Alice Guo: A society of spectacles

Is this the worst Senate in Philippine history? One is tempted to agree. Just look at the “hearing” led by Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, which made a mockery out of the august chamber. The senator, who attained his status largely on the coattails of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure, was a picture of embarrassing incompetence and performative antics. For some critics, the whole “PDEA leaks” hearings under Duterte’s former police chief—arbitrarily dragging in even actress Maricel Soriano—were nothing short of a clown show, which only exposed the troubling deterioration in the quality of membership in the country’s highest legislative office.

Sure, the whole back-and-forth between former PDEA agent Jonathan Morales and Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada Jr. was entertaining. Arguably, the shadowy former drug enforcement agent pulled off one of the most memorable “UNO reverse card” moves, when he reminded everyone that it was Estrada, not him, who was actually convicted of a crime.

The preposterous charade ultimately cost Sen. Juan “Migz” Zubiri his Senate presidency. Coupled with the “footgate” of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla (another senator who remained in office despite facing serious criminal charges), this was the final straw. Zubiri was already facing backlash from his colleagues for lack of decisive leadership, which contributed to, inter alia, delays in the legislative process and the prolonged Quiboloy drama.

Nevertheless, there are rays of hope. Over the past two weeks, Senators Risa Hontiveros and Sherwin Gatchalian provided us with a masterclass in legislative scrutiny. The curious case of Bamban Mayor Alice Guo has rightly raised alarm bells across the country and beyond since it has clear national security implications. The controversial mayor’s case came to the limelight after as many as 875 people were rounded up at the Bamban-based Chinese online casino, Zuan Yuan Technology Inc. amid accusations of kidnapping by a former alleged detainee.

As if allegations of human trafficking and gangster-level crimes weren’t enough, the Philippine National Police has also revealed that they are examining whether the Chinese online casino was also involved in surveillance and hacking of government websites. In short, there is considerable evidence to suggest a toxic cocktail of criminal syndicates and espionage-influence operations at play.

Things turned even more surreal when Guo, who allegedly owned the aforementioned Chinese online casino, failed to provide any proper documentation or narrative on her true origins. Efforts to “humanize” her story, thanks to a lengthy interview with a celebrated journalist, only backfired after her extremely lavish lifestyle was exposed—including the ownership of a helicopter and more than a dozen vehicles, all purchased in the final years of the pro-China Duterte administration.

The intervention of Gatchalian was particularly crucial because it exposed the paucity of any accusation of “Sinophobia” by pro-Beijing proxies. As a patriotic Chinoy, Gatchalian is not only deeply knowledgeable about the lives of the Chinese-Filipino community but also in a position of moral authority to expose the perilous national security implications of not only Guo’s case but also the proliferation and persistent presence of Chinese online casinos.

The newly crowned Senate President Francis “Chiz” Escudero was quick to share his own two cents by seemingly ignoring all the national security concerns in favor of placing the burden of proof on his fellow senators and government agencies. While I do agree with him that due process is a kernel of our legal system, I find the genealogy of his intervention quite curious: What did the good senator say about the brazen violation of human rights, our constitutional, and thousands of extrajudicial killings during the Duterte administration, again?

But did we really need such sensational Senate hearings to expose Guo’s stupendously suspicious case? In any robust democracy or self-respecting nation, her case would have been dealt with de rigueur by authorities without much fanfare. And what happens when news fatigue sets in, and the nation moves to the next controversy?

Ours is not yet a mature democracy since we are, to use the terminology by philosopher Guy Debord, a society of the spectacle (“La société du spectacle”). Instead of instituting the foundations of rule of law, and proactively guarding our national security, we simply move from one “separate pseudo-world” and fragmented yet sensational representation to another at the risk of turning into a banana republic.