President Joko Widodo and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Jakarta on April 22, 2015. Xi has expressed his condolences over Wednesday's earthquake in Aceh, which has killed 102 people and injured more than 700. (JG Photo/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya)

Johannes Nugroho: What Does China's Rise Mean for Chinese Indonesians?

JUNE 08, 2015

Following China’s Vice Premier Liu Yandong’s official visit to Jakarta late last month, a number of ultra-nationalist and hard-line Muslim news websites began circulating “reports” claiming that either 10 or 30 million Chinese nationals would be admitted into Indonesia by 2020 under a new agreement between Jakarta and Beijing. In what was clearly the start of a scaremongering campaign, they also predicted the end of economic sovereignty for “native” Indonesians.

These articles were widely shared by Indonesian netizens on social media, generating mostly Sinophobic and anti-government responses. However, the claim proved to be a hoax since the joint communiqué by the Indonesian and Chinese governments stated that the “Indonesian side expressed the hope that the number of tourists between the two countries in 2020 would reach 10 million people.”

Judging from the intensity of the comments on the social media, it is difficult to avoid concluding that anti-Chinese sentiments in the country are still widespread. As such, China’s rise as a regional hegemon, the South China Sea powder keg and the forthcoming sizeable Chinese investments in Indonesia may prove to be a combination that affects the security of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority.

Historically, Chinese Indonesians have always been an easy scapegoat during national crises. During the 1998 riots, thousands of their homes and businesses were looted or attacked by the masses while many Chinese Indonesian women, especially in Jakarta, were sexually assaulted.

Although a number of studies, such as Jemma Purdey’s "Anti Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996-1999," suggest that the riots were politically motivated, it wouldn’t have been easy to incite the masses to violence without the pre-existing Sinophobia. Future violence against Chinese Indonesians remains a possibility.

While heightened economic engagement between Jakarta and Beijing may be mutually beneficial, it may also have the side effect of aggravating Sinophobia in Indonesia, and inadvertently jeopardizing the wellbeing of Chinese Indonesians. Possible catalytic issues could be nationalism or economics, or a mixture of the two. China’s habit of flexing its financial muscle to bring about political compliance is real enough.

In 2009, Cambodia, a recipient of generous financial aid from China, repatriated to China 20 ethnic Uighur activists who were on China’s wanted list for sedition. Further back, the Cambodian police had arrested two Falun Gong members living there under the protection of the United Nations and airlifted them to China.

A recent op-ed in the Straits Times by historian Wang Gungwu titled "Singapore’s 'Chinese Dilemma' as China Rises" dismisses the assumption that China aims to become a destabilizing superpower and exert global dominance. Wang reasons that “this kind of concept is absent from the Chinese heritage,” pointing out Zheng He’s maritime 14th century expeditions were peaceful.

However, this view of China is simplistic. Today’s China is markedly different from Zheng He’s China, over 600 years ago. Imperial China under the Ming Dynasty was one of the greatest empires of the world, and became even more formidable under the expansionist Manchu Dynasty of the 16th century. It was sufficiently assured of its place in the world that it decided, in Wang’s words, “to destroy the navy.”

By contrast, today’s China is a regional power apparently determined to regain its global pre-eminence. Conspicuous in this situation is the almost obsessive theme of past humiliation, something that the Chinese Communist Party deftly uses to justify its “nationalist” actions abroad in the domestic theater.

In his "Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations," Chinese-born political scientist Zheng Wang claims that China’s nationalism is rooted in the belief that it must rise above the bitter legacy of the “century of humiliation” between the 1840 Opium War and the defeat of Japan in 1945.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Zheng contended that the Chinese state began to inculcate in its citizens the belief that weakness had no place in modern China if the nation was to survive. The old China of the Manchus, the warlords and Kuomingtang suffered a series of humiliating setbacks because it had refused to militarize itself sufficiently against the foreigners. An example of a slogan taught to Chinese citizens is Louhou Jiuyao Aida (Backwardness brings on beatings by others).

However, the specter of humiliation at the hands of foreigners doesn’t exclusively haunt China. It is equally present in Indonesia and a host of other formerly colonized countries.

In early May 2014, Chinese naval vessels rammed into Vietnamese ships trying to prevent the construction of a Chinese oil rig in the waters near the Paracel islands. The incident provoked a strong response from the Vietnamese masses who rioted throughout the country and attacked Chinese workers and what they perceived to be Chinese factories and industrial complexes, killing 21 .

The Vietnamese riots were a potent reminder of what could easily occur here in Indonesia, should China’s economic dominance be publicly perceived as detrimental. While most Chinese Indonesians probably won’t directly benefit from Beijing’s investments, they will be the ones to bear the “beatings from others,” should things go awry. Both Beijing and Jakarta should bear this in mind.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at