Stories of a Chinese, Merchant, Father, and the Belt & Road.
Written by Hailin Huang
“The world is flat.”——Thomas.L.Friedman
Turning 58 years old, Bo was born in an ordinary family in Sichuan, China. He is the eldest of two sons in the family. After graduating from the English Department of Sichuan International Studies University in the 1980s, he entered work in Sichuan Chemical Foreign Trade Branch. That was a China embracing reform and opening up, and a small group of people with language background and professions in the foreign trade sector had become pathfinders leading Chinese enterprises and the private sector to go out. Bo, who had just stepped into the door of foreign trade career, has become a member of this group.
Entering the state-owned foreign trade company, Bo was once one of the most people who aspired to be relocated to Europe and the United States- nations at the world’s center. “I studied in the English major because I wanted to go to the United States or Europe, and this was my original career plan.” Like Bo, few people set their careers in the Southeast Asian market; they broke off diplomatic relations with China after the Chinese exclusion incident in 1964. Indonesia was a wasteland for the development of China’s foreign trade partnership.
“And 1991 was a special year. We resumed diplomatic relations with Indonesia.”
At the beginning of the 1990s, China’s foreign trade department sent its first economic and trade delegation to India. Bo was also a member of the delegation, “Initially I did not want to go to Indonesia, it was hot and humid there, I was finally convinced by my boss. The company needed an in-depth understanding of the Southeast Asian market.”
China’s foreign trade institutions in the nineties and today’s highly open import and export markets are completely different. Nearly all import and export trade activities were coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade, affiliated by the Central Trade Corporation, which was in charge of different commodity categories, which were then allocated to provincial branches for trade operations. “In the early days, this system served our country’s huge demand for foreign exchange, and it, in turn, cultivated a large group of foreign trade and diplomatic talents for China.”
In the beginning, the exchanges between China’s foreign trade department and Indonesia were limited to a couple of large corporations in Indonesia. There was an only partnership in resource-concentrated sectors. “In my memory, CNOOC, CNPC, and NORINCO had cooperation in Indonesia’s energy industry and the local area.” As the largest economy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia faced problems such as a lack of industrial development and high dependence on imports of raw materials in the 1990s. These deeper economic exchanges and diplomatic relations between China and Indonesia have created the soil for more expansive cooperation between the two economies.
The delegation participated in the 1991 Indonesia International Trade Fair (Jakarta Fair). During the 45 days of the conference, Bo learned about the industry and took his “Trade in Southeast Asia 101” on this “hot and humid” island. “The director suggested that the company set up an office in Jakarta. They thought this was an excellent time for our country’s foreign trade to enter Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and it was also an opportunity for China and Indonesia to establish constructive diplomatic relations. In short, we needed Indonesia.” Bo recalled.
“We saw a huge opportunity. Since then, this country and I have forged a bond that lasted 30 years to today. “
After three years of scheduling and preparation within the company, Bo went to Jakarta alone; settled in this land with no winter, and started coordinating trade business between Sichuan, China, and Indonesia. He established the Office of Sichuan Provincial Chemical Import and Export Corporation in Jakarta.
“That was a brand new culture for me back then. With little help from a small local community of Chinese mainlanders, I had to bear a lot on my own.”
“When I came to this foreign country, the first problem I faced was communication.” Bo studied Indonesian hard, starting from the most basic single-digit number until he was able to communicate with locals proficiently. “I can not only speak the pronunciation of the words but also spell them. This was something that many other Chinese nationals in Indonesia couldn’t achieve. Among my Chinese social circle there, they would say that I speak Indonesian the best.”
Bo would not miss the opportunity to learn Indonesian with his nanny and maid. “My maid taught me supposedly authentic Indonesian, but I did learn later that the Indonesian she taught was not the common standard one. I should have learned the official “Bahasa Indonesia” but I caught a Jawatengan tone (Central Java dialect) from the maid. “
Keeping in touch with family members in China was particularly difficult for foreigners in the 1990s. “Indonesia’s communications and infrastructure were not well-developed. My family and I had to agree on a time every day to make long-distance IP calls before Wechat came out. The phone cards we purchased every month can be accumulated into a thick brisk.” Working days in the office are very busy- “In the first couple of years when I arrived in Indonesia, I could only return home once a year. My biggest regret is not being able to accompany my two sons as a father when they grew up.”
Busy work was found rewarding. Bo gradually reached closer to the elder Chinese in the local business community in the capital. “As you can see, almost all of the most important business figures in Indonesia are Chinese, like Lautan Luas (Ocean Group) and Indo Kimia (Indonesia Chemical Company). If you want to develop a trading partnership with this country and promote friendly relations, the breakthrough lies in the Chinese business community in Indonesia.” During that time, Bo constantly shuttled among these large Indonesian multinational trading companies to seek opportunities for exchanges and cooperation. As a native Chinese, it was never easy to establish a lasting relationship with the Indonesian industrial and commercial complex from scratch.
“At that time, few people had been to Indonesia, let alone the Chinese working there for the full job,” Bo recalled taking his family to Indonesia for a trip and encountered locals inquiring if they were from Japan. “I answered that we are Chinese, they simply continued asking: Are you Hongkongers or Taiwanese then? Those locals had never seen mainland Chinese living in Indonesia.”
” The Riot”
Indonesia was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Under the influence of the Rupiah plummeted, prices and oil prices skyrocketed, the society was angered. To divert public attention and under the influence of foreign anti-government forces, the Suharto regime planned to mutilate the Chinese community and appeared responsible for shooting students, along with series of violent suppression on May 13, 1998. Bloodshed racial conflicts spanned across the nation.
“If you were in Jakarta that day in 1998, you could see, through the windows, that people were killing, setting the fire, robbing shops, and raping women on the street. We stayed in the apartment building and saw what happened. No one dared to go out.“
As the riots targeted the Chinese, a large number of Chinese businesspeople in Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya, and other regions left the country for refuge in the incident. Contrary to most people, Bo chose to stay. “In the days of the riots, I drove many Chinese friends from Hong Kong and mainland China to the airport through the rioting city. They thanked me and tried to persuade me to leave with them. But I wanted to stay here. Because I knew that those who left Indonesia would find it extremely hard to come back again.“
“What crimes did the Chinese commit? When political turmoils within Indonesia occur, the Chinese are victims and become scapegoats for the failure of the government.”
In history, The demands of and unfair treatment toward the Chinese communities in various countries in the world are ignored and rarely described Recent waves in the United States like “#StopAsianHate” represent the dissatisfaction and resistance of the younger generation of Chinese and Asians to being underrepresented and disrespected for a long time.
In the wake of the end of the 20th century, China’s foreign trade sector gradually carried out privatization reforms. “What we had was a gradual reform scratched by various documents. The business of the foreign trade department began to be assigned to private enterprises for management and operation. This gradually resulted in a qualitative change in the system. After one or two years, most of the foreign trade and import and export operations were transferred from state-owned operations to private companies.” And Bo also withdrew from the state-owned foreign trade company and began running a private company that exports industrial chemicals.
This momentum has undoubtedly promoted the development of trade exchanges between China and India at the level of private enterprises. From 2000 to 2010, the export trade volume between China and Indonesia increased more than tenfold from US$2 billion to US$22 billion.
“Don’t forget that 2000 was also the first year of the development of the Internet. The way how information disseminated in the industry changed fundamentally. Before that, doing business required the office of trade departments to act as representatives for the two parties. In the age of the Internet, you get the information you want anytime, anywhere, and in many cases, it gives you one step ahead.” This made the explosive growth of trade and non-governmental exchanges between China and India seem natural.
“Welcome to the age where everything that can be done will be done.”
In 2014, the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed, and cooperation projects in Southeast Asia, East Asia, Central Europe, Africa, and other regions were immediately launched. Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia with a trading volume of 49 billion U.S. dollars with China at that time, certainly became the key fulcrum of its region in the Belt and Road Initiative.
As one of the first Chinese nationals going to Indonesia to engage in trade, Bo was pleased to see China’s partnerships and influence in Indonesia and Southeast Asia continue to grow: “When I saw that under the Belt and Road Initiative, Jakarta- Bandung high-speed rail project was accomplished, I could feel that the motherland is right by your side.”
Just like the crises that occurred in other countries along with the Belt and Road cooperation, China’s cooperative infrastructure projects in Indonesia have encountered obstacles: “Chinese people traveled Indonesia to participate in many Infrastructure projects that require close cooperation with local workers. In Indonesia, workers with little to no systematic training and low professional capacity account for the majority. This engenders internal labor conflicts within projects; many domestic and foreign political forces are maneuvering with labor relations to intensify locals. The hostility toward the Chinese people is used to deteriorate the diplomatic relations of the countries around the Belt and Road.”
Until now, the situation described by Bo is non-unique in the cooperating countries and projects of the Belt and Road. The establishment of friendly relations between Chinese companies and local people remains a goal for the younger generation of China in the era of the Belt and Road Initiative.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19 in early 2020, Bo had to pause his yearly commutes between Chengdu and Jakarta. But like most Chinese companies, Bo’s bonds with local Indonesian companies remain. Although the epidemic has largely impeded the passage between the two countries, Bo is confident that the global epidemic has brought Indonesia and China even closer together.
“Southeast Asian countries, especially Indonesia, are receiving large-scale vaccine assistance from China, and they are satisfied with the effectiveness of China’s vaccines.” As a good partner of Indonesia, China immediately sent vaccines when the domestic epidemic in Indonesia became severe, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also became one of the first Chinese vaccinators.
“When trade in the rest of the world cools down, the trade exchanges between China and Indonesia are still progressing. The epidemic has also accelerated the RMB settlement process for economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.” In September 2020, Bank of China Chief Yi Gang and Bank Indonesia President Perry Wagiyo signed the “Memorandum of Understanding on Establishing a Cooperation Framework for Promoting Current Account Transactions and Direct Investment in Local Currency Settlement.” The Central Bank of China and the Bank of Indonesia have reached an agreement on actively promoting the use of local currency for bilateral trade and direct investment settlement, including the promotion of direct exchange quotations and inter-bank transactions between the renminbi and the Indonesian rupiah.
When it comes to the prospects for China and Indonesia, Bo remains optimistic: “I often say that China is my first home and Indonesia is my second home. The relationship between the two nations is still full of expectations.”
From 2021 and beyond, we will see more comprehensive cooperation between China and Southeast Asia. Today, we need more people like Bo than any time, who were courageous and adept at taking the first steps in leading friendly exchanges between the two countries. China today is an immensely different country from what it used to be, and the new generation is now counted on to create more opportunities, friendships, and wealth for all mankind.
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