THE lot of minorities is rarely a happy one. Aliens suffer social indignities, economic handicaps and sometimes actual bodily harm at the hands of indigenous populations. The degree of the unpleasantness which they are accorded depends upon many factors--racial differences, religion, social customs, their economic status, the degree of their loyalty to their own cultural mores, the strength and purposes of their home governments. It also depends upon the attitude of the people in whose midst they live toward their own ethnic and social standards. A minority in the United States, where the "melting pot" theory is given at least lip service, would be expected, for example, to fare very much better than an alien population in China where foreigners have traditionally been regarded as "barbarians" and spoken of (albeit without actual rancor) as "foreign devils."

In the light of these considerations it can be seen that the Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia live under trying circumstances, for all those conditions which make for separateness and arouse hostility are present there to a marked degree. Strong racial differences exist between the Chinese and the Southeast Asians; for the most part there are differences in religion; the Chinese perpetuate their language and social customs and hold firmly to them; they usually have a higher economic status than the majority group. Added to all this they are torn by the struggle between Communism and private enterprise, between Peking and Formosa. Most of their problems are not new; they have existed for centuries. Nor will their status be quickly changed or their lot made easier in the foreseeable future. The factors which have fashioned their present dilemma are much too fundamental to yield quickly to governmental action, no matter how enlightened, or to social changes, no matter how well intentioned and directed. Theirs is indeed a long-term problem.


The influence of the Chinese in Southeast Asia, and the effects of that influence, are considerably out of proportion to the numbers involved, substantial as these numbers are--a total of about ten millions. This represents approximately 2 percent of the total Chinese in the world and less than 6 percent of the population of the Southeast Asian countries in which important Chinese minorities are found.

The following table is arranged in the order of size of the ethnic Chinese compared with the total population of each area:

Chinese in Southeast Asia[i]
Country Chinese Total Population Percent
Malaya (and Singapore) 3,000,000 5,900,000 50.8
British Borneo 220,000 880,000 25.0
Thailand 3,000,000 19,000,000 15.8
Indo-China 1,000,000 27,000,000 3.7
Indonesia 2,000,000 78,000,000 2.6
Burma 300,000 18,000,000 1.7
Philippines 150,000 21,500,000 0.7
--------- ----------- ---
     Total: 9,670,000 170,280,000 5.7

London, New York and San Francisco have their "Chinatowns"--enclaves of Chinese residents who, despite the blandishments of occidental civilization, have kept in essence their way of life generation after generation. To be sure, most of these are now British subjects, or American citizens, and the children of the dwellers in Mott and Pell Streets have acquired the American idiom, an addiction to baseball and a certain boisterousness which seems to be a by-product of life in the United States. But I think no one would doubt that even these younger citizens are "Chinese" though their elders were qualified to vote for or against General Eisenhower or Mr. Truman. In Southeast Asia the Chinese minorities are even more conspicuous: the proportion of Chinese to the total population is much greater; contact with the homeland, which serves to nourish their separateness, is easier; and their importance in the community is very much greater. Whether one is in Singapore or Surabaya or Penang, if he strays into the Chinese quarter the sights and sounds and smells are unmistakably those of China.

No one knows for certain how long these Chinese communities have existed in Southeast Asia. The time must be measured in centuries rather than decades. Long before the discovery of America there were Chinese settlements in the Nanyang or South Seas, in Malaya, in Java, and to an even greater extent in Thailand, Burma and Indo-China, which were contiguous to China proper and subject not only to colonization but to actual invasion and control. So when the Spanish, the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch came to Southeast Asia, the Chinese had already established themselves. These people came from Southeast China, from Kwantung, Fukien, Kwangsi and Kiangsi provinces. They had in many cases intermarried with the native women but had kept their culture.

While Chinese communities were firmly entrenched in the Nanyang before the age of Western colonialism, it was the favorable conditions created by the Spanish, Dutch and British which resulted in the substantial influx of the last few centuries. First, the Westerners brought comparative security, providing the opportunity for profitable trade. Later, the development of nineteenth century capitalism created a market for the raw materials which the East could produce for the industrial machines in Europe. New sources of labor were required for the tin mines and the rubber plantations of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. As trade grew and the standards of living slowly improved, the Chinese established themselves as shopkeepers and artisans. The Chinese talent for trade, their greater diligence and their superior ability as handicraftsmen brought them increasing opportunities. They finally gained control not only of most of the retail trade of this whole area but much of the international trade as well.

The qualities of the Chinese as good businessmen were early recognized by the Dutch and British, and resulted in their being given special opportunities until they came in many places to occupy a position between the ruling groups and native peoples. They were the compradors, the money lenders, the buyers of the exportable products for the Western overlords who furnished the markets, the capital and the shipping to carry them abroad. They were also the retail merchants who sold the goods which the native peoples took in return for their labor. This situation persists to this day despite the strenuous efforts by the postwar governments to supplant the Chinese with native businessmen.

While the colonial governments were quite willing or even anxious that the Chinese should continue as separate communities, the new independent governments formed since World War II have wished them to transfer their allegiance to the countries where they have so long made their homes. The Communist seizure of power in the Chinese homeland in 1949 has heightened these desires. A strong nationalistic and expansionist government in China which claimed all overseas Chinese as their own gave urgency to the necessity for solving the nationality problem. There have been increased controls and restrictions of these minorities everywhere. In some cases an effort has been made to force the Chinese to choose rather promptly whether they are to become citizens of the new countries or to continue to be aliens. This has in theory given them three choices: to be citizens of the new countries, of Communist China, or of Nationalist China. But in fact in those countries that have recognized Communist China (Indonesia, Burma and the British colonies) there are only two choices, for Nationalist China has no representation in these places and the free Chinese are thus cut adrift.


The first country to achieve what its government apparently regards as satisfactory arrangements with Communist China with respect to its Chinese residents has been Indonesia. Indonesia gave early recognition to Peking. She set up a procedure providing that all Chinese who had been Dutch subjects would automatically become Indonesian citizens unless they registered as Chinese. It challenged Peking's claim that all Chinese everywhere were nationals of Communist China. However, the Chinese in Indonesia exhibited considerable coolness to the proposal despite the fact that the majority of them were born there and had become permanently identified with the country. Some were, of course, ardent Nationalists; others were impressed by the success of Mao Tse-tung in creating what looked like a strong régime, and felt that they could count on special support and protection from Peking which they would not have as Indonesian citizens.

No accurate statistics are available, but it has been estimated that perhaps 500,000 have thus far opted for Chinese citizenship. This does not mean that the remaining 1,500,000 desired to be Indonesians. In so vast a country, with its 3,000 separate islands stretched across 3,600 miles of ocean, there has been lack of knowledge of the regulations and confusion in registration. But more important, the great majority probably have not wanted to commit themselves one way or the other, at least until they are more certain where their best future lies. In view of this apparent reluctance for Indonesian nationality, the Nationalist Party, which formed the Cabinet in 1953, sought to force a choice, and a law was drafted to give effect to that purpose. Such opposition developed, however, not only on the part of the Chinese but also among the Eurasians, that it has not been presented to Parliament.

Soon after Ambassador Arnold Mononutu was accredited to Peking in 1953, negotiations were undertaken between the two countries to solve the dual citizenship problems for the Chinese residing in Indonesia. The Peking Government claimed them all no matter where they were born. Indonesia claimed at least those who had been born in her territory and, in addition, wished to nationalize all who might seek Indonesian citizenship. Finally, at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, Chou En-lai, as a gesture of goodwill, announced an agreement on the issue with Indonesia. It was hailed by the two governments as a solution of the overseas Chinese problem in Indonesia, and as a model for other countries where large Chinese populations exist. The treaty must be ratified by both sides. Presumably this will present no difficulty so far as China is concerned, but very severe opposition is likely to be encountered in the Indonesian Parliament. As time has passed and the terms of the agreement have become known, the opposition to it has grown in Indonesia. All the principal opposition parties have expressed their disapproval, as have the organizations of Eurasians and even the Baperki (an organization composed mainly of Indonesian-born Chinese who favor assimilation) which is led by pro-Communists and serves as a forum not only for Chinese but also to some extent for other minorities. Both governments have been aware of these criticisms and during Premier Ali Sastroamidjojo's visit to Peking in June 1955, a clarification was made in an exchange of letters. The opposition, however, has persisted and even increased after the fall of the Sastroamidjojo Cabinet in July.

Since this treaty has been spoken of as a model for other countries, it may be useful to consider its main provisions, even though it has not as yet come into force. It states in the beginning that all persons who at the same time have the citizenship of the Republic of Indonesia and of the People's Republic of China shall choose between the two citizenships "in accordance with their own will." This must be done during a two-year period (from the date of ratification) by all Chinese over 18 years of age, or those under 18 years of age who are already married. A simple expression of choice is sufficient and the individual will thereby "automatically lose" the other nationality. Anyone who does not express the choice of citizenship within two years "shall be considered to have chosen the citizenship of China if his father is of Chinese descent." If a father's citizenship is unknown, his children who fail to choose will take on the citizenship of their mother. Persons under 18 years of age, unless married, have the citizenship of their parents' choice until coming of age; then they have one year in which to choose for themselves.

An important provision stipulates that persons who have chosen Indonesian citizenship will "automatically" lose it if they leave Indonesia to "establish permanent residence elsewhere, and have regained the citizenship of the People's Republic of China in accordance with their own will." Children born in China or in Indonesia take, from birth, the citizenship of their fathers. In marriages between Chinese and Indonesians, both man and wife retain their original citizenship unless they voluntarily apply for and obtain the citizenship of the other.

Finally, each of the contracting parties agreed to urge their citizens residing in the country of the other contracting party to abide by the laws and customs of that country and not to participate in its political activities. There is also a general provision that the two contracting parties agree to give mutual protection to the legal rights and interests of the respective citizens according to the laws of their respective countries.

The agreement will come into force on the exchange of ratification, in Peking, and will remain in effect for 20 years unless either side wishes to annul it after one year's notice. The exchange of letters between Chou En-lai and Sastroamidjojo in June 1955 was intended to meet the criticism that many Chinese in Indonesia had already made a choice of citizenship and the new agreement would make it necessary for them to choose again. It was agreed, therefore, that among the Chinese with dual nationality in Indonesia there would be persons who, in fact, had only Indonesian nationality due to their long residence there, and thus only a "passive" choice. These persons would not be required to renew their choice; nor would those who under the treaty chose a definite nationality be required to make a further choice on the expiration of the treaty 20 years hence. Further, it was promised that a joint Indonesian-Chinese Commission would be established to carry out the provisions of the treaty.

There is no doubt that in signing this treaty Chou En-lai made an important concession, and an important departure from established Chinese practice. No government in China's long history has agreed unequivocally to renounce the citizenship claims of persons of the Chinese race residing overseas. We do not know the reasons which may have prompted him to do so--perhaps to allay the very real fear that these overseas Chinese might serve as a fifth column to advance Communist aims; certainly to further the current Communist policy of "sweetness and light" and to win for Communist China the friendship of Southeast Asia. Also, he may have felt that those Chinese who had lived so long away from home and had established themselves so securely abroad as to cause them to be willing to give up their nationality would perhaps be an element of weakness rather than of strength. Certainly the Chinese who had adopted Communism would choose to be Chinese nationals and, under the terms of the agreement, all of those who did not choose--which might well be the vast majority--would automatically become Chinese. In other words, he would lose only those who were actually hostile to his régime, plus those whose interests were so strongly local that they would be of little use to him in any case. And finally this agreement has left the Nationalist Chinese literally without a refuge. They can become Indonesians, or they can desert to the Communist side. If they do nothing they will automatically become nationals of Communist China.

Foreigners who have no direct interest in the agreement have expressed doubts of Peking's sincerity. They point to the fact that during the period when the negotiations were going on the Chinese Communists were actually intensifying their appeals to their overseas brethren. All overseas Chinese were included in last year's census figures, and representatives from overseas, including four from Indonesia, were serving in the National People's Congress in Peking. The Peking authorities have encouraged investments by overseas Chinese, have sought to attract their children to homeland schools, and have offered to accord better treatment to their relatives in China.

Many Indonesians, in addition to their skepticism of Peking's real aims, have concrete objections to the treaty. They feel that the two-year registration period will introduce grave uncertainties and confusion. Even members of the Cabinet or of the Parliament who are of Chinese descent could be thought of during those years as aliens, and registered voters could likewise be challenged. The provision that Indonesians of Chinese descent, on leaving Indonesia, would revert to Chinese citizenship seems to them to make Indonesian citizenship temporary, and to encourage its adoption for opportunistic reasons. The fact of having to make a choice within a certain time may force many who might otherwise not have taken action to choose to be Chinese when it is the hope of all Indonesians that they should become loyal Indonesian citizens. In other words, the effect is likely to be to force many more into the Chinese ranks than would normally have gone that way --and this is particularly true since all who do not choose will automatically become Chinese, not Indonesian. The terms of the treaty are reciprocal and apply to the Indonesian minority in China in the same manner as to the Chinese minority in Indonesia. The fact is, however, that there is no Indonesian minority in China, so the reciprocity has no practical importance.

Public criticism of this treaty in Indonesia would seem likely to discourage other governments in Southeast Asia from following Indonesia's lead. In the first place, the Philippines and Thailand have not recognized Communist China; and in Malaya and Singapore, where the proportion of Chinese is so great, the suggestion that the Chinese might become nationals of a foreign country is most unwelcome. The governments of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are too insecure or too occupied with the struggle against Ho Chi Minh to deal with minority problems as such. That leaves only Burma as a likely immediate candidate for a treaty on the issue of dual nationality.


The amazing loyalty of the Chinese to their own culture century after century is due in the first place to their satisfaction with the customs, the language, the philosophy and the scheme of organization of their society. They have, many times with good reason, felt superior to the populations in whose midst they have lived. And they have consciously sought, therefore, to devise the means to preserve their inherited way of life. The family system and the worship of their ancestors, whose graves are the family shrines, have tied them firmly to the homeland. They maintained Chinese newspapers. But the greatest force has been their schools. These they organized and supported, and their children, generation after generation, have learned the language, the history and the philosophy of their own race.

While many overseas Chinese are Buddhists or Christians or Mohammedans, by and large they are not a very religious group. Like their brethren at home they are essentially Confucian humanists. Their lives are molded by Confucian concepts. They are taught to be respectful to their parents, to defer to their elders, to love their brothers and sisters, and to be kind and truthful to their neighbors. They are more concerned with their relations with man than with God. They are more concerned with their present life than with the hereafter. The ethical instructions which they have received at home and in school are practised in their daily lives. If they violate these ethical principles, they "lose face" with their fellow countrymen--probably, in their opinion, the greatest misfortune that could happen to them.

The overseas Chinese have banded together in: 1, clan or family associations; 2, provincial or district associations, organized on the basis of the area in China from which they came; 3, benevolent associations, to look after their welfare; 4, Chambers of Commerce, made up of proprietors of businesses, and divided into different trade guilds; 5, labor unions; and 6, secret and fraternal societies. These overseas Chinese associations are local in nature; there is no relation, for example, between groups in Bangkok and their equivalents in Manila or Djakarta.

The functions of these associations are diverse. In general they devote themselves to the general welfare of the overseas Chinese. They provide financial aid, hospital care, charity and schooling for the young. They petition local authorities to ease restrictions or discrimination against their people--particularly in cases of trade and immigration. One of their important functions is in settling civil disputes by private arbitration. The Chinese have a traditional aversion to appearing in court.

While efforts have been going on in Southeast Asia to differentiate those Chinese who are really aliens, even more far-reaching efforts have been made to bring about an assimilation. Some of these measures may in time be effective, but others, being coercive, have resulted in alienating rather than in persuading the Chinese to change their status. This is particularly true in Indonesia where the economic restrictions which have been imposed on the Chinese in order to wrest from them their superior economic status have been applied on a racial basis without regard to citizenship. Actually these measures are not written into law, but it is difficult if not impossible for a Chinese, for example, to obtain an import or export license. The distinction is made between pure Indonesian citizens and foreign citizens (which includes all Chinese); and between national firms (controlled by persons of Indonesian blood) and foreign firms. In this way the Chinese--even those who have declared themselves Indonesian citizens--are treated as though they were foreigners so far as business matters are concerned; and these matters are of primary importance to them.

Measures which may in the end have the most effect in bringing about an assimilation of the Chinese are being applied to their schools--the most vital tool to preserve their cultural integrity. In Thailand, the Chinese school system has been under attack for several decades. At first the government required that all teachers pass examinations in the Thai language, that instruction be in Thai, and that all syllabi in Chinese schools be subject to government regulations. Later, they actually began to close the schools, charging that these regulations were not being followed. By the end of World War II, all Chinese schools had been closed; but after the war they were revived again and attained a number of more than 400. But by 1950 all middle schools had again been closed, and the number of primary schools has been progressively reduced. Those that are left can scarcely be called Chinese schools at all--they are Thai schools, but supported and attended by Chinese. All instruction is in Thai except for Chinese language study which is permitted for a maximum of ten hours per week. The principals are Thai and they act as agents of the authorities in keeping a tight control. In Cambodia and Malaya there have also been restrictions against the establishment of Chinese schools, as well as controls to prevent Communist indoctrination. However, these schools now receive some financial support from the government. In Indonesia, on the other hand, where strict controls have been applied in the economic field, the schools have met little interference. There, preference is given to the Chinese language and the curriculum is oriented toward China.

Another measure affecting the Chinese minorities is in the field of immigration. All of the countries of Southeast Asia have increased their immigration restrictions. In Thailand, for example, there was a large influx of Chinese in the early years of this century. When the influx, interrupted by the war, resumed in 1945, the Thai government became alarmed and in 1947 restricted Chinese immigration to 10,000 annually. The following year the number was reduced to 200 annually, a quota still in force. The object of the Thai government is to stabilize the Chinese population at its present level and then to assimilate it. Quite inconsistently, however, the government has made Thai citizenship more difficult for all aliens, including the Chinese. Indonesia has also drastically restricted Chinese immigration to only a few individuals a year, and Chinese students who go to China for their education are not permitted to return.

The Chinese in Malaya cannot be regarded as a minority in the usual sense. If the Malay States and Singapore (a British Crown Colony like Hong Kong) are taken together, the Chinese are actually in the majority. In Singapore, the Chinese are in the vast majority--ethnically it is a Chinese city. But here also there is a strong desire on the part of the government to hold the population's loyalty to the local régime rather than to China. In the Federated Malay States the Chinese comprise 38 percent of the population, the Malays 49 percent. The Chinese have the wealth and control the business, but the Malays wield the political power. In the 1955 election in Malaya the electoral roll totalled 1,280,000. Of these 1,078,000 were Malays while only 143,000 were of the Chinese race.

Until recently the Chinese were not much concerned by their lack of citizenship in Malaya, for they were under British rule and their all-important economic rights were protected. With the granting of more and more self-government this situation has changed, and lack of citizenship has now become their major grievance. Thus the Chinese in Malaya, despite their numbers, are undergoing some of the difficulties of the Chinese minorities in other Southeast Asian countries.


Since the theory of Communism, and indeed its practice in China as in Russia, means the death of private property, one would expect that the Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia, who have the wealth and the control of business in this vast region, would be utterly hostile to the Peking Communist régime and would prefer to remain loyal to the National Government on Formosa. The overseas Chinese communities, however, have been a major battleground for both groups. Both have sought by overt and underground means to gain the support of these minorities and, if possible, control of them.

The Peking régime has endeavored to assure the continuance of remittances from overseas Chinese to their families on the mainland; the resulting foreign exchange is of value to them for financing Communist activities abroad and to facilitate imports. They have, of course, wished to use these communities as centers for infiltration, for intelligence and for the recruitment of agents to further the international Communist conspiracy.

The Nationalists have been largely concerned with prestige. If the Chinese in Southeast Asia favor Peking, it inevitably weakens Nationalist influence in the world and has an effect on the population of China itself, whose allegiance they must win back from the Communists if they are ever to return to the mainland. The struggle has waxed and waned; sometimes the Nationalists seemed to have overwhelming support and at other times the Peking régime appeared to have gained the ascendancy. There is no knowing how genuine the popular feeling is on either side; the rapid shift of sentiment would suggest that the motivation is opportunistic and often prompted by personal rather than patriotic motives. The casual observer--and almost everyone who is not Chinese must be counted as casual--can gauge this sentiment only by outward manifestations such as which flag, the Communist or Nationalist, is flown on holidays, or what numbers of people go to what meetings. The experience of this casual observer in Indonesia in 1953 led to the belief that every Chinese shop owned three flags--the Communist, the Nationalist and the Indonesian --and that the owner flew the one that seemed most appropriate for the occasion. For example, on the traditional tenth of October holiday, the Nationalist flag was in the majority; on the celebration of the advent of the Communist Party to power in China, there were, naturally, no Nationalist flags. During the Bandung Conference, Djakarta was blazoned with Communist flags and great crowds of Chinese turned out to cheer Chou En-lai on his arrival. I dare say corresponding crowds would turn out for Chiang Kai-shek--and many of them would probably be the same people.

But though it is difficult to measure the degree of support which each side has, it is possible to gauge the trend of opinion, and many observers believe that the majority is now, at least ostensibly, on the side of Peking. After all, these people came originally from China--not Formosa. Their family ties are on the mainland. With the mainland in Communist hands, if they are to visit the graves of their ancestors, or see the land of their father's birth, they must have a Communist or a foreign, not a Nationalist, passport. These are strong pulls.

Adherence of the Chinese of Southeast Asia to Peking can be a detriment to the cause of Nationalist China and to the free world; but fortunately it can at the same time be a detriment to the Communists. For the more actively this minority group gives allegiance to an alien government, the more suspect they will become in the eyes of the population where they reside, and the more closely will they be controlled. Any effort of Peking to use these groups for its own ends immediately provokes strong reactions. Southeast Asians have seen the Communists move into Tibet, they are aware of their open support of Ho Chi Minh, they know of the close hookup between Peking and their own Communist parties. They are probably more alert to the dangers which menace them than people outside the area realize. What they perhaps do not see is that by building a position of strength vis-à-vis Peking they would be helping to solve their problem with the Chinese minority. For this minority which is devoted to free enterprise and favors a business-as-usual policy would identify itself firmly with a strong local government. Its attraction to Peking is increased by local weakness.

Relations between the peoples and governments of Southeast Asia and their Chinese minorities present problems which can be solved only by the Asians themselves. All the Southeast Asian countries are trying to assimilate these minority groups and to gain their loyalty and support for Indonesia, for Malaya, for Thailand--not for Mao Tse-tung or world Communism. Americans can try to appreciate the importance of the problem, and hope that those who bear the responsibility will be successful in mastering the difficulties. But we must realize that it will take a long time and that such problems are never really solved. The most that can be hoped for is enlightened adjustment. Meanwhile, our sympathy goes out to the Chinese minorities themselves whose economic status is being threatened, whose cultural and social pattern is being pressed into foreign molds, and whose traditional ethical and business standards are being ruthlessly attacked by the Communist conspirators in Peking.

[i] These are "ethnic" or "legal" Chinese, in other words those who in general look like, act like and think of themselves as Chinese, or are thought of as such. If those of mixed blood were included the number would be much greater. The numbers are estimates. For more detailed figures of an earlier date see "The Chinese in Southeast Asia," by Victor Purcell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951).

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  • WALTER H. MALLORY, Executive Director of the Council on Foreign Relations; author of "China: Land of Famine"
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