By Julie Sheetz, graduate student at Harvard University
A quick read through an Indonesian newspaper will usually reveal a myriad of local opinions about China: fears about competition from China’s manufacturers, concerns about Chinese demand for natural resources, and ongoing discussion about how to balance relations with China and the United States as Indonesia takes its rightful place in international discussions about global development. Yet, for all that these discussions are familiar to those elsewhere in Asia and around the world, they belie the legacy of Indonesia’s particular historical relationship with China and the continued domestic tensions between ethnic Indonesians and their Chinese-Indonesian counterparts.
Successive democratic governments have done too little to rectify the scars of the past by investigating the cases of violence that occurred during the 1998 riots, preferring public amnesia to justice. And their choices have paid off: as the years wear on there is less and less interest in these events among the wider population. Still, this means that equally little progress has been made on addressing the underlying popular attitudes that led to a scapegoating of this segment of society. As such, despite a veneer of progress – the institutionalization of Chinese New Year as a national holiday and the explosion of Chinese language instruction for example – traditional prejudices remain just beneath the surface.
This fact is particularly obvious in domestic news coverage of anti-corruption measures, and the almost inevitable involvement of a Chinese-Indonesian in exposed scandals. Certainly, Chinese-Indonesians should do more to police corrupt practices, but the reality is that Indonesia’s business community at large is plagued by corruption. The emphasis on a particular corrupt businessman’s ethnic background says nothing about how to combat this scourge.
Moreover, continued accusations of Chinese-Indonesian disloyalty discourage members of this community from becoming active partners in Indonesia’s contemporary project. Those who have stepped into the limelight have often paid the price. Minister of Trade Mari Pangestu, a Chinese-Indonesian herself, has been criticized by many for selling Indonesia’s economy to China through the implementation of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Although the agreement was signed years before Ibu Mari took office, this element of her ethnic background has led to harsh attacks, especially from local manufacturers’ associations and religious extremists.
This episode is only the latest retelling of a common refrain for other members of the community who have attempted to enter politics or to engage with the state in business. As such, beyond actual discrimination, the threat of discrimination is salient. For many Chinese-Indonesians in the business community especially, the fear of being labeled disloyal has precluded them from making deals with Chinese firms. Some have even prolonged the hedging strategies that emerged immediately after the riots by keeping assets overseas in case Indonesians once again turn against this minority.
While it is clear that the twelve years since the fall of Suharto have not been long enough to do away with some of the worst impacts of his rule, the trends are cause for concern. Chinese-Indonesians comprise only about 4% of the Indonesian population, but their disproportionate footprint on Indonesia’s business sector and entrepreneurship puts resolving these obstacles to integration in line with the interest of overall domestic economic growth. Indeed, as China itself is a country so steeped in historical memory, Indonesia’s failure to move beyond discrimination of Chinese-Indonesians continues to be a stumbling block for business to business relations between the two countries. For these reasons and more, Indonesians can ill afford to allow such a stain on their national image to persist.