through domestic politicians, by financial support, lobbying, and donating for particular political parties.

14After the country had opened in 1979, China began to be seen by the rest of the world as a huge market and a place with high potential. Some may say that the Americans are bigger investors, but then the Chinese are more than the investment. Just think of the international network of the Chinese people around the world, China Towns and Chinese restaurants. This type of network has already been noticed as invaluable in various South-East Asian countries seeking to start business ties with the blooming Chinese market.

15Moreover, as the Chinese migrants settled into their respective host countries and communities, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, or many others, they brought with them their ways of life, tradition and culture, all of which could be easily found both down town and in numerous China Towns. How can you separate yourself out of the blood, genes and the DNA of the Chinese? Look at your eyes, your complexion, the shape of your nose or your face, you are definitely Asian, but you could be called Chinese as well.

16As part of global business, most of the Chinese are international investors. Since the 1980s, the Investment Fund raised approx. $ 400 M each year. And it became $ 2.3 billion in 1990s, and its investment funding abroad $ 37-40 billion in the year 2003. The Chinese Government policies have authorized more than 7,000 investment projects abroad in 160 countries, excluding all financial investment project.

17Concerning projected investment, China set up an Economic Plan for Investment Abroad between 2001–2005. The goals of the plan are to expand 500 state companies by investing abroad, with 50 companies expected to be in the toplist of 500 best companies in the world regarding the highest income in the year 2015. More than 60% of the investment is located in the Asia – Pacific region, North America, Africa and Latin America respectively, with Hong Kong being the first choice and Thailand becoming the fifth focus point.

18As you can see the Chinese communities have influenced South-East Asian countries both in the spheres of politics and economy, on a macro and micro scale. Thailand is seen as a place of particular interest, as the fifth country on the list of investment location, which makes it a significant target for China. If you look at the map you can see that Thailand can easily become China’s hub for industrial investment in ASEAN countries, focused on Agro-Processing Industry with Infrastructure. In the year 2002-2003, UNTAD evaluated that China invested $ 214.7 M in electricity and electronics in 234 projects in Thailand, while the Thai government informed of 235 more Chinese projects at $ 263 M in the same area of investment.


  • Do you believe that China has already designated Thailand as its ASEAN hub for industrial investment?

  • Do you think “Politics” and “Economy” could be separated?

China and Thailand3

Diplomatic Relations

20China and Thailand established diplomatic relations on July 1 1975. Since then both countries have developed their bilateral relations, as can be seen through frequent exchanges of high-level visits. In 1979, when China opened to other countries, the former Thai Prime Minister Gen. Chartchai Chunhawan went to China on an official visit and became closely related with the Chinese government. Since then several visits were paid by important politicians on both sides.

21The Thai leaders who have visited China over the recent years are as follow: Queen Sirikit, who represented the King in 2000; Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in 1998; Princess Sirindhon, who visited China more than 20 times between 1981 – 2004; Princess Chulabhorn in 2001 – 2004; etc. Apart from the main members of the Royal Family China was also visited by Chairman of the Congress, Wanmuhamad Noor Matha in 1998, Prime Minister in 1999, and Prime Minister Thaksin in 2001.

22The Chinese leaders visited Thailand several times, just to mention Deputy Prime Minister Li Langing in 1998, President Jiang Zemin and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC Li Peng in 1999, Deputy Prime Minister Hu Jintao in 2000 and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in 2001. Moreover, Deputy Prime Minister Li Langing paid an official visit to Thailand in January 2003, the same year Prime Minister Thaksin paid a working visit to China. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao came to Thailand to attend a special meeting on the issue of SARS held by the leaders of China and ASEAN countries.

23In 1981, a mechanism for consultations was established between the foreign ministries of the two countries. Apart from having its Embassy in Thailand, China has established its general consulates in Chiangmai and Thailand has established its general consulates in Guangzhou, Kunming, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Until now, the relations between the two countries have still been sustained and have been quite positive.

Economic Trade Relations & Technological Cooperation

24Two-way investment has been doing fine between both countries after the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the Chinese–Thai Trade has seen rapid development. In 1985, the Trade and Economic Joint Committee was set up, the shipping agreement and supplementary protocols were signed. These were followed by the Agreement on Investment Promotion and Protection in 1985, Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and Prevention of Evading Tax Payment in 1986, MOU on Cooperation in Trade, Economy and Technology in 1997 and Agreement on Exchange of Chinese and Thai Currencies in 2001.

25The two countries have seen a steady growth of exchanges and cooperation in science, technology, culture, health, agriculture, education, sport, judicature and military technology. Let us mention only the Agreement on Scientific and Technological Cooperation, signed in 1978; the Extradition Treaty in 1993; MOU on Culture Cooperation in 1996; MOU on Strengthening Cooperation in Drug-Prohibition in 2000; and the Treaty on Assistance in Criminal Judicature in 2003.

26Moreover, the Chinese and Thai Armed Forces have long maintained friendly contacts including frequent exchanges of visits between the military leaders and cadet training courses between military academies. Each embassy also employs a military consul-general to promote close cooperation.

27On a par with official government relations, the Thai–Chinese Friendship Association was founded in 1976, followed by Sino–Thai Friendship in 1987. There are also 7 pairs of twin cities and provinces in China and Thailand, such Beijing – Bangkok, Shanghai – Chiangmai, Yuannan – Chiangrai, Henan – Chonburi, Kunming – Chiangmai, Yantai – Phuket and Nanning – KhonKaen.

Important Bilateral Documents

28In February 1999, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and Thai Foreign Minister signed the joint Statement on the 21st Century Cooperation Program between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Thailand in Bangkok. Among the positive results, there have been several projects established in a number of ministries in both countries, such as, for instance, Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry, or Ministry of Public Health.

29At the end of 2004, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between two countries was, admitting products from both countries to their markets.

30More cooperation followed from the Trade Exhibition organized by the Ministry of Commerce. Several trade fairs were conducted in a number of regions in China promoting Thai products, while Chinese products flooded Thailand offering the cheapest prices in the world, especially regarding electronics and electrical appliances.

Political Relations of Chinese in Thailand


31From the elderly Chinese migrants in Yaowarat, Sumpeng and other area of Bangkok and countryside of Thailand long life stories would be passed on to their kids telling them how they had worked hard to achieve wealth and capital for investment, which created the quest to spread or export the work ethic to their new country of residence. From generation to generation, the Chinese work ethic has become “The Old Wisdom” of China, representing in a positive way the teaching of Confucianism that accounts for the desire and willingness of the Chinese people to work hard.

32On the other hand, the negative stories of communism in Mainland China that separated those people from their Chinese families and forced them to become migrants in a number of Asian countries are still being told to their kids, days by day and year after year. The Communist Party of China, CPC, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung became the part of political history influencing people’s opinions in negative and positive ways.

33Why are Mao Tse-Tung, and CPC seen in a negative and positive way in Thailand?

34People who are about 50 years old may still remember “The October 14th 1973 People’s Revolution” and “The October 6th 1976 People’s Revolution” in Thailand. These events involved Thai student union leaders and resulted in many students dying in the fights, with some imprisoned for 2-3 years and some hiding in the jungle between 1973–83 to avoid arrest. At that time the Soviet Union and China were spreading their political influence to Thai student unions and local communities, and as a result the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) turned against the Thai government in a violent power-struggle.

35In 1957, when Thai student leaders were arrested by Commander Salith Dhanarat, it was discovered that some had previously studied in the Soviet Union and some had visited China as young communist organizations members. CPC and CPT were named as political influences in the jungle area, the North, North-East and the South of Thailand. CPC and CPT had set up “Political courses for the youth” to study The White and Red Book: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. After the People’s Revolution in October 1973 and 1976, CPC and CPT became popular with the young people who were influenced by communism and socialism, in particular with Marxism and Mao’s Political Theory and Quotations respectively.

Student leaders and Ministers

36Hard as it may be to believe it, more than 60% of the ministers in the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could not be considered as original Thai or half-Chinese. Not only that, but some of them were imprisoned or stayed in the jungle as former student leaders before. For example: Deputy PM Pinij Jarusombat, Deputy PM Jaturon Chai-saeng, Dr. Pomint Lertsuriyadej (Minister of Energy), Dr. Surapong Suepvonglee (Minister of Information Technology), Dr. Somkid Jatusripitak (Minister of Finance), Mr. Sutham Saeng –Pratum (Deputy Minister of Interior) and Dr. Tosaporn Sererak (Secretary to Minister of Education).

37As a majority political party in the government, the key members of Thai Rak Thai Party were influenced by the Chinese Politics before, such as Dr. Punsak Winyarat, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Prime Minister Thaksin, Mr. Poomdham Vejayachai, Political Secretary to Prime Minister Thaksin, and others. Moreover, Mr. Suratien Jaktaranont, Chairman of S.C.Assett Company of PM Thaksin was a student leader who was influenced by the Chinese Political thought as well. These are only some of the high-ranking officials in the Thai government, involved in decision-making and advising on national policies.

38Prime Minister Thaksin Chinawatra has designated Dep. PM Jaturon Chai-Saeng to handle all economic and political events, acting on his behalf in the South-East Asia region. Furthermore, the political team of the Thai government working closely with Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and China consists of all the people who are mentioned above in this section. No matter what they do, the Chinese influence can be seen.

39With the approaching date of the election, February 6, 2005, on the Chinese New Year in Thailand, the first visit of the government party members will be paid to China Town: Yaowarat, Sumpeng and also to other Chinese communities: Sathorn and Silom. Within the Chinese communities there is a strong support for the government party, through the Chinese Families Association and Chinese–Thai Relations Association, including Sino-Thai Association as well. There are several “Chinese Family Name Associations in Thailand” who have donated funds to political parties, especially Thai Rak Thai.

Macro and Micro Chinese influences


40People’s Popular Policies: the 3 Ps of Thai Rak Thai as the main party of the government are mainly based on people’s communities in the countryside and in cities. Regarding the way of thinking, planning and implementing ideas, it is sometimes hard to deny that many of the people involved have been influenced by “the Chinese style,” “Asian values,” “Oriental culture,” or “the Eastern way,” whichever term we use.

41If we talk about the “Macro scale” we may think about the countries, regions and continents located within the area of implementation. In this context, the macro scale may cope only with Thailand and its neighboring countries, such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

42If we look inside people’s minds, we begin to know their way of thinking and working. Some may call this a “Micro scale” or perhaps an “Insider’s point of view.” The Chinese influences are inside – in the Chinese communities, in the Chinese people, in their blood, including tradition and culture that influenced the indigenous inhabitants of their host countries.

43As the Big Brother, China has historically played a major role in South-East Asia. The Chinese are very humble, gentle and kind in approaching their friends, such as Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, or Vietnam. Since it is large as it is, China has never really had any territorial intent regarding its South-East Asian neighbors. Unfortunately, some people may feel uncomfortable when dealing with China, because of the country’s sheer size, and because of its people and their unpredictability.


44Look at Myanmar today. With the country closed as usual, the military government of Myanmar is trying to implement democratic administration. Unfortunately, until Aung San Suu Kyi continues to remain under house arrest, it is not easy to the outsider to understand how Myanmar is supposed to become fully democratic.

45How many Chinese are in Myanmar? The approximate data says there may be 1.5 million Chinese people in Myanmar. If we included those who are Chinese by blood the numbers may be higher. Because Myanmar borders with the South of China, the Chinese migrants may move in more easily than in the case of other countries, especially when we talk about the Chinese soldier troops in the South of the country.

46Recently, the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Myanmar, meeting with Myanmar’s Prime Minister Soe Win, and noted that Myanmar would host the 2006 summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the meeting with all the ASEAN leaders in Laos for the ASEAN summit 2004 it transpired that ASEAN leaders are worried that Myanmar’s lack of political reform will weaken the group’s credibility, especially if there is no progress before the 2006 summit.

47Remember that the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went to Laos and attended the ASEAN summit as a close partner. While in Laos, Prime Minister Wen told the reporters “ASEAN and Chinese relations have now entered a new era of complete cooperation.” It means there are many things to consider, because China has started to expand its influence in the region of South-East Asia, aiming at creating the world’s largest trade area by 2010, and expanding the Chinese market onto 2 billion people.

48With China using its huge market as a bait to lure ASEAN countries away from US and Japan and intent on building closer relations with South-East Asian countries, there is a chance that Myanmar will become more open. Why would Myanmar need help from China? China has been dealing with ASEAN countries according to a group agreement, but on an individual level the ties with Myanmar through socialism and militarism have been more effective.

49Actually, the Chinese influence can already be seen inside and close to Myanmar: the Chinese migrants, Chinese goods and products on the market, soldier troops at the border, etc. Regarding bilateral relations, Myanmar is the world’s teak market-when China hosts the Olympics a lot of wood will be used. Moreover, China needs to expand its sea-link from the West of the country, which would be better through the Myanmar side.


  • Why has the Thai government decided on February 6th, 2005 as the new election’s day?

  • Which country could be more effective in Myanmar - the insider or the outsider, if we compare with the US and China?


51As for a personal conclusion, I would feel very ashamed if I could not make it clear why I consider China to be more effective than the U.S. in South-East Asia, especially regarding the insider’s influence.

52Asian Values can be seen as one important point that makes China powerful in contrast with the Westernized style. We still keep talking and discussing about The East vs. The West, not only when joking in a group of friends, but, in fact, as a part of the life we are living.

53On a positive side, the Chinese people are very humble, kind in approach, and gentle to others. There are China Towns around the world with plenty of Chinese products surrounding you. By blood, you and me could not say we are free of the Chinese influence through family relations.

54Unfortunately, on a negative side, China is naturally a huge country, as the Dragon. When the Dragon moves it makes noise and its large size is seen as threatening. In the near future, when the biggest dam on the Yangze River is finished, as a consequence the market for agricultural products from China will increase.

55Finally, I myself was imprisoned as a student leader during the October 6th 1976 People’s Revolution in Thailand. From my own experience I can tell we studied The White Book and The Red Book of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse–Tung of The Communist Party of China. They influenced me and my Thai friends a long time ago and this has made us realize that it would be impossible to separate ourselves from the Chinese blood.

56Political influence (in my understanding) has its base in creation and accumulation of wealth, which also depends largely on a desire to work hard. All these can be found in the Chinese ethics, culture and tradition, which are also a part of Asian Values.


3 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.


Politic Counscellor
Counsellor to several political parties in Thailand illustrates the links between the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia with China and focus on the political influences of these communities in Thailand as well as in Myanmar. Her lecture examines how of the Chinese government tries to use these communities to develop its own influence in the region.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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