Between Two Giants

The Impact of China and India on South East Asia.

China and India are giant nations whose economic rise has attracted global attention in recent years, but their significance as Asian titans is not new for countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Historically, the Mon-Khmer race migrated from India to South East Asia, while the Thai-related peoples moved down from what is China today. Theravada Buddhism, the main religion in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, came from India and during the past seventy years of Communist rule in China – many Han Chinese migrated to South East Asia, intermarrying with locals and then emerging as a business elite in many towns. Yet, while India and China’s influence on these nations is not new, what we witness today is a new chapter of impact, different to what we have seen in the past.

‘In 2015, Thailand welcomed 8.3 million Chinese tourists, accounting for 36% of total arrivals,’ the Bangkok Post reported on 20 January 2016. Bangkok remains the top draw in Thailand, the article further elaborates, followed by Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Krabi. Various places in Vietnam, or Siam Reap in Cambodia, are other destinations recently discovered by Chinese travellers.

Another trend began to emerge years before Chinese tourists started to flock to South East Asia in unprecedented numbers. It is the trend of Chinese students moving to study in one of the South East Asian countries, which began around the turn of the century. Vietnam and Thailand are the primary destinations for students. The most recent trend among Chinese outbound students is that the number of young students going abroad is on the rise. As of 2010, close to 20 per cent of all Chinese overseas students held an academic certificate below high school level. That number has increased to almost 30 per cent of all Chinese students abroad enrolled at secondary school level in 2014. According to China’s Ministry of Education, 459,800 Chinese students went abroad in 2014, an 11.1 per cent increase over the year before.

The Indian link to South East Asia through tourists and students is feeble compared to China, despite the fact that India is a fast developing giant too. The traditional link to the Commonwealth, and the comparably good level of English among many, means that Indian students prefer destinations in the Western world to options in South East Asia.

“Yet, while India and China’s influence on these nations is not new, what we witness today is a new chapter of impact”

The dramatically increased influx of both Chinese tourists and students into countries like Vietnam and Thailand is having numerous effects on these countries, specifically on the destinations that these tourists and students flock to. Chiang Mai is one of the places where this impact has become very obvious. Five years ago, most people in Chiang Mai wouldn’t have been able to identify a Chinese car number plate. Today, luxury Chinese cars with their blue number plates cruise in convoys through Thailand’s northern provinces down to Chiang Mai and through Laos back to China in quantities that cannot escape any eye. In addition, the number of young Chinese secondary and university students is increasing steadily in many of the schools in and around Chiang Mai.

In this rapidly changing environment, the Lord led Grace Church in Chiang Mai to seize the unique opportunities it saw developing in this new situation. The church’s outreach to the Chinese started in 2014 through retired Hong Kong business people who had moved to Chiang Mai and started a meeting in their home. Since those humble beginnings, things evolved quickly and today there is a Chinese Prayer meeting every Wednesday evening at Chiang Mai Grace Church. While the Thai congregation worships in the sanctuary upstairs on a Sunday morning, the almost equally sized Chinese congregation does so downstairs. Many of the believers in the Thai congregation actually have Chinese backgrounds, too, and so does the OMF missionary involved in this outreach. These descendants of the immigrants from China, sixty and more years ago, were among the most responsive people to the gospel in Thailand; now they have a heart to reach out to the Han coming to Thailand today.