Chinese diaspora serves as link to ASEAN
Published: Dec 13, 2017 08:33 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Singapore's Channel NewsAsia recently aired a documentary titled Bridging Giants, which recounts the development of China's cooperation with Southeast Asian nations.

Watching the series reminded me of the Chinese phrase "Nanyang," which refers to Southeast Asia. In the Chinese vocabulary, this phrase is associated with "down south" and "voyage."

"A voyage down south" means civilians native to China's southeastern regions migrated to Southeast Asia to make a living. In East China's Fujian Province, there's the small town of Xiananyang, whose name, literally translated, means "going down to Southeast Asia."

Since China adopted the policy of reform and opening-up, the connotation of "a voyage down south" has taken on enormous changes. A rising China is transmitting its development dividends to Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road initiative.

The close political, economic and cultural connections between Southeast Asia and China today are largely attributed to the efforts of the Chinese diaspora. They have benefited from China's peaceful development, which, in turn, promoted their position in their current countries of residence.

The image of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, and in particular the way they get along with their fellow citizens has affected China's relations with these countries and directly concerns China's national image.

Nearly 40 years ago when China opened its door to the rest of the world, it was exactly the Chinese diaspora living in Southeast Asia that helped pave the way for made-in-China products to enter the global market with their experience, capital and interpersonal relationships.

The most important change is that they helped the countries where they settled establish intimate economic ties with China. Their influence is often seen in numerous cooperation projects.

The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum in Malaysia, the Warung Laota restaurant in Indonesia, the dragon dance performed by a Chinese community in the Philippines, the martial arts training in an elementary school in Brunei, and the flute music from Singapore's Traditional Southern Fujian Music Society in Bridging Giants all showcase how the Chinese diaspora are carrying forward the traditional culture of their homeland.

This inheritance is of huge practical significance with China's unprecedented development. As China and Southeast Asian nations become closer, the life, business and culture of these established Chinese communities have become a window for the countries they settle in to understand the Chinese people and recognize a modern China.

Meanwhile, their friendship with local people also has a salient impact on China's cooperation with Southeast Asian nations and the advancement of the Belt and Road initiative.

The cargo ships setting sail from the port of Singapore, the Chinese machines in operation in Myanmar's traditional textile mills, the usual chit-chat between Chinese workers and their local counterparts in CRRC-invested factory in Malaysia, the travel mania triggered by the popular film Lost in Thailand, and workers from Malaysia's Genting Group busily working on the construction site of Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics all highlight the deepening collaboration between China and Southeast Asian nations.

Mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation is the most important and also the most difficult thing to achieve, as it counts on people's communication and understanding. The role of the Chinese diaspora as a bridge becomes even more crucial as China increasingly enhances its trade ties with Southeast Asian nations.

The enlightenment of this documentary lies in that maintaining win-win cooperation between China and the Southeast Asian region requires a benign bond among Chinese enterprises, local ethnic Chinese and major local nationalities. Whether such cooperation can maintain its momentum also depends on whether the three parties can forge a relationship of mutual benefit and trust.

The author is a senior editor with the People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina