After Christian “Chris” John retired from professional boxing, he has devoted himself to helping Indonesia’s youth and promoting sports as his way to demonstrate his love for his country. Last year, the 39-year-old Chinese Indonesian, a former World Boxing Association featherweight champion, joined the National Democrat Party (NasDem) – headed by Indonesian media mogul Surya Paloh – and is now one of its parliamentary candidates running in Central Java province. He hopes to be elected as one of the province’s 77 representatives in the House of Representatives (DPR). If he wins, John hopes to push for more sports facilities in every Indonesian village “so that young people can have a proper training place”. John is among scores of Chinese Indonesians who are running in the country’s April 17 general election. A total of 7,968 candidates from 16 national political parties are vying for 575 DPR seats up for grabs. Chong Wu Ling, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies, said at least 26 Chinese Indonesian candidates are running for DPR seats. However, Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a researcher at the Centre for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said it is difficult to give an exact figure since some candidates may be using Indonesian names instead of their Chinese names. There are no exact official figures but ethnic Chinese - who have long faced discrimination - are thought to make up about 2 per cent of Indonesia’s population of more than 260 million. For John, being an ethnic Chinese candidate has not made much difference for him in the election. “So far, I do not think that my ethnicity has been a barrier in all my activities,” he said. But some other candidates interviewed by This Week in Asia said they still encounter racism on the campaign trail, and also have to grapple with problems such as money politics, and getting voters to know them and their platforms better since many of them are not well-known public figures. Indonesian Chinese still face discrimination. Can one Muslim make a difference in this election? Chong, author of the book, Chinese Indonesians in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Democratisation and Ethnic Minorities , said that the New Order regime under the late former president Suharto, who ruled the country from 1967 to 1998, restricted “Chinese Indonesians from actively getting involved in politics”. “Suharto, who was anti-communist, perceived the Chinese as a potential ‘fifth column’ of communist China who might threaten the security of Indonesia,” said Chong. “The regime therefore believed the Chinese [in Indonesia] needed to be depoliticised.” After Suharto’s fall in 1998, Chinese Indonesians were elected into the national parliament during the subsequent general elections. In 2014, 14 Chinese Indonesians were elected as DPR members. According to a CNN Indonesia report, 315 Chinese Indonesian legislative candidates took part in the 2014 polls, while 213 candidates contested in 2009. Chong said racist sentiments still play an important role in hindering Chinese Indonesians from running for public office, especially for the positions of local government heads such as governors and mayors. Despite such obstacles, Chong noted that Chinese Indonesians still play an important role in Indonesian politics now, from making financial contributions to bringing positive changes to Indonesian society as elected representative, such as former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama who tackled corruption during his time as Jakarta’s governor. Championing various causes Like most politicians in the country and elsewhere, the Chinese Indonesian candidates interviewed espouse mainly bread-and-butter issues, such as reducing the unemployment rate, fighting for workers’ rights and improving education. How social media inspired Indonesia’s born-again ‘hijrah’ Muslim millennials Running again for a parliamentary seat is 59-year-old Sofyan Tan, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late Indonesian founding father Sukarno. After winning a seat in the 2014 polls, he became a member of the DPR’s education commission. This time round, he will also run on the PDI-P ticket in North Sumatra, hoping to become one of its 30 representatives. Tan has three decades of experience in managing a school he built for the poor, Yayasan Perguruan Sultan Iskandar Muda, in Medan city. The school pays special attention to poor students and its curriculum teaches the importance of respecting the diversity of ethnic groups and religions in Indonesia. If he is re-elected, Sofyan said he would like to push for more research funding to explore areas that could help the nation build a better future. Anne Sulistijadewi, a 45-year-old Chinese Indonesian, hopes to represent West Java province, which has 91 seats in the DPR, as an Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) legislator. If elected, she wants to promote the implementation of vocational education. By taking part in politics, 48-year-old Surya Tjandra, hopes to debunk the stereotype that the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia “are only interested” in business and “do not care” about the country’s politics and social issues. Running on a PSI ticket in East Java province, he has been advocating for the rights of Indonesian workers and labour unions since 1994. If he is elected as one of East Java’s 87 legislators, Tjandra said he plans to manage the development funds allocated to his district in a transparent manner. He also plans to fight for social security, such as health insurance and pension, for workers. ‘Let’s copy Malaysia’: fake news stokes fears for Chinese Indonesians Ardy Susanto, a 34-year-old Chinese Indonesian parliamentary candidate from the National Awakening Party (PKB), is hoping to be second time lucky after losing the election in 2014. He is running in Banten province, which has 22 seats. “We have to make use of the freedom that we got after Reformasi to the fullest to build Indonesia,” he said, referring to the Indonesian word for post-Suharto era, “so there is no more [big] gap between the Chinese and non-Chinese”. He decided to join the Islamic party – currently led by Muhaimin Iskandar – because he said it is pluralist and openly accepts cadres across all religions, such as himself, a Catholic. For Susanto, the hardest challenge during his election campaign is to fight against“negative” trends, such as money politics and the fact that many do still not welcome pluralism. “Racism is still alive, especially [since] I am an ethnic Chinese youth,” he said. “The point is that identity politics still really influence the politics in Indonesia nowadays.” Are they for or against China? Apart from their ethnicity, Chinese Indonesian candidates also have to grapple with rising anti-China sentiments in the country. Siwage Dharma Negara, senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said that negative sentiments towards China and ethnic Chinese are still widespread in Indonesia, with the issue of social inequality often being used in politics to discredit Chinese Indonesians. Siwage added that those negative sentiments have resulted in the government’s more cautious approach towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A 2017 survey by the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies found that 32.8 per cent of the public believed that economic cooperation with China would hurt Indonesia’s economy. Only 11.7 per cent believed that such cooperation would be beneficial for the country. The Chinese Indonesian candidates interviewed felt that the country would benefit from economic cooperation with China. “I think we [Indonesia] will incur losses if we reject [China’s BRI],” Tan said. Tjandra thinks that for Indonesia to develop, it needs to work with China. “Debt trap could be prevented and overcome through mutually beneficial negotiations and agreements,” he said, in reference to concerns that countries which took part in the BRI might end up saddled with huge debts. Indonesia election: Widodo has courted Chinese cash. He’s about to find out the cost Sulistijadewi noted that BRI holds much potential for Indonesia because it is in line with President Joko Widodo’s Global Maritime Axis policy, which “aims to connect islands in Indonesia and develop its maritime infrastructure such as maritime highway”. Tjandra said that rumours about many Chinese workers being imported to Indonesia to work on the BRI projects had proved to be untrue. He added that the number of foreign workers in Indonesia, including those from China, is still much smaller than Indonesian workers who work abroad. John said he supports investments from China if they can help in Indonesia’s economic progress. “But if elected, I would not speak up for China’s interests but Indonesia’s interests,” he said. Susanto said he is “very supportive” of the BRI only if it brings prosperity for Indonesians. As parliamentary candidates strive to make their mark, Tan said that every Chinese who goes into politics has to understand that they are not in it solely for personal ends or gains. Apart from serving their constituents, they are in politics to also help “improve the dignity of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia”, and create “a base for our children and grandchildren in the future to participate more in Indonesian politics”.