Indonesia

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
High
39 85
Local Resilience & Response
High
41 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key Findings

Report by BC Han and Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

 

  • Increased influence efforts: The Chinese government’s media influence efforts in Indonesia expanded during the coverage period of 2019-21. Beijing has successfully pushed for new agreements with the country’s national news agency and a major free-to-air television network, opened new diplomatic social media accounts, and appealed to Indonesia's Muslim community through trips to Xinjiang that presented a government- controlled perspective of the region.
  • Limited impact, strong public skepticism of China: Indonesian academics and politicians are wary of playing into geopolitical rivalries by taking a stance on controversial issues having to do with China. Available data show that Indonesians’ trust in China remains low, continuing a trend that began in 2015. Those believing that China is a “revisionist power” increased by 15 percent from 2020 to 2021. Similar increases were found regarding perceptions of China as a strategic, political, and economic threat. Widespread skepticism toward Chinese state narratives is partly rooted in historical tensions and Chinese government policies in Xinjiang (see Impact).
  • Penetration into national news agency, free-to-air television: The free-to-air television network Metro TV, as well as Antara News Agency, regularly publish content from China Global Television Network and Xinhua, respectively, based on agreements signed in 2019, ensuring positive coverage of China in national news. China Radio International programming also airs on a popular radio station, while China Daily content appears in prominent newspapers like the Jakarta Post. Still, pro-Beijing news does not dominate coverage of China in Indonesia, which is informed by diverse sources, including international news wires (see Propaganda).
  • Subsidized trips for journalists, influencers, Muslim leaders, and students: Journalists and social media influencers have been invited on subsidized trips around China. Participants have repeated Beijing’s narratives during and after the trip, including denials of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has also subsidized short trips to China (including Xinjiang), as well as long-term educational programs for students and leaders from Indonesia’s largest and most influential Islamic groups. Upon returning, some participants framed Chinese government policies in the region in a positive light, while others affirmed a critical stance. A significant portion of those who approve of Chinese government policies are Indonesian students at Chinese universities, many of whom have published their reflections in popular local outlets (see Propaganda).
  • ByteDance censorship: Chinese technology company ByteDance reportedly removed content critical of the Chinese government from its Indonesian news aggregator app, BaBe, between 2018 and 2020 (see Censorship).
  • Limited usage of coercive and covert tactics: Chinese state actors in Indonesia largely rely on promoting positive narratives about China instead of engaging in more aggressive strategies like intimidation or disinformation campaigns, although at least one incident of the Chinese embassy sending confrontational messages to a journalist in response to critical coverage was recorded (see Disinformation, Censorship).
  • Strong influence on diaspora media, except regarding Indonesia’s national interests: Chinese-language newspapers in Indonesia are dominated by pro-Beijing content. However, the papers do not promote Beijing’s narratives that challenge Indonesia’s national interests—such as on Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Chinese-language content in television and radio broadcasts is primarily cultural (see Diaspora media).
  • Political opposition to Chinese influence on strategic priorities: While economic dependence and ideological affinities compel Indonesian elites to be cautious in pushing back against Beijing, political leaders from different parties have criticized the Chinese government’s actions in the South China Sea (see Resilience and response).
  • Growing academic, think tank, and media attention to Chinese influence: There is increasing mainstream coverage of Chinese government influence tactics and their harms, including in the media sector. Coverage of Xinjiang remains largely critical, though Antara News Agency—with its partnership with Chinese state media—avoids coverage that counters Beijing’s line (see Resilience and response).
  • Advocacy on press freedom and Uyghur rights: Indonesia has a robust press freedom community, with notable initiatives targeting disinformation. Civil society groups have lodged protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta over the treatment of Uyghurs and hashtags criticizing Chinese abuses in Xinjiang have gone viral on social media. At times, pushback against Chinese state narratives has included anti-Chinese conspiracy theories and disinformation propagated for political or financial gain, creating an atmosphere of fear for Indonesians with Chinese heritage (see Resilience and response).
  • Strong foreign ownership laws: Indonesia has strong laws limiting foreign ownership, reducing the potential of Chinese state media to take control over local media outlets (see Resilience and response).
  • High media concentration, criminal penalties for defamation: Indonesia has limited safeguards against media ownership concentration or partisan ownership. The media sector is dominated by a few tycoons with political party affiliations. Defamation remains a criminal offense and journalists covering sensitive topics face harassment, violence, and threats (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Indonesia is a democratic republic with a status of Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties,1 and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net, its annual study of internet freedom.2 The country has made impressive democratic gains since the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998, establishing significant pluralism in politics and the media and undergoing multiple, peaceful transfers of power between parties. However, Indonesia continues to struggle with challenges including systemic corruption, discrimination and violence against minority groups, conflict in the Papua region, and the politicized use of defamation and blasphemy laws.3

Almost 90 percent of Indonesians got their news online in 2021, with 64 percent using social media specifically.4 Television was also a major source of information, with approximately 60 percent of the population using it regularly for news in 2021.5 Radio, too, plays a significant role in Indonesia, with the latest statistics from 2018 showing listenership at approximately 40 percent of the population. 6 Among social media platforms used to consume news, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram were the most popular in 2021.7

Indonesia was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950. In 1967, anticommunist crackdowns in Indonesia led to 23 years of nonrecognition. Bilateral relations were normalized once again in 1990.8

Under Chinese president Xi Jinping, the countries have grown closer. Demonstrating the significance of Indonesia to China’s economic plans, Xi announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—a predecessor to the wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta in 2013. The same year, the Chinese side upgraded the bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest-level such designation the Chinese government can bestow. 9  In 2019, with China as both Indonesia’s top import source and its top export market,10 Indonesia agreed to allow greater use of the yuan for Sino-Indonesian trade.11

While key BRI projects like the $6 billion Jakarta-to-Bandung railway are struggling to stay on schedule, and have seen ballooning costs,12 the Chinese government and Chinese companies continue to support extensive investment into Indonesia. Projects include funding industrial parks, as well as financing the record-breaking $28.5 billion merger of Indonesian tech firms Gojek and Tokopedia.13 China has also provided over 80 percent of Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccines as of December 2021,14 with Indonesian president Joko Widodo receiving his Sinovac vaccine on live television in January 2021.15 In June 2021, the two countries held their inaugural “high-level dialogue cooperation mechanism,” an indication of further elevation of ties.16

Economic dependence compels Jakarta to be cautious in pushing back against Beijing. Even after the Indonesian government mobilized ships and planes against Chinese vessels intruding into the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in January 2020 (known as the Natuna Sea incident), Indonesian officials quickly restored a cooperative relationship with their Beijing counterparts.17 Indonesian authorities have been reluctant to criticize Beijing’s Islamophobic policies despite the country’s Muslim-majority population, with then-vice president Jusuf Kalla commenting in 2018 that Indonesia didn’t want to “intervene in the domestic affairs of another country.”18

On the other hand, Indonesia has quietly but continuously pushed back against Chinese maritime claims, denying the Chinese government’s request to stop oil and gas drilling in the EEZ and exploring joint responses to Beijing’s territorial disputes with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).19 Thirty years of discriminatory policies against Chinese Indonesians under the Suharto regime from 1967 to 1998 left a legacy of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment that continues to affect public perceptions of the Chinese people and the government of China.20

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese state narratives in Indonesia follow the standard Chinese propaganda package: a mixture of rapport building, positive promotion of China, and counternarratives to criticism. Chinese diplomats frequently claim that it is prioritizing and deepening its relations with Indonesia, noting the growing number of formal agreements between Beijing and Jakarta and highlighting people-to-people ties, particularly in the areas of educational exchanges and technology transfer.1 China’s successes with COVID-19 are often mentioned, with a focus on Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with international bodies and countries around the world.2

The BRI is a regular feature in Chinese state media, with news about the initiative aimed at pushing the “win-win cooperation” narrative.3 Op-eds emphasize that Xi Jinping initially announced the Maritime Silk Road in Indonesia, tying Chinese state development initiatives to Indonesian development initiatives like Indonesia’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum” plan and noting benefits for Indonesians including faster travel times through rail investments, new local jobs, and poverty reduction.4 These pieces offer anonymous stories of Indonesians who reportedly rose to the middle class because of Chinese investments.5 They also attempt to counter negative narratives that Belt and Road projects constitute “debt traps” with “political strings” attached for recipient countries. Instead, they position the projects as apolitical, sustainable investments, often decrying “protectionism and unilateralism” by other countries as harmful to Indonesia’s economic development. 6

Given the majority-Muslim population in Indonesia, there is a focus on countering international narratives on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland and location of atrocity crimes against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Chinese state propaganda has promoted the idea that Muslims in China are happy and worship freely, “just like [Indonesians].” 7 Positive images and language about the country’s religious diversity frequent Chinese state accounts on social media.8

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media content reaches audiences in Indonesia through a variety of channels, sometimes directly and other times filtered through local actors. It is available in Bahasa Indonesia, which is spoken by 94 percent of the population.9  

Collaboration with national news agency and major free-to-air network: In June 2019, both Metro TV, a popular and relatively pro-government free-to-air network,10 and the Indonesian state news agency Antara signed cooperation agreements with the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.11 Antara extended its agreement with Xinhua in 2021.12 Part of the Antara-Xinhua collaboration involves translating Chinese language news into Bahasa and tailoring Xinhua content to appeal to Indonesians.13 Certain subscribers to Antara also received a two month free trial of the translated content.14  Additionally, Antara correspondents in Beijing regularly write pieces that parrot Chinese state media talking points, including on Xinjiang.15 In April 2021, Antara published a two-part article about how Muslim holidays are spent in China, claiming first-hand credibility.16 Antara had published pieces favoring the Chinese state line prior to its agreement with Xinhua as well, including a special report on Xinjiang’s "vocational camps” that essentially repeated Beijing’s narratives that the camps address extremism among Uyghurs.17 Antara’s reporting on China accounts for a significant portion of Indonesian news coverage on China and is republished by other outlets across Indonesia.

The details of Metro TV’s cooperation with Chinese state media are less clear, but a close relationship is evident. Media Indonesia, a popular Indonesian daily which shares the same owner as Metro TV, published content from Xinhua during this study’s coverage period.18 Metro TV also offers programming from CGTN, China's state-run English language news channel. In June 2021, the network aired an exclusive interview with the then-Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian.19 Additionally, Metro TV hosts Metro Xinwen, a Chinese-language entertainment and news show that promotes positive narratives on China.20

Chinese state media content on local radio, newspapers, and social media: Chinese state media has a limited direct presence in Indonesia. China Radio International (CRI) broadcasts on the Jakarta-based FM news radio station Elshinta in Bahasa.21 Elshinta is considered one of the top radio stations in the country.22 CRI’s Indonesian Service also has a Facebook page in Bahasa with 185,000 followers, which receives consistent engagement from users, many of whom appear authentic.23 As of 2021, Xinhua maintains a bureau in Jakarta,24 facilitating English-language reporting on Indonesia that would be of interest to Indonesian audiences. Xinhua also has its own Bahasa language Twitter account with approximately 64,000 followers as of December 2021, but almost no user engagement.25

In addition to occasionally republishing content from Xinhua, 26 the English-language The Jakarta Post, one of the most widely read papers in Indonesia, has also published inserts by China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper owned by the CCP.27 Both The Jakarta Post and China Daily are members of the Asia News Network, a regional content-sharing alliance headquartered in Singapore.28  Additionally,  articles by Chinese state media are sometimes translated into Bahasa without clear labels and are presented as being published by a local paper.29 This effectively obscures the ties between such content and the CCP propaganda apparatus. 

Subsidized trips for journalists and social media influencers: Widespread international condemnation of its actions in Xinjiang has prompted Beijing to bolster its efforts during the report coverage period to promote a more positive view of China overall, and particularly its approach to Islam. A 2018 agreement between the All-China Journalists’ Association (ACJA) and the Indonesia Journalists Association (PWI), created a prize for Indonesian journalists writing on the BRI, effectively incentivizing local journalists to write pro-Beijing propaganda.30

Beijing also invited journalists from a wide variety of news organizations to join government-organized trips to China to advance the CCP’s official narrative. In February 2019, 11 journalists from Indonesia and Malaysia were invited to visit Xinjiang to “find out about the region's development and how it implements policies against extremism,” as reported by China Daily. Nugroho Fery Yudho, a senior editor from the major national newspaper Kompas, commended China's efforts to fight extremism after visiting Xinjiang for the first time, noting that he did not see any evidence of people being locked up, as was reported by other media. Similarly, Zulfiani Lubis, the chief editor of Idntimes.com, an online publication targeting young Indonesians, noted that vocational training was a common way to counter terrorism, extremism, and separatism, and drew comparisons between Indonesia and China’s respective experiences with terrorism.31 There was no evidence of these views being replicated in Indonesian media, however. In August 2019, 10 journalists from PWI were selected to tour Beijing and other Chinese provinces.32 A senior journalist from Radar Lombok, a regional paper covering the Muslim-majority province of Lombok, wrote a piece after the trip saying that foreign media had spread false news about China and contesting reports that China is ravaged by violence and coercion.33

China’s embassy in Indonesia has also supported tours for Indonesian social media influencers to Chinese cities outside of Xinjiang. According to Tenggara Strategics, an Indonesian investment research and advisory institute that helped organize a tour in September 2019, influencers were paid a per diem of $500 and were not subject to overt censorship.34 One tour participant—the former Miss Indonesia, Alya Nurshabrina—posted a now-deleted photo of a mosque outside Beijing, noting to her then-86,000 followers on Instagram that “China welcomes every religion.”35 On October 1, 2020, Nurshabrina posted a series of photos showcasing her positive experiences in China and promoted a competition in which she called on her followers to share their own experiences in China.36

Attempts to co-opt religious leaders: In Indonesia, religious groups have considerable potential to influence politics and public opinion.37 Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the two largest religious organizations, collectively have 100 million followers, though recent research shows their appeal to be dwindling in urban Indonesia.38

Beijing has increased its efforts to target these influential religious organizations. In February 2019, three journalists along with fifteen representatives from a delegation of Indonesian Islamic Community Organizations were invited to Xinjiang.39 The efficacy of this trip in spreading Beijing’s propaganda was mixed. Agung Danarto, a senior Muhammadiyah secretary and religious scholar who went on the February tour, was quoted in the organization’s official magazine saying that “places, camps, dorms and classrooms [in Xinjiang] were very comfortable and decent, and look nothing like prisons.”40 Danarto’s quote was published after the Muhammadiyah released a statement in December 2018 criticizing the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang.41 Two NU trip attendees—deputy secretary general Masduki Baidlawi and deputy chairman Robikin Emhas—repeated Beijing’s lines that Uyghurs were provided vocational skills to address the problem of extremism, although they also acknowledged that camp residents had no place to pray and that halal food was not readily available.42 The NU’s stance toward CCP policy in Xinjiang stance has been otherwise ambivalent.43

Not everyone was receptive to the narratives. Muhyiddin Junaidi, another attendee on the February 2019 trip and an official at the government-supported theological body Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), noted that his visit was tightly controlled and that Uyghurs he encountered appeared afraid to honestly express themselves.44 Junaidi also criticized Indonesia’s foreign ministry for its silence on China’s Uyghur policies.45 Another unnamed religious attendee on the trip shared suspicious activity and irregularities that he observed while in Xinjiang with popular online outlet SINDONews, reporting that visitors were prohibited from leaving their hotels unaccompanied or joining congregational Islamic prayers. He also noted his conviction that China allowed no real religious freedom for Muslims in Xinjiang.46

In October 2019, during a meeting with then-US ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan, both the NU and Muhammadiyah argued that more information was needed to ascertain the full reality of the situation in Xinjiang.47 In response to criticism of their lack of action on the issue, both groups have been adamant that they are not unduly affected by Chinese party-state influence. In December 2019, after the Wall Street Journal published an article claiming that Muslim groups had been influenced by Beijing-sponsored trips, Muhammadiyah issued a statement criticizing Western media for wrongly portraying their stance, reiterating much of its 2018 statement supporting Uyghurs in Xinjiang.48 Similarly, the NU maintained that its position was not financially motivated in any way while cautioning all sides from escalating conflicts involving the Xinjiang issue.49

Scholarship to build Indonesian youth support: The Chinese government subsidizes both longer-term educational experiences and short-term trips to Xinjiang for students, including students of Islam.50 One scholarship is targeted specifically to NU members.51 Scholarship recipients are invited to conferences like the Xinjiang Brief Forum, which advises students on how to discuss Xinjiang in their home countries.52  Indonesian Muslim religious groups regularly consult their members living in the PRC to report on China's treatment of Muslim residents.53

Many students affiliated with the NU and Muhammadiyah who have studied in China have subsequently expressed their skepticism of genocide allegations in Xinjiang. A recent study of the social media activities of Muhammadiyah members residing in China reveals increasingly positive narratives about the country.54  Based on the study, the China-based members are concerned that negative pushback against Chinese government policies will jeopardize the acceptance of Islam in China as well as the safety of Indonesian students in China. Accordingly, their social media posts emphasize that Islam is very much accepted in China.55

Indonesian Muslims based in China have also published in Indonesian media during this study's coverage period. In May 2019, an Islamic student living in China explained on the NU’s news website NU Online how halal food was easily attainable in China,56 effectively echoing Beijing’s narrative that Muslims live a peaceful and comfortable life in China. In 2019, NU’s Beijing branch published a book of essays by Indonesians who had studied in China, some of which questioned the scale of the camp system and whether Muslims were mistreated in China.57 Then-NU chairman Said Aqil Siroj—who reportedly broke fast during Ramadan with China’s ambassador to Indonesia—implored readers in the book’s foreword not to solely rely on international media reports to understand the situation in Xinjiang.58 In March 2021, the vice president of NU’s China chapter and PhD candidate at Central China Normal University (CCNU) Ahmad Syaifuddin Zuhri wrote an op-ed claiming that “Islam in China is relatively developed” and arguing that Beijing’s narrative allows “issues related to Xinjiang [to] be seen in their entirety, unlike what is always published in the Western media.”59 A similar narrative was repeated in Indonesian national daily Jawapos by another CCNU student in May 2021.60 In December 2021, a young Indonesian writer and social media editor who received both his master’s and doctorate degrees from Chinese universities wrote a piece echoing Beijing's skepticism of the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent organization aimed at examining evidence regarding the Chinese government’s human rights violations against the Uyghur population.61 Such accounts ignored credible research and documentation of mass detentions, forced labor, and sterilization among Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that was often based on publicly available Chinese government documents.62

Moderate support from Indonesian political leaders: Interviews and official statements from Indonesian politicians who have close links with China are a key mechanism for promoting Beijing’s favored narratives in Indonesia. For example, public officials with business interests in China such as the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan have downplayed the Natuna Sea incident, claiming that it was not about Indonesia’s sovereignty in contrast to statements by other politicians.63 While president Joko Widodo has not refrained from criticizing China on issues like the Natuna dispute,64 his support for Beijing’s investments in the Jakarta to Bandung railway have led him to amplify Chinese state media narratives on the topic of mutual economic benefit.65 On the Xinjiang issue, the Indonesian government has maintained that it prefers not to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” in favor of more constructive discussions behind the scenes.66

Limited Chinese diplomatic presence: Compared to other countries, Chinese diplomats’ social media presence in Indonesia has been relatively muted. The Chinese ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian, who served from December 2017 to November 2021, did not engage in more aggressive “wolf warrior” tactics like his colleagues in other countries.67 He was still active in traditional media, publishing at least 12 op-eds during his tenure, mostly in The Jakarta Post.68  China's diplomatic offices in Indonesia have Instagram accounts, but as of the end of 2021, these still had relatively low follower counts, ranging from 3,500 to 10,400.69  

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the intentional dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—such as the use of fake accounts—on global social media platforms. While Chinese state-affiliated actors in Indonesia have openly promoted falsehoods including the denial of the persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang,70 there is scant evidence of CCP-linked disinformation campaigns targeting Indonesian audiences.

Censorship and intimidation

There is some evidence that the Chinese state has sought to intimidate Indonesian journalists. Bayu Hermawan, a journalist for Republika, a national daily newspaper for Indonesia’s Muslim community, received a WhatsApp message from a Chinese embassy employee in Jakarta saying that an article he wrote about a 2019 Beijing-organized tour to Xinjiang contained errors and did not properly acknowledge the positive aspects of his trip. Hermawan had published articles citing camp residents in Xinjiang who said that they were not given trials or were brought in for offenses like adhering to a halal (Muslim law-compliant) diet.71

Certain topics also appeared to be underreported in coverage of China in certain Indonesian outlets, possibly due to self-censorship. Antara, which signed a content sharing agreement with Xinhua in 2019, generally avoided strident or explicitly critical coverage of China during this study’s coverage period. A journalist from Antara who attended a trip to Xinjiang declined to be interviewed when contacted for this report. A prominent Islamic scholar opposed to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang noted how the Indonesian media environment has not been conducive to voices critical of Beijing, explaining that he was accused by his peers of amplifying Western propaganda after posting a critical report by Human Rights Watch on Facebook.72

Control over content distribution infrastructure

While China-based companies with ties to the CCP are not present in Indonesia’s digital television infrastructure, some companies have been gaining a presence in the social media and mobile phone sectors.

In 2020, Reuters reported that the China-based social media company ByteDance censored content critical of the Chinese government on its news aggregator app Baca Berita (BaBe) in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020.73 Sources revealed that local moderators were instructed by the Beijing-based ByteDance team to delete articles seen as containing “negative” portrayals of Chinese authorities, including references to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and Mao Zedong.74 ByteDance had purchased the Indonesian app in 2018 after the country briefly banned TikTok, one of its global subsidiaries. In its response to the Reuters report, ByteDance said that the censorship had occurred during a period when the company was still adjusting to local policies and that BaBe no longer censors content.75

TikTok was the most downloaded app in Indonesia in 2020.76  Several Indonesian politicians and media outlets were active on the platform during the coverage period.77 In September 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that content with the hashtag #Jokowi, a popular, politically neutral nickname for Indonesian president Joko Widodo, was suppressed by TikTok.78 While this is a seemingly innocuous ban, in recent years, there have been some documented cases around the world of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines.79 The company has subsequently reported correcting errors,80  but a media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users was false, which more broadly calls into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.81

Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad,82 has offered trainings in Indonesia in preparation for the country’s transition to fifth generation (5G) wireless networks.83 The Chinese companies OPPO and Xiaomi have large mobile market shares in Indonesia, accounting for 24 and 28 percent, respectively, in the second quarter of 2021.84  In 2021, concerns were raised about latent censorship on Xiaomi devices.85

There was no evidence in Indonesia of political censorship or manipulation on TikTok or devices using Chinese technology during the coverage period.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

Chinese and Indonesian state media have signed agreements promoting journalist exchanges and cooperation on coverage and training programs, and at least one media executive has said that there was a lot that Indonesia could learn from China’s technological development.86  However, Freedom House found no evidence that such cooperation or expressions of support have turned into concrete changes in media governance.

Chinese diaspora media

Indonesia’s Chinese-language print industry is small and shrinking, as a Suharto-era ban on Chinese-language education mean that most Chinese Indonesians born after 1965 cannot read Chinese.87  According to one estimate, there may be only around 30,000 Chinese-language newspaper subscribers in Indonesia although there are approximately 8.4 million people of Chinese heritage living in Indonesia.88 Continuing restrictions on Chinese immigration further limit the potential growth and reach of Chinese-language media outlets in Indonesia. Nonetheless, older Chinese Indonesians provide a small but consistent market for Chinese-language news.89

There are six major Chinese newspapers in Indonesia: Yindunixiya Shangbao (印度尼西亚商报), Guoji Ribao (国际日报 or International Daily News), Yinni Xingzhou Ribao(印尼星洲日报), and Yinhua Ribao (印华日报), based in Jakarta; Qiandao Ribao (千岛日报), based in Surabaya; and Xun Bao (讯报), in Medan. Guoji Ribao is by far the most widely read and profitable of these, while the others often lose money. Chinese-language papers frequently collapse due to lack of readership or ad revenue.90

The limited market for Chinese-language news in Indonesia forces both diaspora newspapers and social media accounts to rely on foreign capital and news sources. Economic dependence on PRC sources can often result in a pro-Beijing editorial slant. A Freedom House review of the six aforementioned newspapers and nine accounts on WeChat,91 some of which were affiliated with the newspapers, found that most were aligned with Beijing’s preferred media narratives. For example, Guoji Ribao is the Indonesian distributor for overseas content from People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP. 92 The notable exception to this is Yinni Xingzhou Ribao, which shares news resources with a Malaysia-based newspaper of the same name and gathers reporting on China from a variety of sources rather than solely Chinese news agencies.93

A limiting factor for pro-Beijing Chinese-language coverage is fear of local backlash against favoring China’s interests over Indonesia’s. While papers besides Yinni Xingzhou Ribao generally side with Beijing on issues like the PRC’s sovereignty claims over Hong Kong and Taiwan, they published front-page articles in 2020 with titles like “Luhut: Don’t play up the Chinese fishing vessels event” and “Indonesia strongly rejects the claims of China over the Nansha Islands,” refusing to adopt Beijing’s stance in one of the most contentious bilateral issues.94 Diaspora papers have also argued that Chinese officials’ promotion of “Chinese national identity” in Indonesia is dangerous for local Chinese communities.95  

Chinese language television and radio in Indonesia serve to promote Chinese soft power without engaging in political topics. Mandarin Station FM 98.3 has programming comprised primarily of songs and other cultural or  spiritual programming, with “light” news making up around 5 percent of programming.96 The same can be said about Hi-Indo!, a television channel jointly owned by Chinese state television company China Central Television (CCTV) and Indonesian content provider PT Elnet Media Berasama.97 Hi-Indo! features primarily Chinese-language movies and shows with Bahasa language subtitles and is mostly watched by Chinese Indonesians. There is also Metro Xinwen, a Chinese news program with Bahasa subtitles that airs on MetroTV. Its YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram pages, with follower counts ranging from approximately 1,800 to 5,800, do not appear to overtly align with Chinese state media narratives.98

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

 

  • Investigative media capacity: Investigative journalism in Indonesia has played a key role in uncovering covert sources of CCP influence. Though Indonesia does not have a longstanding tradition of investigative reporting, influential outlets have developed their capacity in this area.1 Tempo Media, a well-known independent publisher,2 collaborated with Free Press Unlimited in 2016 to start a training program called “Investigate with Tempo” aimed at creating a new generation of investigative reporters.3 Various other outlets, for example Tirto.id,4 have published investigative pieces, though there is still much room for growth in the industry. The Indonesia Network for Investigative Journalism (JARING) and the Indonesia Association for Media Development are non-profit organizations that aim to develop investigative capacity in the media and increase media professionalism overall in the country.5
  • Media professionalism: Indonesia’s statutory Press Council has a set of guidelines for journalistic ethics and has established itself as capable of settling most media-related disputes out of court.6 Various journalism associations, including the Indonesia Journalists Association,7 have their own set of journalistic ethics, and major media outlets like Kompas have established ombudsman commissions.8 A number of media and radio organizations have set up their own codes of conduct.9 An overwhelming majority of Indonesian journalists surveyed from late 2014 to early 2015 believe that journalists should adhere to a code of ethics.10 Most journalists in Indonesia are well-educated, having obtained at least a bachelor's degree.11
  • Legal safeguards against foreign influence and ownership concentration: Indonesia has strong legislation against foreign ownership. The Indonesian Constitution prohibits foreigners from being the majority shareholders of a media company.12 Foreign ownership of print media was banned completely until March 2021, when new rules allowed some companies to have up to 49 percent foreign ownership for expansion and development.13 For private broadcasting institutions, 100 percent domestic ownership has been required on establishment but up to 20 percent of foreign investment is permitted for expansion and development.14 Foreign nationals are also prohibited from becoming administrators of private broadcasting institutions, except in the financial and technical fields.15 Broadcasting law also stipulates that private broadcasting institutions’ total daily broadcast must contain at least 60 percent domestic programming.16 To protect against high levels of media concentration, Indonesia has restrictions on media cross-ownership.17  Indonesia is also the first country in Southeast Asia to establish a central registry of “beneficial owners” – the people who actually control a company even if the company is not registered in their name – though ownership transparency is still lacking (see Vulnerabilities).18  
  • Disinformation initiatives and vibrant press freedom community: Indonesia has a vibrant non-governmental organization (NGO) environment that includes press freedom advocacy organizations like SAFEnet and Legal Aid Center for the Press.19 In November 2019, a group of NGOs sued the Indonesian president and the minister of communication and information for terminating internet access in Papua and West Papua.20 Indonesia is home to Mafindo (Masyarakat Anti Fitnah Indonesia, or the Indonesian Anti-Hoax Community), an exemplary citizen-run multi-stakeholder NGO dedicated to combating online disinformation. The civic organization Drone Empirit has developed a disinformation detection and mapping tool with open data access for registered university-affiliated academics.21 These organizations benefit media literacy in Indonesia more broadly and could also potentially integrate training and monitoring related to CCP-linked disinformation in the future.

China-specific media resilience

  • Growing commentary on China and CCP influence in Indonesia: Some local commentators have developed specific expertise on China, such as Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, assistant professor in international relations at the Universitas Islam Indonesia, Yogyakarta. Rakhmat’s work frequently appears in the media and over the past three years has increasingly highlighted the dangers posed by Chinese efforts to influence local media.22 Outlets like The Conversation Indonesia and Republika publish opinions from academics regarding various aspects of CCP influence, including collaborative activities between the Chinese and Indonesian governments that have the potential to harm Indonesian interests.23  There is also increasing think tank attention on the issue of CCP influence. In June 2019, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) published a report titled “Explaining Indonesia’s Silence on the Uyghur Issue,” which analyzed the geopolitical context affecting perceptions on China among Indonesian politicians and the public.24 The report highlighted specific acts that the Chinese government has taken to influence different actors within Indonesia and criticized religious groups for taking Beijing’s narratives at face value.
  • Critical Xinjiang coverage: Critical coverage of Xinjiang is reflected in some of Indonesia’s largest newspapers, including The Jakarta Post, Kompas, Tribunews, and Jawa Pos.25 In January 2020, the Jakarta-based internet media startup Narasi TV, a platform which is increasingly popular with young people, aired a ground-breaking investigative report on Xinjiang. Using satellite imagery, it showed how the Chinese government had manipulated guided tours to Xinjiang by removing barbed wires and other incriminating evidence prior to foreign visits and showing visitors only limited sections of the camps.26
  • Diverse sources used for China coverage: Indonesia’s media environment is very diverse. Its journalists rely heavily on foreign sources for international news. Detailed coverage of sensitive issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang has appeared in most major national outlets. Outlets such as Jakarta Post, Media Indonesia, and Antara that have published Chinese state media content also publish wires from or cite independent international sources like Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and Human Rights Watch.27  Moreover, international news outlets like Cable News Network (CNN) are among the most read and most trusted outlets in Indonesia.28
  • Public pushback against state media narratives: The Indonesian public does not shy away from pushing back against certain Chinese state media narratives. For example, there was widespread backlash when Xinhua published an article claiming that the artistic fabric batik originated from China. This occurred against the backdrop of separate controversies related to China’s encroachment in the South China Sea and the entry of Chinese workers into the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, several hashtags criticizing Chinese state policies in Xinjiang went viral on social media, such as #IndonesiaStandsWithUyghur.29 Additionally, at several points during this report’s coverage period, civil society groups such as the Islamic Student Alliance (AMI) and the hardline Islamic Defenders Front protested China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.30  
  • Political pushback on core national interests: Even relatively pro-Beijing Indonesian politicians do not hesitate to criticize China when it comes to Indonesia’s core national interests. When Chinese fishermen entered Indonesian national waters in 2019 and 2020, President Widodo visited and deployed fighter jets and ships to the disputed territory, declaring Indonesia’s sovereignty “non-negotiable” and vowing “no compromise” with China before acting to de-escalate the dispute.31 The opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) is vocal about the current government’s lack of transparency regarding cooperation with China.32

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Gaps in Chinese-language research and expertise: Despite the proliferation of Chinese language programs, including six CCP-affiliated Confucius Institutes across the country,1 Chinese-language education is not popular in Indonesia, and there is limited research done using Chinese-language sources.2 There is also generally limited in-country expertise on domestic Chinese politics or government structures that could provide useful context for the CCP’s foreign influence efforts, including topics such as the organization and strategic priorities of the CCP’s United Front Work Department.3 The majority of China coverage consists of republications of international news sources or is written by journalists without specific expertise on China; many foreign policy media commentators similarly lack expertise on China. There is, however, growing expertise on China and China-Indonesia relations, notably at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
  • High media concentration, abuse of defamation laws: Indonesia does not have laws regulating political or partisan media ownership. The Indonesian media landscape is dominated by eight large commercial entities, three of which control 75 percent of media coverage and audience share.4  There is also often strong intervention in the media room by commercial groups and other powerful constituencies.5 Between 2018 and 2020, the commercial broadcast owners were directly affiliated with the major political parties that supported President Joko Widodo, and three media conglomerates had owners with their own political parties. As a result, media manipulation and political propaganda have become widespread, with studies showing that media groups produced reports supporting their political parties in the lead up to the 2019 national elections.6 The problem of partisan media is exacerbated by archaic defamation provisions that can result in criminal sanctions and excessively high punitive damages that prevent legitimate criticism.7 Challenges and harassment from state and private actors alike result in journalists’ self-censorship.8  
  • Gaps in transparency: Chinese state media content sources are typically labeled, but their links to the Chinese government are not made explicit for Indonesian readers. As previously mentioned, content that comes from Chinese state media sources is sometimes misattributed to local outlets.9 Indonesian media regulations have failed to sufficiently ensure public understanding of media ownership. Media companies in Indonesia have often used complex share structures to disguise their true ownership.10 In 2018, Indonesia passed a law requiring companies in all sectors, including media, to report "beneficial owners" to increase ownership transparency, but ownership remained largely opaque by the end of this study's coverage period.11  Only 24.5 percent of Indonesian companies had reported beneficial ownership data as of November 28, 2021.12 There are also no guidelines for engaging with foreign media or state entities in the various journalist codes of ethics used by Indonesian media organizations.13

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Negative Indonesian attitudes toward China have longstanding historical roots, and a significant increase in popular distrust of China began in 2015.1 CCP influence efforts appear to have had a limited impact on shaping more positive public discourse on China.

Between 2020 and 2021, the proportion of Indonesians who saw China as a "revisionist power" jumped from 27 percent to 42 percent.2 Similarly, in 2021, 86 percent of Indonesians were concerned about Beijing’s political and strategic influence in the region, representing an increase of over 10 percent from 2020.3 Indonesians also expressed concern about China’s economic influence: in 2021, 65.9 percent of Indonesians reported distrust in growing Chinese economic influence, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2020. Public anger over Chinese workers entering Indonesia even as Indonesians were laid off en masse during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with recent slowdowns in projects like the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, exacerbated Indonesian concerns about Chinese investments. By contrast, 63.6 percent supported growing American economic power in the region.4  

Negative opinion on China has led many ethnic Chinese Indonesian to feel unsafe. Disinformation accusing China and Chinese Indonesians of engaging electoral interference or other conspiracies have been associated with political violence for decades in Indonesia, including in post-election riots as recently as 2019.5 Opposition politicians like Prabowo Subianto-Sandiago have alluded to “stolen elections” and “puppet masters,” which some Indonesians interpret as confirmation of Chinese influence conspiracies, even though Beijing was not explicitly referenced.6 Producers of anti-Chinese disinformation have continued to create content through at least 2021.7

Not all feedback toward China is negative. In 2021, of the 10 ASEAN Dialogue Partners, China was viewed as the country that provided the most help to Indonesia.8  Indonesia has been relatively quieter in speaking up about the welfare of Uyghurs in Xinjiang compared to injustices committed against Muslims in other places such as Palestine.9 The Indonesian government, civil society, and the public alike are also very conscious to avoid taking sides in the US-China rivalry.10

header7 Future trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Indonesia that should be closely monitored in the coming years.

  • Focus on social media: COVID-19 travel restrictions have severely limited sponsored journalist visits and educational exchanges. As this vector for influence recedes, the CCP could shift toward other media influence tactics. CRI has been successful in garnering a relatively large following on Facebook, and other Chinese state media have expanded their audiences by partnering with social media influencers. Chinese authorities could begin investing more in messaging on platforms such as TikTok, which has become increasingly popular among Indonesia’s youth.
  • Changes in political attitudes toward China, particularly in regard to Xinjiang: Researchers should monitor how the Indonesian government and other influential actors like Islamic organizations balance their approaches to the US-China geopolitical rivalry, and whether commentators will continue to self-censor on controversial, high-profile issues like Xinjiang in an effort to avoid controversy.
  • Long-term impact of content partnerships: It remains unclear whether the various cooperation agreements between Chinese state media and their private- and public-sector Indonesian counterparts will result in more content sharing or gradually taper off, as has been observed in other countries. Financial troubles in the media industry that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 may provide more appetite for CCP sponsorship in Indonesian media.

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