Why you should care

Real influence and fake news are putting Beijing center stage in Indonesian politics. Will China be President Joko Widodo’s Achilles heel? 

It was the first week of 2019, and the rumor spread quickly: Officials had found seven containers with punched ballots shipped from China to Indonesia’s Tanjung Priok port. The ballots, the rumor went, were cast for Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, with the aim of impacting the genuine vote count in the country’s coming elections. An investigation showed that the rumor was false — there were no such containers stashed with ballots. But by then, the claim had been retweeted more than 17,000 times.

The incident was an example of an unlikely shadow that’s increasingly falling on Indonesia’s April elections to the Parliament and presidency: China. Polls at the start of the month suggest Jokowi is in the lead, poised to win again. But he faces an unusual challenge. In December, right-wing Islamic organizations held protests outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta and demanded that the Indonesian government respond to the human rights violations against Uighurs. The opposition’s presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, is calling for a review of the country’s trade policy with China, arguing that unfair practices are hurting the Indonesian economy. Prabowo has criticized major Chinese infrastructure investments in Indonesia. And social media is awash with misinformation campaigns spreading falsehoods — that illegal Chinese workers are flooding the country, that the secular Jokowi is spreading communist ideology through Indonesia’s education system and that tampered ballots are coming in from China.

The disinformation is spreading directly to change people’s minds during the election.

Damar Juniarto, SafeNet

China’s presence here is real — it is Indonesia’s largest trading partner, and Jakarta has requested $60 billion more in investment from Beijing under the massive Belt and Road Initiative. But Indonesia, in its young journey as a democracy, has never had another country’s influence, genuine or imagined, as a pivotal theme in its elections. Then again, the political stakes have never been higher in Asia’s fast-growing, fifth-largest economy. Anti-China sentiments have in just the past few months helped dethrone governments in Malaysia and the Maldives that were seen as too close to Beijing. The opposition is hoping Jokowi’s friendship with China will prove to be his Achilles heel. And that’s making China an economic and political bogeyman in this country of 260 million people, say experts.

“President Widodo [is] perceived as being broadly pro-China,” says Lindsay Hughes, a research analyst with the think tank Future Directions International. “Prabowo [seeks] to diminish Widodo’s initiatives, including Chinese investment in Indonesia and the growing presence of Chinese organizations and workers and the Sino-Indonesian joint projects.”

Indonesia’s modern relations with China have swung between warmth and coolness. After the country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949, founding President Sukarno edged close to China during his two-decades-long reign. However, the bloody coup that brought the pro-U.S. dictator General Suharto to power in 1966 changed that, and the two countries cut off relations the following year. Formal ties were only re-established in 1990.

Since then, China’s economy has grown exponentially, and it has become a key destination for several of Indonesia’s top exports, including palm oil, coal and paper pulp. Indonesia is also a major target of China’s Maritime Silk Road, a part of the BRI that Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced before the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013.

(Septiaji Eko Nugroho, Indonesian “anti-hoax” campaigner, taking questions from members of Singapore’s Parliament.)

Jokowi has made infrastructure development a key tenet of his re-election campaign, promising to build new railroads, highways, ports and airports across the country. China will be crucial to that success. The Asian Development Bank estimates that Indonesia will need about $70 billion in infrastructure investments a year over the next few years to build what the country needs, says Evan Rees, an Asia-Pacific analyst at Stratfor. “He’s going to need massive amounts of money, and realistically there are not good alternatives to China,” says Rees.

But those Chinese investments carry a political price. The largest China-connected investment thus far is the $5.1 billion Bandung-Jakarta high-speed rail project, which so far hasn’t gone as planned and is turning into a liability for Jokowi, with only about 10 percent of it completed, says Rees. “They were supposed to have it done by 2019, and that’s definitely not going to happen,” he says. Prabowo has frequently criticized the project in campaign speeches. Indonesians “can’t eat infrastructure,” one of the opposition leader’s top advisers has said.

Still, there are differences between Indonesia’s approach to China and what voters in Malaysia and the Maldives saw as wasteful expenditures at Beijing’s behest, says Premesha Saha, an Indonesia expert with the New Delhi–based Observer Research Foundation. China, for instance, wanted to invest in ports in Java, but Indonesia didn’t agree to the pitch. “The foreign ministry had done their calculations and realized that they can’t rely too much on Chinese investments,” says Saha. “They very clearly know the risks that would be involved.”

Jokowi too is taking steps to help counter perceptions that he’s pro-China. His government has stepped up efforts to curb foreign fishing in Indonesian waters. Illegal fishing — Chinese boats were responsible for most of it — has come down by 90 percent in four years. In December, Jokowi also inaugurated a new military base in the Natuna Sea, the only spot where the vast archipelago country’s waters touch China’s Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea, letting him show voters that he is, where necessary, showing force to China. Beijing’s claim that all maritime waters within the Nine-Dash Line belong to China is at the heart of its tensions with multiple regional nations.

But it’s harder to counter fake news in an election year, as democracies from the U.S. to Europe have seen. “The disinformation is spreading directly to change people’s minds during the election,” says Damar Juniarto, regional coordinator with SafeNet, a digital rights nonprofit organization based in Jakarta.

Also worrying many is the impact that any rise in anti-China rhetoric could have on Indonesia’s large ethnic Chinese population. In the 2017 Jakarta governor’s race, incumbent ethnic Chinese Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama lost in a campaign full of racist rhetoric. “Ethnic Chinese are still viewed with suspicion in Indonesia,” says Hughes. “China’s aggressive approach toward Southeast Asia, additionally, has not helped that situation.”

The Indonesian government has launched a new state-run anti-hoax “war room” to counter fake propaganda. They’ve even arrested some of those behind fake hoaxes, like the creator of the rumor that illegal workers are flooding Indonesia. “In the short term, it appears to have an effect,” says Juniarto, “because [creators] are afraid of being caught.”

It’s a delicate balance for Jokowi — to welcome Chinese investment, counter hoaxes and show that he is standing up to China. Prabowo is the only formal challenger, but Jokowi will need to fight China’s shadow in order to win.

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