What does the history of Sino-Thai relations tell us about its future?

In 1975, Thailand established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In the communique signed by Kukrit Pramoj and Zhou En-lai, Thailand endorsed the One China policy on the basis of the “the traditionally close and friendly relations between the peoples of the two countries.”

These metaphors of intimacy have long been used in Sino-Thai relations, from Taksin and the early Chakri kings’ usage of Chinese family names in official documents, to the current Xi Jinping / Prayut Chan-ocha policy of “Thailand and China as one family.”

A 1937 nationalist song declared: “The Chinese and the Thais are not others, but brothers.”

This line seems almost laughable in the face of #nnevy, when a Twitter fight unleashed a wave of anti-CCP rhetoric from leftist Thai twitter users on April 11th.

An imagined community of pan-Asian pro-democracy activists awoke; there is no iconography more apt than the photograph of Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Joshua Wong holding a still from the Thai gay romance series “2gether” (เพราะเราคู่กัน) to express their solidarity.  

But it also unveiled an abundance of vitriol and racism, designating the ‘Chinese’ not just as a political other, but a cultural and racial other. This, too, has a long history, dating back to King Vajiravudh’s “Jews of the Orient” and mocking stereotypes of jek jeen.

The discourse on Sino-Thai relations has never purely been about kinship or othering. In fact, it reads more like a ‘Tale of Two (and many more) Narratives’ that have threaded Thai history, from designations between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Chinese, ‘old’ and ‘new’ immigrants and ‘wealthy’ or ‘poor’ Sino-Thais.

These varying narratives complicate the future of Sino-Thai relations, even as the interdependence between the two countries deepens.

History of Sino-Thai relations

Wasana Wongsuwarat is an Assistant Professor of History at Chulalongkorn University. In her recently published book ‘The Crown and the Capitalists’, she traces the rise of Sino-Thai capitalists and their relationship with the Thai ruling class.

“The state narrative of Sino-Thai relations has been largely about relations with the PRC,” she says. “It is heavily driven by government to government relations, especially relations between the armed forces, relations between the Chinese Communist government and leading members of the Thai royal family.”

In 2015, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was awarded China’s Friendship Medal – the highest foreign-related honor in China, granted only to seven others including Vladimir Putin and Raul Castro.

This is despite the fact that, as Professor Wongsuwat highlights, “in practical terms, in trade, in cultural relations, in many other aspects aside from the internet politics, Thailand continues to have relations with the Republic of China / Taiwan as well.”

The Thai-PRC narrative has permeated Thai academia, forging imagined kinship through print. “Academic books in Thai from the 1970s onwards only represent this relationship between Thailand and the PRC,” she explains, “so in the published world, in the library, in state media, it is very pro-Beijing.”

Official ideology hasn’t always been this way. Before the Chinese were ‘brothers’, they were most definitely ‘others.’

The sixth King’s Jews of the Orient was only one among many of his fictional works that Professor Wongsuwarat describes as “undeniably racist” towards ethnic Chinese. However, she points out that Vajiravudh’s criticism was aimed chiefly at ‘bad’ Chinese: rich foreigners and poor political activists. Meanwhile, the ‘good Chinese’ – working-class Chinese republicans – were encouraged to avoid ‘typical Chinese behavior’ that might draw ire from the crown.

The divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Chinese are more evident in Thai literature. Thak Chaloemtiarana highlights two novel series that shaped popular perceptions on Chinese people, both in Thailand and abroad.

The first, Phon Nikon Kim Nguan by Por Intharapalit, conveyed the intricacies of Sino-Thai nationalism through the comedic main character Kim Nguan. Kim Nguan is called a jek – a derogatory Thai term for ethnic Chinese – but he defiantly claims his jek-ness as a way of being authentically Thai. Kim Nguan adopts the model of the ‘good’ Thai Chinese, while reminding the audience how impossible it is to live up to. 

Phanom Thian’s Lek Khrut clearly draws the contrast between ‘good’ Thai Chinese and ‘bad’ Chinese foreigners. Written in 1956, amidst Thai paranoia of the Chinese communist threat, the novel follows attempts of the Thai secret service to protect Sino-Thai businessmen from a secret society made up of mainland Chinese and Malay communists.

This dynamic still animates Sino-Thai relations today, as assimilated Sino-Thai capitalists like the Chirathivats and Sirivadhanabhakdis are protected by the Thai state, vastly superior in cultural capital from foreign mainlanders trying to enter the business community.

“In the 21st century you start to see the division between the old Chinese money and the new Chinese money,” Professor Wongsuwat explains.

But while ethnic Chinese were historically able to access resources through central political power in Bangkok, the 21st century has also brought an influx of Chinese tourists and businesses to other provinces. Chiang Mai and Phuket are among the most popular destinations in Thailand for Chinese tourists, while the controversial EEC project will bring Chinese FDI to Chonburi, Rayong, and Chachoengsao.

“You have ethnic Chinese communities who have their own community separate from the ethnic Thai-Chinese in Bangkok – who do not need to connect with the central power in Bangkok in order to grow in their businesses.”

“The interesting thing is that the PRC is still connected to both groups of ethnic Chinese.”

Chinese mainlanders involved in Thailand – both in and outside of the country – represent different sub-groups. And the sub-groups continue to fragment as Thai state power fragments.

#nnevy and its reflection on current politics

Yet, in light of #nnevy, a new kind of ‘bad’ Chinese is unintentionally created – a bat-eating, virus-creating, authoritarian-loving monolith of screen warriors. They are echoes of the poor, uncivilized, unsophisticated ‘bad’ Chinese of Vajirabudh’s era.

Professor Wongsuwarat, like many others, characterizes the clash as one “between the younger generation of both countries” – a meeting between disaffected Thai digital natives and PRC youth who have difficulty venturing beyond China’s ‘Great Firewall’. “In cases that are inconvenient,” she says of ‘Chinese youth’, “maybe they don’t follow up as much as young people in other countries.”

Yet, this seems to mischaracterize the role Twitter plays in the Chinese social media universe.

“The people who are using Twitter are a very small segment of the Chinese population – a very specific segment,” says Dawei Wang, a Hubei resident currently based in the UK. “There are groups of people who are paid by the government to use Twitter – they are given permission to be on Twitter to start information wars or to promote the image of the Chinese government abroad.”

These are the trolls of China’s paid ’50 cent army’, aided by the voluntary ‘Little Pink’ Chinese ultranationalists.  

Elsewhere on Chinese social media, there was broad support for the Thai anti-CCP memes. A Weibo post explaining the incident had over forty thousand likes, while memes embracing Thai-style self-deprecating anti-government humor spread across the platform. The popular anti-government rap song “My Country’s Got It” (ประเทศกูมี) by Rap Against Dictatorship also went viral on Weibo.

What is true, as Professor Wongsuwat says, is that “the twitter conflict is a symptom of old state narrative in both China and Thailand not being convincing.”

Economic realities

Economic realities mandate that the Thai-PRC relationship is here to stay. “Taiwan does not belong to China,” one #nnevy Twitter post reads, “Thailand? I’m not so sure.”

As of 2019, Chinese tourists make up 27.6% of the 39.8 million tourists entering Thailand. Chinese students are by far the largest foreign student population in Thai schools and universities, while the number of registered Chinese migrant workers in Thailand slightly exceeds thirty thousand, making them the second-largest registered migrant worker population.

As of September 2019, Chinese Foreign Direct Investment was at 29.3 billion USD, and by 2020 China will overtake Japan as Thailand’s main source of FDI. Much of this FDI is geared toward government projects like the high-speed rail project. It goes without saying that this dependence on China is also endemic in the private sector – both at the level of local businesses and conglomerates.

But Professor Wongsuwat warns: “While the Thai elites during the Cold War could trust the US one hundred percent, the issue with China is that they do business with everyone. They have a good relationship with the Thai elite and with opposition groups, with Thanathorn, Thaksin.”

“Beijing will do business with the side that can contain the situation the most. If the current elite cannot do that, they will look elsewhere.”

Already, Beijing has issued an official response to criticism from Thai citizens. In a response to a Bangkok Post editorial criticizing China’s secrecy, the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok issued a statement calling it “against the mainstream public opinion of the Thai society” and “utterly unscrupulous in its zeal to serve its [Western] master.”

What comes next?

It is clear that the Thai government must change its strategy if it is to retain the favor of Beijing.

“The Thai government insists on indoctrinating and spreading the state narrative of Thai nationalism… they have to realize that this is not going to work with the younger generation who have access to the internet,” Professor Wongsuwat emphasizes. “The Thai elite needs to up its game.”

She also points to the massive inequality that has come from government centralization under the recent decade of military rule – centralized economic planning of the sort that has left Thailand’s poorest regions, particularly the North and Northeast, behind. With fewer resources for the central government to use as leverage, the majority of it funneled into the opaque pockets of the central budget, Wongsuwat believes “the rest of Thailand is not going to put with that.”

The CCP will also have to adapt, especially in the wake of Covid-19.

The [Chinese] government is facing quite a dilemma here,” Dawei points out. “On the one hand, after facing such a huge crisis of legitimacy, they have to appeal to people’s support – nationalism and identity politics is an easy way to achieve this.”

“On the other hand, their long-term objective is to take this crisis as a starting point to build more harmonious relationships with the outside world. These two objectives contradict.”

The tensions between China’s 1999 “Go Out Policy” – when it actively encouraged its citizens to invest abroad – and its continued internet censorship at home have exemplified this contradiction. A globalizing China cannot remain under the CCP’s heel for long.

In evaluating this tension, Professor Wongsuwat strikes a cautiously positive tone. 

“I think we actually have a lot of hope – to send so many of your citizens out of your country to travel the world, you’re opening the opportunity for them to see the world. The democratization of Taiwan and South Korea shows, very clearly, that people are opened up to newer ideas from outside. As they return, they demand change from home.”

“I don’t think Beijing is invincible,” she concludes. “I don’t think the PRC will remain under the same power and the same structure forever, I think that is too simplistic.”

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