JAKARTA • China's embassy in Indonesia has expressed alarm at media reports accusing China of using a"biological weapon" against Indonesia, after four Chinese nationals were arrested for planting imported chilli seeds contaminated with bacteria.
The headlines splashed across Indonesian media have sparked a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media in a country with a history of simmering resentment towards its giant neighbour and a minority ethnic Chinese community.
The Indonesian authorities said the imported chilli seeds, confiscated from a farm about 60km south of the capital, Jakarta, contained erwinia chrysanthemi, which is harmless to humans but can cause failure in crops. It was the first time the bacteria had been detected in Indonesia, the state-owned news agency Antara quoted the head of the country's quarantine body as saying.
Indonesians are among the most avid users of social media in the world, and conspiracy theories about the intentions of the four Chinese nationals quickly spread.
"Haven't people realised that Chinese attacks on this country are real in many ways. From drugs, illegal workers, now chilli bacteria," said a Twitter user with the handle #BoengParno. The authorities burned the chilli seeds and destroyed the crop sown by the Chinese men and 30 Indonesian workers on a leased plot of land near the city of Bogor.
The Chinese embassy in a statement said accusations of a plot to use "biological weapons to destroy the economy of Indonesia" carried no basis in fact and were "very worrying".
Indonesia's Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan criticised some of the outbursts on social media. "Whether it's true or not, some people overreact," he said.
Indonesia has suffered bouts of anti-Chinese and anti-communist sentiment over its history, and even recently. President Joko Widodo was falsely identified as having ethnic Chinese ancestry and being an agent of influence for Beijing during a 2014 election campaign he won narrowly.
There has also been a recent spike in hostility on social media over China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea as well during the re-election campaign of Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian.