Why it is easy to colonize us
An aspect of the global order that bears watching is the fact that while cultures have come together and various peoples are now face to face, such proximity does not necessarily lead to trust and greater understanding. It may even lead to the hardening of preconceptions and stereotypes. The social psychologist Daniel Katz had long ago observed that “while physical barriers to communication are rapidly disappearing, the psychological obstacles remain.”Nowhere is this more pronounced than the growing unease, even hostility, in this country and in parts of Southeast Asia over the invasive presence of mainland Chinese. A region that historically has welcomed contingents of Chinese migrants, local populations are becoming restive over the increasing clash of cultures, even in Singapore which is dominantly ethnic Chinese.In this country, tales abound of lands being gobbled up, particularly those along the coasts that are proximate to the disputed Spratlys and Bajo de Masinloc. In cities, it is reported that entire floors of condominiums have been bought at bargain prices and cut up into barracks-like quarters for hordes of gaming operatives who speak only Chinese, crowd the elevators and in general spread noise, dirt and disorder according to residents. Not only have they barricaded themselves in restaurants that are for “Chinese Only,” they are virtually turning pockets of the social landscape into Sinite spaces, demanding that the host culture adapt to their monocultural ways.
In some other country, considering the backdrop of conflict over the West Philippine Sea, the China Coast Guard would not even be allowed within distance of our territorial waters. For some unaccountable reason, they were instead invited and feted for a supposedly “goodwill” visit by the head of their Philippine counterpart, Philippine Coast Guard commandant Admiral Joel Garcia. These are the same vessels that shoo away and harass our Filipino fishermen from our own fishing grounds, blockading shoals that are within our exclusive economic zone so as to forcibly lay claim to them.
Why is this country so accommodative of the interests of its very enemies?
We shall not go into the Duterte administration’s weak-kneed policy of submission to China, the reasons for which will surely prove to be more tortuous and mysterious. For our own purposes, let us just reflect on an aspect of Filipino culture that may help us a bit more in conducting interstate relations.
The South China Sea issue has surfaced what anthropologists would call a “deep structure” in our culture: the fellow-feeling known as “kapwa.” At its best, in its deepest baseline root, it lends to the culture an empathetic sensitivity to the “other”—seeing in the stranger not a “foreign devil” as is the Chinese wont, but a “kapwa-tao,” a fellow human being. We do not emphasize the strangeness, unlike the Japanese who, even after years of being in their country, will still treat you as “gaijin.” Instead, we emphasize sameness, a common human sense of identity, as signified by the ubiquitous prefix—“ka”—hence the passion for connectedness, always exploring the slightest of threads that would somehow establish some link that would bring you in as kindred.
This makes for a culture that is open and other-directed at its core, welcoming and hospitable. It is manifested in a certain plasticity that makes us agile in adapting to various environments, and makes us willing to always accommodate the outsider, even to a fault.
Colonization has distorted this embrace of the “other” into a slavish malleability, making us subject to manipulation and control by powerful forces. Our accommodative bent has made our leaders lawyer for the interests of those who have lorded it over us, be it Spain, the United States or now China. Our other-directedness has been most in display, in its aberrant form, as “reverse ethnocentrism,” seeing other cultures as always better than ours, inferiorizing our own.
In contrast, while China is said to be still smarting from its “century of humiliation” in the hands of Western powers, we now see the resurfacing of its ancient self-image as “zhong guo”—the “middle kingdom” or “central state”—that once saw itself as a benevolent ruler, not just of a country but of an entire civilization.
This ethnocentric sense that it is at the center of the world is an ideological construct based on a myth created during the Zhou period that the Central States, whose ruler held a Mandate from Heaven, has a civilizing influence that is to be extended to all the world. This is embedded in its language: in Chinese, we are told, “world” and “empire”—“tien-hsia,” or “all that is under Heaven”—are synonymous terms. Since then, this has been at the core of Chinese self-identity.
This idea may have been shattered in some ways by the virtual occupation of its coastal cities by rapacious powers that imposed on it unequal treaties. Nevertheless, through the vicissitudes of its long history, this narrative has been persistent and is now resurgent. We see it in the shift from its published policy of “peaceful rise” to aggressive measures that clearly send signals that it is out to establish dominance.
The accommodative bent of the Duterte regime, if not arrested, may make the country once again a willing satellite, this time not of the United States but of China and its ambition to remake Asia according to its old self-image as center of a vast tributary system of vassal states.
—————Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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