Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong movement as the Global Times. It is the Epoch Times. This version has been corrected.
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.
But it is Falun Gong — a jumble of folk Buddhism, Taoism, breathing exercises and fierce anti-communism — that has most aggravated Beijing, particularly since an incident in 2006 when a devotee heckled President Hu Jintao on the South Lawn of the White House.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders recently reported that China had “successfully pressured” Vietnam to detain two Falun Gong members who ran an unauthorized shortwave radio station.
Falun Gong has been proscribed in China since 1999 and largely uprooted there through harsh repression. But it has built an extensive network of followers overseas. Its reclusive founder, Li Hongzhi, now lives in self-imposed exile in New York. Unlike exiled Chinese democracy campaigners, who have mostly faded into obscurity or become mired in infighting, Li and his supporters have formed a highly organized, disciplined and mysteriously well-funded movement.
The organization’s deep pockets help fund a media empire including New Tang Dynasty Television, a satellite broadcaster; a newspaper, the Epoch Times; and the Sound of Hope radio, which is affiliated with Machali’s station in Batam.
In its letter of protest, the Chinese Embassy asserted that Falun Gong headquarters in the United States ordered followers in Indonesia to use Batam as a broadcasting base to “fulfill their plots” in Southeast Asia. The movement, it said, has a “growing tendency toward violence and terrorism.”
Falun Gong has no record of terrorism and denied taking instructions or money from overseas. Machali said he and two other Indonesians founded the station on their own initiative and with their own cash. It operates from a hilltop villa purchased by one of the founders, a businessman. Revenue from advertising is thin, but the station still employs seven full-time staff members.
A civil engineer who also runs a small construction company, Machali said he’s put about $11,000 of his money into the venture. He is also the head of the Indonesian branch of Falun Gong, which had its application for formal registration rejected but hasn’t been banned.
Erabaru Radio broadcasts largely in Chinese, which is incomprehensible to most Indonesians, including Machali, but is understood by Batam’s community of ethnic Chinese and residents of nearby Singapore. Much of its daily programming avoids politics, but its news reports sometimes feature reports on Chinese repression of Falun Gong activists and others. It has also broadcast the group’s “Nine Commentaries,” a lengthy denunciation of the Chinese Communist Party.
“If we just broadcast Falun Gong stuff all the time, it gets boring,” said Raymond Tan, one of the founders.
Machali, the man on trial, said he never had much interest in China until he stumbled across a Falun Gong meeting in 2001. An immediate convert, he started doing breathing exercises, gave up booze, dumped his mistresses and stopped paying bribes. He also embraced the movement’s loathing for Chinese leaders, whom he now calls “evil thugs.”
When the station first applied for a license in 2007, it got a preliminary thumbs-up from the Batam arm of the Indonesia Broadcasting Commission. But after Chinese diplomats protested, officials in Jakarta rejected the application.
Widiyanti, the broadcast chief, said Erabaru Radio lost out to other stations because it broadcasts largely in Chinese, in violation of Indonesian law.
Erabaru paid no heed and kept on broadcasting. Fed up with the defiance, authorities raided its studios last year. Erabaru shut down for six days and then started up again.
Tempo, Indonesia’s leading newsmagazine, and newspapers have protested China’s role, as has a vice president of the European Parliament. That official, Edward McMillan-Scott, wrote to the Indonesian president that he was “deeply troubled” that China, a country “with such a poor human rights record could lobby and influence the Indonesian government to close down its own free domestic media.”