The Complicated Politics of Chinese Workers in Indonesia

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The Complicated Politics of Chinese Workers in Indonesia

The new wave of Chinese migrants has ignited criticism among many segments in Indonesian society – including Chinese Indonesians.

The Complicated Politics of Chinese Workers in Indonesia

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, right wearing a white helmet, leads a pack of people as he inspects the construction site of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway during its groundbreaking ceremony in Cikalong Wetan, West Java, Jan. 21, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

This week, a total of 156 foreign workers from China arrived at Kendari Haluoleo Airport in Indonesia. These migrant workers, known as xinyimin (literally, “new migrants,” a term used to differentiate new Chinese arrivals from the existing diaspora community in Southeast Asia), are the first of around 500 Chinese workers who will arrive in Indonesia in the coming weeks to work on various Chinese projects. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers will arrive in waves.

The presence of Chinese workers is not new in Indonesia. Indonesian sinologist Leo Suryadinata wrote in his recent article that presently there are close to 25,000 reported xinyimin in Indonesia, with the actual number much higher. Some of these migrants come as investors, but the majority arrive as migrant workers, mainly working for Chinese firms.

These growing numbers correspond to the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), with Indonesia as one of its major destinations. According to Suryadinata, approximately 1,000 Chinese firms, both state and private, are operating in Indonesia’s construction, mining, and electronics sectors. These firms have drawn a growing number of migrant workers from China.

Although Indonesia generally welcomes Chinese investments, the same is not true for Chinese workers. The presence of xinyimin in the country has ignited criticism and protests among many segments in Indonesian society. In particular, it has invoked internal social tensions not only between xinyimin and the local population, but also with Chinese Indonesians.

While Indonesian security forces were busy at the Haluelo airport, escorting the 165 Chinese workers, students organized a demonstration in Ambaipua Village to oppose the arrival of the workers.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported last year that tensions have been on the rise between locals and Chinese workers in areas where Chinese projects are located. Some Indonesians have called the government in Jakarta to limit the entry of foreign workers.

The main reason is that while the arrival of Chinese investments was expected to bring new jobs for Indonesians, this has not been the reality on the ground. Chinese firms in Indonesia often only employ workers who are able to speak Mandarin. As a result, they usually prefer to hire workers from China (xinyimin); Chinese students who studied in Indonesia; and Indonesians who have studied in China.

Among these three groups, however, xinyimin occupy the largest portion, as they are quite young, skilled, and often better educated than the local workers.

As xinyimin increasingly become vital players in Indonesia’s already dense job market, this has ignited concerns among Indonesians. While for many Indonesians this may be related to the long-held anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia since the dictatorial regime of Suharto, there is also opposition among Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent, who see the new migrants as threats. Chinese Indonesians fear that the more skilled and Mandarin-speaking xinyimin may take over their jobs.

Today, many Indonesians of Chinese descent are no longer able to speak Chinese. Suharto’s policy of assimilation, which lasted from the 1960s all the way until 1998, held that “Chinese cultural elements are unacceptable.” Under Suharto, ethnic Chinese were forced to intermarry with the indigenous Indonesians and to assimilate with Indonesian culture. Even Chinese language schools were closed. Subsequently, many of the ethnic Chinese diaspora who live in Indonesia today cannot speak Chinese and are far removed from Chinese culture.

To address criticisms from Indonesians, the governments in Jakarta and Beijing have both actually made regulations concerning the presence of Chinese workers in Indonesia. For example, only Chinese workers with certain skills not available among local workforces are permitted to work in Indonesia, and these Chinese workers are required to return as soon as the projects that they are working on are completed.

The problem is that these regulations are often not respected. According to Suryadinata, a large number of xinyimin overstay their work permits and stay on as illegal workers, working in restaurants and shops or becoming sex workers. Only a small number of them have been deported.

There have also been cases of Chinese workers breaking laws in Indonesia. In March, 39 Chinese migrants arriving in Bintan in the Riau Islands province were refused entry because their companies did not have a permit to employ foreign workers. More recently, 10 xinyimin were ordered back to their camp by the Central Sulawesi government when they insisted on going to work despite the authority’s instruction to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such instances have caused further pushback from local communities.

Moreover, the locals’ sentiment toward Chinese workers is also in part a backlash to the actions of the Indonesian government, which is seen as inclining toward China at the expense of its own people. Indeed, the BRI is expected to bring lots of benefits to Indonesia. As a result, the government in Jakarta has been very welcoming of Chinese investments, including its workers. The recent move by Jakarta to allow 500 foreign workers from China to enter the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been seen as a proof that the Indonesian government is not only prioritizing the economy over the well-being of the people, but is also putting ties with China above Indonesians’ well-being.

With the arrival of xinyimin, a new kind of overseas Chinese community is in the making. And with that, Indonesia may face a new social conflict. Efforts need to be made to ensure that such tensions can be avoided.

First of all, the regulations that have been agreed upon by both Indonesia and China need to be implemented more strictly. Regulations such as only hiring skilled workers for a limited amount of time are already in place, but they are still not enforced on the ground.

Second, there need to be strict requirements for Chinese firms not only to transfer knowledge to locals, but also to learn about Indonesian culture and language before being allowed to be involved in projects in Indonesia.

Third, and most importantly, the governments of China and Indonesia need to tread more carefully, especially when it comes to Chinese workers. Both need to ensure that Chinese workers, their employers, and the governments themselves do not do anything beyond the law or that may cause pushback from local communities.

For example, Jakarta should be mindful of the pandemic and choose a more appropriate time for workers from China to resume entering Indonesia. China also needs to monitor its workers’ activities, so they obey local regulations and do not add to negative sentiments among the locals.

Without these efforts, the politics of xinyimin in Indonesia will become more complex and will ignite further social conflict within Indonesian communities. Such conditions could also result in strained China-Indonesia relations.

Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a senior academic at Universitas Islam Indonesia and is a research associate at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF).

Dikanaya Tarahita is a journalist focusing on Indonesian affairs.