Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Constructing a China Metaphor: Sukarno's Perception of the PRC and Indonesia's Political Transformation

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Constructing a China Metaphor: Sukarno's Perception of the PRC and Indonesia's Political Transformation

Article excerpt

Sukarno was arguably the single most important politician in determining the trajectory of postcolonial Indonesian history up to 1965. His multifaceted and far-reaching influence upon Indonesia's domestic and foreign politics has been meticulously documented and extensively analyzed.(1) Although there is some basic consensus concerning Sukarno's contributions to Indonesian political development, scholars disagree sharply as to the sources of his thought. While some perceive him to be essentially a statesman whose views were shaped by his Western education and by his experiences within the nationalist movement, others see him as a modern version of a Hindu-Javanese ruler, whose actions were guided by traditional Javanism.

Despite the fact that the debate concerning the make-up of Sukarno's thought and action began more than two decades ago, this scholarly discourse has been east along the framework of Western influence versus Javanese tradition. Within this essentially Western-centred paradigm, there has been no room to explore the relevance of Sukarno's perceptions of the experiences of other Asian nations (such as China) to the evolution of his own thinking. Indeed, this is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Standard western treatments of postcolonial Indonesia, such as those by Herbert Feith and Daniel Lev,(2) also show a conspicuous neglect of the role of China (both imagined and actual) in Indonesia's transformation. In his otherwise excellent discussion of external influences upon Indonesian political thinking, Feith refers only to Western ideas and completely ignores the pertinence of the Chinese and Japanese modes of thought to the Indonesian intellectual tradition.(3)

To be sure, there are a few exceptions. At least two renowned authors have noticed the profound impact that exposure to China (through visitation) had upon Sukamo. Ide Anak Agung Gde Agung, Indonesia's Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1955, argues that Sukarno's 1956 trip to the PRC was "a real milestone in Indonesia's political development both in the domestic field and in the conduct of its foreign policy".(4) In the same vein, George Kahin contends that Sukarno borrowed and adapted some techniques of Chinese social and political mobilization when he established the system of Guided Democracy.(5) Nevertheless, these scholars offer little in the way of documentation for their views, nor do they convincingly establish the connection between Sukarno's views of China and his visions for Indonesia. As a consequence, these scholarly findings are either overlooked or questioned.(6)

This paper discusses the construction of Sukarno's perception of the PRC and suggests how it is relevant to the evolution of his thought. It will be argued here that Sukarno's largely favourable views of China were fashioned predominately by his predispositions about Indonesia. The hopeful China images created and presented by Sukarno, therefore, reflected more of his own political discontent and intellectual ambiguity than of Chinese realities. In reformulating his agendas for Indonesia, Sukarno consistently drew upon his positive impressions of the success of the China example. His notion of what was going wrong with Indonesia was constantly set against his perception of what was going right in the PRC. By using China as a political statement and a social strategy, Sukarno in effect incorporated some of the PRC's conceptual inspiration and practical alternatives in his determined drive to replace Western-style parliamentary democracy with Guided Democracy. In so doing, Sukarno converted his own image of China into a China metaphor, a mirror which contained transformable ramifications of far-reaching significance beyond its original connotations.

It should be noted, however, that this paper is not a study of Sukarno's political thinking per se, nor is it an analysis of Indonesia's postcolonial history. The focus is on how Sukarno's China perception was contrived and, more importantly, on its significance to Indonesia's critical political transformation between 1956 and 1959. …

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