By FX Sugianto

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Immigration Waves from the North

The rise and fall of dynasties in China have triggered emigration of waves of Chinese people to the south, especially to South East Asia including Indonesia.  During the glorious period of the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century, there were seven great expeditions conducted all over the world. One of them, led by Sam Po (Cheng Ho), managed to visit Palembang (South Sumatra).

It was reported that Sam Po brought hundreds of Chinese workers including a large number of Moslem Yunan people. After being successful in his attempt to occupy Palembang, Sam Po built the first Chinese Moslem community in Indonesia. Then a number of Chinese Moslem societies were successively built in different places in Indonesia including Batavia, Cirebon, Lasem, Tuban, Gresik and Mojokerto. This was the beginning of the growth of the Chinese Moslem community in Indonesia.

The Spread of Islam in Indonesia

While building Moslem communities in many places, the Chinese began to take part in the community life of the then Majapahit Kingdom. Queen Suhita once  appointed Gan Eng Wan the first Moslem Head of the District in Tumapel, a small area within that Hindu Kingdom.

Between 1451-1477 Bong Swi Hoo, later called Sunan Ngampel, managed to form a Javanese Moslem community on the north coast of Java. Meanwhile, Swan Liong, the son of King Wisesa (King of Majapahit) and his Chinese wife, was appointed the first Moslem Kapilen (local leader) in Palembang. It was reported that Swan Liong had brought up Djin Bun (Raden Patah), the son of King Kertabumi (the last king of Majapahit) with his ethnic Chinese wife.

In 1475 Raden Patah was sent by Sunan Ngampel back to Java and stationed in Demak. In the same year he took over Majapahit, and declared himself the King of Demak, the first Moslem Kingdom in Java.

In their attempt to build a mosque, Chinese people of both Moslem and non-Moslem backgrounds were involved because of their skills in ship-mast construction. Thus, the first wave of Chinese had brought their colourful lifestyle to the life of the dynasties and to contribute to the Moslem community in Java.

Chinese People in Javanese Kingdoms

Throughout the Islamic Kingdoms in Java, Chinese people played important roles, i.e. as trade and military advisors. The coming of VOC (A legendary Dutch Company) to Indonesia had shifted the Chinese roles to mediators, lease holders of the royal properties or tollgates. The close relationship between Ethnic Chinese and Javanese Kingdoms was also proved by the support of Lasem and Rembang Kapiten (local leaders) for Raden Rangga in his attempt to beat the Dutch in Rernbang and Surabaya in 1310.

This close relationship finally reached its turning point with the appointment of Ka iten Tan Jin Sing (for his commendable service) as the District Head of Yogyakarta with a to a title Kanjeng Raden Tumenggung Secodiningrat (KRT Secodningrat) under the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwono III. In his role as a royal high ranking officer, Secodiningrat became arrogant, thus bringing about hard feelings amongst other royal officers. The death of the Sultan Hamengkubuwono III in 1814
(after reigning for only two years) forced Secodiningrat and his family to leave their high position and to retire with a pension. Since then the seeds of suspicion against ethnic Chinese started to grow.

Chinese People During National Movement

During the Dutch occupation in Indonesia, Chinese people were also involved in a number of social and political issues. However, they tended to be more involved in economic and trade activities. In descending order, there were three levels of Citizenship, i.e 1) Dutch, 2) East Asian including Ethnic Chinese and 3) Indigenous people. Assimilation (mixed marriage) between different groups was not recommended because it would lower the level of citizenship enjoyed by the person
from the higher-level group. Although Chinese people had long been discriminated
against by the Dutch, they were quite happy with their roles as mediators which gave
them a monopoly over trade.

When the Ethic Policy was introduced in the Netherlands by the turn of the last century, Chinese people were gradually deprived of their privileges.  Their attempts to demand equal rights were never successful. By then Chinese people were in limbo. They almost lost their own identity. At this time, the drive of nationalism impacting mainland China which stirred them deep in their hearts and was keenly observed by ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Hence, the Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan
organization (THHK) was founded in 1900. The spirit of this organization was based
on Confucian teachings; and its nationalism was that of mainland China. THHK refused
its involvement in the Volksraad (the Parliament during the Dutch occupation).

The Chinese group with Dutch educational background refused the spirit and the goals of THHK. Accordingly, Cung Hwa Hui (CHH) was founded in 1928. CHH strove for equal rights to those of the Dutch citizens in the Parliament. Its members tended to abandon the culture of their ancestors believing that it should be replaced by the culture of the new generation with a touch of Dutch influencing their mindset.

Another Chinese group involved with Indonesian nationalism founded Partai Tionghoa Indonesia (PTI) in 1932. This party struggled for Indonesian citizenship and promoted attempts at integration and / or assimilation into the indigenous community. This was to answer the needs of the Chinese people whose aspirations could not be channeled through other parties (as, by then, most parties did not accept non-indigenous membership).

Hence there was a spectrum of Ethnic Chinese involvement during the national movement. The problems of Ethnic Chinese existed throughout the whole history of Indonesia.

Ethnic Chinese after Independence

Soon after the proclamation of Independence, the newly born nation, Republic of Indonesia, had to deal with various internal and external physical challenges, i.e. the return of the Dutch troops (1947 and 1949) and a number of rebellions. As a new country that gained its independence through physical struggles, Indonesia had to face civil wars during its first years. Each group claimed a greater share in the independence movement and looked down on other groups. The contribution of Ethnic Chinese, however, was denied as they were not actively involved in the
independence movement.

Realizing the importance of solving the Chinese problem, BAPERKI (Badan Pemusyawaratan Kewarganegaraan Indonesia / Indonesian Citizenship Assembly) was founded in 1954 with the goal of solving the problems of Ethnic Chinese by actively integrating themselves into the social, political and economic life. Although it was not a political party, Baperki once contested in the first general election in 1955. It was regretted that Baperki gradually moved to the left along with the change in the political climate, and it was finally dissolved in relation to the Communist coup
on 30th September 1965.

The fact that Baperki could not bring national harmony (indicated by many anti-Chinese riots), and in order to solve the problems arising from the Dual Citizenship Act and Government Regulation No.10, the LPKB (Lembaga Pembinaan Kesatuan Bangsa / National Reconciliation Body) was founded in 1963 with the same goal as the previous bodies but with a different approach. According to this group, the effective way to solve the problems of Ethnic Chinese was by assimilation in the form of mixed marriages, use of Indonesian names or embracing the religion of the majority. The tension between LPKB and Baperki over their different approaches to reaching their mutual goals worsened until the latter organization was dissolved.

Ethnic Chinese after 30 September 1965

The aborted Communist coup of 30 September 1965 resulted in the disbandment of Baperki and a diplomatic split between Indonesia and China. There was an allegation of Chinese government involvement in the coup. Following the freezing of diplomatic ties between the two countries, anti-Chinese riots across the country soared. Chinese schools were closed down and the Chinese language and traditions were banned. Again, Chinese Indonesians had to go through their dark

It was in this aftermath of the coup, that the term Cina (to refer to the ethnic Chinese) was officially readopted after being abandoned since 1928. Since the term China was introduced by Western civilization (which once tore apart China), it bore an insult to the people because it implied the the inlander or the aborigine or the uncivilized.

Ethnic Chinese during the New Order 1966-1998

In spite of the ever healing wound, the Chinese were gradually invited and involved in the long-term periods of national development, the Rencana Pembangunan Semesta Berencana. Their involvement in national economic production rapidly increased. Theoretically, they had equal rights and obligations under the Law. However, in practice they were still discriminated against in one way or another.

A small number of Chinese enjoyed various facilities from the government regime. Indeed they became money machines for the nation as well as for many (but limited) individuals. The success stories of those groups of Chinese built up social jealousies among the majority of the population. Sporadic racial unrest was reported under the new order government, but they were successfully suppressed in the name of national development.

The majority of Chinese, however, had to suffer the retaliation from many people in various forms of discrimination. They even became official scapegoats whenever social or economic problems arose. This racial tension reached its climax in May 1998 prior to the resignation of President Suharto. This national racial unrest left behind a number of serious problems, i.e. the exit of capital wealth, the hindrance of national as well as foreign investment, the prolonged economic stagnation, and the stigma on social order.

Ethnic Chinese since the Reformation Order

The fall of the New Order Regime triggered a reformation movement across the country. Transparent democracy was introduced by the Habibie government. Self determination was given to the people of East Timor which resulted in the independence of Timor Leste, This euphoria of democracy and reformation formed a wide spectrum of political and social attitudes toward nationality. Adopting a wait and see approach, the Chinese parked their investments overseas thus triggering reluctance by others for incoming foreign investments. The political instability caused by the same euphoria (which is still going on) worsened national economic growth.

During the Abdurahman Wahid period, serious conflicts arose between the executive and the legislative bodies. As a result, almost no legislation was produced or policies implemented. In short, economic stagnation dragged on.

The rise of Megawati Sukarnoputri has resulted in an attempt to push forward the paralyzed economy by appointing a Chinese minister. Some other Chinese were also recruited in the parliament. Since the euphoria, or transitional period is not yet over, the issues of corruption, separatism and ethnic conflicts have become a daily menu, with little action being taken to address the Chinese problems.

The Future of Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

The struggle for economic recover which set aside the powerful economy of Chinese businesses in Indonesia has proved to be ineffective. The management skills and hard work ethics typically found in Chinese people should be learned by the whole nation; their existence must be accepted by and integrated within the society. For this reason, ethnic Chinese will still exist in Indonesia. The wave of globalisation which is underway should not pose any threat to them.

The full acceptance of ethnic Chinese within the society should open a wider horizon to this people group. They would be motivated to take part in every aspect of nation building. Economic and social gaps would be narrowed, and ethnic interactions would be more harmonious than ever. On the other hand, those with an opportunistic ideology would not consider Indonesia as their ideal heaven.


  1. Carey, P, Orang Jawa dan Masyarakat Cina (1755-1825), Pustaka Azet, Jakarta,
  2. Copple, CA, Indonesian Chinese in Crisis, Oxford, Singapore, 1983
  3. Ricklefs, MC, Chinese Muslims in lava. The Malay Annals of Semarang and
    , translation with comments by HJ de Giaaf and Th. G. Pigeaud, Ruskin
    Press, Melbourne, 1984
  4. Suryadinata, L, The Chinese Minority in Indonesia, Chapman Enterprise,
    Singapore, 1978
  5. Suryadinata, L, Political Thinking of the Indonesian Chinese, Singapore
    University Press, Singapore, 1979.

Author - Lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering, Immanuel Christian University, Jogja, Indonesia. Presented in the Development Policies - A Comparative Study on Australia and Indonesia Seminar, Immanuel Christian University, Jogja, Indonesia, 29 August 2002


The author wish to express his sincere thanks and appreciation to Mr and Mrs Webster who have brilliantly proofread this paper and edited the language.

CPDS Comments:

The above account is very useful in providing a perspective on the role of Chinese peoples in Indonesia both before and after independence - a role which has seen considerable economic (and at times political) influence in their hands as well as a degree of political discrimination and occasional persecution since independence.

It is clear that people of Chinese origins have a great deal to contribute to Indonesia through their commercial skills and attitudes to work. It is equally clear that it is difficult to develop effective relationships with Indonesia's dominant ethnic groups.

Sugianto's paper outlined ongoing attempts by Indonesia's leaders to resolve these dilemmas over a long period of time.  Undoubtedly many more years of effort will still be needed.

For future progress in this area, it is suggested that consideration might be given to: