How Chinese Migration Changed Southeast Asia

China’s relationship with Southeast Asia, home to more than 620 million people, has been a complex one. Historically, China has viewed the region as a source of raw materials and cheap labour. Chinese settlers went to Southeast Asia as traders, miners, plantation owners and migrants looking for new opportunities. Today, though relations are much friendlier and there are many positive examples of China-Southeast Asia cooperation. Although there are also many flash points.

Contemporary migration from China is a mixture of economic opportunity, education (especially for elites), and search for new experiences. It has also become an important channel for introducing Chinese culture into the region and promoting cultural integration between local people and new Chinese settlers.

China is eager to build deeper ties with the countries of ASEAN though usually tries to accomplish this on a case-by-case basis so they have stronger bargaining power. This has created tension in many Southeast Asian counties.

As well the shifting power dynamic between the U.S. and China has meant each country has been courting countries in the region. And while the pandemic has impacted a lot of global trade, the proximity and history of Southeast Asian countries and China ensures Sino-ASEAN relations will be a hot topic for years to come.

A long history

Chinese Migration to Indonesia dates back over a thousand years. In the 1970s, the number of economic migrants from China grew rapidly. More than 1 million Chinese live in Indonesia today, constituting roughly 3% of the population. Chinese migrants have integrated well into the Indonesian economy and society, and are well represented in business, media, education and government. The large and well-established Chinese minority in Indonesia has played an important role in the country’s modernization and economic development. 

Chinese migrants to Malaysia have also been present for hundreds of years. However, the population of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia is much smaller, at around 10% of the population. Since the 1970s, the Chinese minority in Malaysia has been a source of tension, with many non-Chinese resenting the economic and political power of the Chinese. In the past two decades, government policies to promote the assimilation of Chinese minorities into mainstream Malay society have caused resentment. 

Chinese Migration to Thailand can be traced back many centuries, and has been a continuous flow of people over the centuries. Today, Thailand has a large Chinese minority, numbering around 6 million. Chinese migrants to Thailand in the last four decades have come mainly from two sources – the Chinese-speaking majority in the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora, and the Chinese-minority communities in southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. They have come to Thailand to work in construction, tourism, and trade. 

Chinese migration to Singapore began in earnest in the 19th century, when the British first established the port city as a trading centre. In the 1920s, over half of Singapore’s population was Chinese, many of whom had come in search of employment. Today, the ethnic Chinese minority in Singapore is around 74% of the population, making it one of the most Chinese societies outside of China. 

Over the centuries, many Chinese migrants to Singapore have come from Fujian and Guangdong. Many were poor farmers who came to Singapore to earn more money than they could at home. 

Chinese migration to the Philippines predates the Spanish colonization of the archipelago in the 16th century. Chinese merchants and traders settled in the northern part of the country, which was then sparsely populated. Chinese migrants went to the Philippines not only for economic opportunities, but also to escape the political instability in southern China. 

In the past few decades, Chinese migration to the Philippines has resumed as a steady flow of economic migrants from the Chinese diaspora. More recently, there has been a small but rising flow of Chinese migrants from China itself. The large Chinese minority in the Philippines, comprising 1% of the total population, has historically been the target of discrimination and violence from local non-Chinese Filipinos. 

The relationship is always changing

China’s development of its ‘going out’ policy to invest in and develop overseas markets has been a boon for many Southeast Asian countries, both in terms of finance and in promoting cultural exchange between the two regions. The pandemic changed this dynamic greatly, but many international watchers think it will return as China seeks to grow its regional influence in competition with the United States.

One of the largest components of Chinese overseas development is the building of infrastructure in Southeast Asia, including railways and ports. This is creating more links between the two regions, and will benefit Southeast Asian countries when they go to export their goods to other parts of the world. The growth of the Chinese economy has attracted many Southeast Asian students to learn at Chinese universities. The Chinese government has set up scholarship schemes to encourage Southeast Asians and others to study in China. 

The relationship between China and Southeast Asia has been complex, but Chinese migration to Southeast Asia is now a two-way flow of people between the two regions. Many Chinese migrants have integrated well into the countries where they have migrated, contributing to the economic and cultural development of their host countries. 

Chinese investment in Southeast Asia has also had positive benefits, creating new jobs and linking the two regions with better infrastructure. Overall, the increased cultural exchange between China and Southeast Asia is bringing the two regions closer together and promoting mutual understanding and cooperation.