According to recent census data, Chinese Indonesians comprise just over 1 per cent of the population. Photo by Gunkarta/Wikimedia Commons.


Much of what is written about ethnicity in Indonesia is statistically inaccurate, relying on out-dated estimates. The colonial census of 1930 was a rich source of ethnographic data but for the next seven decades it remained only a baseline for scholars and others to extrapolate and make increasingly unreliable estimates. It wasn’t until the 2000 Indonesian census that respondents were asked to identify their own ethnicity.


The recently published Demography of Indonesia’s Ethnicity leaves no excuse for ignoring recent census data, as it includes detailed coverage of the 2000 and 2010 surveys. Aris Ananta and Evi Nurvidya Arifin, from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, and three colleagues from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS), have done us all a great service. Their work provides granular insights into Indonesian ethnicity, and the ethnic Chinese population, in particular.


Estimates of the proportion of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have varied wildly, ranging from 2.5 to 5 per cent of the total population. In 2000, it turned out, they were a much smaller percentage than anyone previously believed, at only about 1.2 per cent. This was confirmed by the 2010 census. Although there were by 2010 some 2.83 million ethnic Chinese – an increase of more than 400,000 since 2000 – their percentage of the total Indonesian population remained unchanged at this surprisingly low level. That said, they were still 15th largest among 145 ethnic groups.


Are these recent census findings reliable? Technical objections about the published results for the 2000 census were dispelled by later results and recourse to the raw data. Some observers suggested that many Chinese Indonesians might have been reluctant to identify as Chinese in 2000, so soon after the 1998 violence. This cannot be sustained, given the same findings in 2010, long after the freedom to express Chinese culture openly in public was established. Other factors may have been in play (such as emigration, or a low fertility rate) but an important reason for the lower than expected number of Chinese must be that many no longer thought of themselves as Chinese.


Pressure from the New Order government for the Chinese to assimilate drew some support from Chinese Indonesians themselves. The assimilation policy was unlikely to succeed when coupled with continuing discrimination but it does seem possible that there are now significant numbers of young people of Chinese ancestry who do not consider themselves Chinese. The percentage of the young dependent population (those under 25 years, dependent on support of others for their daily needs), among the Chinese was “the lowest percentage of young dependent populations among all ethnic groups”. This narrowing base may indicate “a very low fertility rate” but another contributing factor may have been a tendency by some members of the younger generation to reject identification as Chinese.


Is self-identification a true measure of a person’s ethnicity? In post-New Order Indonesia, I think it is. Having Chinese ancestry and appearance does not necessarily mean one is Chinese. Since 1998, legal discrimination against the Chinese has been removed. It is unacceptable to impose an ethnic label on citizens against their will.


It will take some time before the lower size of the Chinese Indonesian population evidenced by the 2000 and 2010 censuses is fully accepted. Earlier estimates are often unthinkingly adopted in the media, and there is probably some reluctance among Chinese Indonesians themselves to accept that they are a substantially smaller minority than they have hitherto believed.


The 2010 census asks all respondents to identify with just one ethnic group. Mixed marriages, geographical mobility, and intercultural interaction make this increasingly difficult. Demographers have proposed that future censuses permit respondents to name more than one ethnic group and that ‘Indonesian’ be offered as one of the options for ethnicity. Interesting new information may emerge if these proposals are implemented.


Table 1 shows the geographical distribution of the Chinese population since 2000. Their growth over the decade from 2000 was overwhelmingly concentrated in Java. In Sumatra, they increased modestly in absolute numbers but their share of the national total declined significantly. In West Kalimantan, meanwhile, their numbers were just below the figure recorded in 2000, another significant decline.


Table 1: Geographical Distribution of Chinese Population


Table 2 compares this distribution to all Indonesian citizens.


Table 2: Geographical Distribution of Population 2010 Chinese and All Citizens


In two respects the ethnic Chinese are arguably more Indonesian, and more national than other Indonesians. First, other ethnic groups tend to be heavily concentrated in particular provinces, whereas the geographical distribution of the Chinese is more or less typical of Indonesian citizens as a whole. Second, we know from the 2010 census that more than 60 per cent of Chinese respondents aged 5 years and older used Bahasa Indonesia – that symbol of Indonesian nationhood – daily at home. This compares with only 20 per cent of respondents of that age nationally.


Further, only 24 per cent of these Chinese respondents used their ‘own’ language (in their case, Chinese), far less than other ethnic groups. A significant number of them used the Indonesian language of the place where they lived. This is not a new phenomenon. Data on language of daily use among the Chinese calculated from the 1920 census showed 40 per cent of them in the country (and 70 per cent of those in Java) used Malay or another Indonesian language.


The Chinese are not typical of the Indonesian population with respect to religion. Although Indonesia is not an Islamic state, 87.5 per cent of the total population were Muslims in 2010, while only 4.65 per cent of Chinese were Muslim. Among the 15 largest ethnic groups, only the overwhelmingly Hindu Balinese had such a small proportion of Muslims (even lower at 3.24 per cent). The Chinese were remarkably pluralistic in their religious affiliation, with nearly one half Buddhists, and 42.8 per cent Protestants or Catholics.


Table 3: Religious Composition 2010


At a time when anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be on the increase it is incumbent on us all to use accurate figures where they are available.


This post is an edited extract from Charles A. Coppel’s 2017 Herb Feith Memorial Lecture, ‘Normalising Chinese Indonesians’, presented at Monash University on 18 October 2017.




Figures drawn from Ananta, Aris & Arifin, Evi Nurvidya, Hasbullah, M Sairi and Handayani, Nur Budi and Pramono, Agus. 2015. Demography of Indonesia’s Ethnicity. (Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute); and Ananta, Aris, Arifin, Evi Nurvidya and Bakhtiar. 2008. ‘Chinese Indonesians in Indonesia and Province of Riau Archipelago: A demographic analysis’, in Leo Suryadinata (ed), Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia: Recent Developments (Singapore: ISEAS) 17-47.



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