China’s embassy in Indonesia has expressed alarm at media reports accusing China of using a “biological weapon” against Indonesia, after four Chinese nationals were arrested for planting imported chili seeds contaminated with a bacteria.
The headlines splashed across Indonesian media have sparked a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media in a country with a history of simmering resentment towards its giant neighbour and a minority ethnic Chinese community.
Indonesian authorities said the imported chili seeds confiscated on a farm about 60 km south of the capital, Jakarta, contained the bacteria erwinia chrysanthemi, which is harmless to humans but can cause failure in crops.
It was the first time the bacteria had been detected in Indonesia, state-owned Antara news agency quoted the head of the country’s quarantine body as saying.
Indonesians are among the most avid users of social media in the world, and conspiracy theories about the intentions of the four Chinese nationals running the farm quickly spread.
“Haven’t people realised that Chinese attacks on this country are real in many ways. From drugs, illegal workers, now chili bacteria,” said a Twitter user with the handle @BoengParno.
Authorities burned the chili seeds and destroyed the crop sowed by the Chinese men and 30 Indonesian workers on a leased plot of land near the city of Bogor.
The Chinese embassy said in a statement accusations of a plot to use “biological weapons to destroy the economy of Indonesia” carried no basis in facts and were “very worrying”.
“We hope that the bilateral relations and friendship between the people of China and Indonesia will not be affected by this matter,” it said.
Indonesia’s maritime affairs minister Luhut Panjaitan criticised some of the outbursts on social media. “Whether it’s true or not, some people over react,” he said.
“’Oh, the Chinese invade Indonesia’. Come on. This is the problem with social media ... Without checking, they just spread the rumours.”
Indonesia has suffered bouts of anti-Chinese and anti-communist sentiment over its history, and recently.
President Joko Widodo was falsely identified as having ethnic Chinese ancestry and being an agent of influence for Beijing during a 2014 election campaign he narrowly won.
There has also been a recent spike on social media of hostility over China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea as well during the re-election campaign of Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian.
Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians attended rallies in the past six weeks denouncing Purnama, who is facing trial for blasphemy after criticising people who had cited the Quran to argue that Muslims should not vote for non-Muslims.
On average, ethnic Chinese are far wealthier than other groups in Indonesia and stereotypes persist that they are less patriotic than other Indonesians.
During riots after the fall of President Suharto in May 1998, ethnic Chinese were targeted, making up a disproportionate number of the 1,000 people who were killed in the violence.