A Growing Chinese Community in ASEAN Region

Jun 03, 2021
The connection between ASEAN countries and China has never been so close as today. In 2020, ASEAN surpassed both the EU and U.S., becoming China’s largest trade partner with one hundred and forty billion U.S. dollars in trade volume. China initiated to form a free trade zone with ASEAN countries as early as in the 1990s. And the current Belt and Road Initiative has once again stimulated the population flow and trade connection between China and ASEAN countries. All these resulted in a growing dynamic yet diverse Chinese community in ASEAN countries, which has formed a unique Chinese consumer market outside China.
Southeast Asia is traditionally a migration destination for Chinese. Suppose you just count the five founding members of ASEAN (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines). In that case, there’re roughly more than 27.7 million ethnic Chinese living in these five countries, taking up about 70% of the total number of overseas Chinese in the whole world. In recent years, the economies of the ASEAN countries boast astounding growth rates. ASEAN countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand have become the new hot spots for wealthy Chinese nationals to invest, relocate or study. Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent also have positioned Southeast Asia as the most critical market outside mainland China. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is another key factor that prompted a new wave of Chinese emigration to ASEAN countries. A huge number of Chinese state employees, skilled workers, entrepreneurs, and their family members swarmed to ASEAN countries like Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. They were followed by the flow of lucrative Chinese foreign direct investment into developing billion-dollar infrastructure projects in these countries. This trend has made the Chinese communities more populated, diverse, and more closely connected to mainland China. Most Chinese migrants in these countries are heavy users of Chinese social and e-Commerce platforms and make a solid audience foundation for the development of WeChat, WeChat Pay, AliPay, etc. Singapore and Malaysia are the two countries that WeChat already gained a stable position among all the social platforms available there. WeChat has a 32% penetration rate among social users in Singapore and is claimed to have 20 million users in Malaysia. It has become the primary media platform for brands in these two countries to communicate with the local Chinese audience.
Another thing worth noting is that ASEAN is a diverse group. For instance, Singapore’s GDP per capita is more than 30 times higher than in Laos and more than 50 times higher than in Cambodia and Myanmar. Therefore, the Chinese communities in ASEAN countries are also different. In the more developed markets like Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, the local Chinese communities have more wealthy migrants, international students, and millions of Chinese outbound tourists visiting every year. Whereas in developing markets like Cambodia and Vietnam, Chinese migrant workers, state employees are the major component of the local Chinese community. So, when brands plan to tap into the Chinese communities in ASEAN countries, marketers should be aware of local Chinese population composition and cultural sensitivities in different countries. A customised and differentiated strategy is recommended when targeting the Chinese population in ASEAN countries.
Benjamin Sun