Sino-Burmese Identity with the Rise of China

Sino-Burmese Identity with the Rise of China

Sunday, December 9, 2018 - 7:20pm
Damon Lim Wei Da

Sino-Burmese Identity with the Rise of China

By Damon

In July 2018, Myanmar relaxed visa rules for citizens of Japan, South Korea, and China, hoping to attract more tourists from these countries.[1] This move was a response to a drastic fall in tourism from western states shunning Myanmar for its involvement in the Rohingya crisis. While its 2015 democratic elections were seen by many as a sign of change, Myanmar today is widely perceived as ASEAN’s ‘shame’, with many western countries revoking awards and honorary citizenships previously awarded to its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. With Myanmar being increasingly isolated from western states on all fronts, East Asian states – particularly China – are hoping to fill this vacuum.

China’s rise has been exponential in recent years, but it is commonly demonized in the media. What then are the true consequences of increased engagement and dependence on China? How will the rise of China affect regional order in Southeast Asia and Myanmar? What about Chinese people who have lived in Myanmar their whole lives? In my essay, I argue that current Chinese engagement with Myanmar aims to wean countries in the region away from western influence and is part of a strategy in which it is attempting to portray itself as a peaceful hegemon. One strategy used to engage in soft-power diplomacy is the Confucius Institute, which the Sino-Burmese have been eager to adopt despite hesitation by the Myanmar government. These institutes, however, are far from benign as they serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than being an impartial entity that promotes understanding of Chinese culture. Ultimately, the anxieties of being Chinese is something unique to the Sino-Burmese, and they must renegotiate their ‘twoness’ of being both Chinese and Burmese with the rise of China. 

China and a New Regional Order

China desires a shift in world order away from western powers, and it is forging stronger economic and social ties with Myanmar to curb western influence in the region. Myanmar historically has had a strong relationship with China and has even been described as one of “China’s few loyal friends”[2] as it recognized the establishment of the PRC a year after it gained independence in 1949.[3] Hong explains that Myanmar had poor relations with western states until it began to adopt tenets of democracy in the late 2000s. This, China feared, would entail a dilution of its power and influence in Myanmar until the Rohingya crisis triggered an international outcry against Myanmar. As such, the number of tourists from the U.K. dropped by 40% a year after the crisis first broke out, [4] largely due to a conscientious effort by western citizens to boycott the country. The United States and the EU have also imposed large sanctions and embargos against Myanmar,[5] which has also resulted in Myanmar receiving “one of the lowest levels of international aid in the world, at only $4 per capita”.[6] Despite the uncertainty regarding whether such tactics are effective, what this has undoubtedly resulted in is an isolation of Myanmar from western states and their ideals of human rights. Myanmar is desperately poor and heavily dependent on international aid and investment for its growth. The departure of western investments and aid has made Myanmar much more reliant on East Asia such that it now courts greater tourism and investments from these countries. Out of these states, Myanmar relies on China the most.

China’s rise has made it Southeast Asia’s largest export destination, source of imports and tourism.[7] What then are its interests in the region? In an article in Southeast Asia Affairs, Cook argues that China’s goals are the “affirmation of Chinese territorial integrity, closer economic engagement and market access, (and having its) relations with the region being seen as consistent with China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and commitment to a ‘harmonious world’”.[8] Ultimately, one can understand these goals as moves that will consolidate China’s power and position in the region by portraying China as a peaceful hegemon. In the wake of dwindling western investments, China has taken the chance to build closer ties with Myanmar. In 2018, it is the second largest investor in Myanmar (after Singapore),[9] and it has even voiced support for Myanmar in its handling of the Rohingya crisis. At a Southeast Asia summit held in Singapore in November 2018, Premier Li Keqiang told Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi that “China supports the Myanmar government’s efforts to protect domestic stability and approach (in) resolving the Rohingya issue”.[10] This is very much a calculated move to improve ties with Myanmar at a time when western states are shunning it to further China’s interests and power in the region.

However, there has been pushback against China on the ground. In Myanmar, some extreme democratic groups view China as a neo-colonial nation, and with increased democracy, some citizens “transferred their dissatisfaction toward the ruling class onto China”.[11] However, does this anger against China have any real basis? My investigations indicate that anger is largely fuelled by a poor image of China. As Myanmar transitions to civilian rule, many residents “express their newfound freedoms by voicing opposition to certain development projects, largely seen by locals as exploitive and a threat to their agriculture-based livelihood”.[12] However, Chinese developmental projects have helped rural communities gain access to infrastructure and necessities. One example is Wanbao Mining, a Chinese mining company. As part of a mining project in Letpadung, central Myanmar, the company has provided for a mobile clinic which has treated more than 20,000 villagers who would not have access to healthcare otherwise. Due to the presence of these companies, several schools have been built and electricity provided to the villages. Also, Wanbao Mining is compensating villagers for their land, despite beliefs by some villagers that land would be seized without proper compensation.[13] This is very much consistent with China’s goal of having its engagement with Myanmar seen as “consistent with China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and commitment to a ‘harmonious world’”[14] as mentioned earlier. To improve its image in Myanmar, Beijing has also made corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes an essential component of Chinese business operations and sponsored “friendship tours” for political parties in Myanmar.[15] Another interesting component of its strategy to improve its image abroad are the Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes are centres that aim to spread understanding of Chinese culture and language overseas, and they are largely supported by the Chinese government.[16] In an article on Confucius Institutes in Cambodia and Myanmar, Hsiao asserts that Myanmar has historically been ‘pro-China’, which has prompted China to use Myanmar as testing grounds for new forms of soft power initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes.[17] Since the 1980s, China has been eager to create an image of itself as a benign regional power, which would secure its economic and political interests. With global anxieties of a rising China, China has initiated such soft power initiatives to create a better image of itself. While the teachings of the Confucius Institutes are broad, the name of such centres reveals China’s desire to project itself as a “culturally rich and socially attractive country”,[18] especially since Confucius is highly regarded in many Asian states today. In Myanmar, the local government has been hesitant in embracing this initiative, though it is heavily dependent on China. The Confucius Institutes in Myanmar are instead supported by local Chinese associations – not the government – and renamed “computer schools,” suggesting an effort to “de-politicize”[19] the Confucius institutes. This is because the government of Myanmar is concerned that if it embraces the institutes, it would “reinforce the influence of local ethnic Chinese and risk a challenge to its own authority”,[20] especially since it fears that these institutes will encourage people to support the political teachings of the Chinese Communist Party. Ultimately, these Confucius institutes are part of China’s plan to forge stronger cultural ties with Myanmar, though Myanmar does not fully trust China’s intentions.

Sino-Burmese – The Politics of Identity

The Sino-Burmese can be defined as ethnic Chinese people who were born or raised in Myanmar. As such, how are the Sino-Burmese affected by the rise of China? I argue that Sino-Burmese have been facing an erosion of their Chinese culture and identity such that they are eager to embrace the rise of China as a means of reclaiming their Chinese identity.

Sino-Burmese who live in Burma today are generally “descendants of immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian Provinces”.[21] Historically, Chinese immigrants in Myanmar have been separated by their dialect groups such that they would treat each other as rivals. Sino-Burmese in the past were also isolated from non-Chinese populations, preferring to engage with those from their family or clan.[22] Despite being born in Myanmar, many Sino-Burmese in the past strongly identified with China such that they attended pro-communist schools in Myanmar that taught the “sayings of Mao Zedong (and) sang patriotic PRC songs”.[23] These Sino-Burmese people barely spoke Burmese and rarely left Chinatown. Tensions eventually erupted due to some Sino-Burmese supporting the Chinese Communist Party, leading to the 1967 anti-Chinese riots whereby gangs of thugs would attack “Chinese clubs… raid Chinese-owned shops, and randomly assault anyone who was deemed to be Chinese based on skin tone and dress”.[24] After the riots, many wealthy Sino-Burmese left the country, and Chinese-language schools and organizations were even banned by the government as a means of weaning the Sino-Burmese’s sense of attachment to China. More importantly, the Sino-Burmese who remained in Myanmar were now afraid to display their ‘Chinese-ness’ in public and had to perform acts of assimilation to blend into local society. While restrictions were eventually abolished, the period between 1967 and 1988 is rarely talked about because the Sino-Burmese in Yangon have “selectively effaced that segment of their collective history”.[25] Since then, Chinese leaders have been “careful to represent themselves as a common group of huaren, or people of Chinese descent loyal to their country of residence, Myanmar, (and) not Huaqiao”,[26] which can be explained as Chinese people living abroad who are loyal to China. As such, the Sino-Burmese today understand that their culture cannot be perceived as pro-China, but rather, congruent with Myanmar’s culture and politics.

What about the Sino-Burmese’s sense of Chinese identity today? I argue that the Sino-Burmese have been facing an erosion of Chinese identity, which makes them inclined to embrace China’s rise as a means of reclaiming their Chinese identity. Sino-Burmese today seem to feel as if they do not belong anywhere. One argument is that “they often feel like second-class citizens, abused by the government of their resident country, cast off by the governments of their ancestral homeland, and ignored by the world at large”.[27] As a result, many elders and leaders in the Sino-Burmese community “yearn for a clear and verifiable history of Chinese people in Burma”,[28] hoping to better understand their accomplishments as a community and identity.  Due to the ban on Chinese schools in the past, many Sino-Burmese today are more proficient in Burmese than in Chinese. This has resulted in the anxiety of parents and community leaders that new generations of Sino-Burmese will lose touch with their Chinese identity, making them embrace the rise of China and the Confucius Institutes as a means of reclaiming their Chinese identity. However, as discussed earlier, the Myanmar government is distrustful of these Confucius institutes, given that Sino-Burmese in the past have been so supportive of the Chinese Communist Party and its ideologies. As such, the institutes are much more restrained in Myanmar, and they have not been able to “draw in members of the government and political elites”.[29] The Confucius Institutes in Myanmar have mostly been confined to teaching Chinese language, which ties in with China’s goals of uniting “the resources of ethnic Chinese in Myanmar and (connecting) with local ethnic Chinese associations”.[30] Many non-Chinese also attend Chinese language classes taught by the Confucius institutes for better employment opportunities. For example, the president of the Confucius Institute in Myanmar claims that due to the rise of Chinese businesses in Myanmar, if one speaks Chinese, “it is likely (one’s) salary will be doubled”.[31] As such, we can see how the rise of China has promoted the utility of Chinese language in Myanmar. However, due to its history whereby Sino-Burmese citizens were so isolated from local people and culture such that they were more attached to the Chinese Communist Party, Myanmar has not fully embraced the Confucius Institutes, fearing that these institutes might cultivate a sense of Chinese identity that is incongruent with being Burmese. We see then the politics of identity in Myanmar – of how one cannot be ‘fully Chinese’ without being perceived as disloyal to Myanmar.

The Future of Sino-Burmese Identity in Myanmar

Ultimately, we understand that the Sino-Burmese live at the peripheral of many communities – not fully Burmese, yet not fully recognized as Chinese by overseas Chinese communities and China. When the anti-Chinese riots broke out in 1967, the Sino-Burmese expected China to come to their aid. However, with the chaos generated by the cultural revolution, China was unable to step in to protect local Sino-Burmese, which resulted in Sino-Burmese (who could not afford to leave the country) practicing self-moderation of their cultural practices to better fit into Burmese society. Ultimately, this has led to a dilution of Chinese culture and identity in Myanmar such that Sino-Burmese today are eager to embrace the rise of China, seeing it as a chance to reclaim their Chinese identity. This is best seen from how Chinese community leaders in Myanmar have embraced and supported the Confucius Institutes, hoping that these institutes would create a new sense of identity for Sino-Burmese youths through Chinese language classes. 

The Confucius Institutes, however, are far from being innocuous. While being touted as centres for cultural understanding, the Confucius Institutes are ultimately funded and managed by the Chinese Communist Party. As such, this has enabled them to “restrain freedom of speech by steering discussion of China away from sensitive subjects”.[32] For example, several universities with a Confucius Institute have invited the Dalai Lama to speak at their campus, though they later “cancelled the invitation or received him off-campus”[33] due to the influence of the institutes. If so, the Myanmar government’s scepticism towards the Confucius Institutes is not unfounded. Many Sino-Burmese are in positions of power and own large businesses in Myanmar. Embracing the institutes then could hurt Myanmar’s economic or political interests in the future, especially since the institutes do not just promote Chinese culture, but too, loyalty towards the Chinese Communist Party. To garner support around the world, China has also initiated a visa programme for ethnic Chinese living outside of China.[34] The Confucius Institutes then are perhaps a way of building trust amongst overseas ethnic Chinese people and converting supporters for its rise.

How would Myanmar wrestle with the rise of China? Given its current isolation from western states, it seems that there is no easy fix. Myanmar is still very much reliant on Chinese investments, and it cannot refuse the Confucius Institutes outright. Would future Chinese engagement with Myanmar be fair? Hong’s paper on competition on good relations with Myanmar suggests so. In his paper, Hong argues that the “resurgence of Japanese interest and influence in Myanmar… may mitigate China’s prominence in the country”.[35] After all, Myanmar hopes to attract tourism and investments from other East Asian states such as Japan and South Korea and not just China. In addition, the attractiveness of Japanese culture and consumer products suggests that China’s approach to Myanmar must be more charm-oriented - that it cannot afford a poor image of itself. This explains why Chinese companies in Myanmar have adopted CSR projects and properly compensated villagers for their land, which one would not typically expect from such projects, Chinese or otherwise. 

The Sino-Burmese today are remarkedly different from the Sino-Burmese of yesteryears, and their identity is one founded on multiple peripherals. This however does not suggest that they need to be fully Burmese or fully Chinese. Chinese citizens in other Southeast Asian states such as Malaysia are almost fully integrated in their societies, and they appear to have less qualms about being both Chinese and the citizen of another state. The anxieties of being Chinese – or not being Chinese enough – amongst the Sino-Burmese will only intensify as China gains more power such that Myanmar becomes more reliant on it. The Sino-Burmese then must decide what it means to be Sino-Burmese – whether they want to fully embrace China, stick to their Burmese roots, or completely renegotiate what it means to be both Chinese and Burmese.


[1] Kyaw, Arker, “Myanmar to Grant Free Visa to Japanese and South Korean Visitors and Visa on Arrival to Chinese Visitors Starting October 1st”, MIRadio, 31 July 2018, taken from:  

[2] Hong, Zhao, “Japan and China: Competing for Good Relations with Myanmar”, The Journal of East Asian Affairs, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thu, Ei Ei, “Local Tourism Feeling Impact of Fewer Western Tourists.” The Myanmar Times, 19 Jul 2018, taken from:

[5] Bartunek, Robert-Jan, “EU Extends Myanmar Arms Embargo, Prepares Individual Sanctions”, Reuters, 26 Apr 2018, taken from

[6] Nag, Oishimaya Sen, “The Richest and Poorest Countries of Southeast Asia” World Atlas, 3 Feb 2018, taken from:

[7] Cook, Malcolm, “Southeast Asia and the Major Powers: Engagement Not Entanglement” Southeast Asian Affairs, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thiha, Ko Ko, “MIC Forecasts Foreign Investments Worth $3 Billion in next Six Months” The Myanmar Times, 26 Mar 2018,

[10] Blanchard, Ben, “China Offers Myanmar Support over Rohingya Issue after US Rebuke” Channel NewsAsia, 16 Nov 2018, taken from:

[11] “Mizzima Business Weekly: Chinese investors face steep learning curve amid Myanmar’s development”, Newstex Global Business Blogs, 15 Mar 2017.

[12] Mahtani, Shibani, “China Firm in Myanmar Begins Charm Offensive”, The Wall Street Journal Asia, 10 Oct 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cook, Malcolm, “Southeast Asia and the Major Powers: Engagement Not Entanglement” Southeast Asian Affairs, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Confucius Says” The Economist, 13 Sep 2014, taken from:

[17] Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael; Yang, Alan Hao, “Differentiating the Politics of Dependency: Confucius Institutes in Cambodia and Myanmar”, Issues and Studies, 2014.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Roberts, Jayde Lin, “Tracing the Ethos of the Sino-Burmese in the Urban Fabric of Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)”, UMT Dissertation Publishing (University of Washington), 2011.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael; Yang, Alan Hao, “Differentiating the Politics of Dependency: Confucius Institutes in Cambodia and Myanmar”, Issues and Studies, 2014.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Jia, Yizhen, “Mizzima Business Weekly: Seeking out the ‘Hidden’ Chinese Language Classes in Chinatown”, mizzima, 2017, taken from:

[32] “Confucius Says”, The Economist, 13 Sept. 2014, taken from:

[33] Ibid.

[34] Cheong, Danson. “China to Issue 5-Year Visas for Foreigners of Chinese Origin”, The Straits Times, 31 Jan 2018, taken from:

[35] Hong, Zhao, “Japan and China: Competing for Good Relations with Myanmar”, The Journal of East Asian Affairs, 2014.

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