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Indonesia's Ethnic Chinese Stake Hope In New Political Leaders

Since Indonesia transitioned to democracy in the late 1990s, life for the long-suffering ethnic Chinese population has gradually improved. It's about to get even better.

 Indonesia Chinese celebrate the Chap Go Meh ceremony in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2012
Indonesia Chinese celebrate the Chap Go Meh ceremony in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2012
Chen Lixiong

JAKARTA — An old woman who owns a traditional Chinese medical massage shop in Kelapa Gading, a north Jakarta neighborhood where Chinese-Indonesians are concentrated, points to a billboard that is in Chinese characters, which used to be banned on all public signs. She notes that her 50-year-old daughter was only allowed to study Chinese for a limited time back when she was in school, whereas today her grandson speaks fluent Chinese.

This reflects the complex history of the local Chinese people. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese include people with diverse political tendencies, wealth and religious beliefs. According to Indonesia's latest census, there are 2.8 million ethnic Chinese living in the country. This accounts for 1.2% of the total population, the majority of whom are Muslim.

In 1966, military strongman Suharto came to power and carried out an assimilation policy for Chinese Indonesians. Chinese media outlets, Chinese education and even Chinese community associations were all prohibited.

One of the darkest days for the Indonesian Chinese occurred in May 1998, when the prior year's economic crisis led to anti-Chinese riots in the major cities of this archipelago state. Even more shocking than the looting, killing and setting fire to shops were the organized rapes of ethnic Chinese women. The crisis helped lead to the eventual fall of the dictatorial Suharto.

What followed was the reformasi era. With political democratization, Indonesia started to transform into a society that slowly embraced diversity. Succeeding Suharto in 1998, President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie revoked the use of terms such as "indigenous" and "non-indigenous." In 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid further lifted the ban on Chinese religion and customs. And in 2002, President Megawati Sukarnoputri made the Chinese New Year a national public holiday.

Several Indonesian ethnic Chinese pray in Bali for the Chinese New Year celebration, in February 2010. — Photo : Johannes P. Christo/ZUMA

Reasons for optimism

There are reasons to believe the improved conditions will get even better. The most intense presidential election in Indonesian history came to an end July 22, when grassroots candidate Joko Widodo defeated former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto. The incoming president, widely known as Jokowi, has consistently expressed support for embracing Indonesia's diversity, whereas his opponent had been linked in the past to anti-Chinese riots.

"Chinese business people all supported Widodo," one campaigner says.

And Widodo political ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is now Jakarta's acting governor who will soon officially replace the president-elect. It's the highest political position an ethic Chinese has ever attained in Indonesia. Indonesians also like to call him Ahok, an affectionate nickname in Chinese Hakka dialect. With his tenacious character, he has vowed to work as governor to make the chaotic capital’s bureaucratic system more efficient, and find solutions for its serious traffic jams. He is also combating rampant corruption, even publicizing his own salary online.

Leo Suryadinata, an Indonesian expert in Chinese history, has described Basuki as "a glimmer of hope" and "Indonesia's symbol." Though certain people do not like him, many ethnic Chinese and native Indonesians worship him. "He represents a new type of politician," he says.

In March, outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose term ends in October, decided to readjust the official — and derogatory — terms referring to China and Chinese Indonesians. Instead of Tjina, a defamatory word for China that originated under Suharto and was used for nearly half a century, the official word for the country is now Tionghoa.

As Indonesia's attitude towards ethnic Chinese has shifted, the relationship between Indonesia and China has also improved. Last fall, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a rare speech to the Indonesian parliament. He spoke of the Suramadu Bridge, which the two countries constructed jointly, and advocated for building an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

So to what extent does Indonesian society really accept the ethnic Chinese?

Suryadinata, the Indonesian expert in Chinese history, says that there's always a gap between formulating reform and executing it. People who are accustomed to the ideology of the Suharto era aren't going to change their mentalities overnight. Even the possibility of anti-Chinese violence can't be altogether dismissed if ever there is another acute economic crisis.

"It took Suharto 32 years to forge Indonesians' (negative) attitude towards ethnic Chinese," the expert says. "It will take probably another 32 years for them to change their state of mind again."

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