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How Indonesia’s pribumi elite view the ethnic Chinese today

The burning and plundering of several Buddhist temples last weekend in the city of Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra have sparked concerns about anti-Chinese sentiments, with Indonesia’s second-biggest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, calling for greater religious and racial tolerance. The Indonesian authorities had said the incident was incited by social media, and to date, 12 people have been charged with robbery and vandalism. Dr Johanes Herlijanto, a Fellow with the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute researching Sino-Indonesian relations, analyses how Indonesia’s indigenous elite view the country’s minority Chinese community.

How Indonesia’s pribumi elite view the ethnic Chinese today

Protesters marching through the streets of Jakarta to mark the anniversary of bloody riots which led to the downfall of President Suharto in 1998. The riots also targeted the dominance of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

The burning and plundering of several Buddhist temples last weekend in the city of Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra have sparked concerns about anti-Chinese sentiments, with Indonesia’s second-biggest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, calling for greater religious and racial tolerance. The Indonesian authorities had said the incident was incited by social media, and to date, 12 people have been charged with robbery and vandalism. Dr Johanes Herlijanto, a Fellow with the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute researching Sino-Indonesian relations, analyses how Indonesia’s indigenous elite view the country’s minority Chinese community.

In April, a large group calling itself the Jakarta Community Movement (GMJ) demonstrated outside Jakarta City Hall. The rally was one of many events organised in recent months demanding the resignation of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (who is known as Ahok) from his position as Governor of the Indonesian capital, or at the very least, his defeat in the next gubernatorial election.

Broadly, the protesters allege that the policies adopted by this ethnic Chinese governor benefit only ethnic Chinese tycoons at the expense of poor Jakartans — many of whom are “pribumi” (indigenous) Indonesians.

While the backdrop to this is resentment against wealthy Chinese Indonesians, this nevertheless marks the re-emergence of a negative perception of this ethnic minority as a whole.

In the last decade, the bias against Chinese Indonesians had been in decline thanks to the promotion of multiculturalism, the government’s decision to abolish discriminatory laws and regulations, and efforts made by Chinese Indonesians to improve their image and position in Indonesian society.

Today, negative views of ethnic Chinese are proliferating again. Messages warning pribumi Indonesians of domination by various groups of Chinese (including migrants from China) have been circulating widely on social media over the past few months. The same theme is also apparent at regular forums organised by various groups of political activists.

This phenomenon evokes several questions: How similar or different are the current negative perceptions of ethnic Chinese compared to the ones that existed in the past? Do recent developments in Sino-Indonesia relations play a role in the shaping of these perceptions? What has happened to the more sympathetic atmosphere seen at the beginning of the post-Suharto era?


Old stereotypes of ethnic Chinese as descendants of foreigners who dominate the economy, yet have a questionable political loyalty to Indonesia, still persist.

Public expression of these sentiments saw a steady decline in the mid-1990s — before the 1997 Asian financial crisis — as a result of the growing confidence of the Indonesian middle class. Since the beginning of the reformasi era, public views of Chinese Indonesians — the main victims of the May 1998 riots — have become more sympathetic, alongside the adoption of a series of more accommodative policies toward this group by post-New Order governments. Hence, the re-emergence of anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia’s public sphere, and especially among members of the elite, deserves special attention.

Such sentiments are apparent among the pribumi elite. They include leaders of several Islamic organisations, nationalists who harbour suspicions against foreign powers (in their words, asing [foreign] and aseng [a Chinese name, referring to China and the ethnic Chinese]), and some in elite circles who were already in mid-career in the last years of the Suharto era.

Their fears appear rooted in the possible Chinese economic, cultural, and political domination of the pribumi majority. Heightened cultural expressions and the political participation of ethnic Chinese are among the concerns that these members of the elite often mention.

Already in 2012, Professor A. Dahana, a senior historian and sinologist from the University of Indonesia, raised his concerns regarding a backlash against the ‘over-celebration’ of Chinese cultural identity. While a large-scale protest against this cultural celebration is not observable yet, complaints about the ubiquity of Chinese culture have been apparent in less publicized conversations and discussions among the pribumi elite. In an interview, a senior expert in Indonesian politics and security revealed that he regarded the frequent appearance of the lion dance and other forms of Chinese culture to be an intimidation of pribumi communities.

The tendency among some ethnic Chinese to keep identifying themselves as victims has also induced an unpleasant response from some elite pribumi Indonesians. In their view, such an identification contradicts the fact that many years after Indonesia entered the reformasi era, the ethnic Chinese continue to enjoy a dominant position in the economy, as they did during the New Order period, and to have prominence in the country’s politics.

More than the expression of Chinese cultural identity, it is the political participation of Chinese Indonesians that is hotly discussed by the pribumi elite groups. This should be understood in light of the argument that 70 per cent of the Indonesian economy is in the hands of the Chinese, an argument which President Suharto himself already publicised in 1968 in a talk in Tokyo. This “Myth of Chinese Domination” became popular again almost three decades later, following a statement made by an Australian analyst, Michael Backman, who stated that “Sino-Indonesians control approximately 73 per cent of listed firms by market capitalization.” Whatever the case, despite the economic power that some of them have, the ethnic Chinese in general were kept as a “politically weak minority” under the New Order government.

But a different picture has emerged today. In the mind of many pribumi Indonesians, the ethnic Chinese today are making political inroads. They cite Chinese Indonesian politicians such as Hasan Karman (former mayor of Singkawang), Christiandy Sanjaya (the vice governor of the West Kalimantan), Ahok, and his younger brother, Basuri Tjahaja Purnama (former regent of the East Belitung). Ahok’s wish to contest in Jakarta’s next gubernatorial election, his dream of becoming president of Indonesia and his political party’s preparation to contest in the next nationwide general elections are popularly cited examples of Chinese eagerness to advance politically.

A popular view is that after dominating the Indonesian economy, the Chinese are now attempting to dominate Indonesian politics as well.

For these people, Ahok’s political success is part of a larger strategy by the ethnic Chinese for domination of other Indonesians.

In the view of Ismail Yusanto, a top leader of the Islamic organization, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the strategy is implemented in three different steps—while the ethnic Chinese during the New Order period used their close relationship with the ruling elite to influence the decision-making process, in the reformasi era, they have adopted two different strategies, that is, “owning” the country’s ruling elites by becoming their financiers, and making an attempt to become the rulers themselves. This belief is bolstered by several developments: the rise of Chinese Indonesian politicians, ethnic Chinese tycoon behaviour and the strengthening Sino-Indonesia relations.

Ethnic Chinese tycoons are strengthening business networks in collaboration with ethnic Chinese businessmen from other countries. For example, Mochtar Riady, a senior Chinese Indonesian tycoon, reportedly invited Chinese entrepreneurs from all over the world to invest their money in Indonesian property, infrastructures, and mining. The invitation was announced during the 13th conference of the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention organized in Bali in September 2015. This call was greeted with alarm by some members of the pribumi elite, some of whom interpreted this as an invitation to “colonize” the Indonesian economy in these three fields.

Indeed, property building and the possession of land by ethnic Chinese are two related issues that have become central to the discourse regarding the domination of Indonesia by the ethnic Chinese. Dr. Sri Bintang Pamungkas, a well-known scholar and politician who is popular for his courage in criticizing Suharto in the early 1990s, discussed the possession of a large amount of land in Bandung and many other West Java cities by the descendants of an ethnic Chinese businessman. He also expressed concern over a plan by a group of ethnic Chinese businessman, including the Riady family, to build a port and other facilitating infrastructures in Cirebon, because it would allow the city to be dominated by the Chinese, as Bandung already is.

The fear of domination by the Chinese has become more widespread in recent years. It also builds on the suspicion that a large number of Chinese from Mainland China will migrate to Indonesia, and hence swell the ranks of ethnic Chinese already in this country. This suspicion began to appear in late May 2015, following a statement made by China’s Vice Premier, Madam Liu Yandong, during her visit to Jakarta. Madam Liu’s declaration that China would further promote its relations with Indonesia througwh people-to-people exchanges incited concern about a massive arrival of Chinese migrants to Indonesia. For some groups of pribumi elite, these migrants may also be very rich.

In a message circulated through his Twitter account, Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin, a former chairperson of the General Election Commission (KPU) shared his view that Ahok’s policies, which according to him have significantly increased living costs in Jakarta, would drive out the economically weak residents of the city (many of whom are pribumis). Jakarta would in turn be dominated not only by Chinese Indonesians, but also by Chinese from other parts of the world, including China.

While the message was already circulating in late January 2016, the explanation began to gain credibility later in April 2016, after the project of land reclamation in the Bay of Jakarta came to public attention. The suspicion that the properties on the artificial islands would be sold to Mainland Chinese became widespread, especially after the circulation of a Mandarin version of the advertisement for an apartment and shopping complex to be built on one of those islands.

Jakarta is not the only region the pribumi elite worry could be dominated by the Chinese. The good relationship between the current Indonesian government and China has enabled the latter to invest in several large infrastructure projects in several parts of this country. While most of these are conducted in collaboration with the Indonesian government or state-owned companies, they are believed to benefit ethnic Chinese businessmen who may be regarding these projects as an opportunity to expand their property businesses by building apartment or shopping complexes near the area where the projects are undertaken.

The Bandung-Jakarta high speed train project is one example often mentioned. This project is funded through a loan from China Development Bank, and is going to be constructed by China Railway International Co. Ltd. Rumors that a large amount of land close to several spots in the train network is in the possession of an ethnic Chinese tycoon have raised suspicions over his influence in the design of the project.

In short, the fear of ethnic Chinese domination of Indonesia includes the suspicion of an alliance among the ethnic Chinese, the Indonesian bureaucrats (including certain pribumi bureaucrats) and China. In this “imagined conspiracy”, both the government and the people of the new superpower are seen to be playing several different roles, from buyers of properties, financiers of infrastructure projects, to being a foreign power that can have significant influence on Chinese Indonesian politicians.


To be sure, there are many members of the pribumi elite who have sympathetic and inclusive views of the ethnic Chinese. Ordinary ethnic Chinese are to some extent seen as a group of people separate from ethnic Chinese tycoons and politicians.

Even those who are critical of the ethnic Chinese nevertheless feel that some are better than others in terms of their Indonesian nationalism. Most believe that Chinese Indonesians are first and foremost Indonesians, citing heros such as Rear Admiral John Lie, an ethnic Chinese who served with the Indonesian Navy soon after the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia, as an example of a Chinese Indonesian who participated in the country’s struggle for independence.

Some leaders of NGOs and workers’ unions not only have a sympathetic view of the ethnic Chinese but also wish they would be more deeply involved in their movements. As Arif Nur Alam, a leader of a group of NGOs calling themselves ‘Nawacita Coalition’, declared, he and his colleagues “are proud and ready to give support if a Chinese Indonesian is willing to become a leader, because such participation will contribute to a better democratic atmosphere in Indonesia” and help to neutralise the ethnic issue. As a young worker union leader has observed, resentment toward individual Chinese Indonesians is usually more based on their status as employer or representative of the company, rather than on their ethnic background.

Finally, the government elite’s perception of the ethnic Chinese is also important to observe. In an article recently published by General (retired) Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for the Politics, Law, and Security, he argued that the categorization of the ethnic Chinese as the non pribumi is no longer acceptable, because Chinese Indonesians are a part of Indonesia and therefore should be treated like other Indonesians.

During my interviews with several government officials, including military officers, several said the same thing. For example, Mrs. Ina Krisnamurthi, a top official in the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that the ethnic difference between Chinese Indonesians and other ethnic groups in the country was not a source of concern anymore. For this Javanese lady, the Chinese Indonesians are as Indonesian as she is. ‘We already moved on from this ethnic issue, we should move on,’ she declared.

The perception of ethnic Chinese among members of the pribumi Indonesian elite is not uniform. While some segments of the pribumi elite hold a negative view of Chinese Indonesians, others tend to have more tolerant and sympathetic attitudes. However, the recent resurgence of negative sentiments is worth special attention.


Johanes Herlijanto is an Associate Fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This piece was adapted from a longer piece in ISEAS Perspective.

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