Who are Indonesia’s Ethnic Chinese?

The mention of “Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese” invites curious reactions. In Australia alone, there are a number of popular images portraying them, the most common being, “rich but corrupt and unscrupulous in robbing the country by colluding with equally corrupt officials”, and “despised and always brutally victimized, psychologically and physically”, Dewi Anggraeni writes.Unless you are interested enough to read specialist books and scholarly papers on the issues, those popular images, and little else, are what you see.

The complexity of the ethnic Chinese situation rarely interests the public, and curiously, not even the ethnic Chinese themselves.

The reality is, each image has a degree of truth in it, though alone, a distorted picture.
And there is no single image, as Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese do not belong to one group, be it social, political or cultural.

Chinese traders have been sailing south, arriving in the now-Indonesian archipelago at least from the 12th century.

Some historians believe the Chinese have been in the archipelago since 5th century. Many who came on the trading ships decided to stay, marry local women and contribute to local community lives with their various skills, thus occupying various social classes according to the functions they filled.

Their descendants may have had fairer skin and narrower eyes, but as the generation progressed, culturally as well as psychologically, many would become more local than Chinese.
In the process, the communities benefited from their skills and cultural input into the local mores.

The Chineseness of some may have been renewed from time-to-time when their daughters married men who came with the next wave of traders.

During the Ming dynasty in the fifteenth century, expeditions into the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean had enlisted many of the states as Chinese tributaries and trading partners. Those who decided to stay in the archipelago, did so with varying degrees of dignity.

The arrival of the Dutch East India Company, known as the VOC, heralded a drastic change in the status of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.

In Batavia (now Jakarta) for instance, VOC Governor-General Jan Pieterzoon Coen, wanting to build a European-style society, badly needed dependable labor. In 1622, he sent ships to China to kidnap people on the coast to be brought back as laborers, skilled and unskilled.

Seen in today’s context, this was a horrible act. However it coincided with difficult social-political situations in China, where many families whose livelihood depended on the land and the agrarian network were driven into poverty. So instead of avoiding further kidnappings, those who were still in China actively sought recruitment by trading ships leaving for the southeast and elsewhere.

In the late 19th century women were also among the newcomers, mostly accompanying their husbands or other relatives.

By that time the ethnic Chinese and their descendants had become part of Dutch East Indies society, shaped or forced into shape by various legal and political constraints imposed by the colonial authorities, as well as by social and cultural forces coming from the indigenous population and their own preferences.

A monolith however, they never were. Those who went to Dutch schools (specially founded for the Chinese) tended to develop emotional attachments to Dutch culture.

The ones who went to Chinese schools (founded by Chinese social organizations) tended to feel more strongly Chinese, and there were also variants of the two groups who sympathized in varying degrees with the nascent Indonesian nationalism among the indigenous people.

A number even voluntarily assumed Indonesian names long before there were official directives to do so. The rise of China’s nationalism at the turn of 20th century also contributed to the revival of Chinese nationalism and sense of identity among those in Indonesia.

In day-to-day lives they rode through the diversity in the same manner as they accepted other facts of life. From time to time however, some political situations forced these differences to the surface, while others blurred them into bland similarities, at least when seen from outside.

After World War II, in the years following Indonesia’s independence on Aug. 17, 1945, especially when the Dutch ceded power in 1949, the issue of loyalty and identity became urgent.

The ethnic Chinese community, merely 4 percent of the population, found themselves having to make decisions almost overnight, whether to accept Chinese citizenship or refuse it and become Indonesian citizens. Many took the latter option.

Then, doubts and insecurity began to set in. Despite being citizens, they were still treated as foreigners — a legacy of the Dutch administration where they were classed and placed apart from the majority indigenous population.

Businesses operated by citizens of ethnic Chinese for example, were categorized as foreign companies and subjected to discriminatory legislation. Of course domestic politics also played an important role here.

This unfortunate situation intensified during Soeharto’s New Order period, where for three decades — 1966 to 1998 — the ethnic Chinese were effectively barred from so many occupations by incredibly numerous measures, that practically the only avenue open for them was to operate businesses.

Then deprived of any political power, they were also driven to collude with corrupt officials in order to continue operating their businesses.

This inevitably generated a great deal of resentment among rival indigenous business operators. The ethnic Chinese became the officials’ milking cows and the proxy punching bags for the indigenous population angry with the rampant corruption.

The May 1998 riots, accompanied by physical and sexual assaults, brought the situation to a head. Many Chinese left and sought permanent residence elsewhere, and many are still traumatized.

Abdurrahman Wahid’s win at a post-New Order 1999 election to a great extent redressed the sad situation. The ethnic Chinese felt they were now given the necessary space for their cultural expression again, though many were still confused, and many were no longer sure what their identities were, other than Indonesian.

Interestingly, even though Chinese New Year and related festivities have now been celebrated since 2000, they have not made all ethnic Chinese more Chinese than before, just more free to enjoy the fun.

Negative images etched into public consciousness for decades may take a while to erase, but successive post-New Order governments have been generally moving in the right direction.
Discriminatory legislation is gradually being discarded, and more important, the national media on the whole makes a point of avoiding discriminatory remarks in their reporting.

Active participation on the part of the ethnic Chinese themselves however, is imperative if we want the door to dialog kept open and the path toward broader acceptance increasingly smoother.

The writer is a journalist.