Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's pro-China policies are under rising scrutiny amid reports Chinese security officials are infiltrating the country. Photo: Facebook

It is often said that your true friends show themselves during times of crisis.

For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, faced with a lethal and spreading coronavirus epidemic that has stirred fear, loathing and Sinophobia worldwide, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has proven himself to be a friend indeed.

But as Chinese officials praise Duterte’s perceived as sympathetic and measured response to the evolving viral crisis, his government risks a backlash among Filipinos who feel it has put commercial interests ahead of public health and has broadly yielded too much, too often to Beijing.

Filipinos, to be sure, are not alone in their fear and panic. The epidemic had killed at least 560 and infected nearly 28,000 in China as of February 6, with infections concentrated in Hubei province around the city of Wuhan, the epidemic’s epicenter.

On January 30, the first coronavirus death outside of China was reported in the Philippines, raising fears of Chinese-to-Filipino contagion at a time the government still maintained an open door to Chinese tourists. Duterte’s government has since tightened measures on Chinese travelers, announcing a blanket ban on February 3.

But the disease’s spread, as elsewhere, has sparked a surge of anti-China xenophobia among many Filipinos, a rising phenomenon perpetuated over social media that has taken wider critical aim at Duterte’s perceived as pro-China policies and orientation.

A security officer checks the temperature of tenants of an office building in Manila on February 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Duterte’s pro-China policies have facilitated a big influx of mainland Chinese into the Philippines during his three and a half year old tenure, a migration that has stirred anti-China sentiment.

An estimated 1.6 million Chinese travelers, mostly tourists from the mainland, visited the Philippines from January to November 2019, accounting for 22% of 7.5 million foreign visitors over the period.

An unknown number have stayed on to work illegally at Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs), most of which are owned and operated by Chinese businessmen.

Franklin Drilon, an opposition senator and former labor secretary, estimated last year that there were over 400,000 Chinese workers in the country, a majority of them illegal without proper work permits.

Duterte responded then that he had no intention of rounding up and deporting illegal Chinese workers, saying he feared Beijing would send back hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers in China in retaliation.

A conservative estimate quoted in local media put the number of Chinese POGO workers at between 100,000-150,000 as of August 2019.

POGO’s have proliferated under Duterte and impacted on the capital Manila’s economics, with online gaming companies awash with gambling earnings driving up local rents beyond the reach of middle-class Filipinos.

Alleged illegal Chinese workers at a Philippine police station in November 2018. Photo: Twitter

Critics note that Chinese workers are shuttled to and from their workplaces in private vans and that they only patronize Chinese-run restaurants, many of which bar Filipinos from entering.

Local media, meanwhile, regularly reports of perceived as rude Chinese behavior, including one incident that went viral in 2018 in which an undocumented Chinese chef physically assaulted a Filipina waitress in a restaurant.

Opposition politicians are now probing whether the influx of Chinese mainlanders is responsible for a rise in recent criminal activity, including kidnappings and prostitution.

Between 2018 and 2019, kidnapping cases involving mainland Chinese jumped by 71%, which police said were mostly related to the POGO industry. Last month, police arrested four Chinese men for attempting to kidnap an 18-year-old Filipina in Manila’s Makati City.

Also last month, the Philippine Senate commenced an investigation into Chinese prostitution rings that reputedly cater exclusively to Chinese nationals, allegedly mainly POGO workers.

More broadly, Filipinos have taken to the streets against China’s perceived bullying in the South China Sea and raised security concerns on social media about a Chinese state company’s recent tie-up with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, which maintains the country’s power grids.

The coronavirus outbreak and the Duterte government’s perceived as lacking response, some suggest, could be the last straw that leads to a more visceral popular response to China’s rising influence and presence in the Philippines.

With local media reporting a daily running tally of the coronavirus’ global spread, Filipinos have clamored for more proactive health measures from Duterte’s government.

Filipinos rush to buy protective masks at a medical supplies store in Manila on January 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

With Duterte publicly absent for most of last week, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III failed to calm nerves by telling the Senate that imposing any blanket ban on Chinese passengers would upset the Chinese government.

His message coincided with shortages of protective surgical face-masks at Philippine pharmacies, leading to scenes of panic buying reported widely in local media.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, for his part, shrugged when asked if the government would distribute free masks to the poor, as being done in Singapore. “How can we give free masks when there’s none?”

That coincided with Senator Richard Gordon, a Duterte ally, trumpeting his “achievement” of recently facilitating the “exporting” of three million masks to China.

That pronouncement sparked a chorus of online criticism claiming Gordon and Duterte’s government care more about China’s health and well-being than the country they were elected to serve.

All the while, Duterte remained mostly absent from public view, with Panelo claiming lamely at one point that the president was in his hometown of Davao “reading reports about the virus.”

At the same time, a #OustDuterte hashtag has been spreading like wildfire on Twitter, with around 45,000 tweets discussing the topic. Facebook users have also widely disseminated the same hashtag call for Duterte’s ouster for his perceived mishandling of the viral crisis.

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

As if on cue, pro-government social media spaces, previously full of rude and scathing attacks on Duterte’s critics, suddenly shifted to anecdotes from supposed real-life Filipinos highlighting the virus-related travails of Chinese workers and residents in the Philippines.

The message was clear: Filipinos should take pity on Chinese who face humiliation and discrimination over the viral outbreak. However, the posts were soon exposed by netizens as fakes, with their origins traced to a known pro-government online troll farm.

With the revelation, Filipinos counter-posted stinging lampoons of the pro-Chinese sob stories, diluting the government’s apparent bid to influence public sympathy for resident Chinese.

That message was echoed by Duterte, who finally made a public appearance on February 3 to announce a ban on Chinese travelers.

“China has been kind to us, we can only also show the same favor to them,” he said in a news conference. “Stop this xenophobia thing,” he implored, assuring Filipinos that “everything is well” in the country.

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