Philippine politics and Sinophobia

Speaking to the country’s soldiers last Thursday during a visit to the Army’s 10th Infantry Division in Davao de Oro, President Marcos made a pitch for strengthening the military’s capabilities as it shifts from internal operations to external defense. He said emphatically: “We are not going to war against anybody … We are just being defensive, and we are only defending our country.”

One can be certain that the President meant what he said. No sane head of state of a small country would intentionally provoke a war against a neighbor like China, the second most powerful country in the world. By the same token, it would be foolish for China to deliberately start a war against the Philippines, a treaty ally of the United States, the world’s most powerful country.

But in the globalized world we live in, governments no longer have substantial control of their citizens’ thinking and behavior. Not in the Philippines, and not even in a country like China with its centralized command structures.

The digitalization of mass media has not only increased the speed of information dissemination; it has also broken through the traditional boundaries of communication. The relative ease with which global travel can be undertaken, along with the routinization of international migration, has broadened the horizon of individual lives in nearly every country, except the most isolated. Perhaps most significantly, the globalization of finance, manufacturing, and trade has made it difficult for governments to enforce restrictive policies aimed at stemming the free flow of capital, goods, and investments.

Each of the domains mentioned here operates independently from each other, even as their effects may often spill into other fields. Thus, for example, the rising Sinophobia we are witnessing today in Philippine social media—largely fueled by news of China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea and the furor over the Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), the online gaming enterprises run by Chinese syndicates—has hardly dented the Filipino appetite for inexpensive China-made goods. Online selling platforms like Lazada and Shopee, through which these goods are traded, continue to enjoy a brisk business, so far as I can see. Similarly unaffected are other Chinese products like vehicles and electronic devices in the local market.

I am less certain, however, about the potential impact of a rising Sinophobia on the nation’s political culture. In the past, Filipino politicians and political parties carefully avoided capitalizing on negative references to race, particularly Chinese ethnicity. But in the light of our deteriorating relations with China, coupled with the Sinophobia that has lately become evident in social media, racial identity—specifically affiliation with China—could become a defining issue in the coming elections.

This development can take many forms. In the local elections, it can trigger a witch hunt for candidates suspected of being supported and groomed specifically to serve as undercover Chinese agents. This is the larger implication of Bamban Tarlac Mayor Alice Guo’s failure to satisfactorily account for glaring gaps in her personal history at recent Senate hearings. At the national level, I could see how foreign policy, notably the management of our relations with China and the United States, could easily take center stage in the 2028 presidential election.

As inescapable as it may seem at this point, the injection of Sinophobia into our political life is not something that any rational Filipino should be happy about. Indeed, I fear its extreme consequences, remembering the violent racial riots it spawned not too long ago in our neighboring countries—Malaysia in May 1969, and Indonesia in May 1998.

Seeing how Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who leads the Senate hearings on human trafficking and the Pogos, is careful to prevent the mayor’s ethnicity (rather than citizenship) from becoming the focus, I realized how easy it is for a less conscientious politician to turn the entire affair into a racist lynching mob. I’m afraid social media has failed to echo Risa’s restraint. The memes that have come out parodying Guo’s evasiveness have tended to reinforce a latent anti-Chinese sentiment that is so prevalent among many Filipinos.

One could imagine a parallel phenomenon unfolding in Chinese social media, depicting Filipinos as a nation of weaklings and flunkies of American power. China’s state media has consistently portrayed our country and its leaders in those unflattering terms, and our people as colonial servants devoid of any self-respect. It would not be surprising if today’s Chinese bloggers, on their own or with the prodding of state propaganda officials, paint us in a far worse light.

It is thus not farfetched to think that, even as our respective governments counsel restraint and advocate the path of dialogue and peaceful settlement of disputes, the clamor emanating from belligerent publics will have grown so strong as to be capable of drowning the will of state leaders. That would be a dangerous period, a point when the collective unconscious takes over and subsumes all individual reason.