MANILA – A seemingly comical but perceived by many as a deeply offensive incident has sparked a new wave of anti-China sentiment in the Philippines, highlighting again rising public resentment against President Rodrigo Duterte’s Beijing-friendly policies.

In recent days, the hashtag “province of China” has gone viral on Philippine social media platforms with pictures of Chinese-made beauty products identifying “Manila” as part of mainland China.

Prominent politicians have played their part in stirring the controversy, with no less than Manila City Mayor Isko Moreno taking decisive action against what he described as an “unacceptable” affront to Philippine sovereignty.

The charismatic mayor, widely seen as a potential contender at the next presidential elections in 2022, has shut down at least four establishments in the capital’s Divisoria Mall, which sold a certain “Ashley Shine Keratin Treatment Deep Repair” product.

The beauty product listed its manufacturing address as “707 Sto. Cristo St. San Nicolas, Manila Province, P.R. China. MADE IN P.R.C [People’s Republic of China].”

“Binondo [Chinatown] is a part of Manila, and Manila is a part of the Philippines. Manila is the country’s capital. It is not a province of China,” Moreno said in Tagalog in a special address that tapped into rising nationalist sentiment against China. “Not even once did it become a part of China in any article or written history during our time and the time of our ancestors,” he said.   

Manila Mayor Francisco Isko Moreno orders the closure and revocation of the permit to operate a business establishment in Manila after stalls sold products labeled “made in Manila, Province of China.” Photo: PNA/Twitter

The photogenic mayor, perhaps the nation’s most dominant political figure on social media, went a step further by calling for the deportation of all Chinese citizens who are found to have imported the curiously labeled beauty cream. The business is owned by two Chinese nationals and three Filipinos, according to reports.

Manila Bureau of Permits Director Levy Facundo, who spearheaded the crackdown, accused the business stalls of violating city ordinances by misrepresenting Manila as a “province of China.” “This is a big insult. We will not allow this,” the top city official said, defending Manila city’s stern response amid a growing public uproar.

Other political aspirants have piled on. Congressman Jericho Nograles, another rising new-generation political star, penned a public letter to Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez on August 19 warning “Any act to undermine our sovereignty must be taken seriously.”

“It is hard to dismiss this insult as a simple error…This incident must be investigated at the very least, and the manufacturer and importer should be blacklisted as soon as legally permitted,” the congressman wrote without elaborating.

Cognizant of the rising risk of a political backlash at a time of economic and social distress, Malacañang palace has moved to downplay the incident.

“To me, that’s nonsense. We should not be paying any attention to that,” Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in Tagalog while consciously portraying the incident as trivial and isolated.

“No one believes we are a province of China. We know that all Filipinos love their country,” Duterte’s spokesman added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

The problem for Duterte, however, is that the incident is not isolated, far from it. If anything, recent years have seen a clear pattern of similar incidents pitting Chinese and Philippine claims, not least than in the rising tensions in the South China Sea.

In 2012, as both countries tussled over the disputed Scarborough Shoal Beijing later came to occupy, He Jia, an anchor for state-owned China Central Television’s (CCTV), declared, “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty, this is an indisputable fact.” 

The Chinese anchor was likely referring to the disputed land features in the South China Sea, but even when microbloggers pointed out her gaffe, no apology or clarification was made by the state-run broadcaster.

Duterte’s strategic acquiescence towards China and his consistent efforts to downplay the South China Sea disputes have exacerbated Filipino concerns that Beijing increasingly views the Philippines as a vassal state.

“I realigned myself in your ideological flow…I will be dependent on you for all times,” Duterte declared during his first state visit to China in 2016, the opening act in what many have viewed as persistently slavish presidential statements towards China.

Two years later, during a February 2018 speech before Chinese Filipino businessmen with no less than China’s Ambassador in Manila in the audience, Duterte publicly quipped:

“That’s why I said, ‘why are you so sparing?’ If you want just make us a province [like Fujian], Philippine province of China, so we won’t have any problems,” he said to a mixture of laughter and bafflement among the gathered ethnic Chinese businessmen and foreign diplomats.

Likely as a protest against the quip, Filipinos surreptitiously hung tarpaulins declaring “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China” over several overpasses across Manila that year.

Filipinos have likewise been outraged by other incidents, from textile products that reportedly identified Philippine cities as part of China, to a geotag on Facebook and Instagram which read “Philippines, Province of China.”

An unidentified man hangs a banner declaring the Philippines as a “province of China” in Manila in a 2018 file photo. Image: AFP

Beijing has done little to tamp down the resentment. A YouTube video released by the Chinese Embassy in Manila entitled “Iisang Dagat” (‘one shared sea’), which celebrated Beijing’s humanitarian aid for the Covid-19 pandemic, garnered 100,000 dislikes in a single weekend.

Latest public surveys show that 77% of Filipinos want China to be held accountable for the devastating spread of the viral pandemic, which has claimed thousands of lives and hammered the Philippine economy more than nearly all of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Rather than assuaging public concerns over his soft-pedaling on the South China Sea disputes, the Filipino president has adamantly defended his deliberate lean towards China.

Earlier this year, soon after he abrogated a major defense agreement with treaty ally the United States, a move that inevitably pleased Beijing, Duterte again raised the issue: “You might as well choose. We can be a territory of the Americans or we can be a province of China.”

During his latest State of the Nation Address in July, the president reiterated his refusal to stand up to China over the South China Sea disputes.

“China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms, we do not have it. So? It’s simple as that…China is in possession. So what can we do?” he said.

“Maybe some other president can, but I cannot. I’m useless, I tell you, and I’m willing to admit it: I’m really useless in that part. I cannot do anything.”