BATAM, Indonesia — Four years ago, shortly after Indonesian followers of China’s banned Falun Gong movement set up a radio station here, Beijing’s embassy in Jakarta sent a stern letter to Indonesia’s government.
Denouncing what it called an “evil cult” and a “tool for overseas anti-China forces,” the embassy urged Indonesia to pay “close attention to the matter” and “take measures” to halt the radio broadcasts so as to avoid upsetting relations with Beijing.
Gatot Machali, the director of the station, got a leaked copy of the letter and laughed off China’s demand. “It was ridiculous,” he recalled.
Today, the 51-year-old Falun Gong devotee is on trial for illegal broadcasting, the climax of a long campaign by Indonesian authorities to shut down Erabaru Radio, an unlicensed station that mixes pop music, news and fervent hostility to China’s ruling Communist Party.
The tiny station — still on the air despite a police raid on its studios, years of legal battles and the confiscation of transmitting equipment — stands at the center of some very big questions: How will a rising, authoritarian China use its clout, and how will other nations, particularly democracies including Indonesia, respond?
At a sentencing hearing last month in Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, the prosecutor asked a panel of three judges to offer Machali a deal: He pays a modest fine of $5,800, gets a year’s probation and stays out of jail — so long as he abides by the law and stops what authorities view as unlawful broadcasting.
Media advocacy groups in Indonesia and abroad accuse Jakarta of bowing to Chinese pressure. Indonesian officials deny this. “We have not been influenced in any way,” said Agnes Widiyanti, director of broadcasting at the Communications Ministry.
When China first demanded that Erabaru, or New Era, be shut down, however, Indonesia’s Home Affairs Ministry and other government departments held an urgent meeting to review and apparently endorse Chinese concerns, according to an official document presented in court last year during a separate legal action.
The document, prepared by lawyers for the Home Affairs Ministry’s national unity and politics directorate, noted that Machali’s radio station “may disturb — make less harmonious — relations between Indonesia and China.” As a result, the directorate’s lawyers reported, authorities “have not given a broadcast license to Falun Gong in Batam or in any other area.”
Widiyanti said she was not aware of those deliberations.
The Chinese Embassy in Jakarta declined to comment on its protests, saying it could not discuss “internal documents.” Spokesman Hua Ning said that China “respects measures taken by Indonesia in accordance with the law” against the Falun Gong broadcaster.
Beijing often puts pressure on foreign governments and organizations to curb activities it doesn’t like, a trend that has accelerated in tandem with an increase in China’s economic and diplomatic muscle. Targets for Chinese ire have ranged from a film festival in Australia showing a movie that annoyed Beijing; the Frankfurt book fair, which invited — and then disinvited — authors Beijing objected to; and the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which in December honored jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.