The public discourse that takes place and the form that that discourse takes is one thing that makes Indonesia and China very unique from each other. The way that people approach “speaking up” heavily influenced by the cultures of the places, and has profound consequences.
Last November, George W. Bush, the president of the United States, paid a visit to the city of Bogor, outside of Indonesia’s capitol city, Jakarta. The government did all it could to make the visitor feel welcome, and the tens of thousands of people that gathered in the streets did their best to express displeasure over the arrival of the president and the acts of his administration for which he had become a symbol. Held back by an equally massive and very heavily armed military force, the protest moved slowly through the city, settling to a noisy halt in front of the barricade blocking their path to the diplomatic meeting between the two presidents. The newspapers had been flooded for weeks beforehand with articles and commentary criticizing both the American government for its policies and the Indonesian government for its relationship with the foreign super power. Public discourse in Indonesia is loud and it is contentious, and Indonesians make full use of the their right to speak their minds. A free press is an essential ingredient of the thriving, if not occasionally raucous, democracy in Indonesia. However, this freedom, perhaps, comes with a price.
China, in contrast, offers an entirely different experience in terms of how society communicates and interacts.Â Information tends to be tightly controlled, and the commentaries that serve to engineer public discourse usually do not enter the public realm without first passing over the desk of a government-influenced editorial desk. Talking with a great variety of people, it is almost amazing how consistent viewpoints on a number of issues can be. With a government who’s most loudly toted policy is the creation of a “Harmonious Society,” it is obvious to many Chinese that the disruptive influence of an unregulated press is not worth sacrificing the country’s current economic progress that is improving the quality of life for a growing class of affluent urban residents.
Under the authoritarian Suharto government, Indonesians enjoyed many fewer rights than they do today, and the regime could hardly be called democratic. Today, however, Indonesia has perhaps the only true democracy in South East Asia, and people passionately exercise their right to free speech and assembly. However, it is undeniable that the Suharto era experienced a greater degree of stability in terms of economy and society. The end of authoritarianism gave freedom back to the Indonesian people, but also decreased the efficiency of the government and enabled the public promotion of divisive social and religious organizations.