China Losing Its Soft Power Battle in Indonesia, One Project at a Time

The People’s Republic of China has become a global country and, as such, its leadership needs to build robust government to government and, more importantly, sound people-to- people relations globally, i.e., it needs to develop China’s soft power.

So far, the CPC has been mostly successful in establishing good government to government relations thanks to its genuine respect for other countries and a concerted effort to identify mutually beneficial cooperation. With China committed to finance and build numerous airports, ports, power plants, as well as thousands of kilometers of roads and rail tracks, the working relationship between Jakarta and Beijing is positive too.

Nevertheless, when it comes to spreading China’s soft power and establishing good interpersonal relations between Chinese and Indonesian people the results are much less encouraging. China’s failure to win Indonesian’s hearts despite its massive constructive contributions to their country is a conundrum. In Indonesia, as in most developing countries, interpersonal relations between mainland Chinese and locals are often marred by the Chinese feeling superior to the local population.

Last year, I published an article in which the headline asked the question “Could Han Chauvinism Turn the ‘Chinese Dream’ into a ‘Chinese Nightmare’?” and warned that “Chinese chauvinism has already started poisoning China’s interpersonal relations in foreign countries.” I gave the example of increasing interpersonal tensions and disputes between Chinese businessmen and the local populations in Central Asian countries that resulted from Chinese ignoring local traditions and values, and forgetting that they were guests in someone else’s country.

Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks already feel uneasy, if not fearful, of the increasing presence and influence of Chinese in their respective countries. Today, I want to briefly address the case increasingly problematic Chinese presence in Indonesia. Part of the explanation for China’s deteriorating soft power in Indonesia can be found in the very infrastructure projects that China is financing and constructing, and that are so vital for Indonesia.

In these large projects, Chinese and Indonesians work together, but Indonesians feel strongly discriminated against. Indonesians are predominately hired for unskilled or low-skilled labor, get paid a fraction of what their Chinese colleagues receive, and do not enjoy the same benefits, such comfortable accommodation, generous food rations, and transportation to the construction site. Despite the massive contributions that China is making to their country, this institutionalized ill-treatment of the Indonesian labor force results in Chinese companies and China being increasingly perceived as being greedy and racist by Indonesians.

In one of these large Chinese projects located in North Maluku, the management decide to raise two Chinese flags along a smaller Indonesian one. This seemed natural and innocuous to the Chinese, but became a serious sovereignty issue for the Indonesian authorities and people. This incident was reported under the headline “Chinese flags flying in North Maluku violation of law: TNI,” was perceived as a sign of Chinese arrogance and “invasion” by the local people, who informed the local authorities about the Chinese flags.

The Indonesian police and local military intervened, and forced the Chinese managers to remove the Chinese flags. This incident had again a detrimental effect on how Indonesians perceive China’s constructive role in their country. Additionally, sometimes Chinese companies show contempt for Indonesia’s authorities and laws. For example, Chinese companies often bring their workers as tourist into the country to be able to bypass Indonesia’s stringent labor laws. While the estimated number of these illegal Chinese workers is relatively small, it seems that many Indonesians wrongly believe that millions of Chinese illegal workers are invading Indonesia and stealing their jobs.

Obviously, this results in popular animosity towards China. And when the Indonesian authorities inspect Chinese companies, they are often stonewalled and disrespected. For instance, there are several recorded incidents showing Indonesia’s Manpower Minister, Pak Hanif Dakiri, being ignored by Chinese workers and middle management during his inspections of Chinese companies. It goes without saying that this demeaning attitude angered the minister and Indonesians alike. Chinese managers seem not to be aware, or simply do not care, that their policies and actions are carving a very negative image of Chinese and China in Indonesian’s minds.

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide detailed advice on how to reform this corrosive impact that Chinese chauvinism is having on many of China’s constructive projects around the developing world. I will just provide some suggestions on how to improve the interpersonal relations between Chinese and local workers. For example, it is fundamental that every Chinese who is going to work for an extended period in a foreign country and who is expected to frequently interact with the local people should undergo basic cultural and language training.

Language training should help promote communication and minimize misunderstandings with the local populations. Cultural training should build up the awareness that, despite China financing and executing the projects, Chinese are guests in someone else’s country and, as such, Chinese must behave in a sensitive and respectful way toward the local people. Each Chinese who visits a foreign country and will regularly interact with locals, particularly in a professional role, should feel that he is an ambassador representing the whole country and is responsible for safeguarding the long-term Chinese interests in the region.

Furthermore, Chinese companies should refrain from employing Chinese workers without a proper work permit and their managers should cooperate with Indonesia’s authorities. More importantly, they should be hiring more locals, train them for skilled labor and leadership positions, and offer them similar working conditions and benefits as they offer their Chinese workers. This respect for Indonesia’s people and laws will contribute to China’s long-term positive standing in Indonesia.

The objective of this article is to raise awareness among the Chinese leadership for the need for closer supervision of how Chinese companies and people interact with locals abroad to prevent them from causing irreparable damage to China’s global image. Chinese leaders should follow Chairman Mao’s advice and make concerted efforts to ensure that Chinese representatives become humbler, respect different cultures, and accept input and criticism. I urge the Chinese leadership to take the necessary measures to prevent Chinese chauvinism from corroding the constructive benefits that projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative bring to China, Indonesia and the peoples around the world.

Written by Patrik K Meyer holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Cambridge and currently a Visiting Professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a New America Security Fellow.