Political Participation and Ethnic Minorities: Chinese Overseas in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States

Political Participation and Ethnic Minorities: Chinese Overseas in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States

Political Participation and Ethnic Minorities: Chinese Overseas in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States

Political Participation and Ethnic Minorities: Chinese Overseas in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States

Synopsis

From New York City's Chinatown to urban Indonesia, there are fifty-million ethnic Chinese living outside of China. Their strong sense of community, along with their considerable economic clout, makes them a compelling group with which to study immigrant political participation. Amy Freedman's empirical study examines the hows and whys of Chinese overseas political activity in these three diverse countries.

Excerpt

The idea for this study came to me in the middle of a sleepless night in 1996. I was kept awake worrying about a different research project that seemed to be going nowhere. I had recently read an article about Southeast Asian business networks that discussed the importance of ethnic Chinese firms to economic growth in the region. I was struck by this for two reasons: first, it is well known that Southeast Asian countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, relied on extensive state guidance in economic development. If the government had a hand in promoting certain sectors or particular players in the economy, why would Chinese businesses be the beneficiaries? Second, the article seemed to argue that ethnic scapegoating and political discrimination based on ethnicity were things of the past.

On one level this heartened me. It would be wonderful if ethnic violence in Southeast Asia was a thing of the past. And if, in fact, ethnic Chinese had been well incorporated into Southeast Asian nations where they lived, might such cases serve as models for other multiethnic societies? It did not take much research to realize that this outlook was far too rosy. I quickly found that there were wide discrepancies as to how Chinese communities outside of China were treated and how they interacted with the larger polity. The puzzle that particularly intrigued me was: How could the Chinese be powerful economically while still being marginalized politically? And why did this seem to be true in places as diverse as Indonesia, California, and Malaysia?

My research was met with some skepticism. One prominent scholar dismissed my gloomy perspective. He argued that economic growth in Southeast Asia had made ethnic issues obsolete. I asked what he thought would happen if the economy were to stumble. I did not really believe at the time that such a change would come in the midst of my work on this project. In early 1996, when I began this research, the economies of the United States, Indonesia, and Malaysia all seemed to be promising further growth. President Clinton was favored to win reelection in the United States, and Suharto and Mahathir, leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia respectively, seemed as entrenched as ever. Then, in the summer of 1997, the economies in Indonesia and Malaysia faltered. In the United States, Chinese Americans were feeling besieged by the media’s portrayal of illegal campaign contributions to President Clinton’s reelection effort. By

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