Chinese languages and economic prosperity

August 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm (Arts and languages, Economics)

A while ago I had a post about why learning Mandarin may not be the best idea for those working in business. One reason I outlined was that much of the industrialized regions of China were not Mandarin-speaking areas. In addition to this, one point I forgot to mention was that the ethnic Chinese who dominate business and trade in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and to a lesser extent Vietnam and Indonesia are also not native Mandarin speakers.

I do not have access to figures about the dominance of ethnic Chinese in trade and business in these regions, but I have been able to roughly calculate the GDP per capita (in USD) of these Chinese communities. I will then compare that with figures for the majority-Mandarin speaking provinces of China, in an attempt to show that economic opportunities in these non-Mandarin speaking communities are much greater for foreign investors. I will also list the figures for the North American Chinese community for those who are interested.

I will list the main native Chinese languages of each community by their ancestral origin. This will be roughly ordered by descending number of speakers, but I will not provide actual figures for each language as estimates here tends to vary considerably.

Now, it is true that many of the businessmen in these communities have learnt to understand Mandarin. However, that is usually their third or fourth language (with the possible exception of Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China, where there has been government-promoted Mandarization), and in general they understand it less well than English. In that sense, learning Mandarin will not provide any networking advantage for a native English speaker.

There are also a fair number of ethnic Chinese who speak Malay (in Malaysia and Indonesia), Thai (in Thailand), and English (in all countries). In Thailand, in particular, the majority of the Chinese speak Thai as a native language. However, I will only list the main native Chinese languages for comparison purposes.

Countries that are not included for lack of data: Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia

—Overseas Chinese—

Malaysian Chinese community:

Languages: Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew

Population: 7m (25%)

Avg. Income: $12,936

Singaporean Chinese community:

Languages: Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Mandarin

Population: 3m (74%)

Avg. Income: At least $43,867

Indonesian Chinese community:

Languages: Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew

Population: 2.4m self-identified, 6m estimated (1%-3%)

Avg. Income: $9,045

Thai Chinese community:

Languages: Teochew, Hakka

Population: 10m self-identified, 21-27m estimated of mixed origins (15-40%)

Avg. Income: At least $4,700

American Chinese community:

Languages: Cantonese, Taishanese

Population: 3.8m (1%)

Avg. Income: At least $58,919

Canadian Chinese community:

Languages: Cantonese, Taishanese

Population: 1.3m (4%)

Avg. Income: $38,839

—Southern Chinese provinces—

Taiwan province and Fujian province (ROC):

Languages: Hokkien, Hakka, Mandarin

Population: 23m

Avg. Income: $18,303

Guangdong province:

Languages: Cantonese, Taishanese, Teochew

Population: 104m

Avg. Income: $6,440

Hong Kong Chinese community:

Languages: Cantonese

Population: 6.7m (95%)

Avg. Income: $31,590

Macau Chinese community:

Languages: Cantonese

Population: 0.5m (95%)

Avg. Income: $39,800

Fujian province (PRC):

Languages: Hokkien, Min Dong, Min Bei

Population: 37m

Avg. Income: $5,748

Zhejiang province:

Languages: Wu dialects

Population: 54m

Avg. Income: $7,390


Languages: Wu dialects (Shanghainese)

Population: 23m

Avg. Income: $10,828


Overall overseas Chinese (with or without North American):

Population: 31.1m/26m

Avg. Income: $19,222/$12,439

Total income: $597,806m/$323,423m

Overall Southern languages provinces (Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Fujian, Taiwan, Zhejiang, Shanghai):

Population: 248.2m

Avg. Income: $8,796

Total income: $2,183,062m


Mandarin-speaking provinces (Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Hubei, Shaanxi):

Population: 498.1m

Avg. Income: $4,990

Total income: $2,485,762m

Mixed language provinces (Jiangsu, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Chongqing, Hunan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang):

Population: 454.6m

Avg. Income: $4,121

Total income: $1,873,467m

Other language provinces (Tibet, Jiangxi, Anhui, Guangxi, Hainan):

Population: 161.7m

Avg. Income: $3,083

Total income: $489,535m

As we can see, the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the Southern language provinces in China have much higher GDP per capita than the Mandarin-speaking provinces, while their total GDP is slightly higher than that of the Mandarin-speaking provinces.

While Mandarin is spoken (as a native language or as a secondary language) by a moderate majority of Chinese, the total income of the Mandarin-speaking regions is around 33% of Chinese communities in Asia and North America (34% if we exclude the latter). Considering that many of these regions have not reached the middle-income stage, investment opportunities for foreign investors are bound to be even worse than what the GDP figures convey.


Malaysian::. Using the ratio provided here (~1.5), and take the product with the latest GDP data from the IMF.

Singapore: Using Singaporean GDP per capita, as I can find no data for individual ethnic groups. It can be assumed that the Chinese community has a higher GDP per capita than the Malay and Indian communities that make up most of the remaining 26%.

Indonesia:. Using the ratio provided here (3), and take the product with the latest GDP data from the IMF.

Thailand: The GDP per capita for the entire population is used. Identification by ethnic group is difficult in Thailand as the Chinese community is very well-integrated. It should be noted, however, that ethnic Chinese are dominant in the economical and political sphere.

United States: Using the ratio of Asian American income to overall income provided by the Census.

Canada: Using the ratio provided here (0.85). Interestingly, this seems to be the only case where ethnic Chinese had a lower earning than the rest of the population.

China: Using data shown here, and separate data for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

*I determined the classification between Mandarin-speaking, Mixed language and Other language provinces by two main criteria: Percentage of Mandarin speakers and mutual intelligibility of the Mandarin dialect with standard Mandarin (in the order of Northern, Northeastern, Central, Southwestern).


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