Chinese prosperity fuels deadly envy

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The Independent Online
FOR SEVEN days last month the Indonesian city of Medan teetered on the brink of anarchy. Gangs of poor labourers, armed with picks and machetes, roamed the streets attacking Chinese merchants and looting property. One Chinese businessman, Kwok Joe Lip, who owned a chemical factory, was beaten to death by a mob as he tried to flee in his car. Hundreds of shops were broken into, private houses were attacked and cars torched.

The army was called in, dozens were arrested and order was reimposed. But for how long? South-east Asia appears to outsiders to be a relaxed, prosperous and generally tolerant region. But below the surface, resentment against the region's large ethnic Chinese population has been steadily building up in Indonesia and other South-east Asian countries, as poorly paid locals see ethnic Chinese families becoming unimaginably rich from the Asian economic boom.

Compounding this resentment is a more general fear that mainland China is in the ascendancy, and that South-east Asia is falling under Peking's shadow. Overseas Chinese are seen as becoming arrogant, and flaunting their origins in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese government even issued a veiled warning to Indonesia over its handling of the anti-Chinese riots in Medan.

The ethnic Chinese populations of South-east Asia - an estimated 22 million - have long faced discrimination and racist resentment for their industry and ability to make money. Since they flooded out of China in the 19th century, the Chinese have been concentrating on one thing: earning money to guarantee the future of their families.

Through a combination of thrift, business acumen and hard work, the Chinese business community in each South-east Asian nation today virtually controls the banking system as well as a large portion of manufacturing. And with their fondness for gold jewellery, Mercedes cars and mobile phones, the Chinese are conspicuous consumers.

Few in Indonesia have forgotten the bloody events of 1965, when anti-communist protesters ran amok and engaged in a wholesale slaughter of ethnic Chinese that left 500,000 dead, mostly in Java and Bali.

In multiracial Malaysia, where Chinese account for 30 per cent of the population, riots in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown in 1969 left 100 Chinese dead. Malay youths came close to reigniting communal clashes in 1987, when the police chief banned an overtly racist rally as thugs with machetes and crowbars converged on the capital.

In Cambodia, Vietnam and even in tolerant Thailand, where the Chinese have intermarried and blended into the local population more successfully than elsewhere in Asia, there are still some underlying feelings of envy.

Today tensions are exacerbated by growing fears that mainland China is again exerting its influence over the rest of Asia. The government in Jakarta was taken aback when on 21 April a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry called on Indonesia to handle the Medan riots 'properly' and 'maintain social stability'.

The irony of Peking's intervention was lost on nobody: any attempt to criticise Peking's crackdowns on protesters is gruffly dismissed as interference 'in China's internal affairs'.

Aggravating anti-Chinese feelings is the sudden shift of interest among overseas Chinese from investing in their host countries to backing China's rapidly expanding economy.

The dream of every Chinese labourer as he emigrated a century ago was to 'go home in silken robes', after making his fortune overseas. Suddenly these dreams are coming true. Today overseas Chinese are investing three times as much in China as US and Japanese business combined.

But for ordinary Indonesians or Malays, this flood of money into China is further proof that ethnic Chinese are not patriotic citizens, but outsiders abusing the hospitality of their hosts.

Last week the Indonesian government launched a census of the ethnic Chinese population of Jakarta, although city officials denied that this had anything to do with the anti-Chinese riots in Medan.

(Map omitted)