In a year marked by high-stakes elections and divisive candidates, Indonesia has a contribution to make – the race for the governorship of Jakarta and blunt-speaking candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

The gubernatorial election is considered the second most important in the world’s largest Muslim democracy and a springboard to the presidency. This year is particularly interesting because of the controversy surrounding the leading candidate – the incumbent Basuki, more commonly known by his Hakka Chinese name, Ahok.

A Christian and an ethnic Chinese minority, Basuki is accused of blasphemy regarding a campaign speech in September in which he suggested voters were being misled by those who cited the Koran as saying they should not vote for non-Muslims. He is now facing a trial that could lead to a lengthy jail term. The incident also triggered some of the largest protests Jakarta has seen in recent years.

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Still, Basuki and his deputy scored the most votes (42.9 per cent) in the first round of the 2017 election last week. But as no side managed to get 50 per cent of the votes, the election will now go to a second round.

The campaign against Basuki is complicated. His ethnicity is not the most important factor. Nonetheless, the drama did trigger anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia. With a long history of persecution, the Chinese community is duly worried. Hate speech towards ethnic Chinese has surged recently, with fake news being circulated about local Chinese colluding with Beijing, harbouring evil plans. The most far-fetched stories included a Chinese plan to invade Indonesia and Beijing using “biological weapons” (contaminated chilli seeds) to destroy the Indonesian economy.

Ironically, most people in China are blissfully oblivious to the news, which receives little coverage in the mainland media. When asked, a mainland editor shrugged. “No, there is no order to censor it. People just don’t care and they are not interested.”

This is perhaps a reflection of the plight faced by many Chinese Indonesians. Even though their forefathers were among the first settlers of the archipelago and built the modern city of Jakarta, Chinese Indonesians have always been eyed with suspicion by the local population. Yet, back in China, they are seldom remembered. To appreciate their situation, it’s worth remembering how Jakarta came into being.

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Modern Jakarta was founded by Dutch captain Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who was sent by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to explore the lucrative pepper trade in Indonesia. Coen, a capable but ruthless leader, seized the port town in 1619 and razed it to the ground. On the smouldering ruins of old Jakarta, he wanted to build a Dutch stronghold to funnel the VOC’s trade in Asia. The newly named Batavia was 10,000 miles from Holland by the way of the Cape of Good Hope. Coen struggled to find workers to complete his ambitious project.

Long before the arrival of the Dutch, the lure of pepper had brought the Chinese to Java and Sumatra. Coen saw the Chinese as the answer to his problem – they were less hostile than the locals and had rich knowledge in city building. The demand for Chinese labour was so high that in the early years of the city’s history, Chinese people were abducted and brought to Batavia to build the city. Dutch historian Leonard Blussé described Batavia as a “Chinese city under Dutch protection”. Many stayed and married Balinese slaves brought to the city by the Western colonisers.

The Dutch diverted Chinese traders to Batavia by blockading ports in eastern Sumatra. Soon, Chinese junks started to frequent Batavia. In 1694, more than two million pounds of pepper were sold to 20 Chinese junks – more than an average European country consumed in a whole year at the time. The Dutch pulled out of direct trade with China and allowed the Chinese ships to visit the archipelago without permits – a privilege they did not extend to fellow European merchants. They carefully managed the Chinese settlers, preventing them from mingling with the locals. By playing the two sides against each other, Coen maintained his iron grip on the city.

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The cosy ties between the Dutch and the Chinese did not last. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, many Chinese, particularly those in Fujian ( 福建 ) and Guangdong, fled from the Manchurian conquerors to Southeast Asia. They started working in sugar plantations owned by local Chinese. By 1710, surviving records showed that 79 out of the 84 sugar plantations near Batavia were owned by the Chinese. By the 1730s, 50 per cent of the 24,000 Batavia population were Chinese. The Dutch soon started to impose immigration quotas and heavy taxation on the Chinese.

The situation developed into a full-blown crisis when the market for Batavian sugar collapsed in the late 1730s. The VOC authorities planned to solve the unemployment problem by shipping countryside Chinese to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Rumours started to emerge that they planned to throw the Chinese into the sea. Chinese workers revolted, attacking the walls of the city. The uprising was quickly put down and retribution was swift and severe. The Dutch encouraged the local population to join their attacks on Chinese homes and businesses. Thousands of Chinese houses were plundered and torched. Some 10,000 Chinese lost their lives in the 1740 massacre – the first of many anti-Chinese violent episodes in Indonesia.

Today, though ethnic Chinese make up just 4 per cent of Indonesia’s population, they are resented due to their economic success. Many of Indonesia’s wealthiest tycoons are ethnic Chinese. Anti-Chinese sentiments regularly flare up and the Chinese population is often accused of being China’s fifth column.

It should be remembered that historically most Chinese immigrants came to Southeast Asia as refugees, escaping from political turbulence or civil wars. Unlike Coen, they were not organised nor sent by their government to conquer and colonise. Many were fearful and suspicious of Beijing themselves. They settled and prospered in their new homes. While many remain proud of their cultural heritage, they have no political affiliation or loyalty towards the authorities in China.

Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations