Academic interest in Indonesia’s economy accelerates in China

Academic interest in Indonesia’s economy accelerates in China

The Social Sciences Academic Press, the publishing arm of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, has published two annual yearbooks in Chinese with analyses of Indonesia’s economy. The December 2017 issue appeared with the title Indonesia Economic Development Report and the December 2018 issue with the revised title Indonesia Economic and Social Development Report.

This is a significant development for two reasons. Firstly, there are few publications that offer a profound and up to date analysis of Indonesia’s economy in Chinese. For example, Google Scholar yields 307 publications in English with the keywords Indonesia and economy in the title during 2014-2018, compared to just 16 in Chinese. Professor Wu Chongbo’s 2012 book Contemporary Indonesian Economic Research is possibly the last published on Indonesia’s economy in Chinese, while several books have been published in Chinese in recent years on the other ‘Asian giants’, India and Japan.

Secondly, the yearbooks are published in the CASS Blue Book series on economic topics. The Blue Books – together with their yellow and green variants on respectively international relations and population/environmental policy issues – are better known in China as pishu (皮书, literally ‘cover-books’), analytical reports to guide policymaking.

These pishu have been published since 1991. Over the years they comprised an increasing range of subseries with annual yearbooks on an increasingly diverse range of topics. Initially the yearbooks were based on research at CASS, but increasingly they are based on research at research institutes endorsed by CASS. The Blue Book series are highly regarded in China because of their academic prestige. For Chinese academics, publishing in the series is an achievement.

The yearbooks are traditionally used by policymakers. They are made available to government ministries, where they are a standard reference on any given topic. The books are also stocked in Xinhua book shops across all cities in China, and PDFs of books and individual chapters can be ordered online from Pishu, the Academy’s online retailer of its books. At a price of less than 100 yuan, or A$20, the books are not unaffordable for individuals interested in Indonesia and for university libraries.

Indonesia is not the only country covered in the Blue Book series. Subseries on many other countries have been in existence for years. Several of the recently initiated subseries are the result of university departments lobbying CASS to allow them to take responsibility for a subseries. This requires departments to guarantee the editing of annual volumes with contributions of academic quality to satisfy CASS’s expectations, and according to the Academy’s style and manual.

The subseries on Indonesia was initiated in 2016 by the Center for Indonesian Studies (印度尼西亚研究中心, literally Indonesian Research Center) at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (Guangwai for short) in Guangzhou. According to its website, the Center was established in 2016, although Guangwai had been teaching Indonesian language since 1970.

The Guangwai Indonesia Center is embedded in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Collaborative Innovation Center in Guangzhou. This is indicative of the broader significance of the Center of Indonesian Studies. The latter is supported by the Ministry of Education and the business community in Guangdong province. Support from the business community may be sizeable given that the province is the hinterland of Hong Kong and has been an early beneficiary of China’s opening up since 1980. It is also the location of many of the private companies that have invested in Indonesia as part of the Chinese government’s 1999 ‘Go Out’ policy.

The founding of the Guangwai Indonesia Center fits a trend in China for universities to establish country-focused study centres. For example, there are no less than 36 Australian studies centres. By contrast, Indonesian studies centres are still thin on the ground in China. Bahasa Indonesia has been taught at universities in China since the 1950s. In 2017 11 universities offered courses in Bahasa Indonesia. But few fostered research of Indonesia’s society and economy.

The study of Indonesia was since the 1950s the realm of particularly the Centres for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University and Jinan University in Guangzhou. Academics at both centres tended to focus on the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia and developed an understanding of the region through that prism. In recent years, colleagues there, respectively Associate Professors Lin Mei and Li Wannan, have increasingly studied Indonesia’s economy on its own merits.

During recent years several centres have been added to these two traditional hubs of Indonesia research. Starting in 2012 with the Indonesia Research Center at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang, near Beijing. Followed by 4 other centres, in 2016 the Indonesian Research Center at the Fuzhou Qishan campus of Fujian Normal University, the Indonesia Research Center at the Xiamen campus of Huaqiao University, the Research Center for China-Indonesia People-to-People Exchange at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, and in 2017 the China-Indonesia Humanities Exchange Research Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Most of these centres were established after China’s vice-premier Liu Yandong and the Indonesian Coordinating Minister of Human Development and Culture Puan Maharani commenced an annual meeting of ministers in May 2015 under the moniker ‘Cultural and People-to-People Exchange Mechanism’. These annual meetings in turn had their origin in the 2012 visit of Indonesian President Yudhoyono to Beijing and the bilateral agreement he signed with Chinese President Hu Jintao that among others aimed to establish a ‘cultural and people-to-people exchange mechanism’. In other words, the establishment of the research centers indicates that China is living up to its commitment to encourage exchanges.

The centres may not only serve the purpose of academic exchanges and research. The establishment of each of the last four centres was laced with due references to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative, the Maritime Silk Road, and Indonesia’s participation in both. A further indication of the purpose of the centres is the fact that all are members of the China-Indonesia University Think Tank Alliance (中国-印尼高校智库联盟), established in June 2016. An accumulating number of think tanks emerged in China in recent years to inform public policy formulation. It seems likely that the alliance will coordinate new Indonesia-related research to inform the development of these initiatives.

Two important linchpins for the centres and the Alliance appear to have been the financial support from the Ministry of Education in Beijing and the advisory role in each of Dr Xu Liping. Xu is a Peking University graduate and a senior research fellow with the National Institute of International Strategy, as well as the director of the Southeast Asian Studies Center, both at CASS in Beijing. Since 2010 he published on decentralisation in Indonesia and on Indonesia’s international relations. He is often quoted in the press in China and Indonesia on China-Indonesia issues and seems to be a semi-official spokesman on these matters.

The online sites of the five centres suggest that research interests of associated academics focus on various branches of the humanities, particularly international relations and more specifically Indonesia-China relations in the context of China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Only the Guangwai Indonesia Center ventured into the field of economics by editing the Blue Books subseries.

The editors of the 2017 and 2018 Blue Books on Indonesia’s economy are economics professors associated with the Guangwai Indonesia Center. The 2017 editor was Zuo Zhigang, a professor of international finance and investment, and the director of the Guangwai Indonesia Center. Professor Zuo’s research interests focus on venture capital syndication in China. The 2018 editor was Sui Guangjun. Professor Sui is known as a key member of the Communist Party Committee of Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and the executive vice president of Guangdong Institute for International Strategies (广东国际战略研究院). Neither seems to have published on the Indonesian economy before 2017.

Nevertheless, both editors have done Chinese readers a great service. The 2017 and 2018 yearbooks follow the standard format of the Blue Books series, starting with an overview chapter, followed by thematic sections. Professor Zuo is the most prolific contributor to both Blue Books, authoring 10 of the 24 chapters in both volumes. The remainder are from a range of colleagues, generally his colleagues at Guangwai University. The 2018 volume also has three chapters from Indonesian academics on China-Indonesia economic relations, Indonesia’s ‘Manufacturing 4.0’ plan, and the rapid growth of Chinese tourism to Bali.

While the 2017 yearbook focused on economic themes, the 2018 issue also covered Islamic politicisation in Indonesia, Indonesia’s labour laws and their impact on foreign (especially Chinese) investment, Chinese companies and their difficulties with land tenure in Indonesia, and a comparative study of primary education in China and Indonesia.

Most chapters are descriptive and discuss what happened in the previous year, explaining trends in sectors of Indonesia’s economy on the basis of quantitative data from BPS and from Bank Indonesia. References are generally to sources in Chinese, some to Indonesian media, in only a few cases to relevant international publications such as in the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies. In line with the Academy’s intentions with the Blue Books, both volumes offer ample reflections on Indonesia-China economic relations.

Altogether, the new Blue Book subseries, the establishment of five new Indonesia-focused research centres, new funding from the Ministry of Education in Beijing, as well as the guidance from CASS and coordination of activities through the China-Indonesia alliance of university-based think tanks, indicate that academic interest in Indonesia’s economy has accelerated in China in recent years.

Pierre van der Eng is Associate Professor in International Business at the Australian National University, currently visiting Tsinghua University and Peking University for research on respectively Chinese entrepreneurship and Chinese investment in Indonesia.

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