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The Long View

The Chinese among us

With the scorching heat, sooner or later everyone’s thoughts turn to Baguio and an interesting bit of trivia. The construction of Kennon Road was made possible with Japanese labor — and enormous casualties. Most accounts state 500 Japanese workers (out of a total of 1,500!) died in the construction of that road. What is relevant and remarkable about this is that over a century after the Americans brought in foreign labor to build infrastructure is the much-discussed possibility that if government is to fulfill its extravagant promises of infrastructure-building, it will have to bring in Chinese labor to do it. At first blush one could argue that the sad reality is that in over a century, the labor-related limitations on infrastructure-building in this country haven’t moved forward very much.

But as President Duterte himself has stated (when he threw in the towel on repairing the damage to Philippine-Kuwait
relations), we need skilled labor at home and therefore, he was making a patriotic appeal to Filipinos overseas to come home. The general complaint you hear about construction here at home—that skilled workers, whether masons, carpenters, plumbers, etc., are nearly impossible to find—is based on this reality, which is that we do have skilled labor but they are employed elsewhere. And those at home are already employed in the construction industry, which until recently at least was pretty much operating at maximum capacity in terms of the private sector and couldn’t meet further demand from the public sector beyond what is currently taking place. Government may have enough money to parcel out for infrastructure, but there aren’t enough skilled workers and companies to undergo the actual building. Not to mention the limitations of the bureaucracy in terms of doing the planning and other paperwork necessary to undertake projects (this is what is meant by the lack of absorptive capacity of the government).

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Joey Salceda has floated a trial balloon: We need to bring in Chinese or even Burmese labor, he said. His proposal, and the observation by analysts that infrastructure promises will only come true if foreign labor comes in, has sparked, in turn, debates that more often than not turn to perceptions that there is already a large, and growing, presence of Chinese labor in the country. Combined with the unease in some quarters over the President’s red carpet attitude toward China, and you have something that bears further watching.

Essentially a China-watching sport is emerging, where people in online discussion groups take to enumerating buildings and
facilities they claim are filled with Chinese nationals. From the reclamation area in Manila and Pasay, to Makati and Pasig, quite a few people, it seems, have observed entire floors filled with mysterious Chinese workers who have their own shuttles, who are plentiful enough to support restaurants that don’t even bother themselves with selling food to the general public, who are shuttled to their places of work and home again. But overall, most, if not all, seem to be involved in some sort of gambling enterprise, usually described as the online kind. This hardly suggests that they are taking away jobs from Filipinos and which can actually be argued as providing healthy incomes to Filipino land owners.

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In terms of tourism, the stories bandied about are perhaps a little more troubling though no different, really, from the previous ethnic tourism booms of the past, whether Japanese or Korean. A governor from the south in late 2016 told me that they were registering a big spike in Chinese tourist arrivals, but even he was puzzled because no local businesses seemed to be benefiting from it: The tourists arrived and were never seen until they left, leading to the suspicion that in between, they stayed in purely Chinese-owned and -controlled facilities and vehicles.

There lies the inevitable direction such discussions lead to—the suspicion that officialdom must be in cahoots with the Chinese because there is no way such a volume of workers and enterprises can be legal. But it should be a cause for unease that underlying the entire discussion is a latent racism that official enthusiasm for Beijing may be fostering.

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TAGS: China-Philippine relations, Filipino Chinese, kennon road, Manuel L. Quezon III, The Long View
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