Sporting aquamarine office barongs and bristling with IDs that, however, reporters weren’t enterprising enough to zoom in on or otherwise note down, a large crowd of Chinese civilians gathered at the corner of T. M. Kalaw and Roxas Boulevard so that they could wave little Chinese flags as President Xi Jinping zoomed by. Filipinos were not so lucky, reduced to protesting in Makati in front of the Chinese Embassy while Xi and party were safely bottled up inside several security perimeters in Taguig. It was, apparently, irritating enough for NCRPO Director Guillermo Eleazar to be photographed publicly explaining to Chinese security officers that this didn’t mean protests would be allowed along the routes to be passed by Xi.
Online, an epidemic of Winnie the Pooh icons (inspired by the ban in the People’s Republic of China on images of the honey-loving bear, because it was used to poke fun at Xi) demonstrated the extent of Filipinos’ disagreement with their government’s bend-over-backward attitude to China.
If the President has been pumping up the volume of Xi mania in official circles, it’s now at fever pitch. Just as Jose de Venecia’s playing the China card marked the turning point in the crisis of 2005 (“The Chinese ambassador is here,” he said in the Palace, to counter the wide perception that the US Embassy had turned against President Arroyo, on the day he and FVR appeared to publicly lend support to an embattled GMA), the President’s devotion to Xi Jinping aims to portray him as enjoying a big backer (like Norodom Sihanouk; if worse comes to worst, this guarantees him sanctuary in Beijing if it comes to that). He’s famously put it in this manner: While Americans might condescendingly give you coffee and a donut in a meeting, the Chinese lay out a full lauriat.
A Chinoy once put it to me in similar terms a decade ago, ironically as we chatted in the sidelines of a symposium in Washington: “When the US ambassador visits Zamboanga, it’s like an armed invasion—Humvees and bodyguards all over. But when the Chinese ambassador visits, he gives motorcycles to the local Fil-Chinese associations.”
The column inches devoted to cataloging how China has been big on promises but short on delivering on those promises, as far as the government is concerned, and the low (bluntly, dismal) standing of China in terms of Filipino public opinion, ignores how China has quickly figured out how to navigate the corridors of power in this country. The real power is in the country’s boardrooms, many of which control what pass for political parties over here, for example. The Chinese in Manila waving flags had descended from Eton Tower, owned by a taipan who’s a big shot in Xiamen. Another taipan is a partner of China in Transco, which no government has been able to renationalize not because it isn’t a danger to national security (it is), but because no administration dares offend the taipans beyond an occasional shakedown.
It’s what those Chinese are up to in Eton Tower, and all the other condominiums, apartments and gated community homes they’ve been scooping up to either own or rent, on extremely generous terms such as paying in advance and in cash, that points to China’s game plan, knowing how things work. This is taking place in at least two significant ways. First, in propping up the property market, if industry opinion is to be believed; and second, in the quiet, but extensive and aggressive, growth of logistics services, which is shaking up the retail trade nationwide.
This rewards, both in an immediate and in the long-term sense, cooperation and collaboration with Chinese entrepreneurs, as well as corporations who ultimately exist only with the say-so of the ruling Communist Party (leaving state enterprises either to focus on a quick return on investment with selected local partners, or to operate in the background in the new supply and relationship chains being forged with the mainland).
When the Palace excused the lack of results from official agreements on the basis of a slow bureaucracy in both the Philippines and China, it was telling the partial truth. It might be fairer to say that China knows as well as anyone that the Philippine bureaucracy is too creaky and unskilled to do more than a few big projects a decade; China’s bureaucracy, for its part, knows no official Filipino agreement is worth the paper it’s printed on, because what one administration decides the next can easily undo it. So if things are to last, they must be undertaken not with untrustworthy politicians or crooked bureaucrats, but with the kinds of businesspeople who are untouched and unmoved by the musical chairs in our (relatively, by regional standards) short-lived governments.
The present dispensation is reaching its midway mark; its useful life is drawing to a close. Unless and until it can extend its shelf life, public opinion suggests there will be a backlash unfavorable to China—unless, of course, the investments are made, which will tie the hands of future governments.
Those investments are being made: in junkets, in rentals, in business relationships, all the ties that bind in ways the West can’t compete. In the meantime, the toasts will be flowery, the signs of official esteem mutually lavish. It will be good for both governments while it lasts, but what China does, which Filipinos don’t, is to think in terms of decades, if not centuries.
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