In recent years, China has intensified its cultural influence in Indonesia, having previously invested heavily in its economic and political foothold in this country.
One of the significant efforts, but rarely highlighted, is to attract Muslim students – especially the santri group – through the provision of scholarships.
This is part of China’s ongoing efforts to present a positive image in the eyes of the Indonesian people. The Chinese government also wants to ensure that its domestic policies regarding religion, including the issue of discrimination against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, are narrative controlled.
China has been offering scholarships to Indonesians for a long time. However, specific targeting of new students has intensified recently, following strong criticism from Indonesians regarding several Chinese policies, including the proliferation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega-project as well as discrimination against the Uyghur Muslim minority.
The potential for this “hidden goal”, for example, can be seen from the many students who are alumni of Chinese scholarships who then write in various media about how “religious freedom” is guaranteed in China.
They also parroted Beijing’s narrative that the issue in Xinjiang, home to detention camps for the Uyghur group, was not an issue of discrimination but rather an effort to quell a “citizen’s rebellion” against the Chinese government.
These students are also more active in talking about China in a positive way in the media. Some even condemned other Muslim students who called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics , as well as others who protested against China’s crimes in Xinjiang.
Recent studies have revealed a shift in views among members of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization, especially students living in China. Their social media activities present a more positive image of China.
Muslim students targeted by China
For Indonesian students, China is the second most favorite higher education destination.
The latest 2019 data from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia (KBRI) in Beijing states that there are 15,780 Indonesians who are currently studying in the Bamboo Curtain country, with the scholarship quota continuing to grow.
The scholarship schemes offered vary widely. However, most of the scholarship recipients take part in the Chinese Government Scholarship (CGS) program.
Among these schemes, there is one scholarship program that specifically targets the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, namely Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Students affiliated with NU get a special quota to continue their higher education in China for free.
These various students then spread to various universities in China. As the number of NU students increased, they later established the NU China Special Branch Management ( PCINU-China ).
The scholarship recipients also organize various events in China such as webinars and book launches. Commemorating “Santri Day” in 2020, PCINU-China held a webinar discussing the role of Santri in strengthening China-Indonesia bilateral relations.
They are also frequently invited to attend such events organized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the Xinjiang Brief Forum . China designed the forum to invite global Muslims and tell them what the right narrative is when communicating the issue of Xinjiang to the people in their respective countries.
In the event, Indonesian Muslim students agreed that the issue of Xinjiang needed to be viewed “comprehensively”. They emphatically choose not to believe the reports and reports written by the Western media.
PCINU-China has attended an invitation to the China-Indonesia Symposium on Islamic Culture in Quanzhou, Wuhan, in 2019 and 2020. This event was organized by the Fujian Provincial Government together with Huaqiao University and the China-Indonesia People-to-People Exchange Development Forum as a forum to share views. academics, practitioners, and officials regarding the relationship between Indonesia and China.
One of NU’s news sites, NU Online, also publishes articles that seem to paint a picture of a peaceful and comfortable life for Muslims living in China.
In its development, apart from NU, China has also been offered scholarships to Muhammadiyah students. While the exact number is not reported, these efforts appear to be paying off. Many of the scholarship recipients are now starting to praise Beijing .
In addition to full tuition scholarships, China also offers many short course scholarships (short-term academic programs). In 2019, for example, Beijing offered scholarships to special students to visit the Xinjiang region to observe Muslim life in the area through guided tours.
China even collaborated with the Ministry of Religion (Kemenag) and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Kemenlu) to send several delegations of students to visit China. This program is named “Santri For World Peace, Goes to China”.
In the agenda, the students met with representatives from various national institutions in China. Among them was the China Islamic Association (CIA), to listen to a seminar themed “Islam in China”, which of course was Beijing’s version.
On a 2019 visit, for example, CIA figures claimed that relations between Chinese Muslims and the Chinese government were very good.
Previously in 2013, around 60 students from the Ar-Risalah Islamic Boarding School in East Java were invited to attend a summer class in Hangzhou. The Nurul Jadid Islamic Boarding School in Probolinggo, East Java, also reported that they received scholarships from the Chinese government for a number of their students.
Over the years, China has been committed to continuing to provide scholarships to Indonesian Muslim students.
Last year, universities in China’s Ningxia Autonomous Region promoted a scholarship program to the Indonesian santri community. They use the slogan “Graduates from Islamic boarding schools can study technology and business at Ningxia University”.
These various scholarships are not only promoted by representatives from China, but are also distributed by alumni in the country through seminars and conferences. Many of them are even held in Islamic mosques and campuses.
Against Beijing’s narrative
These santri, who are very fluent and understand very well the concept of “Muslim brotherhood” should be able to talk more about the plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
They should not take Beijing’s narrative for granted. There are countless comprehensive and reliable reports from human rights organizations, independent panels, and even testimony from survivors confirming that crimes against humanity in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims did occur and are still ongoing.
Unfortunately, until this article was published, it was difficult to find reports or writings related to santri opposing the Chinese government’s stance on the Uyghur issue.
The santri community should be able to use their time in China to learn more and unravel the struggles of Uyghur Muslims and their actual living conditions.
With their intellect and capacity, the santri have a big role to play in lobbying the Indonesian government and prominent figures to issue strong and firm statements against China’s policies in Xinjiang.
One alternative that can be done is to write an open letter. This is not only aimed at Beijing, but also calls on the Indonesian government to take a stance to pressure China. With this, Indonesian students can also invite other Muslim students around the world as well as other relevant organizations to help liberate their Uyghur Muslim brothers from oppression.
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