A protester holds a placard during a rally coinciding the Philippines' 120th Independence Day at the Chinese consulate in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, 12 June 2018. Photo by Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto via AFP Forum

An influx of Chinese workers into the Philippines has provoked a backlash against President Rodrigo Duterte’s lean towards China for economic and financial sustenance, underwritten by promises of billions of dollars-worth of aid and assistance.

Legislative inquiries recently revealed that as many as 119,000 Chinese nationals, most arriving as tourists but then staying on, have skirted labor regulations and are now working illegally in the country.

Other media reports and conflicting government figures have suggested the figure may be as high as 400,000.

The investigations have detonated a political bombshell in a country where unemployment is rampant, anti-China sentiment runs deep and millions of skilled Filipinos are forced to seek employment overseas, often in dangerous and difficult conditions.

Currently, more than ten million Filipinos work overseas in a range of professions and trades. They sent home more than US$18 billion in remittances, last year, contributing around 10% of gross domestic product.

Duterte and other senior officials have sought to downplay the politically charged reports, arguing that there is a dearth of Filipino workers to staff in particular a boom in the casino and entertainment industry, which is largely managed and invested by Chinese companies.

Officials have also claimed specialized Chinese workers are needed for the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, in which mega-projects are being funded and in certain cases led by Chinese construction and engineering firms.

Illegal Chinese gaming industry workers apprehended in Manila by the National Bureau of Investigation in 2018. Photo: Facebook

Anna Mae Lamentillo, a government official who oversees the government’s ballyhooed infrastructure-building drive, implied last month that skilled Chinese workers are needed to complete the public works.

“If we are using new technology and we do not have the specialized skill required to operate, for example, the machines to hasten the construction, then we really lack specialized skills,” she said.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo entered the fray by saying at a late January press conference that “We lack so many construction workers, perhaps that’s why many Chinese workers were hired. Many Filipinos do not have jobs and yet they lack the skill so we need to teach [them].”

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin has also pushed back against the criticism, tweeting on February 4 that the “Chinese get in via ‘visas upon arrival’ strictly administered by Immigration and do not take jobs from Filipinos.” He accused critics of the Chinese influx of being “racist.”

Under political pressure, Duterte responded to the furor, saying on February 23, “Allow the Chinese to work here, let them be. Why? We have 300,000 Filipinos in China, that’s why I can’t say ‘Oh, leave this country. We’ll have you deported’…What if the 300,000 of them were asked to leave?” in retaliation by Chinese authorities.

Surveys show anti-China sentiment is rising in the Philippines. According to the latest Social Weather Stations’ survey, China has a “poor” -16 net trust rating, the lowest among all polled nations. In comparison, the US received a +59 net trust rating, while Japan scored +28.

This may explain why, apart from the usual opposition critics, even Duterte’s political allies are joining the anti-China chorus.

Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016.
Photo: AFP/Pool

“This is a matter of enforcing our own rules and regulations, not just for the protection of jobs for Filipinos but also the protection of the rights of the workers regardless of nationality,” Senator Emmanuel Joel Villanueva, former chief of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), the country’s main job training agency, told the Manila Bulletin newspaper.

Villanueva, a Duterte ally who is nonetheless leading the legislative inquiry into the influx of Chinese workers, ran and almost topped the Senate race in 2016 on a campaign vow to facilitate more training and create more jobs for ordinary Filipinos.

“If you are illegal, you have no right and you are not protected by laws. So the bottom line is enforcement of laws to protect workers’ rights and our ‘Filipino First’ policy,” Villanueva added.

Panfilo Lacson, an ex-Philippine National Police chief, has chimed in that there should be no special treatment for Chinese nationals. “No exception, please — Chinese, Japanese, Americans, even from planet Mars,” he added with a twist on the notion of illegal aliens.

“Whatever the president says, I would rather that we give premium to Filipino workers by deporting foreign nationals illegally working here, and worse, taking away scarce job opportunities from our own countrymen,” Lacson said.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, a leading opposition statesman and businessman who some believe has presidential ambitions, called on the government to deport all illegal Chinese workers “without fanfare.”

“The administration should not be afraid of China in the face of hundreds of thousands of their citizens working here illegally,” Pangilinan said. “What it should fear is the anger of millions of our people who remain jobless while we give special treatment to these Chinese illegals,” he said in a February 25 statement.

Protesters holds placards with portraits of China’s President Xi Jinping during a rally in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on November 21, 2018, held to coincide with Xi’s visit to the Philippines. Photo Ted Aljibe/AFP

The issue clearly has incendiary potential. In early February, there was a national uproar over social media when 23-year-old Chinese art student, Zhang Jiale, was caught on camera throwing soy pudding, known locally as “taho”, at a police officer who reminded her against bringing liquids onto Manila’s metro rail system.

Leading politicians, including Vice President Leni Robredo, grandstanded over what they perceived as an affront to Philippine “dignity” and called on Duterte’s government to take swift and decisive action against all abusive Chinese nationals.

“What happened is not just disrespect against our police but also our country,” exclaimed Robredo, claiming that such incidents are a result of the “special treatment” Duterte’s administration has given to Chinese nationals.

Economics are also an issue. The Filipino middle class have started to complain about skyrocketing real estate prices in major cities as Chinese workers and online gaming outfits purchase prime property at premium rates.

With Chinese nationals increasingly ubiquitous in major commercial areas of Manila, some provocative commentators have even started to talk about “virtual colonization.”

In a widely circulated editorial entitled “I thought I was in China”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s largest newspaper, said “[t]he Chinese influx has not only upended the local job market; it has also jacked up prices of condominium rentals.”

The editorial chastised the government’s “pro-China stance” and its “guesswork-ruled governance” that can’t provide exact figures on “[h]ow many Chinese workers are now in the Philippines, what is the status of their stay and what exactly do they do here?”

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