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  • China and the Shaping of Indonesia, 1949-1965
  • Charles A. Coppel
China and the Shaping of Indonesia, 1949-1965. By Hong Liu, Singapore and Kyoto: NUS Press and Kyoto University Press, 2011. xiv + 321 pp. Figures, footnotes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-9971-69-381-7.

This is an important book. It is also a difficult one to summarise without losing its nuanced approach and the complexity of its argument. At one level, the task is simple. Liu has carefully researched the images of China among Indonesian politicians and intellectuals of various political persuasions during the period from the transfer of sovereignty to an independent Indonesia in 1949 to the overthrow of President Sukarno's Guided Democracy in 1965.

Liu devotes a chapter each to the politician Sukarno and the intellectual Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who both visited China for the first time in 1956. Their experience in China evidently influenced their later political behaviour. For Sukarno, China was an inspiration for his transformation of the Indonesian political system from its liberal constitutional democracy to the authoritarian and populist Guided Democracy. For Pramoedya, the China experience seems to have been crucial in his conversion from detached practitioner of universal humanism to engaged proponent of socialist realism.

But Liu casts his net much wider than these two more predictable public figures. As the author observes (p. 243), centrist or rightist visitors were deliberately invited to visit China in the hope that their favourable impressions would carry more sway at home. Not all of them were favourably impressed, but it is interesting to discover that even an anti-communist like former vice-president Mohammad Hatta, who was significantly prejudiced against the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, found himself an admirer of the achievements of the Chinese in communist China.

Liu challenges the express or implied assumption of many scholars that the only model of modernity for Indonesians in this period was to be found in the Western world. In the 21st Asian Century this is a timely corrective. He argues persuasively that the People's Republic of China was a significant and influential alternative model between 1949 and 1965. He suggests that Indonesian perceptions and representations of China (whether grounded in reality or otherwise) were woven into a number of (largely favourable) narratives: 'China was a purposeful and harmonious society experiencing rapid economic progress, a nationalistic and populist regime profoundly different from the Soviet Union, and a nation characterized by a vibrant cultural and intellectual renaissance' (pp. 267-8). These narratives were by no means uniform or monolithic. Indonesian politicians and [End Page 120] intellectuals argued about them together with their competing viewpoints and blueprints for Indonesia. In so doing, they were transformed into what the author calls 'the China metaphor', a projection of an imaginary China onto the domestic political contestation in Indonesia.

There seems no doubt that examples from China were abundantly incorporated into late Guided Democracy discourse. The teachings of Bung Karno (Sukarno) were elevated to a level of sacredness similar to that of the thoughts of Mao Zedong in China. Intellectuals like those signing the Manikebu (Cultural Manifesto) who challenged the Lekra line of 'politics as commander' were suppressed. A major contribution of the book is to show the extent to which these phenomena were influenced by Indonesian perceptions of China rather than mere parallels.

How could this have come about? The changes after 1956 built on a range of ways in which images of China were mediated to the Indonesian political public. Liu briefly outlines the historical depth to the process, some of it going back to the precolonial past. There was also the growth of peranakan Chinese Malay journalism and literature which was readily understood and read by the wider population, and the high regard of Indonesian nationalists for Sun Yat-Sen and the establishment of the Chinese Republic. In the 1950s and 1960s visitors to China included not only groups of Indonesians, but also Chinese Indonesians keen to see their ancestral homeland and its modern transformation under Mao. Many of these visitors reported on their travels in the press and books. Liu is at pains to show that these reports were not uniform, let alone uniformly...


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pp. 120-121
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