SINGAPORE — On Feb. 9, the start of the Year of the Rooster, ethnic Chinese communities across Southeast Asia took stock of their progress and their future in the shadow of China’s peaceful development and its strengthened status within the region of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Ethnic Chinese communities, also known as hua qiao (Chinese bridge), have always been perceived as an engine of prosperity as well as a political gauge for both Beijing and ASEAN governments in their shifting relations over the past 55 years. Viewed as China’s “fifth column” by some anticommunist governments in the 1960s, this Chinese diaspora has prospered against all odds in Southeast Asia and has been actively wooed by Beijing since the latter opened up to the world. They have become the crucial business link and a prime investor in the so-called connection between ASEAN and China.

Ethnic hua qiao communities symbolize the economic vitality of the “Chinese connection” and the excellent relations between Beijing and ASEAN. But if weakly integrated into Southeast Asian societies, they easily become the target of local ire and a political scapegoat when the economy slows or when unequal distributions of wealth are aggravated.

The hua qiao has changed considerably over the past 30 years. Until the 1970s, they were bastions of anticommunism in Southeast Asia, as many had fled China. Their affiliations then were with Taipei.

However, most of these hua qiao communities have come to acknowledge the accomplishments of Chinese leaders in transforming and modernizing China. A certain pride has ineluctably emerged in Beijing, and many have returned to visit the “new” China, thus giving Beijing an edge over Taipei in building affinity.

The fascination with China has increased among hua qiao communities in Southeast Asia. The popularity of Mandarin classes, Chinese cuisine, music and television serials is on the upswing regionally. Many hua qiao now even save to visit China, a reversal of the trend two generations ago, when people saved to flee the mainland for financial or ideological reasons.

Southeast Asian governments now perceive ethnic Chinese communities as a vital business connection with Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Xiamen. As investments and business opportunities soar in China — encouraged by the Beijing government’s “peaceful development” policy — hua qiao communities have contributed enormously to strengthened Sino-ASEAN political and economic relations.

At the start of the Year of the Rooster, how are ethnic Chinese hua qiao communities in the region faring?

In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a Hakka from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, has never flinched from profiling his Chinese ancestry in Thai politics and in cementing excellent relations with Beijing. He won handsomely in the legislative elections Feb. 6.

Thai-Chinese have made significant inroads into Thai society, and appear to have no fear today in declaring themselves “Sino-Thais” as they ride the Chinese connection in business and politics. But some Thai-Chinese agribusiness exporters see reason for caution: They are losing out to cheaper products from China since free trade in fruits and vegetables began in October 2003. Thaksin has thus decided to delay negotiations toward a full Sino-Thai free-trade agreement.

In Malaysia, the government has gone all out to re-establish economic and political relations with Beijing. The exceptionally huge delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to Beijing to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sino-Malaysian relations in 2004 was proof of this new trend. Domestically, Malaysian-Chinese are held up to indigenous Malays as examples of entrepreneurship, and Malaysian-Chinese businessmen have come out openly to pioneer the “China drive.” However, because of racial and ethnic sensitivities, Malay bumiputra businessmen are actively encouraged to cement ties directly with Beijing to try to level off the Chinese ethnic connection. Beijing should actively encourage this, as it decouples the Chinese connection from racial and ethnic lines.

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia and ASEAN’s most populous country, Indonesian-Chinese have been progressively “rehabilitated” since the Jakarta racial riots against ethnic Chinese in May 1998 — following the fall of former President Suharto, who was perceived by many indigenous Indonesians as too closely allied with Chinese conglomerates. More recently, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has openly expressed his wish that these conglomerates share their wealth and not “live in a world of their own” so as to prevent a recurrence of the 1998 riots. Indonesian-Chinese celebrated the Lunar New Year for the third time since it became a public holiday in Indonesia in 2003. Chinese areas in Jakarta, such as Glodok and Kota, celebrated it with great pageantry, compared with past years, although their future still hinges on integration into the Indonesian society.

Hua qiao communities in Southeast Asia have made considerable progress, as agents of change and prosperity in their own host societies. Their prosperity will depend more and more on China’s “peaceful development,” just as Beijing’s future relations with ASEAN countries will depend on how well the hua qiao communities continue to serve as a bridge for Sino-ASEAN economic ties.

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