Chinese ties put Indonesia in a bind.

Beijing has warned citizens against travel to Australia claiming ‘a significant increase’ in racial discrimination and violence against Chinese and Asians blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic.

No similar warnings have been made about Chinese visiting Indonesia where the threats are far more serious than midnight cowards spraying graffiti and drunks slurring abuse. In the nation next door discrimination is well embedded with little legal protection.

There are around three million ethnic Chinese in the country according to Indonesian government statistics, though some academics claim the real number is three to four times greater. Whatever, tiny figures in a population of 270 million. Yet the Orang Tionghoa wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent.

Among the earliest recorded massacres was in 1740 when Dutch soldiers and pribumi (native Javanese) killed an estimated 10,000 Chinese following an industrial dispute. Since then eruptions of hate have scarred the archipelago.

During its 1965-1990 anti-Red offensive Jakarta suspended diplomatic ties with Beijing, though backdoor deals continued throughout. Second president Soeharto relied on economic advice from local Chinese tycoons. He partnered with the convicted fraudster The Kiang Seng, better known as Bob Hasan, who died this year.

The 1998 economic crisis riots after Soeharto was forced out, took the lives of more than a thousand. There were stories of mobsters shouting ganyang Cina babi (‘kill the Chinese pigs’)

The US State Department reported allegations of mass gang-rapes of ethnic Chinese: ‘A (government) fact-finding team (ordered) to investigate the riots and rapes found that elements of the Indonesian Military Special Forces (Kopassus) had been involved in the riots, some of which were deliberately provoked’.

The Soeharto government banned ethnic Chinese from the public service and military. So the smart ones turned to banking, often succeeding brilliantly. Chinese languages and characters were also prohibited, a law only overthrown this century.

Once liberated many moved out of the shadows to celebrate their culture and assert their rights as citizens. In 2014 Jakarta vice-governor Basuki (‘Ahok’) Tjahaja Purnama slipped into the big chair when its occupant Joko Widodo became president. Foreign correspondents reckoned this demonstrated the decline of discrimination. They were wrong.

Although known as an efficient anti-corruption administrator, Ahok was also a Protestant. Islamic stirrers claimed only a Muslim can lead other Muslims when they’re the majority.

Charges of blasphemy were engineered using an edited video. Mass demonstrations were organised with the present vice president Ma’ruf Amin playing a key role. Prosecutors demanded a one-year sentence. Ahok got two and was only freed this January.

His imprisonment spurred Singapore-based anthropologist Dr Charlotte Setijadi to research Sinophobia, writing: ‘One of the most persistent stereotypes about Chinese Indonesians is that they are wealthy and economically dominant’.

Almost half her survey respondents agreed with negative sentiments that ethnic Chinese ‘only care about their own kind’ are ‘too greedy and ambitious’ and ‘do not fit with Indonesian values’.

This year the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict revealed an unsuccessful plot to attack Chinese workers in West Java. It reported:

‘Intensified anti-Chinese rhetoric on some extremist social media sites does not appear to have been matched by any uptick in plots against Chinese targets but remains something to watch.

‘Much of the rhetoric has been purely racist hate speech. The question now is whether ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) supporters in Indonesia will use the coronavirus as an excuse to expand targeting beyond the police to domestic or international Chinese targets.’

Some ethnic Chinese families (Peranakan) have lived in the archipelago for centuries, are Indonesian citizens, sometimes Muslim converts, deeply involved in business and public affairs, and with no ties to the mainland.

Before the lockdowns tourism was surging despite the known racism, with the number of Chinese challenging Australians as top visitors to Bali.

Also coming through airport arrivals were specialist engineers temporarily working on Chinese-financed turnkey projects and stoking bitterness when locals discover the outsiders.

Ten Chinese heading to a nickel smelter construction site in South Sulawesi were reportedly turned away by local authorities this year. In the Riau Islands (a small archipelago southeast of Singapore) 39 workers at an aluminium plant were told to quit by authorities claiming they didn’t have the right permits. There have been other incidents.

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences reportedly described the general perception of China as ‘very mixed’.

‘There’s always distrust based on history, politics and the social makeup of the two countries, as well as ethnicity. It’s complex, and the issue of Chinese workers has been here for a few years following increased investment.’

Indonesia needs to dampen discrimination and disquiet as government statistics show investments from the Middle Kingdom of AUD 6.75 billion, making it the second-largest investor after Japan. Most of the money is for 2,000-plus public works, like toll roads, new railways and port upgrades which have benefitted corporates and citizens.

Widodo has told the media ‘no one should be allergic to investment’ and has been pushing legislation to scythe the nation’s thickets of bureaucracy which deter bankers. But the proposed changes include slashing labour laws on severance pay, drawing hostility from unions. The bill is in lockdown, another victim of Covid-19.

While beckoning carriers of Yuan the President has been repelling trawlers harvesting the Natuna Sea which borders the South China Sea. These are choppy waters to navigate as the Communist state is pushing its so-called nine-dash line into territory claimed by Indonesia.

After an incursion of 60 boats protected by Chinese coastguards late last year a stern-faced Widodo posed aboard a warship while declaring his nation’s territorial integrity ‘non-negotiable’.

His posturing may have cooled local nationalists though not the foreign fishers who are allegedly still casting nets. Even if he felt like taking the media for another bracing day on the briny, Widodo can’t afford to repeat macho-moments offshore when he has thousands of plague victims sick and dying onshore.

This isn’t the time to declare your big benefactor is also a poacher. Nor, apparently, to tell citizens to avoid a nation where so much is invested.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.


Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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4 Responses to Chinese ties put Indonesia in a bind.

  1. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Evan Jones statement “Many of Indonesia’s anti Chinese pogroms were bought upon the Chinese themselves”, is not without basis. However, this attitude is not entirely racial and should include “social-economic” class discrimination – and this is spread all over Indonesia and SE Asia. Two reasons for such attitudes – (1) Divide and conquer among communities is used by the British to control the population hence, it was “almost’ politically correct to do so (follow the White Master). and (2) The concept of race equality in British colonies of mix ethic populations is entirely UNKNOWN. The reasons for China not pursing racial massacres in Indonesia and Japanese atrocities in Nanjing massacre are similar. Doing business & influence are far more important than settling old scores or getting reparations. The rise of the “peranakans” and their business domination in SE Asia will be another interesting story.

  2. Avatar Evan Jones says:

    The Australian expat Duncan Graham has interesting insights about Indonesia. I suspect he believes much of what he watches on TV.

    Many of Indonesia’s anti Chinese pogroms were bought upon the Chinese themselves. The old school overseas Chinese peasants from China’s southern provinces were often a rude and ignorant lot, easy to dislike by the polite Malay races. But I suspect that more than half of Indonesia’s anti Chinese pogroms were sponsored by outside forces, oft-times related to the CIA.

    Today’s generation of Indonesian Chinese are better assimilated than earlier generations.

    These days, anti Chinese sentiment in Indonesia is often promoted by opportunistic politicians, out to promote Divide and Rule.

    Like the whites in the West, Indonesians are generally simple minded straight line thinkers. They have difficulty perceiving processes which involve second or third order effects.

    Meanwhile, the Jews and the Chinese more easily see beyond the obvious in-your-face crude narratives favored by the Western Media.

    If was an Indonesian Chinese, while I would encourage all my kids to strengthen their ties to China, and encourage the clever ones get into business here.

    • Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

      I thought Nazism went out with the end of WWII. I have honestly not read any credible historical account of Chinese immigrants to SE Asia being “rude and ignorant”. In fact, in the case of Malaysia and Singapore, the British imported and encouraged Chinese immigrants to help build the country. All the colonial buildings there were constructed with Chinese labour and expertise. They mined for tin, established rubber plantations and constructed the period buildings that are preserved in Malaysia and Singapore today. They built schools for themselves and imported teachers from China to teach in those schools. For an account of the personal experience of an Australian in the late 1800s regarding the Chinese, I would recommend the book “Golden Raub: William’s Story” by Victor Bibby (2014) by Syd Harta Publishers Pty Ltd Australia.

      Are Sukarno, Suharto, Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak simple minded straight line thinkers?

      I am not sure if the “whites in the West” would appreciate being characterised as “simple minded straight line thinkers.” No such simple minded people could colonise and rule about a quarter of the world when Britannia ruled the world.

      Teow Loon Ti

  3. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    The the Chinese have been in Southeast Asia for a long time; as early as the Tang (618-907) and Song(960-1279) Dynasties from archeological indications. Major settlements began after admiral Zheng Ho (1371-1433) visited the region. Yet the Chinese never attempted to colonised the region. This left pockets of Chinese who were trading and mining in the region to their own devices. After generations, they even lost their own language and spoke only Malay/Indonesian and developed a hybrid culture referred to today as Peranakan. The only protection they had was the wealth they acquired through the sweat of their brows which ironically became a blight at the same time – hatred intensified by envy. Yet, wealth gave some of them an avenue out of the predicament. With wealth, one can buy influence that provides a level of protection, have access to a good education (often overseas), and often residence in a developed country like Singapore and Australia. The plight of the poor, and there are many of them, finds solace in F. Nietsche’s aphorism that “What does not kill you makes you stronger.”

    Teow Loon Ti

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