The Chinese diaspora is a tiny minority in southeast Asia, but it controls much of the region's wealth and is investing heavily on the mainland. Hard times lie ahead for the ethnic Chinese whose business methods are blamed for the current Asian crisisby Simon Long / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
When the ho family fled Burma in 1964, their only asset was a wrist-watch. The second and third generations of a family of immigrants from southern China, their entire wealth had been confiscated at the start of Burma’s prolonged and disastrous experiment with socialist autarky. They moved to neighbouring Thailand, where they now preside over a business empire based in the towering skyscraper of Bangkok’s Jewellery Trade Centre. Yet one Ho son, Halpin, is now back in Burma, running the upmarket Kandawgi Hotel in Rangoon and trying to raise money for a grandiose World Trade Centre.
This is the classic overseas Chinese success story: the flight from penury, the fortune built from scratch through thrift, hard work and entrepreneurial flair. But the Ho story diverges from the textbook in one respect: this was their second escape; not from poverty and tyranny in China itself, but from a new form of oppression in their adopted home. As southeast Asia’s economic boom has turned abruptly to bust in recent months, Chinese in other countries have been wondering whether they might also have to move. Popular resentment of the Chinese community’s success, tinged with racist animosity, is particularly widespread in Indonesia. But in other countries too, such resentment is making life uncomfortable.
During the past few years the overseas Chinese have emerged, tentatively, on to the world stage: their huge investments in mainland China account for about 80 per cent of all foreign investment. These investments are drawn from Hong Kong (not, strictly speaking, overseas) and Taiwan, and also from the dominant Chinese interests in the business life of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. In all those countries the Chinese are a minority-in most, a small minority. In Singapore-also a big investor in China-they are in the majority, but live in a city surrounded by ethnic Malays.
Singaporean leaders are aghast at the prospect of ethnic strife in Indonesia and what it might mean for the rest of the region. To understand these fears it is necessary to describe how frightening Indonesia’s predicament has become and to describe some of the history of violence against ethnic Chinese in the region. The history of southeast Asia’s overseas Chinese, and of how they rose to commercial dominance-despite political marginalisation-may also shed light on why the region’s economic miracle has stuttered to a halt. “Crony capitalism,” which is blamed by many in the west…