Duterte under the gun over Chinese influx into Philippines
MANILA — The lobby of the Bureau of Immigration headquarters in Manila was bursting with scores of young Chinese seeking visas to work in the Philippines. Dozens more were being held in a cordoned-off area on the second floor.
The detainees — mostly from mainland China — were among 276 suspected of working illegally in the online gambling industry at a site near the Makati business district. They were arrested last month in one of the biggest raids in the Philippine capital, and were facing deportation.
There “are so many we have to book them by batches for questioning,” one immigration officer said.
The raid was part of a clampdown on undocumented Chinese workers in the country, as President Rodrigo Duterte’s government scrambles to contain a side effect of his economic pivot to China.
The number of Chinese nationals arriving in the country has nearly tripled since Duterte came to power in 2016. They filled hotel rooms and office towers previously intended for U.S. call centers, snapped up condominiums and boosted retail sales. But despite the economic benefits, there has been a mounting backlash from locals who fear Chinese workers are taking jobs, evading taxes and committing crimes.
“I’m afraid mafias have entered the country,” Senate labor committee chair Joel Villanueva said on Feb. 21 during a congressional inquiry on the influx of Chinese workers.
The hearing was conducted even as Congress was on a three-month recess, underscoring how the arrivals have become a major political issue ahead of key midterm elections in May. At least one senate candidate has questioned Duterte’s will to crack down further.
While doing so could appease local critics, it could also mar relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In addition, there is concern that harsher treatment of the immigrants could backfire on the roughly 30,000 Filipinos working in China. That number excludes the more than 200,000 in Macao and Hong Kong, where many work as maids.
Duterte has been tiptoeing around the issue. In November, he said illegal Chinese workers should be deported but cautioned authorities to “be careful” in handling such cases. Last month, he called for tolerance, saying, “Let them work here.”
Lucio Blanco Pitlo, a lecturer in the Chinese program at Ateneo de Manila University, said the problem “is overplayed and politicized” and warned of consequences.
“The issue has adverse implications on Duterte’s efforts to cultivate friendlier ties with China to corner more investments,” Pitlo said. It could also hurt the 8 trillion peso ($154 billion) “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is partly being funded by Beijing, he added.
Salvador Panelo, presidential spokesperson and legal counsel, said on Feb. 26 that the Chinese ambassador in Manila warned the Philippines about deporting Chinese workers “recklessly” and “not in accordance with the law.”
“[They] will also do the same,” Panelo said. “That’s tit for tat.”
Panelo later walked back his statements after the Chinese Embassy issued a denial.
When he assumed the presidency in June 2016, Duterte sought to earn Beijing’s trust, which had been eroded by former President Benigno Aquino’s hard-line approach on the South China Sea territorial dispute. Duterte shrugged off Manila’s arbitration victory against China over the dispute and declared a “separation” from the U.S. during his first visit to Beijing in October that year.
In return, Beijing pledged to bankroll Duterte’s infrastructure projects, import more Philippine fruits and lift a travel warning on the country. Manila, meanwhile, offered Chinese visitors visas on arrival.
China quickly became the largest source of tourists for the Philippines, dislodging South Korea. Last year, the Philippines welcomed a record 1.26 million Chinese visitors, nearly triple the number in 2015.
The immigration bureau in Manila receives a steady stream of Chinese nationals seeking visas. (Photo by Kimberly dela Cruz)
Duterte’s government went further in September 2016, offering licenses that allow companies to set up internet-based casinos for overseas gamblers. China-linked companies bagged many of the 54 “Philippine Offshore GamingOperator” licenses. The operators brought with them dozens of companies providing information technology support and call center services manned by Mandarin-speaking mainlanders.
On a visit to China the following month, Duterte secured a $24 billion investment deal from Chinese institutions, including grants for projects that allow Chinese companies to bring in their own workers. The two Beijing-funded bridges crossing the Pasig River in Manila are examples.
From 2016 to 2018, around 335,800 working visas and special work permits were issued to Chinese, representing over half the total number of permits issued to foreigners. More than half of them were for online gaming-related jobs, and the rest for sectors including construction, information and communications.
“The influx of Chinese workers is a direct consequence of the growth of the Philippine offshore gaming,” immigration chief Jaime Morente said during the Feb. 21 hearing. The online gaming industry’s revenue ballooned to 7.35 billion pesos last year from 657 million pesos in 2016.
But many Chinese tourists who entered the Philippines ended up overstaying to find jobs. Others bribed immigration officials to get working visas. Opposition Senator Franklin Drilon, a former labor secretary, said last year that around 400,000 Chinese workers — including those without documents — were in the country.
The immigration bureau came under pressure to take action, due to political considerations as well as a slew of reports of abuse, such as the case of an undocumented Chinese chef beating a local waitress in May 2018.
The bureau said that last year, 393 of the 533 illegal workers arrested were Chinese, and that it banned the entry of more than 1,500 others. Morente said the number of arrests jumped by four times last year.
In January, the bureau announced it would no longer issue special work permits for blue-collar jobs, such as construction workers, waiters, cashiers and janitors.
The Federation of Free Workers, a local labor group, has urged the government to “focus on protecting our jobs from being taken by illegal aliens.” The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, also a labor group, reminded the government that “all jobs including skills and professions must be given to Filipino workers and professionals” unless there is no one available in the local labor market.
President Rodrigo Duterte has been tiptoeing around the issue of the increasing number of Chinese entering the country. © Reuters
Jobless Filipinos made up 5.1% of the working-age population last year, a marginal improvement from the 5.5% rate in 2016.
The Chinese influx is straining the social fabric in other ways. Filipinos’ trust in China has improved under Duterte, but it remains low compared with countries such as the U.S., Japan, and Malaysia, based on a poll by Social Weather Stations in September.
Crimes committed by Chinese have grabbed headlines. In mid-February, a 23-year-old Chinese woman hurled a cup of soy pudding at a police officer after she was barred from boarding a train with her food. The incident triggered an online fury and the woman is facing deportation.
Vice President Leni Robredo, who belongs to an opposition party, said: “This is not just an insult to the police officer, but an insult to our nation.”
The Philippine police said the number of Chinese who were involved in crimes — as suspects or victims — tripled to 398 last year from 2016, accounting for around 40% of all cases involving foreign nationals.
While Duterte is treading cautiously, his cabinet is keen to show it is on top of things. The labor, finance and trade secretaries have joined the heads of the tax, immigration and gaming bureaus to form an “interagency committee on the influx of foreign nationals,” Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said. The first high-level meeting discussed ways to stop tax avoidance by Chinese workers, as the government scrounges for revenue after exceeding its budget last year for the first time in nearly a decade.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez also said he wants to keep closer tabs on online casino workers, citing “the national security implications of their large presence in the country.”
But Gary Alejano, a congressman and Senate candidate for the opposition in the May elections, has doubts about the clampdown. “It’s like confiscating a few kilos of shabu (meth) and allowing tons to come in,” Alejano said, referring to the 6.4 billion pesos of illegal drugs from China that slipped past customs last year.
Alejano, a former military officer, believes additional Chinese workers will enter the country once construction begins on more projects under Duterte’s infrastructure plan. China is sponsoring dams, roads and railways. “The government has even started conditioning the minds of the people,” he said. “They are saying that we lacked enough manpower.”
Chinese construction workers in Manila: Some believe Duterte’s China-backed infrastructure projects will bring more outside labor into the country. (Photo by Kimberly dela Cruz)
Duterte last month said infrastructure projects were delayed partly because many skilled workers “are no longer here in the Philippines but have gone to the Middle East,” a top destination for Filipino construction workers.
Meanwhile, a 33-year old Chinese worker at a telecom company in Manila appealed for understanding.
“The Chinese and Philippine governments have a good relationship right now, and they have a lot of cooperation, so many Chinese want to do business here,” he said. “The legal workers increase, and so do the illegals.”
“I believe Chinese people want to work here legally but they don’t know the process, maybe because of the language [barrier].”
Duterte’s administration faces midterm elections on May 13, where support for divisive policies — such as his long-waged anti-drug war — will be put to the test. © APCOVER STORY
A verdict on Duterte: looming midterms are a referendum on president
Some Senate hopefuls attack popular leader’s deadly drug warDOMINIC FAULDER, Associate editor, Nikkei Asian Review, and MIKHAIL FLORES and CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writersFEBRUARY 27, 2019 15:50 JST
MANILA — It was an unconventional start to a long-shot campaign.
The seven prospective senators declared their candidacies from the mezzanine of an overcrowded cafe in Caloocan, a city in northern MetroManila that has become ground zero in the Philippines’ deadly war against drugs.
Usually, politicians in the Philippines like to hold campaign rallies in a big field, not a neighborhood where drug-related deaths come daily. But this was the point.
“I think it’s quite symbolic that we are holding the launch here, especially because there have been so many victims in the area. As you may know, the killings go on. It never stopped,” said Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, a human rights lawyer and Senate candidate with the Otso Diretso (“Straight Eight”) opposition alliance, at the Feb. 12 rally.
As the country gears up for midterm elections in May, many senatorial candidates are campaigning on economic themes — including the need to tame rising inflation and create more jobs in a country dependent on remittances from an estimated 10 million Filipinos living overseas. But the midterms are also seen as a referendum on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, and opposition candidates such as Diokno are hoping to mount a credible challenge to his party and policies.
Slums in Metro Manila, the Philippines, some of the largest and poorest in the world. (Photo by Jilson Tiu)
Polls have shown solid support for Duterte, who is riding high with a 60% approval rating. The former mayor of Davao came to office in June 2016 promising to feed dead drug addicts to the fish in Manila Bay — and recently promised to expand the deadly crusade.
Diokno says the number of Filipinos killed due to the drug war is much higher than is officially claimed, pointing to a recent Supreme Court resolution that puts the overall number killed at 20,322 from July 1, 2016 to the end of November 2017. This averages almost 40 deaths per day — and far exceeds the roughly 5,000 cited by a government agency.
Diokno, who also chairs the Free Legal Assistance Group, sees the May 13 poll as a last battle against an administration he claims has undermined the nation’s democratic foundations.
Half the parliament’s 24 Senate seats come up for contention — among a staggering 17,000 open official positions. A friendlier Senate could pave the way for Duterte to push through changes such as overhauling the constitution and making controversial alterations to the tax code.
“One by one, the institutions that are supposed to check on abuse by the executive department are under assault, and the only institution remainingthat is capable of standing up to it is the Senate,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review. “If this is captured, they can virtually do anything they want.”
In 2016, candidate Duterte pledged to wipe out crime and illegal drugs in six months — killing criminals as necessary. Within a week of his entering office on July 1, the police confirmed 100 drug-related killings. Many were extrajudicial, the work of unidentified vigilantes, and the pattern was set.
Filipinos working abroad were staunchly behind the longtime former mayor of Davao, the rough city in the south where he administered tough medicine against lawlessness and poverty. For them, Duterte’s anti-drug crusade means safer streets for their loved ones back home.
“He promised this and he delivered on his manifesto,” a local economist told Nikkei. “It is not as if we did not know what he is capable of.”
The shabu scourge
According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), 5,104 “drug personalities” were killed by the end of 2018 in over 117,000 drug operations that also saw more than 167,000 arrests. The anti-drug drive shuttered 285 dens and laboratories; over 52 million Philippine pesos ($1 million) has gone to informants, and “lawmen” received some 20 million pesos in bounties.
Of 25.62 billion pesos in drugs and drugmaking paraphernalia seized, 18.83 billion pesos’ worth was linked to shabu, the methamphetamine drug of choice in the Philippines — heroin and cannabis are far less popular. Shabu is cooked up domestically, but also smuggled from China and Myanmar. The drug stimulates users, and fends off sleep and hunger. The overworked and underpaid are therefore particularly susceptible.
The PDEA’s tallies tell only a part of this war that has, self-evidently, not been won in the six months originally promised. In mid-February, when he was doorstepped by a local reporter, Duterte threatened to take the war up a notch. “I am reiterating my warning [that] this drug problem is a national security threat — meaning to say it can destroy the Philippines.” The reporter pressed the president on whether the war would get bloodier. “I think so,” said Duterte.
A drug sting in Manila, June 2018. Official police operations are far outnumbered by vigilante killings, say critics of the drug war’s methods. © Getty Images
Even the country’s Catholic bishops, who only recently began to find a collective voice condemning the government-sanctioned drug killings, agree the Philippines needs to tackle its drug problem — as do other countries in the region. But the relative scale of the problem is unclear due to poor data.
There is a regional precedent for the violent anti-drug war: Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra mounted a much briefer campaign in early 2003 that resulted in over 2,000 extrajudicial killings.
But Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told Nikkei that such violent campaigns are as ineffective as they are deadly.
“[These] usually drive drug use further into the shadows, which is counterproductive from a public health perspective,” he said. “At the same time, they sometimes offer major organized crime an opportunity to consolidate distribution networks down to the street — and major organized crime never seem to be brought to justice through these efforts.”
Skeptics note that the street price of shabu has remained remarkably stable, as has its purity — which has always been low. “This drug war is political more than anything else,” a human rights monitor told Nikkei.
More than 300 enforcers had been killed by the end of 2017, when the release of statistics was dropped shortly after fact checkers caught Duterte exaggerating numbers. Evidently, the dead seldom fired back, and the weapons collected from them often later reappeared beside new bodies.
Duterte’s depiction of the Philippines as a narco-state is diminished by the country’s lack of exports — it is a consuming country. Some politicians may well profit from drug money, but many other illicit sources are open to them, including gambling.
Outside monitors are skeptical of the PDEA’s figure of 5,104 dead by the end of 2018. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch estimated 12,000 deaths by 2017. Academics who have used Google scrapes to monitor killings reported in the media say there are over 7,000 reports by that count alone.
“It is extremely approximate,” said one of the professors keeping tabs, noting that many of the killings took place in private homes in front of relatives. There are 74 documented cases of under-18s being killed, and at least 13 mayors and eight deputy mayors are dead.
The aggregate figure cited by Diokno suggests 1,200 deaths per month in the latter half of 2016 and 2017 — much higher than anything seen in Mexico or Colombia. Extrapolating that average, the number of dead by the end of February 2019 would be over 38,000.
Duterte has threatened to escalate the war on drugs, but if the situation simply holds steady, over 86,000 people will be dead by the time he leaves office in June 2022. As numbers are obfuscated, the official quibble — as it was in Thailand — will be that many of these died in the white noise of existing violence, rather than as a direct result of the drug war. Whatever the case, the Philippines has a major problem with violent deaths.
Mourners gather at a funeral for a 13-year-old boy, a casualty of one of the drug crackdown’s clashes. Violent campaigns can be as ineffective as they are deadly, says a regional Bangkok-based official for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. © Getty Images
The campaign has lately moved to the outlying cities of Metro Manila and to other population centers, including Cebu in the central Visayas region and General Santos on the southernmost island of Mindanao.
“I think it is getting worse — it is just not being reported,” Diokno told Nikkei. “We continue to receive on a daily basis reports of killings from different partsof the country. We have noticed these to be very well-organized, and that they appear to be result-oriented.”
Intimidation plays a role in underreporting. When journalist Maria Ressa was recently arrested on a previously dropped libel charge, many saw it as retribution for tough coverage of the Duterte administration by Rappler, the online news organization she heads. Critical journalists are routinely subjected to abuse by a well-organized army of online trolls.
“The crucial element is disinformation that is very close to the administration,” a diplomat told Nikkei. “They are having a lot of success getting out their side of the story.”
The Philippines officially has some 105 million people, of whom about 80% are Catholic. The church, mired in sex-abuse scandals that Duterte has revealed affected him as a youngster, has been faulted for its weak stand. But in January, the biannual plenary of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines finally promised to do better.
“Forgive us for the length of time that it took us to find our collective voice,” the bishops said in a pastoral letter. “We, too, needed to be guided in prayer and discernment before we could guide you.”
Two issues rattled the bishops: proposals to restore the death penalty, and to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to nine. On the latter, Duterte is expected to get his way, but will probably have to settle for 12.
“Duterte is a product of this dysfunctional political system we have,” a local human rights observer told Nikkei. “People lap up even his foulest jokes.” His frankness is certainly striking. In September, the president openly said, “My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”
Catholic church authorities are alarmed at how little it takes to get on the drug watchlist, particularly when anonymous tipoffs can be used to settle other scores. “Drug personalities” who are spared a bullet but are incarcerated suffer greatly. “The conditions for prisoners is close to what is defined as torture,” one international observer told Nikkei. Only jails in El Salvador and Guatemala are more crowded.
A rally held in Manila by members of the Catholic Church, one of the president’s most vocal detractors (Photo by Jilson Tiu)
Duterte has rejected the International Criminal Court’s probe into potential criminality, but so far escaped any effective foreign censure. Embassies in Manila have concluded that “megaphone diplomacy” does not work, and diplomats will only speak off the record.
The European Union, although only the country’s fourth-largest trading bloc, has used its generalized system of preferences (GSP+) as leverage to call out the country’s human rights record. In 2014, the number of products with zero tariffs entering the EU was expanded to over 6,000 from 2,442.
But in a 2018 report, the EU flagged Duterte’s war on drugs as a serious concern that could cost the Philippines’ its preferential trade status. “Extrajudicial killings, in particular in the fights against illegal drugs, and related impunity continue to be a serious concern, as well as the possible reintroduction of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility,” the report said.
In October, the Philippines was re-elected to the United Nations’ 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva. The previous month, former Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano received a sprinkle of polite applause when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly.
“The Philippines under the leadership of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is one with the United Nations in being uncompromising on the issues of rule of law, just and equitable peace that leads to order, development and prosperity, and the protection of each and every human being’s rights,” he said. “We are on track in salvaging our deteriorating country from becoming a narco-state.”
The economy was not deteriorating when Duterte took office in 2016, however. It remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, and ratings agencies have welcomed a recent raft of economic reforms — including a “rice tariffication” law and an amendment of the charter of the central bank to enhance its supervisory powers.
But annual growth slowed to a three-year low in 2018 at 6.2% — below the 6.5-6.9% target range. The latest data for the fourth quarter of 2018 is even lower at 6.1%. Inflation averaged 5.2% in 2018, the highest since the 2008 global financial crisis, and consumption growth was down to 5.6% from 5.9% year on year.
Approved foreign investment pledges in 2017 fell sharply to their lowest level since 2005, a drop largely attributed to business outsourcing companies, which have been spooked by Duterte’s outbursts against the West and international criticism of his human rights record. Foreign direct investment overall is expected to fall back slightly to $10.2 billion this year from $10.4 billion in 2018.
Poor are hit hardest
The war on drugs has had the greatest impact on the poorest of the poor — people who consume as little as they generate. Social workers estimate that as many as one in six people living in slums are unregistered. They lack birth certificates and other official documentation, and do not qualify for education or other benefits. They are officially nameless — economic non-starters by accident of birth.
Jose Luis Martin Gascon, chair of the National Human Rights Commission, confirms the problem of unregistered children but cannot put a number on it. People born in conflict zones who migrate to the cities are part of the problem. Parents send children to work on the streets because schooling is not an option; some inevitably fall into crime.
Gascon told Nikkei that he faults Duterte for “outright rejection of human rights, due process, presumption of innocence, and other guarantees that are in our bills of rights.
“The public mood was to support a different form of leadership that might deliver on the promises that democracy failed,” he said. “Looking back on history, authoritarian leaders don’t have a good track record in delivering quality of life.”
- Activist funds take aim at Asia Inc’s complacent boardrooms
- Activist investors meet their match in China
- India Tech: How Reliance’s low-cost mobile service is transforming society
- An Ambani wedding puts the Indian Dream on display
- Cover StoryThe risky business of corpses and souls in Duterte’s drug war
- PoliticsDynasties and Duterte allies dominate Philippine midterm lineup
- OpinionSoutheast Asia stumbles over politics
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
- EconomyPhilippines set to roll out first domestically made commuter train
- PoliticsDuterte’s critics target China relations ahead of midterm elections
- PoliticsPhilippines to tax foreign online casino workers amid Chinese backlash