Jakarta’s violent identity crisis: behind the vilification of Chinese-Indonesians
Economic success of the group’s small elite has led to repeated bouts of resentment, discrimination and even violent assaults
Before Jakarta, there was Batavia, the 17th-century capital city of the Dutch East Indies, built with the skill of just a few hundred ethnic Chinese artisans who had settled as traders along the shore.
How little has changed.
Many big projects in modern day Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million, have been built by developers from the minority group, the descendants of the original merchants and other Chinese who have arrived since.
Chinese-Indonesians – estimated to make up 1 per cent to 4 per cent of the country’s 250 million people – have had an impact on Jakarta which is vastly disproportionate to their physical numbers. The economic success of the group’s small elite has led to repeated bouts of resentment, discrimination and even violent assaults.
Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnam, a Chinese-Indonesian known as Ahok, has proven that despite a history of political exclusion, high office is also achievable. He is running for election in February.
Yet a racially charged anti-Ahok protest this month has forced Jakarta to confront whether the minority has truly been accepted after three sometimes prosperous – but always uncertain – centuries.
A mini market was raided in a Chinese-Indonesian neighbourhood, bringing back painful memories of riots in 1998 in which more than 1,000 were killed.
Protesters, many of them hardline Islamists who are unhappy Ahok is both Chinese-Indonesian and Christian, have promised another rally for next Friday – and hope to beat their attendance of more than 100,000 people on November 4. Police say they will block them this time, but observers worry it may further raise the potential for violence.
Sibarani Sofian, an urban development specialist, says the city has since been divided into pro and anti-Ahok factions. While he is ethnic Chinese, he prefers the term Tionghoa, which means “of Chinese descent” and attempts to avoid assumptions of links to the Chinese state, another prejudice sometimes thrown at the minority.
He says the demonstration was the apex of unhappiness among some Indonesians with Ahok being governor. “I personally think there is still considerable risk today facing Tionghoa society, although people already learned the lesson of the ’98 riots,” he added.
When the Dutch ruled Batavia, they granted special concessions to a handful of Chinese living in the port.
François Valentijn, a Dutch historian, wrote in the 1720s that “if there were no Chinese here, Batavia would be very dead”. And two decades later, that situation was almost realised.
In 1740, bitterness from native Indonesians and the Dutch to the growing wealth of a small portion of Chinese people led to open bigotry against the minority population, most of whom were extremely poor themselves.
In October that year, Chinese sugar mill workers finally revolted; the response was a pogrom in which nearly the entire population were killed.
The persecution lasted after Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch at the end of the second world war. Many were denied citizenship by laws that labelled Indonesians of Chinese descent who had lived here for generations as “aliens”. Even the communist party in the 1950s – popular among ethnic Chinese – would not allow them into its leadership.
Indonesia’s second president and dictator who ruled for three decades, Suharto, attempted to deal with the “Chinese problem” by forced assimilation under his New Order government, banning Chinese schools, books and languages.
On the side, though, he copied the Dutch colonisers by making deals with ethnic Chinese businessmen, providing them with monopoly rights to grow his economy.
In his book Asian Godfathers, author Joe Studwell said Suharto had decided he would dole out concessions to “people who would get a job done and who posed no political challenge to his authority. These individuals tended to be Chinese immigrants”.
Among the most prominent is Mochtar Riady who founded the Lippo Group, a conglomerate in real estate, banking, health care and natural resources reputedly worth more than US$10 billion .
Sudono Salim, once considered the richest person in the country, ran Salim Group, the world’s largest instant noodle maker; while Eka Tjipta Widjaja founded Sinar Mas, a conglomerate that owns Asia Pulp & Paper, and works in 120 countries .
Yet Chinese-Indonesians were forced to conceal their identity, with Chinese-language newspapers banned and Chinese festivals cancelled. While these tycoons made billions, they kept low public profiles and went by their Indonesian – not Chinese – names.
They had good reason to be cautious.
Domestic bitterness grew from rumours that Chinese-Indonesians controlled 70 per cent of the economy, despite no comprehensive research to back that up. This was further entrenched in a 1995 study by Australia’s foreign affairs department which said “Sino-Indonesians” controlled 68 per cent of the top 300 conglomerates.
Finally, in May 1998, Suharto’s balancing act backfired. Mobs targeted Glodok , the historic Chinatown of Jakarta, looting shops and burning buildings.
They left more than 1,000 dead and an estimated US$300 million of property damage. Scores of ethnically Chinese women and girls were raped.
Krishna Linarda, a 53-year-old tax consultant, whose grandfather owned a Chinese-language book shop in Glodok, was there that day. When he heard where the rioters were heading, he drove to pick up a friend just in time before her house was burned.
“As I drove to get her, I saw the rioters were flipping cars with their hands,” he says.
He checked into a hotel where he thought he would be safe but the mob spread. “I could see them from our room on the fourth floor, breaking into a music shop and stealing guitars and a keyboard. Some took a set of drums.”
A shop he worked in was also smashed, he later found out. “We opened again a week later,” he says with a hint of pride. “But after that, the community built iron gates at the entrance to every alley and a local resident would keep watch at night.”
Since then, ethnic Chinese have been able to express their heritage after successive leaders abandoned the assimilation policy. Chinese New Year is a public holiday and in Glodok, Mandarin and other dialects are spoken openly. But the iron fences remain, some with fresh spikes added on top.
This year the community is again facing a challenging test, as Ahok is accused of blasphemy for comments he made about his political enemies exploiting verses of the Koran. He has been formally named as a suspect, making it likely that he will face charges and could even be jailed.
This month’s demonstration, which ended in violence with one person dead , appeared to be backed by his political opponents, interested in halting his popular rise by exploiting simmering sectarianism.
Indonesia’s Ulama Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, announced a non-Muslim should not become a leader of the capital of the world’s largest Muslim majority nation. As an outspoken and brash politician, Ahok is divisive, even among Chinese Indonesians.
His stubbornness in relocating thousands of slum residents along Jakarta’s dirty river banks has led to an outcry, and many Chinese-Indonesians worry that negative perceptions of the governor might reflect badly on them.
Linarda, the tax consultant from Glodok, argues it is all just politics and that the protests “would not have happened if there wasn’t an election”.
“I can say 100 per cent of my Muslim friends don’t agree with the protesters,” he said, adding that he believes entrenched racial divides are broadly over in Indonesia.
“My blood is red and my bones are white,” he said, referring to the colours of the national flag. “Only my eyes are a different shape.”
Christine Susanna Tjhin, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says that while the Ahok phenomenon has “highlighted the sad reality that scapegoating and stereotyping are still alive and kicking”, she does not think there are big dangers for Chinese-Indonesians.
“Circumstances now are very different to May ’98. The economy is still growing and on the right track, with the main focus on infrastructure development, particularly in previously neglected areas. Politics is fundamentally still stable despite pre-elections dramas. Security apparatus is more present and accessible. And, more importantly, society is now less prone to be provoked by racial agendas.
“The danger that I’m concerned with is less about physical threats, but more about how [Chinese-Indonesians] fit into the narratives of Indonesian pluralism. What has happened is that, as Jakarta’s election approaches, race and religious identity are dominating public debates, rather than issues related to social justice and good governance.”
Indonesia prides itself on moderately practiced religion and pluralism, its motto being “unity in diversity”. President Joko Widodo, a close ally of Ahok’s and the person who handed him the governor’s office when he ran for president, has sought to quell the recent furore.
After the November 4 protest, he cancelled a long-planned trade trip to Australia at the last minute so he could attempt to placate political opponents and religious leaders.
But it’s not just the anti-Ahok movement that is rehashing tired racist tropes. Old resentments are reappearing as Chinese business takes a growing interest in Indonesian investments.
Some Chinese-Indonesians are facilitating deals between the two countries, often through their positions on Indonesian public and private business associations.
Charlotte Setijadi, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak institute, has been researching how the shared ethnicity between a small elite of Chinese Indonesians has allowed them to assume a “bridging” role.
“Some also have personal networks and reputations as businessmen so they get asked for investment advice by both Chinese government officials and businesses,” she said.
Most Chinese-Indonesians do not speak Mandarin and cannot read Chinese letters Evi Sofian
“The majority of the time, they do not engage in the business deals themselves, but they get asked for advice or introductions to the relevant potential local partners and businesses.”
Chinese money is still not flowing into Indonesia as some would like. While on paper the number of China’s investments is growing, less than 10 per cent actually go ahead.
Regardless, the perception of close ties has created tension. The association of Chinese-Indonesians with a foreign country, especially one that has been a sometimes overwhelming power in the region, has often been used to reinforce suspicion from some native Indonesians, or pribumi, of outside interference.
“Even among the ethnic Chinese business community, there are those who are worried about Chinese-Indonesian businessmen being perceived as being too pro-China,” Setijadi said.
“So this is a complex and ongoing issue, and reflects the persistent undercurrent of suspicion towards Chinese-Indonesians, as well as their perceived belonging and economic dominance.”
There are frequent attacks in the media by various right-wing and Islamist pribumi groups that accuse Chinese-Indonesian businessmen and politicians of being China’s puppets.
Evi Sofian, an editor and journalist with the English-language Jakarta Post, is Chinese-Indonesian but has not been able to trace how long her family has been in the country.
“Many people are uncomfortable being associated with Beijing, as if we have our nationalism questioned,” she said. “Most Chinese-Indonesians do not speak Mandarin and cannot read Chinese letters. I am sure we are as blind as any Indonesian when it comes to Chinese culture.”