In this webinar, Dr Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Dr Leo Suryadinata explored the burgeoning interest of Indonesian pesantren graduates who choose to continue their studies in China.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Wednesday, 1 June 2022 – Dr Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia, faculty member of the Department of International Relations at Universitas Indonesia, delivered a webinar titled “Telling “Alternative” Narratives on China: The Indonesian Muslim China Graduates and Their Impacts on Indonesia-China Relations”. The webinar discussed Indonesian Muslim santris (students of Islamic boarding school or strict adherents of Islam) who pursue tertiary education in China, whose number has increasingly grown since the post-Suharto period in the early 2000s. Many Indonesians who hold the misperception — popularised by Suharto’s regime — that Islam and China are antithetical tend to regard the phenomenon as both intriguing and suspicious: is it Beijing-driven? Dr Yeremia suggested otherwise: the phenomenon grew organically out of pragmatic considerations of the advantages that studying in China could bring to the santri community.
To support his argument, Dr Yeremia drew on the findings from his interviews with the East Java-based pesantren (Islamic boarding school) Nurul Jadid’s school principal and its santri graduates who had gone on to China for tertiary education. For the pesantren, offering Mandarin as part of its curriculum increases its competitiveness vis-a-vis other pesantrens in attracting potential students. Due to its close proximity to a Mandarin language school, training its teachers in Mandarin was a more cost-efficient option than having to send its teachers to be trained in Japanese in another town. And for the santris, learning Mandarin provides many of them with the opportunity to be the first in their families to go abroad for tertiary education. Dr Yeremia argued that learning Mandarin and studying in China, therefore, gives both the pesantren and santris the opportunity to better their social capital and status.
From his fieldwork and digital research, Dr Yeremia discovered that santris who have returned from China to Indonesia have organised programmes to encourage other santris — and Indonesian Muslims in general — to pursue and benefit from higher education in China. For instance, they hold consultative and question-and-answer sessions for santris to share tips on winning scholarships and their firsthand experiences of living as Muslims in China. In addition, some also have gone above and beyond to ensure that the prevalent negative and distorted views of China — seen as stemming from ignorance — among Indonesian Muslims are addressed and corrected with their “alternative” narrative of China One example is the Cha Guan programme available on Asumsi.co channel on YouTube. Having lived and studied in China, they view themselves as responsible for educating the Indonesian Muslim community on what China is like based on their generally positive image of living in China as Muslims.
However, the prevailing negative views of China, Dr Yeremia noted, have often put these santris in a quandary when telling their “alternative” narrative of China. On the one hand, they have to deliberately omit certain information that would portray China in a negative light, as it may be used by certain groups to perpetuate anti-China or anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia. For instance, the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the limited freedom of religion on the ground. The result of which is a half-story, one-sided narrative of China. On the other hand, they also have to be cautious not to exaggerate the positives in order to avoid being perceived as pro-China.
Discussant Professor Leo Suryadinata pointed out that these santris are mainly from moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) pesantren who tended to agree with the “nationalisation of Islam”. This has partially explained their sympathy with Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang. The lively conversation following the webinar highlighted additional salient points on the topic. For instance, Dr Yeremia highlighted that, since these santris constitute only a minority of the whole Indonesian Muslim community, the status quo of predominantly negative views of China that are reinforced by Western media would remain. He also emphasised the absence of Beijing’s support in the santris’ efforts in attempting to correct the misperception of China in Indonesia. However, the discussant held a different view that Beijing had rendered its support to these moderate santris’ efforts as shown in its “Islamic diplomacy” and providing scholarships to them, but the support was not massive. Relatedly, Dr Yeremia opined that while these attempts have received hostile responses from Indonesian Muslims who hold anti-China and/or anti-Chinese positions, they have so far been isolated to the virtual world.
The webinar attracted 58 participants from Singapore and overseas.
This webinar is supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.