Working Paper
Ethnic Entrepreneurs and Collective Violence

Assessing Spatial Variations in Anti-Chinese Rioting within Jakarta during the May 1998 Riots

The concept of scapegoating is frequently used to explain how opportunistic elites attempt to deflect blame onto vulnerable ethnic minorities, particularly during times of social turmoil. However, the notion of scapegoating is undertheorized in the conflict literature and the question of why elite scapegoating only sometimes leads to violence is seldom addressed. This paper seeks to redress the balance by interrogating spatial variations in violence against the economically dominant ethnic Chinese in Indonesia within the city of Jakarta in the late 1990s. By demonstrating different trajectories of violence within a 'broadly violent city', this study illustrates the importance of disaggregating the unit of analysis in conflict studies. The study argues that elite-orchestrated campaigns of scapegoating succeed only if specific attributes invoked in such campaigns resonate at the local level; violence is more likely when prevailing local conditions amplify the pointed nature of the elite rhetoric. This in turn magnifies the threat perceived by the local community, provides focal points for mobilization against the disliked 'other' and in turn makes certain Chinese communities more 'scapegoatable'. Typically, scapegoating of the Chinese entails invoking entrenched stereotypes of the group as non-Moslem, non-native, economically dominant outsiders. Local mechanisms which activate these stereotypes include higher visibility of non-Moslem sites of worship, heightened ethnic competition, and ostensible symbols of wealth associated with the Chinese.