China Changes Its Role in Recurring Scene


When she looked from the second-floor window of her home in a village outside Bandung, Indonesia, Liu Lunmei says she saw “total chaos.”

The homes and small shops owned by Chinese families were being looted and burned.

“People were being killed, raped and robbed,” she said.

Indonesian soldiers and police stood by and watched, sometimes even encouraging the anti-Chinese rioters.


The terrible scenes the 76-year-old Liu described on a recent afternoon in her small apartment at the Heavenly Horse Overseas Chinese Farm in China’s Fujian province took place 38 years ago, in 1960. But as anti-Chinese violence rages once again in Indonesia, sparked by that country’s profound economic crisis, memories dating back nearly four decades have an eerily contemporary ring.

Once again, rural bands of the majority population in Indonesia, the indigenous pribumi, have taken to the streets to burn and loot.

Once again--recalling violent outbreaks in 1960, 1965 and 1974--the targets for their rage are the minority ethnic Chinese who make up about 3% of the Indonesian population, or about 6.2 million people. Persecution of Chinese in Indonesia--indeed, in most of Southeast Asia--is an old, sad story, one that has prompted some observers to describe the minority Chinese populations in Asia as the “Jews of the East.”

No Motherland


In fact, the most dramatic revision in this recurring script is how the Chinese government in Beijing has reacted--or failed to react--to the latest spate of anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, which began last month and has flared sporadically since. No longer does China hold itself up as the all-embracing Motherland, ready to offer refuge in times of trouble to all Chinese people no matter where they live in the world.

At the time of the 1960 riots, which were preceded by an Indonesian government ban on Chinese-owned businesses in the countryside, senior officials in Beijing reacted emotionally, urging the Chinese population to return “home"--even those who had lived in Indonesia for generations.

“We want none of our dear ones to suffer in foreign lands,” one official announced. “It is our hope that they all come back to the arms of the Motherland.”

Chairman Mao Tse-tung sent a small fleet of ships to pick them up.

Liu Lunmei, her husband and their five children came to China on one of those vessels, which in total carried more than 102,000 Chinese refugees. A similar, although much smaller, rescue flotilla was dispatched to Indonesia after the riots in 1965. China and Indonesia broke off diplomatic relations in 1967 and did not restore them until 1990.

In contrast, after the latest violence, the Chinese Foreign Ministry initially issued only a brief general statement, not mentioning Indonesia by name: “China is convinced that the concerned countries in Southeast Asia can overcome their current economic difficulties and maintain social stability and racial harmony.”

Asked about the incidents at a regular weekly news briefing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao expressed China’s confidence that the Indonesian government “can control the situation and keep social stability and ethnic unity.”

The democratically elected Nationalist government in Taiwan has reacted more strongly. On Feb. 11, Taiwanese Economic Affairs Minister Wang Chih-kang urged Taiwanese businesses in Indonesia to temporarily halt commercial activities until the anti-Chinese riots have been suppressed. The Taiwanese press has given extensive coverage to the Indonesian situation.


But in China, state television and the official press have been silent about the Indonesian situation. To get news about Indonesia, Liu and other refugees from the 1960 riots who live at the Heavenly Horse Farm, established for the refugees by the Chinese government in 1962, monitor television from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, via an illegal satellite dish on the roof of their apartment building or clandestinely watch grainy news reports picked up from Taiwan, 100 miles off the mainland coast.

Diplomacy Welcomed

Fearful of exacerbating the problems in Java and other Indonesian islands, Chinese officials have been very cautious in their public statements. Privately, however, they have welcomed diplomatic interventions by the United States and other countries cautioning the Jakarta government against inciting ethnic conflict.

“There has been a sort of grateful acknowledgment that we have weighed in there,” a U.S. official said.

Torn between a strong sense of Chinese nationalism and the need to maintain friendly relations with struggling Southeast Asian countries--all of which have large minority Chinese populations--the Beijing government seems at a loss.

“This is a very vexing question for us,” said one government foreign affairs specialist. “It is hard for us to know which way to move on the problem.”

Scholars cite several important factors in the evolutionary change in China’s policy. They trace the beginning of the shift to the historic 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, when China’s then-Premier Chou En-lai announced that China would no longer accept dual nationalities.

Since then, noted Singapore National University historian Wang Gungwu, most “overseas” Chinese, encouraged by Beijing, have become citizens of their countries of residence. This contrasts with the immediate post-World War II period, when most overseas Chinese were either citizens of China or stateless.


“The most striking difference,” said Wang, a leading scholar of the Chinese diaspora, “is that the vast majority of young people in Indonesia wish to identify with that country in a way that wasn’t true in the 1950s and 1960s. Most think of themselves as Indonesians. They know that they are not fully accepted as first-class citizens, but that is something they have learned to live with.”

Also, beginning in the economic reform era ushered in by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Beijing abandoned policies promoting international communism that once linked it with leftist parties across Southeast Asia.

These links were especially strong with the since-outlawed Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, which gave the 1960 and 1965 riots an anti-Communist as well as an anti-Chinese tinge. Many of the same Chinese who were attacked by rioters as “Communists” in the 1965 riots, which left half a million people dead across Indonesia, are now under attack by mobs for being “capitalists” who don’t share their wealth.

Finally, huge international advances in transportation and communication, along with economic globalization, have changed and complicated relations between China and other Asian countries.

China’s economic boom has been fueled in great part through investments from international conglomerates controlled by overseas Chinese families in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. If it took a strong stand on the persecution of ethnic Chinese populations in Indonesia, China would risk disrupting these economic ties.

Likewise, if the Indonesian government fails to control the riots, or encourages them as the army did in 1965, it runs the risk of capital flight on a massive scale. According to some estimates, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia control 75% of private-sector activity.

“After 30 years of changing of the guard from [onetime President] Sukarno to [current President] Suharto,” overseas Chinese expert Wang said in a telephone interview, “there has been an ultimate collapse of the Communist world order and Communist ideals and the triumphant rise of global liberal capitalism most people of Chinese descent have accepted and, in many cases, greatly benefited from. So the whole context has really changed.”

‘Scary Scenario’

The net result of these developments is that ethnic Chinese living in countries across Southeast Asia no longer have a protector they can count on in Beijing. The ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, said Singapore University political scientist Leo Suryadinata, are “at the mercy of the Indonesian state. There is realistically very little China, or the international community, can do to help them.”

This, in turn, has sounded a new alarm in potential refugee receiving states such as Australia, where many wealthy Indonesian families already have secondary residences. Perth, in western Australia, is only three hours from Jakarta by plane and has become a favorite settling place for wealthy Indonesian Chinese.

“Different classes of people are already trying to get out,” said Australian National University scholar Jamie Mackie, a specialist in Indonesian politics. “What worries me in a big way is what would happen if the poorer Chinese in Indonesia started buying up ships and started heading anywhere, including Australia. That is a scary scenario. In light of recent events, I don’t think you can rule it out.”

The last time a wave of refugees entered China was in 1978-79, when more than 266,000 ethnic Chinese fled across the border from Vietnam, where authorities had promulgated anti-Chinese laws and expropriated land and property belonging to ethnic Chinese.

But in 1980, breaking with a policy that began nearly a century before in the Qing Dynasty, China revised its law defining who qualifies for Chinese citizenship. An 1893 edict by the Manchu emperor proclaimed that all people of Chinese descent living abroad would be permitted to return home at will.

The 1980 Nationality Law, still in force today, stipulates that a person whose Chinese parents have settled abroad and have acquired foreign nationality is not entitled to Chinese citizenship.

Return Restricted

In this respect, the Chinese law is much more restrictive than those of many other countries, including Israel, Germany and even the United States.

According to Israel’s Law of Return, anyone who is Jewish--the child of a Jew or grandchild of a Jew--is entitled to citizenship. People of German ethnic origin who have lived for generations outside the country can come back to Germany and be granted German citizenship. The access to Germany for this group of people, who in Germany are called “resettlers,” is much easier than it is for refugees or asylum seekers of non-German origin.

The United States, unlike China, allows dual citizenship.

But even if China reverted to its old ways and issued another appeal for its threatened descendants to return to the Motherland, it is not at all certain how many would come.

The Indonesian Chinese who came to China in the 1960s have had very difficult lives. They arrived before the country entered the dark decade of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Liu Lunmei, who came to China on one of the ships sent by Mao, recalled the hardships of the early days. For one thing, she did not speak Chinese and had to learn it by attending night school. Even speaking with a reporter in her kitchen recently, she occasionally lapsed into Indonesian.

In Indonesia, her family owned a small business. But in China, she and her husband were put to work on the farm planting peanuts in the red dirt soil.

“When we came here, we had to start from scratch,” she said. “I didn’t think I would ever get used to conditions here. Compared to Indonesia, it is always either too hot or too cold here.”

Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Jerusalem and researcher Petra Falkenberg in The Times’ Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.


Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia

Ethnic Chinese have been targeted by looting mobs in Indonesia, where they make up a small percentage of the population but dominate the economy. The estimated numbers of ethnic Chinese across Southeast Asia vary widely:

Millions of ethnic Chinese (% of total population in parentheses)

Indonesia: 6.2 (3%)

Thailand: 8.3 (14%)

Malaysia: 6.6 (32%)

Singapore: 2.7 (76.4%)

Vietnam: 2.3 (3%)

Philippines: 1.1 (1.5%)

Australia: 0.2 (1%)

Cambodia: 0.1 (1%)

Source: 1998 Information Please Almanac