Friday 28 March 2014

Cina or Tionghoa? The politics behind Indonesia's word choice

By Leo Suryadinata, Published The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2014

ON MARCH 12 this year, 47 years after the implementation of a decree obliging government agencies to use a derogatory term for China and Chinese, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a presidential decree (No.12/2014) nullifying it.

The move reflects the improved status of the ethnic Chinese in the country and the more cordial relations between Jakarta and Beijing in recent years. It may also help the ruling Democrat Party win support in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Following a wave of anti-Chinese hysteria in 1967 in the wake of an attempted coup in 1965, Indonesia's military-led government mandated in June 1967 that the pejorative word Tjina (old spelling) or Cina (new spelling after 1972) be used to refer to both ethnic Chinese and China. The previous Indonesian terms for China and the Chinese were Tiongkok and Tionghoa respectively.

Anti-Chinese sentiments were fuelled by allegations that the coup was supported by the People's Republic of China. The local Chinese Indonesian organisation Baperki was also seen to be close to a discredited President Sukarno and the banned Indonesian Communist Party.

The decision to change the terms for China and the Chinese was taken at an army seminar held in Bandung in August 1966.

The reason for the focus on nomenclature is not known. According to a rumour, however, a group of anti-Chinese generals wanted to introduce strong measures against the local Chinese population. But they were outnumbered by the Suharto group (including many economists), who feared that any extreme policy would endanger the efforts of the new Cabinet to stabilise the economy. If the rumour was true, the resolution can be seen as a compromise.

In fact, the term Tjina was used to refer to both the state of China and the Chinese people in Indonesia before and even during the turn of the 20th century without any derogatory meaning. The first use of the term Tjina in Indonesia can be found in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), written in the 17th century. The Chinese in the Malay world also used the term themselves.

However, with the rise of Chinese cultural nationalism in the turn of the 20th century and the formation of the Republic of China (Republik Tiongkok) in 1912, the term Cina was considered by many Chinese in colonial Indonesia to be old-fashioned. They therefore began to use the new term Tionghoa to refer to the Chinese and Tiongkok to refer to China. The first modern Chinese association in Jakarta was called Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan (1900).

Initially, both terms Tionghoa and Tjina were used together and gradually both Peranakan ((local-born and Indonesian/Malay-speaking Chinese) and indigenous newspapers adopted the terms Tionghoa for the Chinese.

After the nationalist Kuomintang gained control of the whole of China in 1928, the Dutch colonial government also officially used Tionghoa and Tiongkok in their local official documents.

Tjina, on the other hand, became a negative stereotype of the Chinese, implying that they were greedy, unclean, weak and immoral. It was used only when indigenous Indonesians wanted to belittle or humiliate their Chinese counterparts. The Indonesian name of the Republic of China was Republik Tiongkok, and after 1949, the Indonesian name of People's Republic of China was Republik Rakjat Tiongkok.

There was therefore some debate in 1967 when Jakarta officially adopted the term Tjina. Many Chinese and Indonesian intellectuals disagreed with name-calling and did not think the term could be used for PRC citizens alone.

Nevertheless, the military view prevailed, and on June 28, 1967, the Cabinet Presidium issued Circular No.SE-06 (1967), which asked all Indonesian publications to use the term Tjina to replace Tiongkok and Tionghoa.

The PRC refused to accept the term given by the new Indonesian regime. At the same time, there were mutually hostile exchanges between Beijing and Jakarta on other issues. The two countries suspended ties on Oct 31, 1967.

During the negotiations in 1990 to restore diplomatic ties, the Indonesian name of China was raised, but Mr Suharto's Indonesia insisted that Cina (the new spelling of Tjina) had to be used. Both sides eventually agreed to use the English term "China" to replace Cina. Hence, the official Indonesian name of the PRC became Republik Rakyat China. Nevertheless, most of the Indonesian newspapers and publications continued to use Cina to refer to both China and Chinese Indonesians.

The reaction of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia has varied. The older generation and those who understand Chinese and Indonesian contemporary history continued to use the term Tionghoa. When Chinese Indonesian organisations emerged after the fall of Suharto, they also used Tionghoa to name their organisations.

However, many young Chinese Indonesians born and brought up during the Suharto era remain unaware of this historical baggage. Some have insisted on using the term Cina. They have also been supported by Indonesians who employ historic and linguistic arguments in favour of the continued use of the derogatory term.

But why did President Yudhoyono decide to act now, issuing presidential decree No.12/2014?

Removing the unpopular legacy achieves several objectives. Domestically, with the removal of the notorious circular, he would be able to win the support of the Chinese Indonesians. This is particularly important as the April parliamentary elections approach and his ailing Democrat Party is in need of an electoral boost.

Removing the decree should also improve Jakarta-Beijing relations. China has always been unhappy with the term.

Equally important is the President's desire for a place in history. This is Dr Yudhoyono's last term as the President of Indonesia, and he will want to be remembered favourably by as many groups as possible. After all, President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) is remembered for his nullification of the decree on restriction on Chinese customs and religions in 2000, and President Megawati Sukarnoputri is remembered for her decision in 2002 to make Chinese New Year a public holiday.

The latest presidential decree will remove the pejorative term from official use, although it will not prevent its daily use by the people. The move will, however, be welcomed by both Chinese Indonesians and China.

The author is Visiting Senior Fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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