Chinese in Southeast Asia - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Chinese society in Southeast Asia tends to be stratified, with relative wealth or poverty definitive of social status. At the same time, Overseas Chinese maintain crosscutting links between classes through membership in associations that link members through bonds like those of "dialect" group and shared surname. The leaders of associations such as the Chinese chamber of commerce may be called upon to represent the interests of the Chinese community and to promote community aims. With the exception of Singapore, at the national level Overseas Chinese continue to tend to exercise economic rather than political power and influence.

Social Control. Overseas Chinese live in modern states, and are subject to the legal and political systems of those states. Within their communities, concern with "face" or reputation promotes acts of public-spirited generosity. Chinese culture is imbued with ethical ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and celebrates heroic figures who embody these ideals; the notion of karma gives hope of superior rebirth to those who are moral in their present lives.

Conflict. Overseas Chinese came to Southeast Asia with a tradition of self-policing. In the nineteenth century, secret societies ( tongs ) maintained forces of fighting men, and violent confrontation between rival secret societies was common, as was fighting between members of different subethnic groups (Cantonese against Hokkien, for example). In contemporary Overseas Chinese communities, a minority of Overseas Chinese are involved in the "underground economies" of the area, and illicit business activities such as prostitution, the drug trade, and illegal gambling have their own "police force" in the form of gangs that provide protection to those involved in these activities. Conflict between Chinese and majority populations has occasionally erupted into violence in Southeast Asia. Outbreaks of anti-Chinese violence are often ascribed to resentment of the favorable economic position of the Chinese, a position that is, to some extent, the legacy of European colonial rule.

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