Illustrated by Darth Vader (CC0)
Illustrated by Darth Vader (CC0)
Media Persecution of Chinese-Indonesian
Chinese-Indonesian suffers from political turmoil in May 1998. Today, 19 years into Indonesian reformed era, the discrimination lingers.
Media Persecution of Chinese-Indonesian
Chinese-Indonesian suffers from political turmoil in May 1998. Today, 19 years into Indonesian reformed era, the discrimination lingers.

May is a historically significant month Chinese-Indonesian. At this month 19 years ago, a political turbulence accompanying the fall of Orde Baru was marred by mob induced acts of violence on hundreds of Chinese-Indonesian in Jakarta. On 9th of May this year, the Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), who is a Chinese-Indonesian, was charged guilty of blasphemy against Islam. The court may have sentenced “only” Ahok alone, but the media have been judging Chinese-Indonesian as a whole.

In the social media timelines, news about the judicial process was routinely coloured with various tinges of hate against the Chinese-Indonesian. The main producers of these kinds of contents were the Indonesian online radical “Islamic” media, like,, etc. My use of quotation marks on “Islam” was intentional, as I personally see them as a dubious representation of the humanistic spirit of Islam. If you are familiar with Indonesian media, you are probably aware that those media were deemed problematic, often filled with hoaxes and haphazard journalism. We will talk about this more after we discuss how these media judge the Chinese-Indonesian.

In my observation, these media employs four strategies in their naratives to demonize Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent: issue selections, identification, generalization, and pseudo-history.

The first strategy is issue selection. You can try typing the word “Cina” (Indonesian word used both to refer to the People’s Republic of China or Chinese ethnicity) in the search bar of sites like, then you will find articles like “Cina Attempting to Conquer NKRI (the Unitary State Republic of Indonesian), Destroying Pribumi (natives), Islam, and NKRI”, “Dozens of Indonesian Mega-corruptions Perpretated by Cina”, or “The Whole Indonesian Cina Supporting Ahok for president.” It is very difficult to find any positive news containing the word Cina in the titles. Strangely, an article about Koko Liem, a Chinese man who converted to Islam and became a preacher, contained no such generalization on his ethnicity. In other words, the word Cina is a word containing negative connotations, fitting for negative news but unnecessary for positive news. A bad thing done by a Cina is a sin for the whole Chinese-Indonesian community, while a good deed is seen as a personal virtue. In a way, Voa-Islam is constructing and framing the reality of Chinese-Indonesian by selectively presenting their darker faces. 

The second strategy is identification, in which Chinese-Indonesian as a whole is identfied with certain labels. Some Indonesians are not unfamiliar with the term “aseng”, which is one of the slur terms for the Chinese-Indonesian. “Aseng” is a wordplay between the Indonesian word “asing” (foreign, other) and a common Chinese-Indonesian nickname. The term is employed by a lot in radical online media and social media users to place Chinese-Indonesian as a group outside of the norm, not belonging in Indonesian social identity. “Aseng” is a convenient label used to signify that Chinese-Indonesian or “Cina” are the “other”, foreign and different from the “pribumi”, or Indonesian indigenous people.

By excluding Chinese-Indonesian as “not us”, “neither Indonesian nor a part of Indonesia”, it would be easier to contradict them with “the Indonesian us” or in their term pribumi. As stated by the article“Dozens of Indonesian Mega-corruptions Perpetrated by the Chinese”:

From the dozens of scandals involving dozens of Asengs gnawing away the wealth of the nation, law enforcers especially KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission] turned a blind eye instead of resolving them completely. No wonder that there are negative assumptions about Indonesia’s law enforcement, that they are unfair and discriminative.

But lowly pribumi thieves and politicians making their way with some lowly scraps are extravagantly humiliated with exaggerated sentences. The insane judges would then proudly boast about how they sadistically punish those pribumi folks.

In this article, the double-standard is then reduced towards a “Cina”versus “pribumi” conflict narrative. The racial perspectives employed by this article is clearly ahistorical as it ignored the various structural, political, and cultural problems underlying the law enforcement in Indonesia. Moreover, the “Cina” and “pribumi” dichotomy is no more than a social construct engineered by the Dutch colonial government. Race-based social classification is an attempt by the colonial government to maintain their power (divide and conquer, one could say). Returning to this categorization would only be the same as accepting the racial assumptions which categorized civil rights based on their races.

The next question is, if pribumi is not cina, then what is it and who are they? The uses of the term pribumi in is also unclear.  In many articles about Habibs (religious preachers claiming direct ancestry  from the Prophet) for example, their Arabic identity is never problematized as not pribumi. Even though according to colonial categorizations, both the Arabs and the Chinese are included in the same category of “eastern foreigners”, the non-pribumi.

But Voa-Islam simply didn’t look like they care about such historical complexities. The reason is clear: their interest is not in presenting objective facts; they are trying to pander to some certain sections of the audience with predetermined beliefs about the fact. The pribumi categorization’s main function is to define what is not cina. Pribumi is not an independent group identity with clear boundaries. It can be anything, but it has to be opposed to cina.

The third is strategy is generalization. The word cina is often used carelessly and haphazardly by these media. One of the examples is an article titled “Protesting the slaughter of Uyghur Muslims, demonstrator: Drive out the capitalist Cina from Medan”.

Cina forbade Adzan [Islamic calls for prayer], keeping a beard, establishing Islamic schools, wearing hijab,” said Rafdinal. If so, he said, cina in Medan deserves to be driven out of Medan for acting out intolerant behaviors such as destroying mosques, grabbing state-owned lands, evicting pribumi, and many of them are involved in gambling and drug businesses.

The article above, quoted from, related the acts of violence against some Muslims in the the People’s Republic of China with Chinese-Indonesian of Medan. The term cina in this context has a blurred boundary, between “China” as a modern state and “Chinese” as a race. That statement monolithized cina, that every Chinese people living anywhere in the world is a part of the People’s Republic of China. This generalization served their purpose in spreading general hatred towards Chinese-Indonesian. By implying that “cina did a discriminative action against Muslims,” the actions of one governmental regime became the crime of a whole race.

The last strategy is pseudo-history. In an article titled “Sri Bintang Pamungkas: China is Displacing Islam and Pribumi”, Voa-Islam ties economical domination of the People’s Republic of China with the nine Chinese-Indonesian capitalist tycoons in Indonesia. Without any sound sources and data, Voa-Islam claimed that China (the country) and its accomplices (Chinese-Indonesian businessmen) are conspiring to dominate Indonesia and its pribumi. In an attempt to support this baseless claim, Voa-Islam cited Sri Bintang Pamungkas, Indonesian politician:

 The historical trace of China’s desire to conquer Indonesia has started since the Srivijayan era of 600 AD. Even though China was beaten by the king of Kediri, Kertanegara, and the ruler of Singosari, Raden Wijaya, their attempts did not cease. At the Dutch colonial era, China collaborated with the Dutch.

This so called “historical proof” is extremely ahistorical. It drew a straight line between an ideologically “Communist” People’s Republic of China and a feudalistic kingdom in China 1400 years ago (and also one under a Mongol emperor, which faced a conflict against the kingdoms of Kediri and Singosari). This historical argument is clearly flawed. How can one conclude that some wildly different regimes, from very different eras, shared a common inherited political desire to conquest a specific archipelago throughout more than a thousand years and a countless passing of regimes? This would be akin to saying that modern Nordic countries and the Vikings shared a passion for raiding coastal villages because they both came from the same area. Moreover, no one attempted to verify Sri Bintang’s claims, he did not provide any reliable data to back his statements, and no one attempted to criticize his logic.

Here we learned that media like Voa-Islam and Arrahmah is practicing propaganda rather than strict journalism. Their informations about China or Chinese-Indonesian are baseless opinions aimed to conjure anti-Chinese sentiments. It’s a shame that so many people bought the propaganda, which is apparent on the rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the social media. Those sentiments appeared quite clearly. “Destroy aseng!”, “Drive Cina out!”, and many kinds of similar exclamations were shouted in some demonstrations demanding Ahok’s incarceration.

Still, it would be naive to assume that the online media is the main factor in radicalizing individuals. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia had a deep root since at least the foundation of this nation (Mandal, 2011). The relationship formed between the radical “Islamic” media and their audience is based more on their common ideology. In other words, the readers would only accept informations or news which confirmed their existing beliefs (confirmation bias). The function of these media is for justifying and reinforcing the anti-Chinese sentiments. This ideological function drove these media to present themselves as news portals and the representations of the Islamic voices. That way, hatred could be justified as truth and discrimination could be normalized as natural. Whereas, there is nothing Islamic about hate, and there is no Islam without a passion for truth.

O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with infor.ation, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful. (Q.S. Al-Hujurat[49-6]) []

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Muhamad Heychael

Lecturer of Media Studies in University of Multimedia Nusantara. Currently the director of Remotivi. His interest lies in media, cultural and nationalism studies. Not only a book and movie fan, he is also a devout Milanisti.

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