If Twitter is the revolutionary version of blogging, TikTok might be the revolutionary version of YouTube. Both Twitter and TikTok encourage their users to post shorter, more fragmented content than their precursors.
TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, is the international version of China’s short video sharing app, Douyin.
TikTok is not the first Chinese social media platform to go international, although it is likely the first to gain traction with non-Chinese users globally. WeChat and other Chinese social media platforms that have gone global have, in fact, been predominately used by international Chinese citizens.
But TikTok is not yet a complete success story. The video-sharing platform may have broken into some non-Chinese markets, but it still has a lot to learn when it comes to outside regulations and culture.
And this is true for Chinese apps generally – they face obstacles refining their global strategies, particularly in navigating China’s notorious internet censorship.
Chinese social media is already going global
Some scholars attribute the success of Chinese social media to the censorship and isolation of China’s internet. This is because China’s Great Firewall prevents foreign social media from entering the Chinese market.
Nevertheless, many China-based social media platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, You Ku, Blued and Douyin, are seeking to expand into the global market.
WeChat, for instance, tried (and failed) to expand into the non-Chinese overseas market, even hiring soccer star Lionel Messi to front their advertising campaign.
Unlike the global strategies of its peers, ByteDance has never merged Chinese and international digital realms. Instead, it created a separate app, TikTok, specifically for going abroad.
In fact, ByteDance spent A$1.42 billion to purchase Musical.ly, to target the teenage market in the US. On August 2, 2018, ByteDance merged Musical.ly into TikTok, an exceptional boost for TikTok’s success.
TikTok is trying to remove its Chinese roots
Douyin and TikTok are branded as the same product, but they each have distinct characteristics depending on their marketing target. This is wise for ByteDance’s global ambition, given Chinese internet culture doesn’t always translate in a global context.
For instance, TikTok, unlike Douyin, has a set of westernised stickers and effects on its interface, as you can see in the picture above.
Still, some prevailing Chinese traits appear in TikTok that emerged from Douyin, such as a meibai (美白, literally meaning “beautify whitening”) camera tool.
But the pursuit of white skin isn’t a social motivator in most western countries, and technological constraints like this are easily noticed.
Despite ByteDance’s efforts to minimise Chinese culture in its international app, it is still difficult for TikTok to fully understand western culture.
And this is especially true of other Chinese social media platforms, which don’t really endeavour to incorporate global cultures at all. For instance, WeChat’s mobile payment service, WeChat Pay, only allows Chinese citizens with a Chinese bank account to set up an account.
Global app with Chinese regulations
In April 2018, Chinese internet regulators accused ByteDance, of spreading “unwholesome” content through Douyin.
This includes child users who are making money by live streaming or posting advertising videos on Douyin. And to gain more Douyin followers, some children, for instance, have been reported as recording suggestive gestures or dances.
ByteDance’s chief executive Zhang Yiming responded by saying the company would increase its content moderation team from 6,000 staff members to 10,000. But ByteDance refused to disclose how many of these 10,000 moderators would work for TikTok, and whether the content standards for American users are the same as those for Chinese users.
Chief executive of Common Sense Media James P Steyer said children on TikTok are “significantly too young for it”.
It’s not that the content on TikTok isn’t okay for your 15-year-old. It’s what happens to your six or seven-year-old.
Last month, TikTok was penalised A$8 million by the US Federal Trade Commission due to its violation of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
ByteDance’s low-level attention to underage users on Douyin and TikTok shows the lack of structural mechanisms in place for protecting children in China. And there are possibilities for more unforeseen circumstances due to nontransparent regulation of social media within China.
While TikTok agreed to pay the largest ever penalty in a children’s privacy case in the US, there is still much for it to learn and adapt in the global market.
The Morrison government’s decision to block Hong Kong’s largest infrastructure company from buying one of Australia’s key infrastructure companies seems to make a complicated relationship with China even more fraught.
Rejections of foreign takeover bids are extremely rare. This is just the sixth such decision in nearly two decades.
It might be argued the blocking of the A$13 billion bid for gas pipeline operator APA Group by Cheung Kong Infrastructure (CKI) Holdings reflects increasing politicisation of Australia’s process for reviewing foreign investment.
But this is not a political shot across the bows like China’s announced anti-dumping probe into imports of Australian barley. This takeover proposal was always doubtful. News of its knock-back potentially damaging relations with China, or foreign investment more generally, are greatly exaggerated.
APA Group owns 15,000 km of natural gas pipelines and supplies about half the gas used in Australia. It owns or has interests in gas storage facilities, gas-fired power stations, and wind and solar renewable energy generators.
The board is only an advisory body. The final decision rests with the federal treasurer. Josh Frydenberg signalled his intention to block the deal in early November, giving CKI a few weeks to change its proposal, either by selling assets or finding other investment partners, enough to change his mind.
That did not happen. Frydenberg’s final decision to block the bid was based, he said, on “a single foreign company group having sole ownership and control over Australia’s most significant gas transmission business”.
He emphasised the government remained committed to welcoming foreign investment: “foreign investment helps support jobs and rising living standards.”
It’s not all about CKI
CKI is not state-controlled. It is headed by the son of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and has a history of considerable success in investing in Australia.
Nonetheless speculation about the rejection damaging the Australia-China relationship has ensued. In the words of the South China Morning Post: “As the most China-dependent developed economy, Australia potentially has a lot to lose should relations with its biggest trading partner deteriorate further.”
First, there is broad bipartisan agreement that foreign investment is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity.
Second, as already mentioned, this is just the sixth major public foreign investment proposal blocked since 2000. (All but one, notably, have been by Liberal treasurers.)
Third, all six rejections have been case-specific. Each bid has been considered on its merits.
This case arguably has less to with CKI being Chinese linked than with the size and significance of APA, whose transmission system includes three-quarters of the pipes in NSW and Victoria.
In 2016 CKI’s A$11 billion bid for NSW electricity distributor Ausgrid was also blocked (by then-treasurer Scott Morrison) on national security grounds.
But in 2017 CKI won approval for its A$7.4 billion bid for West Australian-focused electricity and gas distribution giant DUET. And in 2014 CKI’s acquisition of gas distributor Envestra (now Australian Gas Networks) was also cleared.
This is not to deny that politics played a part in Frydenberg’s decision.
The seven-person FIRB board was divided (the exact votes are not known). The Treasurer’s call could have gone either way.
Forces within the Liberal Party that opposed Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership have also been deeply hostile to APA’s sale to CKI. Among the most vociferous was NSW senator Jim Molan, who warned of “hidden dragons” in the deal.
For a minority government lagging in the polls and just months away from an election, such views have assumed inflated importance.
Nonetheless the APA decision was not a surprise. Greater scrutiny is now part and parcel of the Foreign Investment Review Board process. In particular, the emphasis has firmly shifted over the past few years to scrutinising national security and taxation areas.
The Critical Infrastructure Centre within the Department of Home Affairs, which became fully operational this year, brings together capability from across the federal government to manage national security risks from foreign involvement in Australia’s critical infrastructure. It’s particularly focused on telecommunications, electricity, gas, water and ports.
David Irvine, who has chaired the Foreign Investment Review Board since April 2017, is a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
This shifting emphasis does not equate to a bias against foreign investment per se. There is no evidence investors, including Chinese, are being discouraged or significantly deterred from investing in Australia.
CKI itself demonstrates, by returning to Australia despite previous rejections, that foreign investors will not give up so long as the next deal stacks up. There is already speculation CKI has moved on, and now has its eyes on Spark Infrastructure, an ASX-listed owner of energy asset.
Rumour has it that Vanuatu has agreed to a Chinese request to establish a military base. The substance of this rumour is highly speculative at the least and disingenuous at most. Regardless of the truth, the fact that it raises alarm about the threat of Chinese military expansionism speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy, particularly toward the Pacific.
On Monday, Fairfax Media reported that “China had approached Vanuatu” about setting up a “permanent military presence” – in other words, a base.
The article went on to speculate about the dramatic strategic importance of the “globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep”. Furthermore, this Chinese base “would … upend the long standing strategic balance in the region” and would likely be followed by bases elsewhere.
Multiple international mediaoutlets have syndicated the story. Much of the coverage alluded to military threats and a shift in the strategic balance. The language is reminiscent of Cold War bipolarity: “their” gain is “our” loss.
On face value, this sounds like a serious geostrategic issue for Australia. But on close examination, the threat is more apparent than real. An indication of which is that nowhere are Chinese or Vanuatuan interests in provoking this form of strategic competition explained.
From the beginning, every assertion was countered by one of the primary players. Multiple representatives of the Vanuatu government have been at pains to deny the story. For instance, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu was quoted as saying:
No-one in the Vanuatu Government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort.
As the story spiralled out of control, he then told SBS News it was “fake news” concocted by a Fairfax Media journalist.
Multiple Chinese government sources have denied the story and also described it as “fake news”. China also has assured the Australian government that the story has no validity.
In the original article, it was noted that talks between China and Vanuatu were only “preliminary discussions” and that “no formal proposals had been put to Vanuatu’s government.” So given these caveats, and the comprehensive denials, this raises some serious questions about why this rumour was newsworthy in the first place.
So where did it come from? Presumably Fairfax Media would only have acted if the information was from a highly placed Australian government source that could be verified. Presumably this unnamed source has leaked sensitive intelligence, but it is curious that no Australian Federal Police investigation has been announced.
This has been the past practice from the Turnbull government in relation to national security leaks, and there is no sign the government is at all concerned about this leak.
In contrast, it has used this rumour for megaphone diplomacy against both Vanuatu and China. For example, after accepting the Chinese government’s denial, the prime minister said:
We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.
And it was the latter rather than the former statement that was covered by many media outlets.
This is very telling. Canberra is clearly sending signals to Beijing and Port Vila that it maintains significant strategic interests in the region (and is a message not lost on other Pacific capitals).
This approach simply rehashes colonial tropes about Pacific Island Nations being economically unsustainable, corrupt, and easily influenced by great powers. This is reinforced by China’s alleged influence borne from budget support, and capital and aid flows into the Pacific.
What these colonial stereotypes fail to acknowledge is that the foreign policies of Pacific Island countries have matured. Vanuatu is a committed member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), eschewing formal military alliances and entanglements with great powers. The lesson of Fiji’s strong stance against Australian sanctions is that it too has created an independent foreign policy. Neither country will be easily influenced by foreign powers, including Australia.
Returning to the “truth”. It is true that China’s influence in the region has grown dramatically in recent years, especially during the sanctions years from 2006 to 2014, when Canberra attempted to isolate Fiji.
It is also true that military diplomacy is a key element of China’s foreign policy approach (to the Pacific as in Africa). A final truth is that Vanuatu has a high level of debt dependence on China and is a major beneficiary of Chinese aid. However, this does not mean that Vanuatu is being influenced into accepting a Chinese military base.
At some stage, Vanuatu might very well sign an agreement that allows transit and refuelling of Chinese vessels, as is commonplace in international relations. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop told Radio National: “these sorts of visits are normal for many neighbours around the world.”
If so, then all we have learned from this episode is that old colonial habits die hard, and the chances of dispassionately dealing with the geo-strategic rise of China are narrowing.
Academics in Australia might reflect on the fact that scholarly books critical of the Chinese Communist Party are now shunned by publishers. Scholars who work on China know that continued access to the country requires them to play by Beijing’s rules, which for most means self-censorship – the dirty secret of China studies in Australia.
Despite refusing to publish my book, Silent Invasion, I am privileged in my access to free speech in a way that most Chinese-Australians are not.
In February, Alex Joske, my researcher for the book and of Chinese heritage himself, wrote in the New York Times that as Beijing’s interference in Australian society intensifies:
… the voices of the Chinese-Australians alarmed by Beijing’s encroachment are being drowned out by an aggressive Chinese government campaign to silence critics here.
Once quite vocal, pro-democracy activists, supporters of Tibetan autonomy, and Falun Gong practitioners are barely heard nowadays. In my book, I describe how this marginalisation has been carried out.
Examples are legion. The New York Times recently reported that Taiwanese workers at restaurants in Sydney have been sacked because, when asked whether they believe Taiwan belongs to China, they say “no”.
It only takes a few examples like this to send a signal to all Taiwanese in Australia to keep their views to themselves if they go against Beijing. This kind of violation of democratic principles — not to mention employment law — has for years been ignored by the mainstream.
Soon after Allen & Unwin pulled publication of my book, a retired businessman phoned. For years he has been taking in Chinese students as lodgers. Recently, he was walking through the CBD with one of those students when they came upon a Falun Gong practitioner collecting signatures on a petition. When he said “let’s go over”, she begged him not to. She kept walking while he signed the petition.
Two weeks later, the student’s parents back in China had the Ministry of State Security knocking on their door. They were warned to keep an eye on their daughter, who was creating trouble in Australia.
Think about that. Chinese authorities in Australia are monitoring Falun Gong practitioners on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, photographing anyone who interacts with them. They can identify any ethnically Chinese person and put them on a watchlist.
In the course of researching my book, I spoke with pastors at Chinese churches in Australia who believe their congregations and community groups have Communist Party agents spying on behalf on the consulate. Some Chinese-Australians cannot even go to their places of worship without Beijing’s vast security apparatus watching and reporting on them.
Few religious groups of modern times have experienced more coercion and violence than practitioners of the peaceful spiritual practice Falun Gong. Working through the consulates, the sinister 610 Office has harassed, threatened and bullied Falun Gong practitioners in Australia and frightened off sympathetic politicians.
Last year, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, was forcibly detained in China for a week while doing research on human rights lawyers. China does not like what he is uncovering and wanted to send an unambiguous message that he should change what he works on in Australia.
It’s important to understand that the effect of Beijing’s suppression of critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community is not confined to pro-democracy and Tibetan autonomy activists. The dominant narrative in the community is now one that supports the Communist Party view of the world.
Leading Sinologist John Fitzgerald has shown how the once-diverse Chinese-language media became overwhelmingly pro-Beijing. Chinese-language media in Australia is subject to Beijing’s censorship regime. Chinese-Australians who speak about human rights violations or complain about Beijing’s interference in Australian politics are vilified.
A young Chinese-Australian who wants to enter politics knows that any criticism he or she may make of, for example, party influence operations in Australia will result in bad press and pressure from “community leaders”. If they were to persist, family members in China may receive intimidating visits from state security. It’s much easier to stay out politics.
This is a denial of their democratic rights. It means that Chinese-Australians critical of the Communist Party have no representation in parliament. Who will speak up for them if their family is threatened, or if their business in Australia is sent broke by a boycott organised by the consulate?
Enabling the silencing
Instead of giving these critics of the Communist Party a voice, some of our political leaders have collaborated in their silencing. They shun them, even condemning them when they protest outside the Sydney consulate, while mixing with and responding to “community leaders” who typically head United Front organisations guided by the party through its network of agencies that operate in Australia.
In February, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen expressed outrage in parliament because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened violence against any Cambodian-Australians who staged a protest during his visit to Australia. Bowen declared he would defend the right of Cambodian-Australians to protest and would not allow peaceful protesters to be harassed and bullied.
Good for him. But where is Bowen when Chinese-Australians are threatened and intimidated by China’s state security apparatus in Australia? Where is he when supporters of Tibetan autonomy are drowned out and intimidated on the streets of Sydney?
Bowen is a prominent member of the New South Wales Right faction of the Labor Party and accordingly has been the recipient of largesse from wealthy Chinese businessmen close to Beijing. He has been flown to China at the expense of the Communist Party and an organisation run by Huang Xiangmo, the businessman ASIO warned the major political parties to avoid taking money from.
Bowen has been a patron of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, the peak United Front body closely associated with Huang Xiangmo.
As my book appeared in the bookshops, the big beasts of the NSW Right came out to monster me because I have said they are too close to Communist Party front groups and agents of influence. Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Graham Richardson attempted to trash my reputation and make me out as a Sinophobe and closet racist.
They are embarrassed when anyone draws attention to the evidence of the deep penetration of the Chinese state into their part of the Labor Party. They should know that the more they try to shut down critics, the more we will ask what they have to hide.
Like others, I have puzzled over the astonishing level of naivety in this country about what China is doing here.
It doesn’t seem enough to speak, as some have, of being blinded by the money or referring to the natural openness of Australians. For some, it’s almost a wilful unwillingness to see, despite the powerful evidence of China’s aggressive intentions.
When writing Silent Invasion, I anticipated that its arguments would be dismissed as rooted in xenophobia and that I am just stirring a cauldron of anti-Chinese racism. I have a pretty good record of anti-racism over the decades, but for some that counts for little.
More to the point, in the book I tried hard to reflect the experiences of those Chinese-Australians who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party and feel threatened by it in their new home.
I discussed with some of them the risk of racist groups misusing the book to reinforce their prejudices. The typical response was: “Well, what’s the alternative? Should you just say nothing?”
The judgement of these Chinese-Australians is that they may have to take some collateral damage to win the larger battle. They are much more worried about the vast apparatus of Communist Party coercion than some wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.
From the moment I began researching and writing Silent Invasion, I resolved to ensure that none of the criticisms I made of the Chinese Communist Party could be construed as anti-Chinese or anti-China.
I knew that nothing I did would deter the party from its usual conflation of the party and the nation. And true to form its spokespersons in Canberra and Beijing have stuck to the party line, attacking the book as “racist bigotry” and “anti-Chinese”.
If you just read Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Chinese Embassy statements, and Beijing’s trolls on social media, you’d think the danger we face in Australia is not Chinese Communist Party interference operations but the risk of inflaming anti-Chinese racism by calling out the party.
The problem lies not in Xi Jinping’s aggressive assertion of a newly risen China, but the stain on our own history. Our first goal must not be to resist growing foreign interference, but to keep the lid on fringe sentiments here.
But what of China experts in Australia? Surely they can see what is happening. Most of the serious ones can and have been trying to draw attention to it for some years.
Others, like the University of Sydney’s David Brophy, prefer to put their ideological purity on display. In a ranting “review” of Silent Invasion, he argued that when discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s interference operations in Australia, people like me and the string of China experts who take a similar view have got it all back to front.
For Brophy, when the issue of foreign interference arises, we must not “shift the blame onto China” but “confront our own failings”.
Concern about Communist Party interference in Australia, opines Brophy, actually “reflects a deep malaise in Australian society”. Really? Then Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, the US, New Zealand and several European countries, where the same debate is taking place, must be suffering from the same malaise.
In truth, when someone who is being bullied or violated is accused of just imagining it, we call it victim-blaming.
When Brophy dismisses the mountain of evidence of Communist Party interference in Australia as “imagined subversion”, he shares the assessment of his vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who has labelled the mounting warnings by the government, based largely on ASIO reports, as “Sinophobic blatherings”.
As I suggest in Silent Invasion, Spence’s University of Sydney is among the most compromised of this country’s academic institutions.
It’s not Silent Invasion, but the reaction to it, that has highlighted something troubling in the intellectual life of the nation. The fault is not an incipient xenophobia ever-ready to burst forth in anti-Chinese racism, as if our universities inherited the culture of the gold fields.
No, the fault lies in the sacrifice of intellectual rigour to the guilt felt by politically correct academics for what happened on the goldfields. For the Chinese Communist Party, this fault is a rich seam to mine in its quest to exert its influence here.
This week’s ABC Four Corners/Fairfax expose of Chinese activities in Australia is alarming – not just for its revelations about a multi-fronted pattern of influence-seeking, but also for what it says about our political elite.
Are its members – on both sides of politics – naive, stupid, or just greedy for either their parties or themselves?
Why did they think Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo – two billionaires with apparently close links to the Chinese Communist Party – and associated entities would want to pour millions of dollars into their parties?
Did they believe that, in the absence of democracy in the land of their birth, these businessmen were just anxious to subsidise it abroad? Hardly.
Even worse, after ASIO had explicitly warned the Coalition parties and Labor in 2015 about the business figures and their links to the Chinese regime, how could the Liberals, Nationals and ALP keep accepting more of their money? Seemingly, their voracious desire for funds overcame ethics and common sense.
And why would former trade minister Andrew Robb not see a problem in walking straight from parliament into a highly lucrative position with a Chinese company?
The spotlight is back on Labor senator Sam Dastyari who last year stepped down from the frontbench over a controversy involving a debt paid by Chinese interests. Monday’s program reported that Dastyari’s office and he personally lobbied intensively to try to facilitate Huang’s citizenship application. The application had stalled; it was being scrutinised by ASIO.
While the Liberals will, quite legitimately, renew their attacks on Dastyari, the case of Robb, also highlighted in the program, raises a more complex question.
Robb brought to fruition Australia’s free-trade deal with China. He announced his retirement late in the last parliament, stepping down as minister but seeing out the term as special trade envoy. He was one of the government’s most successful performers.
On September 2 last year Robb’s appointment as a senior economic adviser to the Landbridge Group – the Chinese company that had gained a 99-year lease to the Port of Darwin – was announced on the company’s website.
Landbridge’s acquisition of the Port of Darwin was highly controversial, despite being given the OK by the defence department. The Americans were angry they were not accorded notice, with President Barack Obama chipping Malcolm Turnbull about it.
Monday’s expose revealed that Robb was put on the Landbridge payroll from July 1 last year, the day before the election, and that his remuneration was A$73,000 a month – $880,000 a year – plus expenses.
Robb was touchy last year when his new position was questioned, saying: “I’ve been a senior cabinet minister – I know the responsibilities that I’ve got. I’ve got no intention of breaching those responsibilities.”
He did not give an interview to Monday’s program, but told it in a statement: “I can confirm that I fully understand my responsibilities as a former member of cabinet, and I can also confirm that I have, at all times, acted in accordance with those responsibilities”.
The formal responsibilities for post-separation employment are set out in the Statement of Ministerial Standards, dated November 20, 2015.
Ministers are required to undertake that, for an 18-month period after ceasing to be a minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as minister in their last eighteen months in office.
Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.
Ministers shall ensure that their personal conduct is consistent with the dignity, reputation and integrity of the parliament.
While Robb is not a lobbyist, and would argue that he has not contravened the letter of this code, it is hard to see how quickly taking such a position does not bring him into conflict with its spirit.
Why would this company be willing to pay a very large amount of money for his services? The obvious answer is because of who he is, his background, his name, his knowledge, and his contacts.
Robb surely would have done better to steer right away from the offer.
Both government and opposition, having for years been caught napping or worse about Chinese penetration, have started scrambling to be seen to be acting.
Turnbull last month asked Attorney-General George Brandis to lead a review of the espionage laws. Brandis says he will take a submission to cabinet “with a view to introducing legislation before the end of the year”.
The government is planning to bring in legislation in the spring parliamentary session to ban foreign donations, a complex exercise when, for example, a figure such a Chau, an Australian citizen, is involved.
In an attempt at one-upmanship, Bill Shorten – again on the back foot over Dastyari – says Labor won’t accept donations from the two businessmen featured in Monday’s program, and challenges Turnbull to do the same.
Shorten already has a private member’s bill before parliament to ban foreign donations, and on Tuesday wrote to Turnbull calling for a parliamentary inquiry “on possible measures to address the risk posed by foreign governments and their agents seeking to improperly interfere in Australia’s domestic political and electoral affairs”.
Out of it all will come action on foreign donations and perhaps tighter espionage laws. But it is to the politicians’ deep discredit that they have been so cavalier about the integrity of our political system for so long.
Racial and religious prejudice faced by the outgoing Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta, now imprisoned for blasphemy, is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. Ethnic Chinese and Christians in Indonesia have endured systematic and long-standing discrimination throughout the nation’s history.
Earlier this month, the former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.
This conviction follows his defeat in last month’s Jakarta gubernatorial election to a Muslim candidate, former Indonesian government minister Anies Baswedan. Ahok’s opponents ran a campaign against him based on ethnic and religious grounds.
The campaign against Ahok
Ahok acquired the position of Jakarta governor by default. He was deputy governor to Joko Widodo, who vacated the governorship after winning the 2014 Indonesian presidential election.
At an election campaign event last year, Ahok told his audience that religious leaders who were using an interpretation of a verse of the Quran against him were fooling Indonesians. These religious leaders interpreted Verse 51 of Al-Maidah as prohibiting non-Muslims ruling over Muslims.
Large protests demanding Ahok be jailed for blasphemy ensued. These were also laden with anti-Chinese slogans. For example, at a November 16 rally, some protesters chanted “crush the Chinese”.
The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an Islamic vigilante group, organised some of these rallies. At one protest, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab asked protesters “would you accept an infidel as governor [of Jakarta]?” – a clear reference to Ahok.
Rizieq’s comment is unsurprising. The FPI consistently opposed Ahok serving as Jakarta’s acting governor due to his non-Muslim background.
During the election campaign, anti-Christian posters and banners could be seen in the streets of Jakarta. One such poster read “it is forbidden to pick an infidel leader”. Another banner stated that “Muslims who vote for an infidel [Ahok] … do not deserve a funeral prayer”.
Discrimination against Chinese Indonesians
Chinese-Indonesians, representing approximately 2% of Indonesia’s population of 250 million, experienced widespread discrimination during the Soeharto era (1966-98).
Soeharto’s regime banned Chinese language, newspapers, schools and cultural expressions. Chinese names were also prohibited. As a result, Chinese Indonesians were pressured to take Indonesian names.
In May 1998, during the devastating Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesians directed their anger against ethnic Chinese who they inaccurately perceived to be universally affluent. Rioters damaged Chinese Indonesians’ businesses in Jakarta’s Chinatown, Glodok, and in some cases burned them. During this period, many ethnic Chinese women were raped and some ethnic Chinese were killed.
Under Abdurrahman Wahid’s administration (1999-2001), Indonesia ended the ban on Chinese language, newspapers, schools and displays of Chinese culture. But discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians remains.
A 1967 decree prohibiting Chinese Indonesians from serving in the Indonesian armed forces remains in place. And, unlike non-Chinese Indonesians, Chinese-Indonesians possess an SBKRI, a document that proves their Indonesian citizenship. This document is still sometimes required for Chinese-Indonesians to obtain passports, enrol in schools and acquire business licences.
Discrimination against Christians in Indonesia
Ahok is part of two minority groups in Indonesia. Christian Indonesians comprise roughly 10% of Indonesia’s population. They, too, have been discriminated against throughout Indonesia’s history.
Since 2006, 500 Christian churches have been shut down in Indonesia. Some Islamists have been using a 2006 government regulation, which requires religious leaders to obtain community support prior to building places of worship, to demand church closures.
Discrimination against Christians also occurred during the Soeharto era. In 1967, Muslim militants damaged Christians’ properties in Jakarta, South Sulawesi and Aceh on the grounds of fighting Indonesia’s purported Christianisation.
Where to from here?
Following his election victory, Anies Baswedan publicly pledged as the incoming Jakarta governor to “safeguard [Jakarta’s] diversity and unity”.
However, to ensure Indonesia remains an inclusive democracy, Anies needs to go further than this. He should directly denounce the ethnic and religious campaign mounted against Ahok, notably by the FPI.
Furthermore, Jokowi’s administration needs to dismantle Soeharto-era discriminatory regulations and policies against ethnic Chinese.
If Anies fails to denounce the ethnic and religious campaign against Ahok and Jokowi does not attempt to remove anti-Chinese laws and regulations, Indonesia’s history of discrimination against Chinese and Christian Indonesians will continue to repeat itself.