Wuhan Virus Boosts Indonesian Anti-Chinese Conspiracies

Wild claims of Chinese plots are spreading fast on social media.

Indonesian health officials stand next to a banner showing information about the Wuhan coronavirus at Juanda International Airport in Sidoarjo, East Java, on Jan. 30.
Indonesian health officials stand next to a banner showing information about the Wuhan coronavirus at Juanda International Airport in Sidoarjo, East Java, on Jan. 30. Juni Kriswanto/AFP via Getty Images

“Throw out your Xiaomi mobile phones!” the viral WhatsApp image read. “The coronavirus comes from China and is spreading through the server, coming out from Xiaomi speakers!”

“Your life is more important,” the message underneath explained. “It is best if you throw away your Xiaomi phones.”

Conspiracy theories are part and parcel of many global events in the social media age. Natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and suicide attacks are all susceptible to fake news. Most hoaxes are generally harmless, if potentially panic-inducing, and are easily dismissed.

But in Indonesia, conspiracies around the Wuhan coronavirus have taken a sinister and racist turn.

While many are simply rumors of hospitalized patients (“be careful of XY hospital in ZZ town”) or self-protection theories about eating garlic and drinking lots of water—ideas also shared by citizens of China—a concerning number of theories are targeting Chinese citizens and Indonesians of Chinese descent.

Jakarta resident Drevina Andarini said her mother warned her to avoid busy public places, not to eat or use Chinese products, and not to touch or go near “Chinese people” (meaning Indonesians of Chinese heritage).

“I have no idea where these over-the-top theories are coming from,” Andarini said. “My mom said she read them on some website and that the author said they were a doctor.”

There’s a long history of prejudice against Chinese in Indonesia. Ethnic Chinese make up just 1.2 percent of Indonesia’s population, but their success in business and historical links to communism make them vulnerable. Most Indonesians of Chinese heritage are Christian, Buddhist, or Confucian; less than 5 percent are Muslim. In 1965-1966, hundreds of thousands of suspected communists—many of them of Chinese descent—were killed across the archipelago after the military alleged an attempted coup. In 1998, after the fall of the dictator Suharto, the violence of massive riots was directed at ethnic Chinese, who were accused of profiting from his regime—resulting in more than 1,000 deaths and almost 100 rapes.

Older people seem particularly susceptible to believing hoaxes. Most of the WhatsApp messages Foreign Policy saw, like dad spam everywhere, had been forwarded by people’s parents or extended family members. But younger born-again Muslims, who have undergone a spiritual process of finding themselves known in Indonesian as hijrah, also appear to be vulnerable.

“I try to explain [the hoaxes] to them, but it’s very difficult,” said the 28-year-old Yona, who works at a large international NGO in Jakarta. “If the hoax uses terms like ‘azab’ (doom) and ‘punishment from Allah,’ then no one is brave enough to question it.” Unfortunately, this reaction is not new—religion has become a key part of these rumors, adding an unearned credibility.

“They just say, ‘Maybe our understanding of religion is different,’” she added, before saying her mother also sends her news about the Wuhan coronavirus. “At least my mom is sometimes willing to listen to me.”

On social media, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts encourage people to stay away from places where Chinese citizens or Chinese-heritage Indonesians work and live.

“After Chinese New Year, this Monday will see workers from China return to Indonesia,” one tweet read. “Be aware of the coronavirus at the BRI 2 and Generali buildings!” BRI 2 is where the large Jakarta office of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei is located. The tweet tagged the Directorate General of Immigration and the Health Ministry for their attention.

Major media outlets are also complicit in spreading anti-Chinese conspiracies. A morning talk show session titled “Biological weapon behind the coronavirus?” aired on Kompas TV on Jan. 29, picking up on Western conspiracy theories; the hosts persistently encouraged panelists to agree with them that the virus was a Chinese creation.

Other conspiracies focus on concern for Uighur Muslims in China, the victims of a concerted cultural and religious campaign of oppression.

“Don’t be tricked by the deception of the Chinese Communist government!” a Facebook post read. “The spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan is a deadly weapon launched by the Chinese Communist regime as part of their national program to eradicate Muslims.”

“The government of China learned from how its treatment of Uighur Muslims gained the [negative] attention of the Islamic world,” the author wrote. “Now with the spread of this deadly virus, there is a justification for the Communist Chinese regime to isolate the residents of Wuhan and identity all Muslims to be executed in the same way they were in Uighur [territories].”

The author went on to defend her post in the comments, suggesting those who disagreed might be “Chinese agents.”

English-language conspiracies aren’t helping, either. A senior development specialist in Jakarta told Foreign Policy: “There is a tendency among Indonesians to think if something is written in English that it must be true.” Even many well-educated people cannot differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources, with English-language tabloid newspapers and gossip websites a popular source of information.

With hoaxes spreading wildly across social media and WhatsApp groups, the Indonesian Health Ministry has been imploring people to remain calm.

“Coronavirus is not our enemy. Our current enemy is information that makes the public anxious,” Health Ministry staffer Kuwat Sri Hudoyo told the media on Tuesday.

Surprisingly, despite huge numbers of Chinese tourists, no cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been confirmed in Indonesia so far. At least eight patients are under observation in hospitals across the country, but another 12 have tested negative. Indonesia is the only country among the top 10 destinations for international flights from Wuhan without a confirmed case.

But none of this will stop the anti-Chinese conspiracy theories, which have taken on a new intensity in recent years. Particularly since Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama—who is Christian and of Chinese heritage—became governor of Jakarta in 2014, anti-Chinese sentiments have been increasingly taken up by hard-line Islamist movements like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). FPI accused Ahok of being anti-Islamic and successfully pushed for a charge of blasphemy; Ahok was controversially sentenced to two years in jail.

During his time as governor, large plastic banners warning residents of “the latent danger of communism” appeared on main thoroughfares, while digital groups such as the Muslim Cyber Army frequently encouraged their supporters to defend their religion from secularism, communism, and Christianity, using hashtags like #WaspadaKomunis (“be aware of communists”), #GebukPKI (“beat up the Indonesian Communist Party”), and #MuslimBersatu (“Muslims unite”).

China’s growing influence and presence in Indonesian markets has also given new punch to conspiracy theories, laying the groundwork for today’s paranoia. In 2016, accusations of imported Chinese chilis purposefully infected with bacteria made the rounds, while a year later, rumors swirled around a fictional influx of millions of mainland Chinese workers taking local jobs. In the riots that followed the May 2019 presidential election result announcements, claims that Chinese police had shot rioters while working undercover as Indonesian police went wild. A media conference was even held to dispute this theory, with four young pale-skinned policemen paraded in front of the cameras and made to introduce themselves to prove that they were Indonesian.

So while the Wuhan coronavirus is new, the target largely remains the same. Discrimination and racism against ethnic Chinese—whether Indonesian citizens or from China itself—have simply taken on a new form. But as with previous hoaxes, this conspiracy too has the potential to turn fatal if certain groups were to act on it. This paranoia, so far, poses a greater threat in the country than the virus itself. It’s not hard to imagine demands for the isolation of ethnic Chinese communities in major Indonesian cities or attacks on hospitals where suspected coronavirus patients are being treated. Social media accounts like Turn Back Hoax are doing their best to combat these theories, but it’s a bit like trying to hold back a rising tide. The authorities must get a hold on misinformation before it’s too late.

Kate Walton is a writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Twitter: @waltonkate