How a China deal put the homes of thousands of Indonesians at risk

Residents of Rempang Island have until September 28 to leave their villages to make way for a sprawling economic zone.

Protesters holding a 'Save Rempang' sign at a rally against the Chinese project
Thousands of people have protested against the plan to turn Rempang into an economic zone [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Rempang, IndonesiaSome 7,500 people from the Indonesian island of Rempang face a September 28 deadline to leave their homes to make way for a sprawling Eco City with a giant Chinese-owned glass factory as its showpiece.

Indonesia’s Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia has said that the project will create some 35,000 jobs and pull in some $26.6bn in investment by 2080, but local residents are sceptical.

They say the development threatens their way of life by moving them to new homes far from their traditional fishing community.

In recent weeks, tensions have flared on Rempang and neighbouring islands, including Batam, as islanders opposed to the development have clashed with local police.

Here is all you need to know about the controversial project.

What is the project?

The glass factory will be part of what is known as Rempang Eco-City – a joint project between the Batam Indonesia Free Zone Authority (BP Batam), local Indonesian company PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG) and China’s Xinyi Glass – the world’s largest producer of glass and solar panels.

Xinyi Glass has pledged some $11.6bn for the factory.

Nor (far right) standing in a sundry shop in Rempang. She is standing near a large chest freezer and there are products hanging from the ceiling. Other women are standing the other side of the freezer
Nor (far right) has lived on Rempang for 50 years and does not want to move [Al Jazeera]

Once completed, the plant will be the second-largest of its kind in the world.

The wider Eco-City project will cover some 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of land and is supposed to develop industrial, service and tourism areas on Rempang Island.

How did Xinyi Glass get involved?

In July this year, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, travelled to China to meet President Xi Jinping and discuss a range of strategic partnership opportunities between the two countries, including health, education, language and investment initiatives.

As part of the two-day trip, Jokowi discussed two further key projects: investment in Indonesia’s new capital city in East Kalimantan and the development of Rempang Island.

On July 27, during a meeting with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce in China at the Shangri-La Hotel in Chengdu, Jokowi said the Indonesian government had prepared some 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres) of land in the new capital city for Chinese investment.

The next day, a delegation including Jokowi witnessed the signing of several cooperation documents covering the development of the glass and solar panel industry on Rempang.

Accompanying the president at the meeting were the Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs Muhadjir Effendy, Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi, Minister of Investment Bahlil Lahadalia and Indonesia’s Ambassador to China Djauhari Oratmangun.

To some observers, the meeting was notable not for who was there but who was not – Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto – who has often taken a firm line on foreign investment in Indonesia, particularly in relation to China.

“Given the strategic implications of this project and its proximity to Singapore and Malaysia, one wonders what Indonesia’s defence establishment thinks of this project. How much, for instance, was the defence ministry and Prabowo involved in planning for this project?” said Jacqui Baker, a fellow at the Indo-Pacific Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University.

A sandy beach in Rempang. There are coconut palms and waves lapping at the beach.
The project will take sand from neighbouring islands to be used in the glass factory [Al Jazeera]

Batam is less than an hour by ferry south of Singapore. It was the setting for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) first joint military drills earlier this month.

“Prabowo is currently running as a presidential candidate and actively seeking the presidential endorsement, yet his classic stump speech is ultra-nationalistic, emphasising how great powers are trying to undercut Indonesia and its people,” Baker added.

Why does Indonesia want to secure investment from China?

In 2022, trade between Indonesia and China was valued at more than $133bn, making the country Indonesia’s biggest trading partner ahead of Singapore, Japan and the United States.

The archipelago is home to dozens of infrastructure projects carried out under China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a global infrastructure development plan launched by Xi a decade ago. Indonesia’s president has also rolled out a range of other ambitious development projects and goals across the country with the aim of raising Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to $25,000 by 2045.

In that sense, the deal with Xinyi Glass is unsurprising to observers.

“With China, it is easier and more efficient to secure investment because Chinese state-owned enterprises (SEOs) dare to inject capital into Indonesia,” Trissia Wijaya, a senior research fellow at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, told Al Jazeera.

“In China, the players are Chinese state-owned companies who are brave enough to take the debt-to-equity ratio as high as possible. Meanwhile, Japan and Taiwan are all private companies that emphasise efficiency. With US companies, their way of working is more geo-strategic, which would not fit into Jokowi’s pragmatic approach in dealing with ‘getting things done’.”

Protesters face off with police in riot gear amid clouds of tear gas,
Tensions have been running high ahead of the eviction deadline with large protests in Rempang and nearby Batam [File: Andaru/AFP]

Wijaya said she sees “no reason” for Indonesia to oppose a project like Rempang.

What is a National Strategic Project?

After Jokowi’s meeting in China, Rempang Eco City was named a “National Strategic Project” in official documents dated August 28.

To improve Indonesia’s productivity and global competitiveness, the government wants to develop the country’s infrastructure including railways, ports, roads and airports, as well as industrial development zones.

Some 245 projects, including the China-backed high-speed railway from Jakarta to Bandung, have been designated National Strategic Projects.

Such projects fall under the purview of the president and, because they are considered nationally important, the authorities have the power to seize land for their construction, even if it means residents have to move.

According to the Indonesian finance ministry’s website, “An infrastructure development project will be a National Strategic Project with the consideration that the project is considered strategic and important to be completed in a short time and has a goal to increase growth and equitable development in order to improve the welfare of society and regional development.”

How did the Xinyi Glass deal change everything?

Local officials in Batam told Al Jazeera that the original plan for Rempang was vastly different from the new glass factory and Eco-City the government is now pushing through.

Taba Iskander, who was the head of Batam’s Regional People’s Legislative Council in 2004, told Al Jazeera that, at that time, the regional government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop no more than 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) of Rempang Island as part of a project to focus on the tourism industry in partnership with PT MEG.

“PT MEG was given five years to prepare the Rempang area and given a temporary location on the island. However, as of 2022, PT MEG did not carry out any activities or development in the area,” he said.

Environmental activists outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta. They are standing in a row facing the camera and each holding a sign, urging the government to respect human rights, and return the land to the people.
Environmental activists held protests this month in front of the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta calling for an end to the project [File: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Under the 2004 agreement, which Al Jazeera has seen, the “old villages and cultural heritage of Rempang would be maintained and preserved”.

That commitment was abandoned when Rempang was named a National Strategic Project, Iskander said, describing the latest proposals as “very different” from what was originally envisaged.

“The current project wants to relocate the old villages and the Malay community on Rempang Island,” he said.

Why Rempang Island?

Rempang Island has a strategically important location.

It is close to both neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore and encircled by several smaller local islands.

Boy Sembiring, the head of the Indonesian Forum for Environment for Riau, said that it was probably chosen precisely for these reasons.

“Rempang is surrounded by small islands and sea which contains silica sand and quartz sand which are raw materials for making glass and solar panels,” he said.

He added that this was likely to come at great cost to the environment.

Other parts of the Riau Islands Province, including Karimun, which has been mined for sand exports to Singapore, have already suffered severe degradation.

“The presence of the glass factory not only threatens Rempang but also the small islands around it. If this company is particularly active, we predict that it is likely that there will be many mining sites developed on neighbouring islands that threaten local fishers’ fishing areas and the safety of those small islands,” Sembiring said.

A view of wooden houses built on stilts at the water's edge. Narrow wooden boats are tied up outside some of the houses. There are palm trees behind.
All the existing residents of Rempang, many of whom make their living from the sea, will be relocated. Their new homes are inland [Al Jazeera]

How do the locals feel?

Residents, many of whom have lived on Rempang for generations, were told only at the beginning of the month that they would need to leave their homes by September 28.

Many have told Al Jazeera that they do not want to leave.

Some have joined mass protests against the project, braving police tear gas and water cannons.

The government has said it will provide them with new houses in Batam valued at $7,800 with a land area of 500 square metres (5,382 sq ft).

But as the buildings remain under construction, the families will first have to move to temporary accommodation (their rent will be paid by the government).

Nor, a snack seller at a local school on Rempang Island, has lived there for 50 years and said she was fearful of the relocation plans.

She wants the president to intervene. Jokowi promised back in 2019, as he campaigned for a second term in office, to secure the Rempang residents’ official land ownership certificates.

“I would say to Jokowi, ‘Please Sir, protect our land. How would you feel if this was your home? You don’t need to build the factory here, please think of our children’,” Nor said.

“We don’t want to move.”

Source: Al Jazeera