Chinese-Indonesian’s rise a worry for some

Chinese-Indonesians pray at a temple in Jakarta's Chinatown February 5, 2017. — Picture by Kemal Jufri/The New York Times
Chinese-Indonesians pray at a temple in Jakarta's Chinatown February 5, 2017. — Picture by Kemal Jufri/The New York Times

JAKARTA, Feb 12 — It was Chinese New Year, which at Ryan Gozali’s household usually involves eating an elaborate banquet while younger relatives are nagged about when they’re getting married.

But Gozali, 33 and unmarried, was off the hook this year. The family instead spent New Year’s glued to the television, watching Basuki Purnama, Jakarta’s ethnically Chinese governor, debating his opponents before the election Wednesday.

When Basuki landed a jab at an opponent who had accused him of disrespecting Islam, the family let out a cheer.

The race for governor of Jakarta has consumed Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese, who are divided about whether Basuki, known universally by his Hakka Chinese nickname, Ahok, is good or bad for them. Chinese-Indonesians make up between 1 and 4 percent of the population of Indonesia, a majority Muslim nation.

Despite that small number, the minority is resented because of its perceived economic success; many of the nation’s wealthiest tycoons are ethnically Chinese.

The governorship is widely seen as a steppingstone to the presidency, and Islamist efforts to stop Basuki, a Christian, led to anti-Basuki rallies in the capital that were among the largest protests in recent memory. Though the demonstrations were largely nonviolent, protesters called for Basuki to be voted down, imprisoned — even killed.

Basuki, 50, has risen higher than any other Chinese-Indonesian politician since the nation began transitioning to democracy in 1998. He received nationwide attention for exposing corrupt bureaucrats and pushing back against the rise of conservative Islam, including by prohibiting Jakarta public schools from requiring female Muslim students to wear a head scarf.

Headscarves worn by some public schoolchildren “look like napkins,” Basuki said last year when announcing this policy, using language that opponents considered inflammatory.

“Probably the napkins in my kitchen are better,” he said. “The moment they leave school and hop on their dad’s motorbike, they tear them off right away.”

Basuki’s brash political style — he is on trial on blasphemy allegations after making polarizing remarks about the Quran — has led some prominent Chinese-Indonesians to denounce him for disrupting Indonesia’s delicate ethnic balance.

The tense political situation has contributed to a spike in hate speech toward ethnic Chinese, who tend not to be Muslim. One of the rallies concluded with the looting of stores in a Chinese-dominated Jakarta neighborhood.

Gozali, like many younger Chinese-Indonesians, wholeheartedly supports Basuki.

“There will always be danger for the Chinese community here anyway,” Gozali said. “We may as well have our knight in shining armor.” He argued that Islamist politicians were simply looking for an excuse to bring down an effective minority politician.

Gozali acknowledged that some Chinese-Indonesians, especially in the older generation, felt differently. “My mom’s friend isn’t voting for Ahok because she’s scared Chinese will be made scapegoats again,” he said.

Indonesia’s Chinese population has a long history of being persecuted. For three decades during the Suharto years, Chinese-Indonesians were accused of being in league with the Chinese government and forbidden to study at Chinese-language schools or publicly celebrate Chinese holidays.

After Suharto, the authoritarian president, fell in 1998, anti-Chinese riots swept cities throughout Sumatra and Java Island, after provocateurs blamed Chinese business interests for Indonesia’s economic crisis.

Then a teenager, Gozali fled to Singapore in the middle of the night, returning to Indonesia in 2011. “I still have an emotional connection to Indonesia,” he said. “It’s my home no matter what. It’s Ahok who made me believe that again.”

But some Chinese-Indonesians worry that Basuki’s combative political style is disastrous for their community. Jaya Suprana, 68, a pianist and cultural figure whose father was killed in Indonesia’s 1965 anti-communist purge, which targeted Chinese-Indonesians, wrote an open letter to Basuki pleading with him to behave more courteously.

Ryan Gozali, a Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur, at an abandoned building gutted during the 1998 riots targeting the Chinese-Indonesian community in Jakarta February 5, 2017. — Picture by Kemal Jufri/The New York Times
Ryan Gozali, a Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur, at an abandoned building gutted during the 1998 riots targeting the Chinese-Indonesian community in Jakarta February 5, 2017. — Picture by Kemal Jufri/The New York Times

“Hatred toward Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese hasn’t disappeared,” he wrote, suggesting that Basuki’s behavior was fanning the flames.

In typical fashion, Basuki denounced Jaya as having a “second-class brain,” when the letter was published in 2015.

In an email interview, Jaya joked that he appreciated that the governor had at least “acknowledged that I have a brain even if it’s only a second-class one.” Jaya wrote that the governor’s “crude behavior” had the potential “to spark hatred toward everyone who shares Ahok’s ethnicity and religion.”

Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said one reason that Jakarta’s governor was polarising was that he freely expressed his Chinese cultural identity, whereas most other Chinese-Indonesian politicians were more discreet.

“Ahok seems to be trailblazing for younger Chinese-Indonesians,” Tobias said. “He’s nationalist while also being Chinese.”

In previous campaigns, Basuki wore traditional Chinese dress and even referred to ethnic Chinese as being “pork lard-faced” to make light of ethnic differences. “Now, with all the politicking, I’m wondering if that really is the wisest thing,” he added.

Complicating things for Chinese-Indonesians, the governor’s rise has overlapped with China’s growing assertiveness as a Pacific power.

Dozens of fake news stories have been circulating about China’s negative intentions for Indonesia. Among the claims are that the Chinese government has announced it will invade Indonesia to protect Chinese-Indonesians, and that China is poisoning Indonesians by exporting contaminated chili seeds.

Christine Susanna Tjhin, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the fake news might be intended to target Chinese-Indonesians even though a majority “are actually quite disconnected from mainland Chinese,” in part because of decades of Suharto government assimilation policies.

On the other hand, China’s rise may serve to bolster the security of Chinese-Indonesians. Southeast Asian leaders “all need good relations with China for various projects in the region, so they, I would assume, understand the importance of protecting their ethnic Chinese communities,” said Charlotte Setijadi, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The anti-Basuki demonstrations were heavily policed, and few, if any, Chinese-Indonesians were injured. President Joko Widodo, a pluralist who has strengthened ties with China, vigorously denounced fake news stories that targeted Chinese-Indonesians.

Nonetheless, the drama for Indonesia’s Chinese population appears far from over. Basuki remains popular with middle-class Jakartans of all ethnicities and has rebounded in the polls since being charged with blasphemy in November. He is facing two charismatic opponents whose camps have fanned Islamist sentiment against him.

If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote Wednesday, a runoff will be held, which could lead to more demonstrations if Basuki advances. A decision on his blasphemy case isn’t expected until March. If he is convicted he will most likely be required to resign from the governorship and potentially spend years in prison.

Basuki was promoted to governor two years ago after Joko was elected president, so this is his first time facing election for governor.

Some community leaders worry that Basuki’s travails will discourage other Chinese-Indonesians from seeking office. Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnically Chinese business partner of President Donald Trump’s, said he would not be deterred from running for president in 2019.

“I do not want to be compared with Ahok,” he said in an interview. “I just want to move forward.”

But Gozali, the entrepreneur whose family supports Basuki, said the racism unleashed during the campaign would make it difficult to move on if Basuki lost.

A photo of Gozali showing his support for the governor was recently plucked from his personal Facebook page and spread on the web, with the leading comment saying: “Typical rotten Chinese brain. Bunch of shady immigrants from China with false IDs.”

“It’s not about Ahok anymore,” Gozali said. “It’s an ideological war now. Are we going to be treated as second-class citizens?” — The New York Times

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