JAKARTA, Indonesia — President Suharto recently stepped into a strenuous debate over the growing popularity of the traditional Chinese form of exercising known as tai chi and ordered that it be given an Indonesian name.
The debate, which one local newspaper called "a tempest in a tennis shoe," began earlier this month when a Jakarta City Council member denounced the Chinese exercise fad and urged people to learn Indonesian ones.
Youth and Sports Minister Abdul Gafur told journalists after meeting the president that tai chi would be called "Indonesian therapeutic exercises" and another Chinese exercise, wai tan kung, would be renamed "Indonesian health exercises."
The Chinese commands, chants and songs in the exercises would be translated into Indonesian, and Gafur said that he would join a class himself to supervise the adjustments.
Underlying the debate is a near-paranoia about purportedly contaminating influences from Communist China. Chinese characters are banned from public places and are routinely blacked out in foreign publications entering the country.
Air Force Lt. Col. Parwandono was quoted in local newspapers as saying that the Chinese exercises "could be exploited for certain purposes."
The issue has been front-page news with photographs showing Economy Minister Ali Wardhana and his family exercising at home with a private tai chi teacher.
Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, asked for his views on the issue at a news conference, deadpanned: "It's cheaper than golf."
Chinese Food Next?
And one of the sports minister's own department heads, W. P. Napitupulu, wondered aloud that if tai chi had to be purged of its foreign influences, then what about other sports imports such as karate and jujitsu?
A columnist for one of the local newspapers carried the debate to its logical extreme by suggesting that if Chinese exercises were unhealthy for people's minds, then what should be done about Chinese food?
Diplomats noted that the so-called "Chinese issue" crops up every time Indonesia holds an election. Widespread resentment from indigenous Indonesians over Chinese tycoons means that the Chinese minority often becomes a scapegoat in times of unrest.
Indonesia will hold an election in April with its economy in the most severe downturn in the last decade.
The Chinese community, which represents around 3% of Indonesia's 168 million people, has lived under tight restrictions since an abortive communist-backed coup after which Suharto came to power.
After the coup, communism was banned, Chinese groups were dissolved and their schools closed. The Chinese-language press, with the exception of a government-run paper, was suppressed. Chinese were encouraged to take Indonesian names.