Chinese-Indonesians Caught Up in the Storm of Identity Politics

A day before the Nov. 4, 2016 (411) rally, a noodle seller near my apartment advised me to stay home because “we never know what could happen”. The feeling of trauma from the 1998 riots suddenly arose.

Instantly, I was reminded how the Chinese remain vulnerable in this multi-ethnic country, regardless of the survey by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting in December 2016, which found that only 0.8 percent of respondents hated ethnic Chinese.

The 2017 Jakarta election could be one of the triggers for hatred against Chinese-Indonesians, with Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama the central figure.

For Chinese-Indonesians, politics as a way of life is not really new. Everything seemed “fine” on the surface until Ahok announced his bid for a full fiveyear mandate as the governor of the capital city.

Offensive remarks like “Chinese dog” came from the mouth of a House of Representatives politician on March 6, 2015, and a racial tweet by then Indonesian ambassador to Japan Yusron Ihza Mahendra on March 28, 2016, both targeting Ahok, were just the beginning of the unfolding drama.

The track record of the Belitung native, who was born Zhong Wan Xue, is most likely the trigger for the waves of anti-China sentiment, either as an ethnicity or a country, which have been deliberately created in the frame of politics of identity. To some extent, this had already occurred in 2014, when the frontrunner presidential candidate, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was rumored to be of Chinese descent.

Those facts only confirm that, until today, Chinese-Indonesians continue to be perceived as a common enemy, if not a threat, to the status quo.

In her book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global instability ( 2004 ), Amy Chua underlines that even before the free market was booming in Indonesia, the inter-ethnic relationship dynamic had been full of prejudice, especially due to a perception that Chinese-Indonesians dominated the Indonesian economy.

As Jacques Bertrand puts it in his book Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia ( 2008 ), at a critical point, such sentiments (not limited to economic issues) could explode into physical attacks — especially if manipulated by certain parties.

This was evinced, for example, in an assault in August last year on Andrew Budikusuma, who was beaten by a group of people aboard a public bus simply because he was a Chinese-Indonesian, like Ahok.

The derogatory meaning of “cina” instilled by the New Order regime to refer to Chinese-Indonesians cannot easily disappear due to perpetuation of the homogenization and stereotyping of the ethnicity. One may deem the “anti-China” issue is being deliberately revived ahead of the Jakarta election, which, if true, only substantiates suspicion that discrimination against minority Chinese-Indonesians remains intact despite positive developments since 1998.

My younger siblings, who were born after 1998, are trying to understand what is happening as they witness the series of incidents and slurs targeting Chinese-Indonesians in the tumultuous months ahead of the Jakarta election.

I certainly cannot generalize that all Chinese-Indonesians feel insecure with these phenomena. But I think the 2017 Jakarta election is quite enough to make them renew their awareness of their identity as a minority.

Being part of a minority group and being conscious of being a minority are two very different things. Indeed, the Chinese ethnic grouping in Indonesia is absolutely minor in quantity with only 1.2 percent of the population (2010 census).

But its contributions cannot be considered “minor” if we look at Olympic gold medalists Susi Susanti, Alan Budikusuma and Liliyana Natsir, for example.

Consciousness of being a minority arises when the ethnic Chinese feel they are discriminated against simply because of their ethnic identity. Since I was a child, my parents have told me I belong to a minority group, which was why I would not be able to become the president because of my ethnicity.

Many deny that the anti-Ahok movement has arisen because of his ethnicity. But whatever the reason, it has not suddenly released the historical trauma, especially with the rising tones toward Chinese-Indonesians when demonstrations against Ahok take place, although oftentimes I convince myself that the movement has nothing to do with ethnicity but is only part of the politics of identity game, one that was intentionally created.

Minority groups can look at the longstanding issue of rights protection as a half-full glass. But the problem, as the noodle seller said, is “we never know what will happen”. Hopefully the spirit of respect for diversity, once championed by the late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, dubbed the father of Chinese-Indonesians, will outweigh shortterm political interests.

The Lunar New Year can be an appropriate time to recall the values of diversity and practice them in our daily life. Gong xi fa cai!

* * *

This article published on The Jakarta Post (Fri, January 27, 2017).
Photo source:

3 thoughts on “Chinese-Indonesians Caught Up in the Storm of Identity Politics

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