In recent years, China has greatly expanded its economic and political footholds in Indonesia. It is now the nation’s top trading partner and second biggest investor. In seeking to strengthen its ties with Jakarta, Beijing has also employed cultural diplomacy, in the form of educational partnerships and cultural exchanges. One of these efforts has been the establishment of Confucius Institutes throughout the archipelago.
Since 2004, China has established around 500 Confucius Institutes in 140 countries, with the aim of promoting the teaching of Mandarin Chinese, as well as other aspects of Chinese culture. Such institutions have also been established in Indonesia. But while such institutions are intended to help Indonesians better understand China and its culture, they have failed to help improve China’s image in Indonesia and minimize the simmering anti-Chinese sentiment that has long existed in the country.
The establishment of Confucius Institutes began after Hanban, the headquarters of the institutes, opened negotiations with Indonesia’s Coordinating Board for Mandarin Education. Since then, the Chinese government has established six Confucius Institutes, in partnership with well-known universities.
In 2011, Hasanuddin University in South Sulawesi collaborated with Nanchang University in China’s Jiangxi province to establish an institute , which actively carried out student exchange programs between Indonesia and China. It is reported that from 2011 to 2015, Hasanuddin University sent 2,000 students to China.
Confucius Institutes have also been founded elsewhere, including at Maranatha Christian University in Bandung, Al-Azhar Indonesia University in Jakarta, Tanjungpura University in West Kalimantan, Surabaya State University in Surabaya, and Muhammadiyah Malang University in East Java.
These institutions not only teach Mandarin, but are also active in promoting various aspects of Chinese culture. As Confucius Institutes have spread across Indonesia, it can be said that they have become China’s primary tool of “soft power” in the country.
Despite their existence, however, Confucius Institutes have been unable to improve China’s image and minimize anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiment.
A survey of 2,020 respondents in January 2020 by the pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia discovered that anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia still exists. In particular, many people still perceive that Indonesia stands to benefit little from a close relationship with China.
Indonesia has a long history of prejudice against its ethnic Chinese population, dating back to the Dutch colonial era. This sharpened during the Cold War, when the perceived connections of ethnic Chinese to communism, and the concurrent success of some Chinese tycoons in business, made the community the subject of widespread public suspicion.
In the mid-1960s, hundreds of thousands of suspected communists – some of them of Chinese descent – were killed after the military alleged they had instigated an attempted coup. Ethnic Chinese were also the main victims of the 1998 riots that accompanied the fall of President Suharto, scapegoated for the country’s economic downturn during the Asian Financial Crisis because of the prominence of some Chinese tycoons in the Indonesian economy. During the riots, around 100 women were raped and 1,000 people murdered.
Such anti-Chinese sentiments persist to the present. Recently, for example, many Indonesians on social media have used the term “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19, and some have been calling for a fatwa, or religious decree, to disallow Chinese-Indonesians and Chinese nationals from entering Indonesia.
Some Indonesians have turned these slogans into actions. In one incident earlier this year, several hundred residents of the Indonesian city of Bukit Tinggi in West Sumatra, marched to a hotel where 170 Chinese tourists were staying, calling on them to leave. Local authorities decided to send the visitors back to China later in the day.
As a tool of Chinese soft power, Confucius Institutes seem not to have succeeded as the Chinese government might have hoped. The programs provided only focus on student exchanges to China and promoting Chinese culture in Indonesia. These institutes appear to not have been able to carry out activities designed to minimize the persistence of anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiment in the country.
Moreover, Confucius Institutes are only found in big cities with well-known universities – which is to say, in places where anti-Chinese sentiment is likely to be most muted. Thus far, they have largely been unable to penetrate the smaller cities or rural areas where anti-Chinese sentiment is most pervasive.
As Rika Theo stated in a recent article, Confucius Institutes in Indonesia are forced to “interact with local histories, power relations, actors and interests” – all of which condition how they are viewed, and how much impact they can have in improving perceptions of China.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is currently a lecturer at the Universitas Islam Indonesia. His research and teaching focuses on the politics of international cooperation, with specific interest in China-Indonesia-Middle East relations.
M. Habib Pashya is currently a student majoring in International Relations at the Universitas Islam Indonesia.