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Anti-China campaign in Jokowi's Indonesia

Social media rumours of 10 million Chinese 'migrant workers' keep resurfacing

The anti-China, anti-Joko Widodo rumour mill has been in overdrive again.

On Dec 23, Indonesian President Joko asked police to investigate the source of social media reports spreading fake news that 10 million Chinese workers had entered the country.

A few days earlier, it was reported that five Chinese migrants were arrested in West Java for planting imported chilli plants that had been tainted with a plant pathogen.

The story was presented as if there was a mainland Chinese "conspiracy" to ruin the Indonesian economy. Beijing's ambassador denounced the campaign, which attempted to link Chinese individual behaviour with the Beijing government.

The rumour-mongering emerged during a sensitive time - just days later, on Dec 27, an Indonesian court gave the go-ahead for a blasphemy trial involving incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian. President Joko is seen as his ally.

Ahok, who is seeking a second term, is accused of insulting Muslims by claiming during a rally ahead of the governorship elections next month that his political opponents were using the Quran to sway voters against him. He has denied the charge.

It is interesting to look at the spread of anti-Chinese sentiment, given that, apparently, opponents of Mr Joko are using social media to stage campaigns to discredit his government - and in particular, to circulate the fake news about the 10 million Chinese workers.

THAT '10 MILLION' NUMBER

The anti-China and anti-Chinese campaign started even before Mr Joko became president, but became more intensive after he was elected.

Mr Joko, who saw China as a major source of Indonesian infrastructure projects and the tourist industry, went to Beijing in 2014 soon after the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, inviting China to invest in Indonesia.

He asked President Xi Jinping to encourage Chinese tourists to visit Indonesia. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Jakarta and Beijing, which stated that Indonesia would like to have 10 million Chinese tourists by 2019.

Those in the anti-Joko group considered Jakarta too close to Beijing and were worried about China's domination. Many began campaigns against the Joko administration and China.

In May 2015, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong was invited to Indonesia. She made a speech at the University of Indonesia about deepening Beijing-Jakarta relations by intensifying interaction between the people of the two countries.

She noted that Indonesia and China formed 1.6 billion people, one-fourth of the world's population, and that this would be a force to be reckoned with.

The anti-Joko group began to spread rumours on social media, saying Madam Liu's speech mentioned 10 million new migrants coming to Indonesia over an unspecified period, and Indonesia would be "ruled by the Chinese". The 10 million figure for tourists became wrongly associated with the number of "Chinese migrants".

This provocative statement, which was not in her speech, continued to circulate on Indonesian social media and in small newspapers. There was a denial, but this failed to stop the rumour.

Then, in June 2015, social media belonging to anti-Chinese and anti-China groups and small newspapers such as Pos Kota made an issue aboutChinese labourers in Sino-Indonesian projects.

For example, a cement factory in Lebak in Banten province was said to have hired 799 Chinese migrant workers, mainly doing non-skilled work. The company responded that it had hired only 400 Chinese workers with special skills.

Joint project companies in Bali and Kalimantan were said to have hired many more Chinese "migrant labourers". The issue lasted for several months and was eventually debated in Parliament. Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri investigated and stated that the Chinese labourers had legal permits and would return to China once the projects were completed.

However, Tempo, an influential news weekly in Jakarta, published a special issue on Sept 6, 2015 about Chinese workers in Indonesia. The cover had the headline, "Welcome, workers from 'Cina' ", alongside a caricature of President Joko wearing overalls like a Chinese worker and wielding a hammer.

Tempo noted that many workers in the projects were blue-collar workers who could be replaced by Indonesian workers. China-Indonesia joint projects were supposed to hire one Chinese migrant worker to 10 Indonesian workers, but project managers reportedly employed mostly Chinese workers. This was despite seven million Indonesian workers being jobless.

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla in September 2015 clarified that the Chinese labourers worked for special projects and did not take away Indonesian jobs; on the contrary, the projects created more employment opportunities for Indonesians..

The resurgence of these anti-Chinese rumours coincided with Ahok's court case and a statement by Mr Joko during a Dec 5 visit to Balikpapan in which he noted that he had signed an MOU with Beijing on Indonesia's target for 10 million Chinese tourists by 2019. He stressed that these people were not workers, saying there were only 14,000 Chinese workers in Indonesia (he later corrected the figure to 21,000).

Mr Joko further explained that Indonesia needed the income from tourism to pay for the country's infrastructure development, as the revenue from taxes was insufficient.

Despite his comments, the heated reactions and prevalence of rumours suggest that rumour-mongers and those out to destabilise his administration - and clobber his ally Ahok - are gaining some traction. The worry is that partisan games to win elections may further stoke racial tensions.

• The writer is a visiting senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Anti-China campaign in Jokowi's Indonesia'. Print Edition | Subscribe