Beware undertow of race relations

SCMP May 20 2012

Overseas Chinese everywhere should be concerned about China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea, advancing its territorial claims close to the coasts of littoral states. Specifically, the ethnic Chinese minorities in the concerned Southeast Asian countries need to guard against anything suggesting sympathy for the claims of their former motherland.

That same principle applies to minorities, Chinese or otherwise, wherever they may be. They are reasonably expected to share the community interests of the nations they have joined. This is not an issue of 'My country, right or wrong' but of the reasonable expectation of commitment in return for equal rights. It is especially important for Chinese, given the rise of China as a military and economic power, and the size and scope of the Chinese diaspora.

Compared with some countries in the region, the Philippine Chinese community is quite well integrated. The country has benefited from an influx of Chinese going back several centuries, and such has been the degree of intermarriage that they are integrated into the society and can usually only be distinguished, if at all, by names such as Cojuangco - the maiden name of president Cory Aquino, whose son is now president.

However, there are also many more recent arrivals from China, perhaps now only the second generation, who still identify to some extent with the former motherland. Some of these can be perceived by the wider population as being, at worst, opportunists out to make money, but at best remaining neutral on issues such as the South China/West Philippine sea. Thus, recent events have seen prominent businessmen sitting on the fence. One is quoted in this paper as saying: 'Our biological father is China and our foster father is the Philippines. The two fathers are now quarrelling. We want to patch the relationship up.'

Such divided loyalties are particularly dangerous to the communities from which they spring, if Beijing is perceived to be hostile to their adopted country or using members of the ethnic Chinese community against national interests. Those concerned should remember tragedies in the not-too-distant past. One example was Indonesia in 1965-66 when Chinese suffered more than most from mass killings of those believed to be sympathetic to the communists.

In reality, few Chinese were, but given that Beijing was caught up in Maoist revolutionary ideology, the assumption was not surprising. Likewise in Malaysia, in 1969, anti-Chinese sentiment was shaped by the Beijing-backed communist uprising which so divided the country in the previous decade.

Nor should we forget the consequences for Vietnam's Chinese community of China's 1979 invasion. Most refugees from Vietnam at that time were from that war, not the American war which ended in 1975. A significant proportion were Chinese, either under pressure to leave or looking for an opportunity to get to settlement countries in the West.

Loyalty to an adopted country is important for integration and never more so than when national conflict arises. Thus, though there was no excuse for the US internment of Japanese during the second world war, there were enough cases of US citizens of Japanese descent spying for Tokyo to create the atmosphere conducive to indiscriminate action against a whole community. There was almost no evidence of America's huge Italian and German communities providing support for their former motherlands.

If countries with - in practice if not theory - liberal immigration policies are to be used by Beijing to promote its interests through industrial spying or planting moles in military forces, at some point there is likely to be retribution against the broader community. The Philippines, like Thailand and Myanmar, has no official pro-immigration policy but all have relatively porous borders.

China may now be powerful and on its way to being rich. But overseas Chinese communities exist because of the opportunities offered elsewhere; in the case of Southeast Asia, particularly when under colonial rule. It was not the Malays who enabled mass migration of Chinese to their country.

Now China's rise makes matters more complicated in a region with Chinese minorities that are more or less integrated, depending on location and generation. Particularly resented by indigenous people are those self-consciously ethnic Chinese businessmen who have made fortunes but build hospitals on the mainland, not in Indonesia, and send their children to schools in Singapore rather than have them mix with locals in Indonesia. But when locals seek retribution, it is more likely to be against the small businesses run by well-integrated people of Chinese descent but with tenuous Chinese cultural identity and none with China.

In contrast to the past, China's global power is rising at the same time as the Chinese diaspora is taking root in once unfamiliar places such as Africa and southern Europe, as well as continuing to expand in North America, Australia and parts of Asia. That makes it all the more important for the future comfort and integration of these communities that they draw a firm line between Chinese cultural and political identity to commit to their nation of settlement.

By the same token, China must stop treating ethnic Chinese who hold foreign nationality differently from others. To do otherwise is racism.



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