Habitus and the pivot to China

By emotional disposition, Filipinos tend to harbor a deep suspicion of China. This is confirmed by a succession of public opinion surveys showing the Filipino public’s huge distrust for this Asian hegemon. It is an attitude that far exceeds any negative sentiment we may have against Spain, the United States or Japan — countries that actually invaded the Philippines and subjugated our people.

This attitude is a component of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus” — referring to the concatenation of dispositions, perceptions, prejudices, habits of thought and practices that are prevalent among the people in a given field of activity. These often seem so instinctive and natural that one is likely to miss their historical origin. Bourdieu argues that, in fact, these are residues from the past, lodged in the collective memory, exemplifying the “forgetting of history that history produces.”

Nowadays, Filipinos singularly think of Spain as a country that, among other good things, saved us from paganism by converting our ancestors to Christianity. Similarly, entire generations have been brought up on the belief that America came to our shores to liberate us from Spanish oppression. They think of America as the country that gave us English, the public school system and our modern institutions. They remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that our people fought a brutal lopsided war against the American invaders at the turn of the 20th century that cost hundreds of thousands of Filipino lives.

Even the Japanese, who invaded our country while we were still under the Americans, committing untold atrocities against ordinary civilians in the closing weeks of the Japanese occupation, are today largely seen as our friends and allies. Japan’s image among Filipinos has metamorphosed from that of a cruel and menacing power to that of a peace-loving Asian neighbor that shows the rest of the region the way to rapid economic development without losing one’s identity and self-respect.

But it is different with China. Its image in the Filipino habitus oscillates between that of a weak nation that, having been ravaged by foreign powers, could neither feed nor stop the migration of its people — and that of a resurgent country whose newfound wealth is now used to fuel its own expansionist aggressiveness. The first breeds a feeling of superiority among Filipinos. The second incites in them a sense of fear that is not allayed by any assurance that China will not resort to war.

The superiority complex over the Chinese has its origins in the Spanish colonial era, when Chinese immigrants were treated by the Spanish colonial rulers as lower in racial rank to the natives. This practice continued well into the postindependence period in the form of a “Filipino First” policy that restricted the participation of the ethnic Chinese and Chinese Filipinos in various domains of Filipino society. It is this habitus, until now, that lies at the core of anti-Chinese attitudes in our country.

China began to be perceived as a threat to our national security only after the consolidation of communist rule under Mao Zedong. The epithet “Red China” was frequently used during this period, coinciding with the intensification of the Cold War. The formation of a new local Maoist communist party in the late ’60s, challenging the supremacy of the Soviet-oriented Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, fueled the perception that communist subversion from within was China’s strategy to establish control over the Philippines.

Fear of Red China’s domination of the region became one of the principal justifications given for retaining the American bases in the Philippines. This fear drew in equal measure from the wells of racism and anticommunism, making it difficult for the average Filipino to see the need to dismantle the US bases as a way to loosen America’s neocolonial grip on the Philippines.

This was the tone of the national discourse on the US bases throughout the ’70s and ’80s. It came down to a choice between America and China. When the Philippine Senate voted on Sept. 16, 1991, to reject the renewal of the bases agreement with the United States, the senators who made this possible sought to make it clear this was a vote for the Philippines, and not a vote against America.

And, neither was it a vote for closer relations with China. The pivot to China actually began quietly during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, though it was not billed as such. It was rather justified as a pragmatic economic move aimed at diversifying the country’s sources of investments and loans.

Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China is different. He has gone where previous presidents had not dared to go. In turning to China, he also wants the world to know he is turning his back on the West. He is not merely asserting national sovereignty; by his unprecedented obeisance to China, he is also spitting on the legacy that, for better or worse, has made the Philippines an outpost of Western democracy in this part of the world. In the next three years, we should know if the Duterte magic can outlast the habitus that has historically defined our relationship with China.

Mr. Duterte needlessly raises the bogey of war should the Philippines contradict the Chinese account of events occurring in the South China Sea. “I am not afraid of China,” he declared the other day, “but I am afraid that we have no way of winning against it. And we might be wiped out.”

That is how free nations become vassal states.