The rapid expansion of Philippine offshore gaming operators, better known as Pogos, under the Duterte administration, has brought into the country an unprecedented number of young Chinese workers from mainland China. No other nationality has maintained as pervasive a presence in the online gambling industry as the Chinese. Even as we never see the gamblers themselves, the imported workers, who often speak only Chinese, are very much in our midst.
They mostly keep to themselves, fetched from their sleeping quarters by shuttle vans every morning, and brought back from their workplaces at night. On some days, they may be seen in small groups, grabbing a quick breakfast at a convenience store, or roaming around in shopping malls. Sometimes, we may encounter them in out-of-town resorts patronized by locals. But, whether out of fear, shyness, ignorance, or arrogance, they make no attempt to mix or socialize with Filipinos. And vice versa: Filipinos either eye them suspiciously or avoid them altogether.
This mutual avoidance only serves to confirm the latent prejudices they may have against each other. It is difficult to think of any other nationality today whose presence incites more suspicion and hostility among Filipinos. This is ironic, and lamentable, because Chinese blood flows in the veins of nearly every other Filipino. And Chinese Filipinos have been such an integral part of our society that any differentiation in terms of ethnic origin is normatively indefensible.
So much of Chinese culture has become part of our way of life that it is ethnocentric to try to tell which aspect is originally ours and which is foreign. But, above all, an attitude that goes against the ethic of openness, which has made it possible for millions of Filipinos to live and work in other countries, is plainly hypocritical.
The welcoming gesture seems the only sensible ethic for an age of global travel, migration, and communication. And yet, it is this norm that is most greatly imperiled by the current worldwide surge of xenophobia, a byproduct of the deep inequalities that globalization has spawned and brought into sharp relief.
It is from this perspective that I view the recent events that led the Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA) to suspend the processing of special resident retiree’s visas (SRRVs), in response to apprehensions expressed by some of our legislators. Sen. Richard Gordon, in particular, has noted with great alarm the number of “retirees” from China, some as young as 35 years old, who have been the recipients of these special visas. The PRA has acknowledged that visas for about 28,000 Chinese retirees have so far been granted. They constitute 40 percent of all foreign retirees living in the country.
Senator Gordon may sound alarmist for thinking that the presence of so many Chinese retirees in our country is a “national security concern.” But he comes from a generation, to which I belong, that was born in the immediate postwar years. We still remember the stories our parents told us — about the Japanese who came to our country by the thousands four or five years before the Japanese invasion. They quietly worked as gardeners, road workers, farmers, and small businessmen — only to emerge during the Japanese Occupation as officers in the Japanese Imperial Army.
A number of them were later exposed to have been sent by their government as spies or as an advance party. But, as shown by the research of Filipino and Japanese scholars, the Japanese migration into the Philippines, which began in 1903, was more complex. The majority of the Japanese were real migrants in search of a better life, though, indeed, many of them were later conscripted into the Japanese Army.
Could any of the Chinese Pogo workers and retirees now living in the Philippines be spies? It would be naïve to think that none of them were sent here to do undercover intelligence work. But that goes for the other nationalities as well, although in the light of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, there is every reason to be vigilant about the massive influx of Chinese nationals into the country.
I am, however, inclined to believe that most of these Chinese “retirees,” particularly those between 35 and 50 years of age, are here mainly to do business. The SRRV is a convenient pass to facilitate their entry and mobility. Our laws do not prohibit them from pursuing a livelihood or seeking employment; in fact, the PRA offers to assist them in doing so. We only need to make sure they are not engaged in illegal activities or businesses while they are here. Perhaps, we need to periodically review the minimum requirements for getting a retirement visa. But, one thing we cannot do is discriminate against certain nationalities.
What worries me more is the steady inflow of Chinese Pogo workers. First, because they are here working in an industry that their own government officially prohibits. Second, because the entry into the country of many of them, as Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ inquiry has shown, is being facilitated by corrupt government personnel and human traffickers. Thus, no one has any idea how many such workers there are in the country at any given time. And, finally, because of the way in which the Pogo business itself is organized, trouble between these overworked young Chinese workers and locals is bound to erupt sooner or later.
Theirs is a volatile presence that can easily ignite a racial conflagration.