Growing Pride in the Chinese Diaspora

The spectacular "Water Cube"—the bubblelike Beijing Olympic swimming venue—has been praised for its architecture, but it bears an even more unusual distinction. The $150 million structure was financed entirely by the 40 million to 50 million members of the worldwide Chinese diaspora. Contributors included Lie Cho Hui, an Indonesian national in Jakarta, who forked over $100 in exchange for a certificate from Beijing confirming his donation. "Although I am 100 percent Indonesian, I'm very proud of the Games," Lie says. "After all, I share the same blood with those people, the same culture."

A decade ago, Lie wouldn't have dared confess such feelings. Discrimination and violence marred the history of Southeast Asia's 30 million ethnic Chinese, and Indonesia—home to the region's largest community—was particularly oppressive. The last anti-Chinese pogrom there occurred during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, when rioters killed an estimated 1,000 people. But that now feels like ancient history. Thanks to Indonesia's democratization and the rising power and prestige of China—and its growing appeal as a business partner—Chinese communities are enjoying an unprecedented renaissance, rediscovering their roots and displaying ethnic pride in once unimaginable ways.

The changes in Indonesia are particularly pronounced. Many ethnic Chinese have entered politics, including the current minister of Trade, Mari Pangestu; the vice governor of West Kalimantan province; a great many local mayors; and about a dozen members of Indonesia's Parliament (their exact number is unknown since they use Indonesian names). This tally may grow in the near future, for as the campaign for the next year's general election gets underway, political parties have begun approaching Chinese cultural organizations in search of candidates. Natalia Soebagjo is vice president of the University of Indonesia's Center for Chinese Study, which was created in 2000. Soebagjo, who is Javanese, says that "after the May 1998 riots, there was an increased awareness of Chinese identity. As a result, they started to join political parties or NGOs. They have become more assertive defending their rights. Before [the reforms], there were hardly any Chinese Indonesian politician to speak off. Now far more are getting involved."

Eight years ago, broadcasting or publishing anything in Mandarin or displaying a red lantern could land you in jail. These days, Chinese symbols are visible everywhere, including impromptu dragon dances (often conducted by non-Chinese), held to mark the opening of new malls, and the sight of shops filled with DVDs of Chinese TV series. Chinese aesthetics have become fashionable, with ethnic Chinese models replacing Western ones on billboards and an ethnic Chinese being picked to represent Indonesia in the Miss World pageant for the first time.

Such shifts are slowly undoing a bitter history. After a failed 1965 coup that was blamed on the communists, General Suharto unleashed violent purges that killed between 500,000 and 3 million people (the exact tally is unknown). Ethnic Chinese—already resented for their influence in the business community—came under suspicion for their membership in leftist organizations and supposed ties to Communist China, and were heavily overrepresented among the victims. In the years that followed, Suharto, who became president in 1968, forbade any display of Chinese culture. Ethnic Chinese were even pressured to change their names.

Things began to improve in 2000 after democratic elections brought Abdurahman Wahid to the presidency. He lifted the ban on Chinese characters and the import of Chinese cultural goods. His successor made the Chinese New Year an official holiday, and in 2006, Parliament abolished the hated "proof of citizenship" law that required ethnic Chinese, even those with Indonesian ID cards or passports, to produce an additional certificate for all legal procedures.

Soon after the Mandarin ban was lifted, Chinese began to be heard on TV and radio. Before 2000, the country had only one Chinese newspaper, and the Army controlled it. Now there are three, and the largest, Guo Ji Ri Bao, has a circulation of 60,000 and features content from Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency. Books, and CDs from China have become hot sellers. "There are no taboos anymore," says Benny Setiono, who published a history of Chinese Indonesians in 2003 that includes a frank discussion of the 1960s massacres.

Chinese children were once required to enroll in Indonesian-language schools. Today, Mandarin has become a part of the national curriculum, and Beijing is helping to train the teachers. "It's the young generation's responsibility to revive our culture; otherwise, it'll disappear," says 20-year-old Adhi, head of the eight-year-old Mandarin Club at Jakarta's Bina Nusantara University. The club boasts 473 active members, about 10 percent of who are non-Chinese. "Everything is open," says Fendi, one member. "We can do whatever we want."

Of course, Indonesians have good financial reasons to study all things Chinese. As Adhi says, "we have a lot to learn from China. Thirty years ago it was as poor as we were." China is now Indonesia's third largest trading partner. And last year 121 Chinese-financed projects were approved (up almost 20 times from 2002) for a total of $900 million, making China the fifth largest investor in Indonesia. In 2005, the two countries signed a strategic partnership aimed at boosting relations.

But not everyone is happy about the new Chinese pride. Wila Chandrawila Supriadi became the first Chinese-Indonesian woman elected to Parliament in 2006. She applauds most of the democratic reforms, but as a 65-year-old scarred by decades of forced assimilation, she's uneasy with some displays of Chinese culture. Young people "admire China and that is wrong," she says. "They have to accept that if we want to build a nation, we have to shed all cultural differences and become truly Indonesian." Many Chinese may fear a backlash. Lie, whose electronics shop in Jakarta's Chinatown was burned down by a mob in 1998, says, "It could still happen again. We never know."

But if the Olympics were any guide, Indonesia's Chinese are clear about their allegiances. Their country won just one gold during the Games, in badminton. But it beat a Chinese team, and Lie was thrilled. "Even though my blood is Chinese, I am born here, I live here, so I wish for Indonesia to win," he says. Meanwhile, in a sign of Jakarta's lingering ambivalence toward its neighbor, the highest-ranking official it sent to the opening ceremony was a junior assistant to the minister of Sports. Only one local TV channel broadcast the festivities, and "no one waved to our athletes when they paraded. What a shame," says Lie with a sigh. He may be right. But the mere fact he was able to discuss the matter shows how much Indonesia has changed.