The Formation and Disappearance of the “Shadowy Chinese Organization”
The Network of the Ethnic Chinese and their Imagined Communities
in the Era of Changing Order in Indonesia
Tsuda, Koji
The University of Tokyo
In early 1998, the last year of Suharto’s New Order, Indonesia was in a state of disorder caused by economic, political, and social confusion. Amid this uneasy condition, there occurred riots which were closely related to the socially structured dichotomy in this country between Chinese and Pribumi. After a one-night riot in Kragan, a small fishing town in Central Java Province, a few shops in the adjacent town of Rembang were also flooded by a mob, which was successfully dispersed by the police. The tense atmosphere never dissolved, however, and ethnic Chinese in Rembang, with the warning of the local government, were forced to prepare for possible future riots. Having a strong sense that they were undeniably Chinese, they then formed a secret organization of their own, named Organisasi Keperdulian, in order to cope by themselves with the crises surrounding them. Considering Suharto’s oppressive anti-Chinese policies, the formation of an ethnicity-based organization exclusively for Chinese was quite daring. But by cooperating with Chinese in adjacent towns, the Chinese in Rembang established a network covering as much as 6 towns in 3 prefectures, though this liaison system lasted less than one year. In this paper, I will show in detail how the “Shadowy Chinese Organization” (another name for Organisasi Keperdulian) and the regional Chinese network were formed and disappeared.
In analyzing this process, I will pay attention to the substance and expanse of “the imagined Chinese community” conceived by the Chinese in Rembang. Since the Chinese in Rembang, just as those in other rural cities and towns in Java, living concentratedly within a small area, living their daily lives full of mutual interactions, most of them had envisioned their own community as one unity by way of “face-to-face imagination”, though it had no concrete, integrated form. At the same time, through their daily neighborhood contacts, they of course had shared specific knowledge and information such as who had connections and who could take the initiative within their community at a time of crisis. Forming the Shadowy Chinese Organization was based on nothing but this sense of vaguely imagined unity on the one hand, and their shared empirical knowledge rooted in their everyday lives on the other.
Once this organization was established, however, the Chinese community of Rembang, which had formally been imagined as being made up of a bundle of individual ties, was given a definitive contour and institutional form. Furthermore, by setting up a regional Chinese network, this tiny community successfully established practical cooperative links with groups of Chinese in adjacent towns, the members of which most Chinese in Rembang had never met before. Although this mutual collaboration system enabled the Chinese in Rembang to imagine a newly expanded “Chinese community” that far surpassed the range of their day-to-day, face-to-face experience, this network ceased to function after the tense situation was subsided. Besides, in the course of time, the attempts to integrate the fluid small community under Organisasi Keperdulian under the banner of “Chinese” did also fail, owing to several conflicts and factors that sprang out of their daily relations.
Through this case study, I will argue that, in spite of the persistent social dichotomy of Chinese/Pribumi in national level, “Chineseness” imagined by most Chinese in Rembang was, or still is, not an abstract nor nominal one, but one filled with empirical realities deeply rooted in their daily lives.