China has expanded its soft-power clout in Indonesia in recent years to accompany its growing economic and political foothold in Indonesia. One of these endeavours is courting Muslim students, known as “Santri”, with scholarships.
This is part of China’s ongoing efforts to maintain its positive image, while ensuring its policies on religion, including its mistreatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is seen from the perspective of China alone.
China has been offering scholarships to Indonesians for years. However, the more active targeting of the Santri community is very recent. It follows the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and news about China’s discrimination against the Uyghurs, which has drawn criticism from many Indonesians.
Many of these students are now writing in local media to promote the idea that “religious freedom” is ensured in China. They are associating the Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghurs, with insurgency as China does.
Read more: 3 ways China is growing its media influence in Indonesia
They now also speak about China in a positive way in the country’s mainstream media. Some have even condemned Muslim students who called for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics or who protest against China’s policy towards Xinjiang.
A recent peer-reviewed study reveals a shifting of views among members of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation, who reside in China, the majority of them students. Their social media activities have begun to present a more positive image of China.
China is targeting Indonesia’s Muslim students
Although precise data are difficult to find, it is reported that China is the second top destination for Indonesian students. The latest data in 2019 from the Indonesian embassy in Beijing recorded 15,780 Indonesians studying in China.
These scholarships have taken many forms, although most students receive the Chinese Government Scholarship (CGS).
The most important is the one provided to the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), to allow NU-affiliated students to pursue education in China.
These students are spread across several Chinese universities. As their number increased, they even founded the NU China chapter (PCINU Tiongkok).
The scholarship holders also organise various events in China such as webinars and book launches. One example was on Santri Day in 2020, when NU China held a webinar on the roles of Santri in strengthening China-Indonesia relations.
Students also frequently attend Beijing-orchestrated events such as the Xinjiang Brief Forum. The forum was specifically designed to invite Muslims outside China and advise them on how to communicate the Xinjiang issue to their respective communities.
During the events, students agreed that the Xinjiang issue needs to be seen “comprehensively”, choosing not to believe Western media reports.
NU China was also invited to the China-Indonesia Symposium on Islamic Culture in Quanzhou in Wuhan in 2019 and 2020. The event is hosted by the Fujian government together with Huaqiao University and the China-Indonesia People-to-People Exchange Development Forum. It has become a forum for sharing the views of academics, practitioners and officials on Indonesia-China relations.
The NU-led news website, NU Online, publishes articles that seem to paint a picture of a peaceful and comfortable life for Muslims living in China.
As well as NU, China has also offered scholarships to Muhammadiyah. Even though the precise number is not reported, this effort appears to have borne fruit. These scholarship holders are starting to sing the praises of Beijing.
There are even short-term scholarships. In 2019, for instance, Beijing offered scholarships to Santris to visit the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region to see the lives of Muslims in the area.
China has also collaborated with Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send several Indonesian students to visit China in the “Santri For World Peace, Goes to China” program.
These students met representatives of various state-led institutions, including the China Islamic Association (CIA), to hear the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) version of the “Islam in China” story.
On a visit in 2019, for example, CIA’s leading figure claimed the relationship between Chinese Muslims and the Chinese government was very good.
Earlier in 2013, around 60 Santris from Ar-Risalah Islamic boarding school in East Java were invited to attend a summer school in Hangzhou. Nurul Jadid Islamic boarding school in Central Java also reported that a number of its students had received scholarships to study in China.
Over the years, China has said it will continue to provide scholarships to Indonesian Muslim students.
Last year, for instance, the Ningxia Autonomous Region promoted its scholarship program to the Indonesian Santri community under the banner “Graduates from Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia can study technology and business at Ningxia University”.
These scholarships are not only being promoted by Chinese representatives, but also by alumni through seminars and conferences. Many of these are held in mosques and Islamic universities.
Countering Beijing’s narrative
These Santri, who are well-versed in Islam’s concept of brotherhood, should speak out more about the plight of Xinjiang Uyghurs. They should not believe Beijing’s narrative, given that many human rights organisations, independent panels and even survivors from Xinjiang have confirmed China’s discrimination against the Uyghurs.
To date, it is difficult to find reports of these Santri ever confronting Beijing about the Uyghur issue.
The Santri community should use their time in China to learn more about the Uyghur struggle and the community’s actual living conditions, as well as lobbying the Indonesian government and leading figures to issue a strong statement on China’s Xinjiang policy.
One alternative is to write an open letter to China, urging it to halt its Xinjiang policies, as well as to Jakarta, to put pressure on China. This message can also be sent to other Santris around the world as well as relevant non-governmental organisations.