Chinese President Xi Jinping’s whirlwind state visit to the Philippines has left the country with a massive traffic jam, an agreement for joint exploration of the oil and gas resources in the South China Sea and a renewed wave of anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the Filipino public.
As of September this year, net trust of China stood at negative 13, according to a poll done by Social Weather Stations, with 72 percent of the sample deeming it “very important” that the Philippines regain control of disputed territories claimed by China in Philippine waters.
For the Chinese Filipino minority in the Philippines, there are fears that the wave of anti-China sentiment threatens to spill over into anti-Chinese sentiment. There has been tension and rivalry between the majority Filipino population and the Chinese settlers—who during colonial times were forced to live outside the city walls, but within range of cannon fire in settlements called parians—and it is only in the past 50 years or so that that assimilation and intermarriage have been widespread.
Overwhelming Control of Wealth
This could change very quickly. The Chinese, though they only constitute 1 percent of the population, are estimated to control more than 50 percent of the wealth. With inflation at 6.7 percent, the highest it has been in nine years (and also the highest in the Asean region), the economy is doing poorly. In other countries in the region, where the local Chinese are less integrated into mainstream society, conditions like these have set the stage for the Chinese being used as scapegoats during times of crisis, such as Indonesia in 1998 or Malaysia in 1967.
Writing in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 24 November, the widely respected columnist Solita Monsod questioned the loyalty of Chinese Filipinos, asserting that “a Chinese-Filipino will never, ever state unequivocally that he or she is a Filipino first, and a Chinese second (meaning, his loyalty is to the Philippines).”
Senatorial candidate and former special assistant to the president Bong Go mocked the protesters during Xi Jinping’s visit: “Rallying against China, but where do you go? Chinese-owned malls! Where do you buy your spare parts? Chinese hardware stores! Check the shirts you’re wearing, they were made by Chinese!”
‘They’re here and In charge’
Both Monsod and Go dangerously conflate the Chinese Filipinos who have traditionally been in the retail industry, known for trading in hardware and, in recent years having progressed to building shopping malls. Monsod speaks from ignorance and an outdated worldview.
Go, on the other hand does not. A Chinese Filipino himself, he is playing to a crowd uninterested in subtle distinctions: the message seems to be that China and the Chinese (without distinguishing between them and the Chinese Filipinos) are already here and in charge.
A walk around Makati, the central business district, does little to disabuse one of this notion. Advertisements along the pedestrian underpasses are in Chinese without English or Filipino translations. The arrival card for international flights was recently changed to include Chinese, at the expense of Filipino. The duopoly in the telecommunications sector finally got a much-needed third player—which turned out to be a joint venture between a businessman close to Duterte and China Telecom.
As with many other crises of the modern world, migration plays a major factor. The majority of the Chinese in the Philippines fled here in the years prior to the 1949 closure of China and spent many decades fighting against laws targeting their businesses and way of life. Most were not recognized as Filipino citizens until then-President Ferdinand Marcos granted them full rights through the Mass Naturalization Act in 1975. They now refer to themselves as Chinese Filipinos, and most identify as Filipinos and have known no other home.
The influx of mainland-based Chinese, who began entering the local economy in the 1990s, were originally referred to as xinqiao, or new migrants. More than 20 years on, they are no longer new. And they have gone from a trickle to a flood.
The presence of the xinqiao has rapidly escalated in recent years, causing resentment among both mainstream Filipinos and Chinese Filipinos. Unlike America or Britain, where migrants that irk the locals are mostly from poorer countries, the new Chinese migrants enter the market with plenty of capital, driving up prices of goods and services, especially real estate. Much of their activity is centered around online gambling, which is illegal to operate in China; running the websites from the Philippines circumvents this restriction.
Fast-growing Migrant Population
More than 100,000 migrants have settled in Metro Manila since September 2016. Many more are suspected to be in the country illegally or under tourist visas—1.6 million Chinese nationals entered the Philippines as tourists so far this year. The Department of Labor and Employment confirmed that most of them later converted their visas to work permits. With all this Chinese presence, added to the ignominy of the Philippine stance in the territorial dispute, and a president widely perceived to be in China’s pocket, it’s no wonder that anti-Chinese sentiment is beginning to fester.
The Philippines has traditionally been welcoming to migrants—but the simultaneous issues of sovereignty over the South China Sea and China’s debt-trap diplomacy have dampened the warmth of the welcome.
The Chinese Filipinos are caught in between—not because their loyalty is divided, as pundits such as Monsod would have it. Their loyalty has remained unchanged—but the friends and neighbors they have lived with for years are suddenly looking at them differently. All parties concerned are beneficiaries of a fragile peace that took three generations to build.
Most Chinese Filipinos identify as Filipino—and many are, in fact, the most vocal critics of the economic colonization by China. But many, especially rabble-rousers in search of a scapegoat, don’t know the difference, or don’t care; and as the economy sours further, so mounts the ethnic tension.
Clinton Palanca is the author of ‘Chinese Filipinos’, a social history, and ‘My Angkong’s Noodles’, a history of Chinese food in the Philippines. He lives in Manila.