Indonesia’s Chinese Fearful of Backlash


As the sickle of a new moon pierced the sky, signaling the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, shopkeeper Wei Tang Kai did not dare celebrate. Here in the world’s largest Islamic nation, it is against the law to publicly commemorate the holiday, display Chinese-language signboards or own Chinese books.

But even more than the police, Wei fears his neighbors.

A little more than a week ago, hundreds of men from outlying villages, armed with machetes, appeared on his shop-lined street, accusing the Chinese merchants there of hoarding goods and overcharging during Indonesia’s worst economic crisis in decades. The crowd turned into a looting mob. Men pulled bolts of cloth from the store across the street and set them ablaze; a grocery was torched; one woman had her arm cut off.

Wei’s family and store escaped harm, but he is still terrified.


“Every time things get more expensive, they turn against the Chinese, even though this is a national crisis. We get blamed for everything,” he said, huddled behind tall shelves in the back of his dried food store.

‘I’m Afraid They’re Going to Kill Me’

Hidden from the eyes of his customers, the backs of the shelves are adorned with posters of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and, another version of paradise, a cityscape of Hong Kong.

A Chinese Christian in a Muslim stronghold, his community is tiny, its protectors are few.

“I’m afraid they’re going to kill me,” he said of the Muslim majority. “One day they’ll break in here and slit my throat.”

From the dark back rooms of stores in Jember, a town on the eastern end of Java, to the boardrooms of billionaires in the capital, Jakarta, ethnic Chinese Indonesians are nervously preparing for the anti-Chinese backlash that often comes with times of tension here.

Laws restricting Chinese culture were imposed, the government says, to promote assimilation and to protect Chinese Indonesians after an estimated half a million were killed in anti-Communist riots in 1965. The laws are also meant to shield them from others’ resentment: Ethnic Chinese make up only about 3% of Indonesia’s mostly Muslim population, but they dominate the country’s economy. Their success in business--and absence from politics and the military--makes them visible and vulnerable targets as frustrations mount over Indonesia’s economic crisis.

In recent weeks, as the rupiah dove and food prices quadrupled, riots erupted in five different towns on Java, most targeted at Chinese shop owners. The military is on full alert across the country, and on Wednesday night, while residents of Jakarta’s tiny Chinatown burned incense at a cluster of neighborhood temples in quiet defiance and wished for better fortunes in the Year of the Tiger, armored vehicles rumbled through the streets in warning.


‘Any Little Thing Can Trigger Off a Riot’

“Of course I am scared,” said a tailor, 62, standing in the flickering light of dozens of giant good-luck candles inside one temple. He wants to join his Chinese-born wife who is living in Hong Kong because she was not allowed to immigrate to Indonesia. “But I don’t have enough money to go anywhere.”

Of those who do, the business elite who have prospered as partners of President Suharto and his inner circle, many are quietly making preparations to leave. When workers return to their jobs after the holidays--which Muslims and Chinese celebrate in their own ways, as Ramadan and the Lunar New Year, respectively--many will not receive a much-needed annual bonus. Some won’t even get jobs back.

The combination of rising unemployment and rising prices makes riots probable.


“Any time there is general unrest, any little thing can trigger off a riot,” said Mely Tan, an expert on Chinese in Southeast Asia who was one of Indonesia’s few Chinese civil servants. “And the first hit are always the Chinese.”

In Jakarta, classrooms at private schools suddenly have more empty seats, and planes to Singapore have none, as executives send their money and children out of the country.

“This is the price of success here,” said one Chinese executive, who added that he had bundled his family off to Singapore on an open-ended ticket. “You have to expect to be a scapegoat.”

Official efforts at bridging ethnic and religious differences between Indonesia’s diverse groups have been undermined by military, political and religious leaders who play up differences.


“This causes me some dismay,” said Juwono Sudarsono, vice governor of the National Resilience Institute and the head of a group to build national unity. “They are like the right wing in America pointing to ‘Jewish conspirators’ on Wall Street.”

To inflame tensions is not hard, he said. The rifts have roots reaching back 200 years. Since Dutch colonialists began using Chinese traders as go-betweens with indigenous Indonesians who believed that business was beneath them, the Chinese have steadily built an economic advantage. They established monopolies on salt and opium and kept out of politics.

Colonial policies kept Chinese segregated from local communities, granted them higher legal status and encouraged them to attend Christian schools, Tan said. The cultural gap and their growing prosperity has heightened resentment between Chinese immigrants and other groups. Chinese became targets in the anti-Communist riots in the mid-1960s, not only because of ideology, scholars say, but also because of long-simmering social envy.

A Quiet Contract for Protection


Because few Chinese Indonesians have penetrated government or military ranks, they have forged a quiet contract for protection with those in power: The trade-off is business acumen for access, cash for connections.

The Chinese elite provides business skills and links to a regional financial network. Suharto’s ruling circle grants lucrative monopolies and concessions to key commodities and markets.

Economists estimate that more than 80% of Indonesia’s top business groups are controlled by Chinese; of those, many have ties to the government’s inner circle.

Some have even wider, more prominent ties. The Riadys, the ethnic Chinese family whose fortunes are associated with the Lippo Group, have been linked to the United States and the White House in an unfolding scandal over Asian campaign donations.


But in Indonesia, the prime example of the lucrative partnerships’ evolution is tycoon Liem Sioe Liong’s conglomerate, the Salim Group.

In the 1950s, Liem was the supplier to an army division headquarters in central Java; the supply officer was then-Lt. Col. Suharto.

The friendship grew, and after Suharto took power in 1965, Liem’s business flourished, as Adam Schwarz chronicles in his study of modern Indonesia, “A Nation in Waiting.”

Starting with a special license to import cloves for popular Indonesian cigarettes in 1969, Liem eventually was granted monopolies on imports of flour and steel, and he received special privileges on cement production.


By 1989, he was one of the world’s richest people and personally put up half the money to bail out a failing Suharto-backed bank.

Today, the Salim Group is by far Indonesia’s largest conglomerate, deeply rooted in the Suharto family network in Indonesia, with business branches spanning from the United States to Australia.

While not every successful Chinese entrepreneur got ahead because of special privileges, enough of the country’s wealthy have partnerships with Suharto family members, military officials and close friends to stir up indignation by those who feel excluded.

“There is a conspiracy to keep the money in certain hands,” said Suyoto, a Javanese businessman who believes that his faltering real estate company is not getting a fair shake. “I can’t even get a pinch of it.”


But these days, that careful insinuation into the circle of power can backfire. And now, as millions of poor Muslims feel the effect of the economic crisis and are openly criticizing Suharto and his cronies, the government is trying to deflect the blame.

Feisal Tanjung, commander of the military forces, said Chinese business leaders were not doing enough to help the country and should bring their offshore money home or--better yet--donate it to the government.

‘They Are Making Us Scapegoats’

Sofjan Wanandi, an outspoken ethnic Chinese businessman, criticized the commander’s focus on the Chinese, calling his comments divisive and counterproductive. The next week, Wanandi was hauled in for an interrogation by military intelligence officers after his name was mentioned in the e-mail of an illegal democracy group caught with bomb-making materials.


Amien Rais, a popular Muslim leader, has also declared that there is a conspiracy, led by those who had once benefited from it, to ruin Indonesia’s economy and bring the government down; a chorus of other politicians have agreed.

“This is the most worrying thing to me now,” Wanandi said. “They are saying that the Chinese have been the ones who made the crisis. We are the ones who really tried to work with the government, really tried to find a solution, and now they are making us scapegoats.”

The Indonesian military insists there is no connection between his detention and Tanjung’s apparent displeasure over Wanandi’s criticism. But many Chinese business leaders were anything but inspired to follow the commander’s urgings to donate dollars to the government.

Wanandi, a former lawmaker and longtime Suharto supporter, often criticizes the government and mediates between the president and the conglomerates. But his ordeal, though “over for the moment,” sent a strong message to his colleagues.


“If they sacrifice him--the most visible Chinese businessman--you can imagine what the rest of us are thinking,” said another Chinese executive who did not want to be named. “When are they coming after me?”