Anti-Chinese sentiments are building across Southeast Asia. Can grassroots movements derail Xi Jinping’s big plans?
by Oliver Ward
The Chinese embassy in Laos was forced to issue a security warning after Chinese blood was spilt on Laos streets. A Chinese worker was shot dead in the Xaysomboun province of Laos.
Anti-Chinese feeling has been rising across the region. Xi Jinping has initiated preparation for his One Belt One Road project. The One Belt One Road Project looks to boost infrastructure in the region. Its primary aim is to connect China with the vast shipping ports in Southeast Asia and improve their global distribution power. Chinese workers working in remote regions have been met by resistance from local people. Some have even come under attack.
Islamists are targeting Chinese wealth in Indonesia
In Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment is rising too. The leader of the influential Islamist group, the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (GNPF-MUI), has spoken out against the ethnic Chinese in the country.
Bachtiar Nasir is the leader of GNPF-MUI. He complained of the wealth enjoyed by ethnic Chinese in the country. “It seems they do not become more generous, more fair”, he added, “That’s the biggest problem.” He went on to question the benefit of Chinese investment to the country. He believes the investment has not helped Indonesians.
Why is there a growing negative feeling towards the Chinese in the region?
Income inequality is worsening in Indonesia. The Gini coefficient is an indication of a country’s wealth inequality. In 2000, Indonesia had a Gini coefficient of 0.30. By 2015 this had risen to 0.40. In 2016, the top 1% of Indonesians owned 49.3% of the national wealth.
Many ethnic Chinese Indonesians are business owners. They become the scapegoat for income inequity. Ethnic Malay natives target them. In 1998, 1,000 ethnic Chinese were killed in riots and their business were targeted in a spate of attacks.
Malaysia has a similar situation. They have a poorer Muslim majority population. They also have a wealthier ethnic Chinese population. The government deliver privileges to the native Muslim population. They give them preferential treatment for public sector jobs and offer discounts on property.
Resistance over Chinese action in the South China Sea has increased tension
Indonesia has refused to support China’s claims over the South China Sea territories. Beijing lodged a complaint against Jakarta after an incident last year. A Chinese fishing boat came under fire from Indonesian navy vessels.
As the South China Sea has become an area of contention, anti-Chinese sentiment has increased in Indonesia. Much of the rhetoric against Ahok in the Jakarta mayor election centred around his religious beliefs and ethnicity. Ahok is an ethnically Chinese Indonesian.
An anti-Chinese grassroots movement is growing in Thailand
Chinese workers are also implementing their One Belt One Road vision in Thailand. Three Chinese ships are surveying the Mekong River in Thailand. They are assessing what rocks and islets need to be removed and destroyed to ease navigation and transport down the river. By 2020, China aims to create an 890km shipping lane, free from obstacles. The lane will connect Simao in China, with Luang Prabang in Laos, via Thailand’s Mekong River.
However, opposition protests are mounting. More than 100 NGO’s are working to stop any dams being built along the Mekong. “Blasting the Mekong will destroy fish breeding grounds, disrupt migrating birds and erode riverside farmland” according to Niwat Roykaew, Chairman of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group.
The protesters forced the Chinese engineers conducting the survey to change their mooring site. They moved from the Thai side of the Mekong to the Lao side. Protesters descended on them flying banners. They read “stop the survey” and “stop blasting our river”.
Attacking workers and using ethnic Chinese as scapegoats for rising inequality are deplorable acts. But, the rising anti-Chinese sentiment is significant. China has been successful in undermining ASEAN through economic investment and policy. But through grassroots movements people are having their say. They are saying: enough is enough.