Cornell University Press

Imported Police and Communist Doctors: China Conspiracy Theories in Indonesia

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Fake news and disinformation. Problems that have caused political volatility in many parts of the world also cast a long shadow over Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and third largest democracy. In the presidential election in May this year, the moderate, incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi) won a close race against the hardline, former three-star general Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo supporters contested the election outcome and staged a riot. In the frenzy atmosphere of the election, the anger of the protestors was fueled by online hoaxes. Various conspiracy theories all had one protagonist: The People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese migrant workers were given fake Indonesian ID cards that enabled them to vote for Jokowi; a certain tech company from China was put in charge of the electronic balloting counting system, assisting Jokowi with his election fraud; and, after the outbreak of street violence, the Indonesian police deployed against the rioters were soldiers “imported” from the People’s Liberation Army.[1]

While the technologies of mass communications are new, the fear mongering that targets China has a long history in Indonesia. The most strident, outlandish, and persistent rumor concerns China’s role in the September Thirtieth Movement of 1965. This most significant and yet mysterious event in modern Indonesian history started before dawn on October 1, 1965, when Indonesian army units from the presidential palace guard kidnapped and later killed six senior anti-Communist generals. On the next day, major general Suharto launched an effective counterattack. In the process of his rise to power, Suharto initiated a nation-wide anti-Communist campaign. The campaign escalated into one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people were killed. The Suharto regime repeatedly made unfounded charges against the September Thirtieth Movement as being part of the PRC’s “yellow imperialist” project to encroach Indonesia.[2] This idea was further instilled in the minds of the general population through the film The Betrayal of the Indonesian Communist Party (Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI), which was broadcast annually on the evening of September 30 and was required viewing for schoolchildren. In this (in)famous film, Chinese doctors are shown practicing acupuncture with electric shock on the ailing President Sukarno, and their diagnosis of Sukarno’s health condition as “critically dangerous” is presented as the trigger for the Indonesian communists’ coup attempt.

Was China the puppet master that instigated its Indonesian comrades to seize state power by force? With a rare access to materials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives and the Communist Party Central Archives, my book reveals that China’s role in the September Thirtieth Movement was marginal. The Indonesian Communist leader Aidit designed the September Thirtieth Movement free from foreign intervention. Top Chinese leaders were aware of Aidit’s scheme. But the swift execution of the plan took them by surprise. Newly declassified US sources also show that in early 1966, American diplomats in Jakarta had already considered accusations of Chinese involvement to be fake news. Yet the US encouraged, rather than curbed, disinformation.

The Suharto regime’s propaganda led to grievous consequences. Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Jakarta were suspended for more than two decades. Moreover, the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, with arguably disproportionate economic power but vulnerable political status, fell on the receiving end of hostility toward the PRC. Although most of the victims of the 1965-1966 mass violence were indigenous population associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, many ordinary Chinese were harassed, imprisoned, or deprived of their possessions and expelled from the archipelago by implication. Under Suharto’s ensuing three-decade rule, a number of discriminatory laws were passed: for instance, the ethnic Chinese were given a special designation on their citizenship cards and Chinese-language education was banned.

The complex and difficult history between China and Indonesia shows us how easily tensions in international and inter-racial relations could be used to produce a toxic mash that shatters geopolitical and social stability. Today, against the backdrop of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, the issue of increasing PRC economic presence often becomes entangled with the position of the Chinese in Indonesia. In 2017, the former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known by his nickname “Ahok”) was controversially sentenced for two-year imprisonment for insulting Islam. Ahok is an ethnic Chinese Christian and an ally of Jokowi, who has been criticized for his receptive attitude toward infrastructure loans from Beijing. A video of Ahok commenting on conservative Muslim clergy was edited out of context and went viral on the internet, igniting mass demonstrations. Although reflecting contemporary anxieties over an influx of Chinese labor and investments, the recent disinformation is repeating an old trope. In the online echo chamber, these false narratives proliferate quickly precisely because they mimic government propaganda in the past and exploit the enduring vulnerability of the Chinese minority in Indonesia.

Indonesian Communist leader D.N. Aidit, his wife Tanti Aidit, the Indonesian Communist Party Politburo member Jusuf Adjitorop with Mao Zedong, August 5, 1965. Photo courtesy of Hersi Setiawan.

[1] Quinton, Temby, “Disinformation, Violence, and Anti-Chinese Sentiment in Indonesia’s 2019 Elections,” ISEAS Perspective, 2019, No. 67, (accessed September 3, 2019).

[2] “Awas Neo-imperialisme Kuning,” Angkatan Bersendjata, April 25, 1965.

Taomo Zhou is Assistant Professor of History at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and the author of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia and the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2019). Follow her on Twitter @taomo_zhou.

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