China’s cyber-subversion | Inquirer Opinion

China’s cyber-subversion

The President protests too much. His vituperative response to former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario’s allegation that China had a hand in electing him in 2016 was to threaten him with a lawsuit and pour coffee on his face.

“Gago ka [You are stupid]. Where did you get that? With 16 million [who voted for me], can you get the help of another country? Can you buy 16 million [voters]?” Mr. Duterte was reported to have said.


The President grounds his ire on what appears to be an implausible piece of stupidity: “Can you buy 16 million voters?” But the question is antiquated and betrays ignorance of the new context in which political battles are now won or lost. In an age when it is possible to peddle fake dreams and false promises to millions through an army of trolls, it is quite anachronistic to imagine that China would send its operatives on the streets and go on a spree of vote-buying. No, they would not have gone around loaded with sacks of money, as Mr. Duterte himself has promised to do for his PDP-Laban bets come election time.

The old public square has now shifted to cyberspace. Countries possessing technologies with a global reach are now, more than ever, capable of subverting another nation without firing a single shot. There is no doubt that in recent decades, China has pole-vaulted from producing low-cost, low-technology goods to making sophisticated technologies that go by the name of Huawei or Alibaba. It is not farfetched that it now has the technical tools necessary to insidiously warp computer terminals, tamper with election results, and finance a favorite horse running its race by proxy from offshore.


Sen. Risa Hontiveros has warned that “China’s cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns will be one of the biggest threats to our national security and our democracy.” She based this on reports from cybersecurity firm Kaspersky of “persistent threats” from cyber actors located in Asia and Africa.

This may sound unduly alarmist this early, but allegations of China’s interference in elections is a disturbing pattern worth watching. Besides Del Rosario’s disclosure, citing information from “a most reliable international entity,” there are similar stories being woven in many places in Africa.

Zambia, for instance, after years of welcoming China’s presence, came out loudly against and even violently protested China’s alleged “hidden hand” in their politics. During their last general elections, a top Zambian leader complained that “Zambia has become a province of China.” Some went so far as to accuse China of being responsible for the stalled democracies in several African countries.

Some people have expressed puzzlement over Mr. Duterte’s seemingly unaccountable subservience to the Chinese when it comes to pushing our rights over the West Philippine Sea.

China’s reason for silently subverting our rights over our seas is clear enough. The Reed Bank is within our exclusive economic zone, and it holds about half of the 11 billion barrels of oil and about a quarter of the 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas estimated to be in the entire South China Sea. Energy consumption in the region is expected to double by 2030. China’s need to fuel its mammoth industries accounts for half of the expected increase in demand.

This is why, among the littoral nations staking their claims, China is so focused on tightening its grip on this country in whatever way, politically and economically.

It may be worth remembering that in 2018, Mr. Duterte proudly boasted that Chinese President Xi Jinping had his back. This was meant as a warning to those plotting moves to remove him from office.


Whatever is the truth behind the revelation of the former foreign affairs secretary, it is clear from Mr. Duterte’s own mouth that he is relying on his Chinese patrons to keep him in office.

No wonder he talks confidently about running for vice president, blatantly contravening the spirit of the Constitution. He is likely not counting on the Filipino people to secure his continuing tenure in office. He is counting on Xi Jinping.

* * *

Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: China cyber-subversion, Commentary, Melba Padilla Maggay
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