China was willing to re-badge its Confucius Institutes as Mandarin Language Centres (Pusat Bahasa Mandarin) in Indonesia after the Indonesian government expressed concern about possible associations with the officially recognised religion of Confucianism. Photo by Confucius Institute Online.


The Indonesia-China bilateral relationship has improved markedly since the lows of the Soeharto era, and both states are keen to promote greater investment and mobility between the two countries. But the past few years have also seen politicians seeking to capitalise on anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia, with scaremongering about a flood of Chinese workers taking Indonesian jobs and a rise in the use of derogatory terms like aseng. Given widespread public anxiety about China’s economic and political muscle, amplified by the legacy of decades of discrimination against Chinese Indonesians under the New Order, Indonesia continues to approach the issue with much caution.


Recognising that many countries hold similarly negative views of China, the Chinese state has embarked on a massive global project to improve China’s image. Since 2004, it has supported the establishment of about 500 Confucius Institutes in 140 countries to promote Chinese language and culture. While their growth has been rapid, their establishment has not been without friction, and this is particularly the case in Indonesia. The story of Confucius Institutes in Indonesia is more complex than simply that of a regional power swooping in to propagate its message.


In fact, efforts to establish Confucius Institutes in Indonesia extend back more than a decade and have involved protracted negotiations, tension and some surprises. One of the most thorny issues has been their name. The Indonesian government has been hesitant to use the name “Confucius” because Confucianism is an official religion in Indonesia, and one that comes with significant political and historical baggage.


Confucianism was first recognised as one of Indonesia’s six official religions well before the regime change in 1965. After Soeharto seized power, Confucianism remained recognised until the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular in 1978 prohibiting citizens from listing Confucianism in the religion column of their national identity cards. President Abdurrahman Wahid finally repealed the circular in 2000, along with several other policies and regulations restricting the cultural and social rights of Chinese Indonesians, and the ideology was recognised officially once more.


Negotiations between China and Indonesia on the establishment of Confucius Institutes were mediated by the Indonesian Coordinating Board for Mandarin Language Education (BKPBM, Badan Koordinasi Pendidikan Bahasa Mandarin), which offered five alternative names for the institutes. The Ministry of Education ultimately picked the Mandarin Language Centre (PBM, Pusat Bahasa Mandarin) over options including the Mandarin Language and Cultural Centre (Pusat Bahasa dan Budaya Mandarin) and Tionghoa Language Centre (Pusat Bahasa Tionghoa). Since then, PBM has been used consistently in Indonesian, while “Confucius Institute” is still used in English communications.


The local level posed other challenges. Consider Makassar, for example, the only city in eastern Indonesia where a Confucius Institute operates. The public Hasanuddin University (Unhas) began a collaboration with Nanchang University in 2011 and since then has become actively involved in promoting Chinese language and student exchanges to China. From 2011 to 2015, Unhas sent 2,000 students to China.


The Unhas Confucius Institute is run by seven teachers in an off-campus building. It also operates a Chinese Corner on campus and helps Unhas conduct Chinese language study as an elective. The Unhas Confucius Institute routinely holds cultural events with the broader Chinese Indonesian community in Makassar and has expanded the program by facilitating the establishment of a Confucius Classroom at the Athirah Islamic school and setting up a Mandarin Language Tourism Training Centre (Pusat Kursus Bahasa Mandarin Pariwisata) at Udayana University, Bali. Its many efforts to develop Chinese language education won it an Individual Performance Excellence Award from the Chinese government in 2016, the only Indonesian university to receive one.


The Unhas Confucius Institute’s efforts to promote Chinese language and education might seem at odds with the social and political context of Makassar. Makassar is notorious for being prone to racial and student violence. And Chinese Indonesians, who are a minority but have been in the city since the 15th century, have often been victims. Makassar was one of the first cities where Chinese Indonesians were targeted in Indonesia’s clampdown on communism in 1965. Chinese Indonesians’ homes and businesses were also attacked in riots in September 1997 and May 2006. Most racial conflicts in Makassar follow the classical narrative of anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, where Chinese Indonesians are targeted as a group for the alleged crime of an individual.


How did the Makassar Confucius Institute manage to overcome this friction such that it could not only set up a Chinese language and cultural institution but also expand it into other areas? First of all, the initiative was helped by a prominent local Chinese Indonesian businessman, Haryanto (all names used here are pseudonyms), who several years earlier helped set up a partnership between Unhas and Xiamen University in Chinese medicine and language. The initiative aimed to promote mutual understanding between indigenous Indonesians and the Chinese Indonesian community following the anti-Chinese violence of 1997. When the project was shelved for financial reasons Haryanto wrote to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta to propose establishing a Confucius Institute. In 2010, Nanchang University agreed to be involved.


While many Chinese Indonesians are reluctant to signpost links to mainland China, Haryanto believed that exposure to Chinese language, culture and values would minimise the potential for conflict back home. He hoped that if students had positive experiences of Chinese language and culture in China, they would come to associate these positive sentiments with the Chinese Indonesians in Makassar.


For Unhas, meanwhile, establishing a Confucius Institute was primarily a way to build stronger international connections. In addition to academic and reputational benefits, the university believed the collaboration could help it reach local Chinese Indonesians, which it had previously considered exclusive.


Despite their different motivations, the Chinese Indonesian community and Unhas were able to collaborate under a common cause. The rhetoric of the Confucius Institute as a cultural bridge between Indonesia and China was translated into a cultural bridge between Makassar people and Chinese Indonesians. In this case, friction ended up being a catalyst for promoting collaboration and mobility.


The experience in Makassar contrasts with the struggle to set up a Confucius Institute in Bandung. The private Maranatha Christian University in Bandung has many Chinese Indonesian students, academics and board members, and would therefore seem to be a natural home to a Chinese cultural institution. Efforts to strengthen connections between the university and Chinese institutions were initiated by a Maranatha lecturer, Wanda, who had previously studied in China.


Wanda believed that Indonesian understandings of China were markedly different from her experience of the country and felt there was much that her students could learn from China. Wanda acted as a member of an “elective” Chinese diaspora. Despite years of assimilation policies in Indonesia, she made connections with her ancestral land based mainly on emotional affinity and strategic interests.


Wanda proposed a collaboration between Maranatha and Guangxi University. However, her enthusiasm collided with internal university politics. Other academics and board members were hesitant, partly because of concern about how it would be perceived if a university with a predominantly ethnic Chinese student body was seen to be courting stronger connections with China. The complicated bureaucratic procedures associated with setting up international collaborations (in an environment of sometimes turbulent Indonesia-China relations) also played a role.


Eventually Wanda was able to encourage several heads of departments to shift their positions and the Faculty of Arts and Design began an exchange program with Guangxi University and held several joint exhibitions and conferences. This collaboration eventually paved the way for the establishment of a Confucius Institute.


Maranatha finally acquired a Confucius Institute license in 2008, and decided to establish an institute in collaboration with China’s Hebei Normal University. Unfortunately, a day before the official opening, the government seemingly got cold feet. Maranatha received a phone call from Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, requesting that Maranatha cancel the opening. It took three years of negotiations before the Maranatha Confucius Institute was finally realised in 2011, together with Confucius Institutes in five other universities.


Despite its troubled birth, the Maranatha Confucius Institute remains active. In contrast with Confucius Institutes at other Indonesian universities, which focus on internal Mandarin language teaching, Maranatha’s Confucius Institute is actively involved in teaching Chinese off campus, such as in schools, other universities, private institutions, and to government officials. Because Maranatha has built strong relations with several Chinese institutions, it has also served as a mediator for other universities interested in establishing collaborations with China.


Although the establishment of Confucius Institutes in Maranatha and Unhas was brokered by Chinese Indonesians, local dynamics played a major role in the process. The different experience in each city also exposed the diversity of the Chinese Indonesian community in Indonesia. Some, like Wanda, were elective Chinese diaspora. Others, such as the Maranatha board members, had been “Indonesianised” and made into self-disciplining citizens, following decades of political and cultural repression under the authoritarian regime. The issue of cooperating with China was much more sensitive to them and treated with caution.


Confucius Institutes are not simply unidirectional projects imposed on Indonesia from a wealthy partner seeking to expand its influence and improve its international standing. There are debates about the degree to which they are able to exert power or influence over students in the countries in which they operate, but the Indonesian experience shows that when they touch the ground, Confucius Institutes must interact with local histories, power relations, actors and interests. How this turns out depends greatly on local circumstances in Indonesia and the skills of the Chinese Indonesians who champion these projects. Their task is not an easy one and they must walk a fine line between Indonesia’s desire for Chinese investment and deep seated local prejudices.


This post was adapted from a longer journal article by Rika Theo and Maggi Leung, ‘China’s Confucius Institute in Indonesia: Mobility, Frictions and Local Surprises’, published on 16 February 2018 in Sustainability. The article is part of a broader research project ‘Student and professional mobility, knowledge production and development’ funded by NWO Aspasia Prize.


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