A Provincial Level Approach to Studying China-Southeast Asia Relations

By Truston Yu (Picture: Wikimedia)

With the implementation of projects under the Belt and Road umbrella, China is becoming increasingly relevant to Southeast Asia. While China’s relative influence might be diluted by Taiwan and South Korea, which provided supplies and expertise under the pandemic, but China-Southeast Asia interactions would continue to increase on an absolute level. Thus, learning about China remains to be imperative for those in the field of Southeast Asian studies. This article seeks to shed light on the significance of a provincial framework of understanding in the study of China, explaining their roles in engaging Southeast Asia.

Contrary to what many people have assumed, China is not one single monolithic being – there are competing ideas within the ruling Chinese Communist Party; there are different ethnic groups, languages, and dialects across the country. Sinologist Lucian Pye famously described China as a “civilization pretending to be a nation-state”. To look into the black box, one possible way would be to examine China on a provincial level.

The People’s Republic of China claims 34 provincial-level administrative divisions, including five autonomous regions and two special administrative regions. This article investigates seven provincial-level divisions in the southern part of China, discussing their relevance to Southeast Asia with regard to China’s ASEAN engagement, overseas Chinese populations, and historical connections.

The Chinese province with the most overlaps with Southeast Asia is Yunnan, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. This province is home to the Dai ethnic group, one of the many ethnic minorities in China. They are closely related to the Thai, and like their counterparts to the south, Dai celebrate the water-splashing festival and speak a related language. Certain scholars would regard the current distinction between China and Southeast Asia as arbitrary; indeed, borders have changed over the centuries, and Southeast Asia’s northern frontier remains closely related to the southern tip part of China. Dai is a testament to how southern China is an extension of Southeast Asia.

Yunnan was one of the less advanced areas in China, but trade with ASEAN made it one of the fastest-growing provinces with an 8.8% growth rate, top of the national figures. Naturally, the local population has a high awareness of ASEAN and plays a role in China-ASEAN interactions. China is now working on an ambitious project to build a railway from Yunnan’s capital Kunming all the way to Singapore, passing through the Laotian capital Vientiane. The Kunming-Vientiane section was completed earlier this year.

Next to Yunnan is the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Bordering Vietnam, Guangxi’s capital city Nanning is known to be China’s “strategic gateway” to ASEAN. It is the origin of the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, later incorporated into the Belt and Road framework. Naning now hosts the annual China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO), co-sponsored by the Chinese commerce ministry and that of the ASEAN member states as well as the ASEAN Secretariat. The Expo Center’ architecture is said to resemble the ASEAN emblem. One of Nanning’s latest projects is the China-ASEAN Financial Town, which aims to provide services and supporting infrastructure for China-ASEAN businesses.

Also closely related to ASEAN is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, most renowned for its role as China’s gateway to the world and vice-versa. ASEAN is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, and this city also serves as an entrepot for goods flowing between China and Southeast Asia. Most recently, the ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement was concluded and entered into force 2019.

Hong Kong is a former British colony and has long been a cosmopolitan destination, and many prominent Southeast Asian figures have spent a substantial amount of time in the city where the East meets West: Jose Rizal, National hero of the Philippines, spent some time as a doctor in Hong Kong; This is also where Malaysian business magnate Robert Kuok built his Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel, the second of his chain of highly successful luxury hotels.

In the years following WWII, Hong Kong continues to be highly connected with the British colonies in Southeast Asia. The University of Hong Kong (HKU), for example, has nurtured generations of doctors from Malaya. Revered chemist Rayson Huang and historian Wang Gungwu have both served as Vice-Chancellor at HKU, and spent a substantial portion of their academic career in Singapore and Malaysia before that.

Today, Hong Kong is home to hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, of which roughly half are from the Philippines, and another half comes from Indonesia, a tiny minority is composed of Thais, Nepalis, and other nationalities. Up to ten percent of the Philippine GDP comes from remittances of overseas workers.

A short ferry ride away from Hong Kong is the Macau Special Administrative Region, a former Portuguese colony and now a casino hub known as the “Las Vegas of the East”. While the Portuguese were one of the very first seafarers to set foot in Malacca and Nagasaki, Macau and Timor-Leste remained to be the only Portuguese colonies in East Asia towards the end of the 20th century.

Naturally, Macau became a platform for China to engage the Lusophone community, which Timor-Leste is a member of. In 2002, Macau became one of Timorese capital Dili’s very first sister cities. In 2003, China set up the Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries (Macao), also known as Forum Macao.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are under the sphere of influence of Guangdong, formerly known to the West as Canton. Southeast Asia is home to one of the biggest overseas Chinese populations, and many of them originated from this province. Cantonese popular culture, such as music and cinema, has become the collective memory of many ethnic Chinese adults in Southeast Asia.

Another significant group of Southeast Asian Chinese migrated from the Hokkien area known as Fujian province today. In Medan, for example, the spoken variety of the Chinese language is not Mandarin but Hokkien. More specifically, many overseas Hokkien descendants trace their ancestry back to the city of Xiamen, also known as Amoy. Partly due to this ancestral connection, Xiamen hosts hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian tourists each year, and CCTV calls it a “pivot city” connecting China to Southeast Asia.

Xiamen University (XMU) is one of the top universities in China and hosts a Center for Southeast Asian Studies dating as far back to 1956. The XMU main campus itself was founded by a Malayan Chinese, and in 2015 a Malaysia campus was established – marking the very first time a Chinese University has established a campus abroad. This was a result of coordination between the governments of both countries, after a 2011 meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

In addition to Guangdong and Fujian, the southernmost province of Hainan is also the origin of Chinese descendants in Southeast Asia, though a smaller proportion. It is an island which is also the namesake of Singapore’s famous chicken rice. The next “big thing” to look out for is the Hainan free-trade port. Said to be one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own initiatives, the port plans to “allow duty-free imports and lower taxes to attract investors.” This is also a rather ambitious plan as the goal is for the free port to be set up by 2025. In the future, Hainan may serve as an important avenue for Southeast Asian businesses making inroads into Mainland China.

The reality is that there is more than just “one” China – just like how Bali is different from Sunda, which is different from Padang, different parts of China have their history, ethnic groups, and culture. The heterogeneity of China requires a provincial framework of understanding, which lets us see China in a more nuanced manner, distinguishing between the different roles played by numerous regions – particularly with respect to the various Belt and Road projects In examining China’s engagements with Southeast Asia, it may be worth asking “how” and “from where?”. Guangxi and Yunnan’s proximity to Mainland Southeast Asia made them perfect hubs for connectivity projects; Hong Kong and Macau’s international status as well as their colonial heritage served as a bridge for China-Southeast Asia interactions; Guangdong and Fujian leveraged their connection to the Chinese diaspora abroad; finally, the southern tip Hainan is expected to play a bigger role with its free port project. This paradigm may give rise to more precise analyses of China’s engagement with Southeast Asia.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Southeast Asia’s external relations. They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

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