Is the golden goose cooked?
From the Chinese point of view, President Duterte’s term is halfway done, with no sign that his effects will be lasting. He has been unable to wean the Armed Forces away from the United States, and his popularity has shown its limits: negative public opinion toward China at home remains a force to reckon with, as his token, yet apologetic, raising of the arbitral ruling before Xi Jinping proved. Nor is the President about to be allowed by his economic managers (or businessmen) to kill the golden Pogo goose. This is in marked contrast with the behavior of a truly dependable vassal. Last Aug. 18, Cambodia reversed its previous policy and announced it would cease issuing gambling licenses whether for retail or online operators. Existing licenses won’t be renewed.
Indeed, you don’t need much of an imagination to suspect that what the Chinese saw on display in Beijing was a leader approaching his political expiration date: too undisciplined to even wear a tie (a discourtesy to his hosts), with one eye obviously drooping throughout his shortened visit. No point in giving goodies.
The Manila Times, as energetic a booster of the President and his agenda as any, wrote it off as a “hard-to-describe presidential visit to China” in an editorial that went ahead and described it anyway. “No matter how much Filipino officials strain to locate evidence of success, they come up with very little of significance,” it bluntly opined, adding that, “All told, it is difficult to say that the presidential trip accomplished anything of significance in the context of China-Philippines relations.”
Which is to say, just as Xi almost casually brushed aside the President’s token assertion of the arbitral ruling, his comments on online gambling may have been equally casually expressed, but underscores that Chinese policy was, and is, unyielding on both counts, whether on the nine-dash line, or the position of the People’s Republic on online gambling targeting the Chinese.
Ahead of the President’s Beijing visit, the Philippines was pressured to bend a little, but not a lot, due to a double whammy from Beijing. The Chinese Embassy in Manila raised concerns over “slave-like” conditions and ghettoes being created that had been raised in the Chinese domestic media. This was followed by a foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, who said, “We hope the Philippines will go further and ban all online gambling.”
Ahead of the meeting of the two leaders, Pagcor announced it was suspending issuing new Pogo licenses for the remainder of 2019. This is a tentative move compared to what Phnom Penh announced.
For his part, Salvador Panelo said, “President Xi expressed appreciation for what we did in suspending new (Pogo) applicants.” But, “he said they will appreciate it more if Pogo will be eliminated or stopped.” Some press reports suggested that the President refrained from responding to Xi’s wish, so Panelo issued a holding statement to fill in the gap: The President, he claimed, would “study” whether or not to stop Pogos, calling Xi’s statement an “implied request.”
Echoing Panelo, Sonny Dominguez said Xi “applauded the moratorium on new licensees in the Philippines,” but then nixed Panelo by adding that “President Xi’s statement regarding Pogo during his meeting with President Duterte was just a comment.” The first was a report; the second was editorializing. This substitution of fact with conjecture is necessary, as both our ambassador to Beijing, Chito Sta. Romana, and our Bangko Sentral governor, Ben Diokno, both said ahead of the meeting: The country would have to study the impact of pulling the plug on Pogos, and sudden moves wouldn’t be beneficial to the economy.
The property market was hoping for news that would arrest, if not reverse, seven weeks of straight decline (the Philippine Stock Exchange Property index fell almost 10 percent) as a result of these official Chinese statements, and fear of an outright demand from Xi for Manila to start cracking down on Pogos. Panelo’s interpretation wasn’t reassuring, which is why Dominguez had to weigh in. Might it have made more sense to leave it to the Department of Foreign Affairs?
But that would only result in rehashing the repeated requests of Xi for the Philippines to crack down on Pogos. The secretary of foreign affairs last May already said Xi had asked the President for a crackdown, and DFA’s diplomats know Xi’s “comment” in Beijing was a reiteration from the very top of what the foreign ministry had already, more aggressively, said.
The Philippine position, such as it is, is to drag its feet, and keep enjoying what Beijing has categorically declared as illegal—indeed, criminal—sources of cash.
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