Ethnic identity has becoming a debate in Indonesia since the coming of the Dutch’s power in Indonesia. This has resulted in the segregation of identities of many ethnics in Indonesia especially the Chinese as they were continuing being identified as ‘different’ from the indigenous. This paper will examine how does the social forces had an impact towards the construction of the ethnic Chinese’ identity across time periods.

As portrayed by Freedman (2003) by claiming that ‘ethnic identity is formed from internal dynamics within a group, as well as being shaped and affected by the larger social, political and cultural environment in which a group lives’. The ethnic’s identity in Indonesia is articulated and fabricated from the Indonesian government throughout the years of colonialism and authoritative power. As illustrated by Tsang (2001) as well ‘the more powerful individuals in society use the politics of identity to maintain their privileged position’. The transformation of the political reforms and social constructionism has changed the perceptions of the Chinese identity in Indonesia.

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1. Historical legacy – Dutch colonization (1596 until 1942).

Before the coming of the Netherland’s power, East Indies was once a ‘stateless’ region – whole population was regarded of having the same identity, freedom of mingling with other ethnics; no sense of difference. The Chinese was able to assimilate freely together with the indigenous (asli) in every discourse. The identity of the Chinese at that time, were considered as the ‘intermediary traders’ within their own race, towards the indigenous population as well within the external markets. The Chinese were well – integrated with the indigenous; they were able to practice their culture, custom and traditions. They were living in a homogenous population regardless of the fact at that time Chinese were largely migrants.

After the coming of the Netherland’s power in Indonesia, however, it has sparked the segregation idea towards the Chinese regardless of whether they were the totoks or the peranakans with the implementation of ‘race’ policy. This policy made to segregate the Chinese community with the indigenous population. By placing the Chinese Indonesia in the middle rank of social caste system with the Dutch as the head. Meanwhile, the indigenous at the lower rank of the caste. This caused the rise of hatred and jealousy from the indigenous population. By putting the Chinese as the second rank, it has given the power for the Chinese to be able to hold their traditional identity as they were largely control most part of the economic sectors in East Indies. Numerous benefits also been given by the Dutch towards the Chinese Indonesia, such as an exclusive occupational spot acting as the centralized middlemen and money – lenders especially with the ‘priyayis’ cooperated under the Dutch provision. With the benefits given to them, the military protection was implemented to them making them to be able to control the ‘parchistelsel’ (a monopoly – leased system) that held a leased government authority over the large areas of Java. With various benefits given by the Dutch, it has given many wealthy Chinese revenue farmers. This was eventually a false state consciousness made by the Dutch colonialist to the Chinese. It was purposely to make the colonialists able to extract more economic benefits from Indonesia by using the Chinese as a tool to help them. This was actually the real intention of the Dutch implemented the ‘race’ policy.

This was also evident with the statement made by Suryadinata (2001) that ‘the Dutch made no attempt to integrate the Chinese into indigenous society, on the contrary…. the colonizers introduced a divide – and – rule policy towards the population’. The benefits given by the Dutch was supposed to make the Chinese to be hostile and accepted the idea of them was not able to integrated and being separated with the indigenous population. Due for that, however, the Chinese were regarded as ‘Pro – Dutch’ by the indigenous, even though during this era, the Chinese were economically and politically powerful than the indigenous. Not just that, even from the population’s census in 1937, out of the whole population of East Indies at that time was 60, 731, 025, about 40, 281 or 29% of them were the Chinese Indonesia while, 31, 174 of them were the indigenous. Yet, the Chinese as whole sphere were regarded as the ‘Others’ meanwhile, the indigenous as the pribumi majority even though the number of the Chinese were outnumbered the indigenous. The Chinese were not able to represent themselves and assimilate with the pribumi although they held an economic and politic power. These position does not help them to be able to assimilate with the indigenous instead it was opening a big social gap between the pribumi and the Chinese; the Dutch did not bring any significant improvement towards this matter throughout the 346 years of colonial era. This misguided assumption gave a negative symbolism attached to the ‘Chineseness’ manufactured to a larger extent by the State. The colonial race policy, acculturated economic position and the Chinese sense of cultural superiority were the main obstacles for the Chinese to assimilate into the indigenous. In reality, it was a means made by the Dutch in order for the Chinese to have a distinct relationship with the pribumi majority. With the Chinese closely attached on their political loyalty with the Dutch, however, it became an immediate abandonment of their Chinese identity. The Chinese can only meet the indigenous within the market places.

2. The relationship between politics and the formation of ethnic identity.

The political environment was a major factor that laid the ground of discrimination of the Chinese Indonesians and however, it furthered the segregation of between them and the indigenous majority, the pribumi; the sense of pribumi VS Chinese Indonesia dynamics.
The political institution actually decides whether the Chinese identity were allowed to express their Chinese heritage and Chinese identity.

By giving the chances towards the Chinese Indonesia that they never experienced before during the colonialism, it has given the chance for the Japanese to gain supports. With the help of strong relationship with China, the Japanese had given the Chinese to articulate their Chinese language, to practice their culture publicly, gave the right to celebrate their memorial days, even to raise their flags alongside on October 10th 1945. They also able to retain their economic dominance position as ‘Cukong’ compared to pribumi majority. The same as the political strategy implemented by the Dutch, it was actually aimed to get rid of the Dutch influences at that time, in order to ensure the Japanese able to govern Indonesia. However, this has created into a chaotic issue in which that the Indonesian government had cooperated with the local gangs to enforce the ‘order’ through devastating and looting areas nearby across Indonesia in discriminating the Chinese Indonesians. This was eventually due for the installation of the perception of ‘scapegoats’ implemented towards them since the Dutch intervention. They pribumi saw with the close relationship between the Japanese and the Chinese Indonesians may lead to the same event as during the Dutch intervention.

The loyalty of the Chinese Indonesian during the Dutch East Indies was eventually always been doubted by many pribumi. As before the independence of Indonesia (1942), the Chinese were suspected of allying with the Dutch during the intervention as well as with the China state during the Japanese Occupation (March 1942 – 1945). Due to such stereotypes and prejudices situated to the Chinese, it eventually demonstrated in the anti – Chinese violence that broke out in Tangerang, Jakarta, Bandung, Pontianak, Palembang, Bagan Siapi – Api and Medan (Somers, 1965, oo.110 – 119; Heidhues,1974, pp. 101 – 102, 109; Cribb, 1991, pp. 53: 111). Even many of the Chinese traders were attacked as they were seemed as a threat towards the indigenous small businesses. Some of them were also caught in riots as they indigenous suspected the Chinese to have a league with the Dutch. These was actually the results of the constriction of the politics sentiments implemented by the Dutch and Japanese.

2.1 The first president of Indonesia: Sukarno

Due for the good relations between China and Indonesia continued until Sukarno presidency (1945 – 1966), this has created the hatred sentiments from the indigenous (pribumi) majority towards the Chinese Indonesians. As the pribumi majority claimed that both of the totoks and the peranakans were China – originated and should repatriated back to China. Pribumi saw the Chinese as the ‘fifth column’ of China and should be excluded from the Indonesian citizens. Regardless of that, during this presidency, several citizenship acts were implemented to help the Chinese to become Indonesian citizens. The first citizenship act; the 1946 Citizenship Act had really helped the Chinese who had resided in Indonesia for almost five years to be categorized as the citizens as long as they were not a citizen of another nation. This policy hence helped the Chinese to assimilate their identity without losing their Chinese identity. The main intention of this policy was actually to prevent the Dutch power from taking over Indonesian territories, the collaboration with China was a good strategy in building the nation. Even, according to the Department of Justice in Indonesia, in the early 1950, a total of 390, 000 local Chinese refused to be Indonesian state with 1.1 million out of 2.1 million of the Chinese were not Indonesian citizens nor China citizens and instead, seen as the ‘aliens’; regarded as Being aliens in Indonesia was not merely a big issue for the Indonesian government, instead this presidency forced the Chinese to engage with the business sector, which accumulated more money and thus more wealth for Indonesia, and forced them endeavoring to blend in with the pribumi. As what been stated by Sukarno in his speech of 1968 which he claimed that about 70% of the Indonesia’s economy was in the hands of the Chinese and this image turn out has remained until his times. Consequently, it caused tensions due to this wide economic gap.

2.2 The second president of Indonesia: Suharto

The Suharto presidency with his authoritarian political system manipulated the idea of national cultural community of Indonesia, which was then used to authorized Suharto’s political organization. This goal was embodied inside the idea of Pancasila. It became the official Indonesian state ideology with the five important principles and it continues to be a defining aspect for the state. This ideology appointed Bahasa Indonesia as the national language which requires the citizens to pledge support for a national identity as the ‘Indonesians’. The national slogan for this ideology was the ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’; unity in diversity to promote assimilation and to support the Suharto’s New Order presidency. With the Pancasila was actually a way for the presidency to force assimilation with the Javanese – dominated society. The policies and regulations evolved inside this ideology was eventually gave an impact on how the Chinese defined themselves to the rest of the pribumi. The Chinese Indonesians were forced to become Indonesia and as a result, they need to conceal their Chinese identity, thus, it made them to lose their Chineseness that been inherited for hundreds years. Many discourses of the Chinese sentiments were forbidden, unlike during the past presidency on the ‘Assimilation Programme’. Public displays of the Chinese characters were forbidden, they were not allowed to celebrate Chinese festivals nor holidays publicly. School – based Chinese language were closed down and the Chinese – language newspaper were prohibited instead for one published by the government. Even though many of the Chinese speak Bahasa Indonesia, born in Indonesia, yet, the Chinese was not able to identify themselves as part of the pribumi majority. They still not considered as Indonesia although they were already ‘Indonesianised’.

The political environment during this presidency, played a major role that influenced the ethnic identity of the Chinese, because the state held the most important role towards the society. Even during this New Order period, the government implemented a code that attached towards the national identity cards and passport of the Chinese Indonesia. This coding system eventually, had stigmatized the Chinese and constantly exposing the Chinese with many discriminations and exploitation particularly from the bureaucracy, police and military that were under the Suharto’s dominance. The Chinese Indonesians were required to produce a Citizenship letter (SBKRI – Surat Bukti Kewarganegaraan Republik Indonesia) for them to obtain documents such as the birth certificates, passports or marriage certificates. With this system, it restricted the Chinese to participate in political spheres, public service, entrance for military and local universities. Suharto also introduced the term of Cina as a replacement for the Indonesian words Tiongkok as China, and Tionghwa referred to Chinese. This eventually again triggered the indigenous of the stigma of Chinese as the ‘scapegoats’.

The Chinese occupied the dominant nation’s economy of Indonesia. The Chinese acquired a paradoxical status in Indonesia – they are perceived economically dominant, but, politically and culturally they are pariahs; same as their ancestors. The ‘Cina’ word thus, became a disparaging term. The New Order’s policy was actually implemented to took advantage from the Chinese for his own economic benefits as that time Indonesia was in the merge of in – debt, instead of assimilate the Chinese. The traditional ‘Cukong’ were still maintained and given the rights to collaborate with the members of the Indonesian politic elites – dominated by the Suharto’s family. The power elites and Suharto’s family became the Chinese capitalist’s business partner (tycoons) with parts of the profits channeled straight to their political patron’s foundation known as ‘yayasan’ in a form of foundation. Due to this corrupt relationship, the perception of saying the Chinese are wealthy and optimistic became popular, it however segregates the Chinese into different social hierarchy. Many of the Chinese in rural areas were living poor conditions. The Cukongs were labelled as corrupters meanwhile, the rural Chinese were always oppressed.

The perceptions from the indigenous expressed towards the Chinese as wealthy, optimistic and scapegoats of the society; causes of all problems in Indonesia had pressured the Chinese Indonesians, along with the introduction of the New Order’s policy had given stressed towards the Chinese that caused the Chinese as the target of the May riots 1998. The Chinese were badly affected. Although those discriminations were fabricated towards all of the Chinese Indonesian but, it was not fair towards the Chinese who were not involved with Suharto’s corruption activity. The Chinese was increasingly targeted in ongoing violence. Even in statistics claimed that about 7 million population of Indonesia, only 3% of them were the Chinese which were politically manipulated by Suharto stage-managed by him to accept their roles in the country’s economy and political arenas. (Goldner, 2002; Hakim, 2003; World Fact Book, 2006).

Even though the discriminations and racism laws been implemented to reduce the discriminations towards the Chinese, thus, the mindset however, can not be changed (Turner and Allen, 2007). The Indonesians still have difficulties to accept the ethnic Chinese identity as part of the Indonesian society after the 1998 riots event and continuously marginalized. It was evident with Ahok’s controversy.

Overall, due to the reason that Indonesia is hugely diverse, thus, the Chinese communities can be said was actually undergone the process of integration instead of assimilation process that been claimed by many of the presidents. They are the product of historical development and constantly undergone a process of changes and transformations. Across the times, the ethnic Chinese were allowed to identify themselves in a variety of manners, sometimes as Indonesians, as Chinese Indonesians, as Orang Cina or Orang Tionghwa. The construction of the Chinese’s identity was constructed only for the benefits of the politics and the economy of Indonesia. The politics used them as ‘tool’ to restrain the economy of Indonesia, instead of helping the Chinese to be able assimilate and accepted by the indigenous. Due for this manipulations made, the indigenous however, started to hate and perceived the Chinese badly causing the Chinese to not able accepted even after the May riots 1998. The political environment in Indonesia have a great impact towards this communal identity for the Chinese to renegotiate their identity. The May 1998 riots helped the Chinese to start their own political participation, to express their Chinese cultures and thus, their Chinese identity.

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