In a 2012 piece in The Spectator about the win of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen in the London Olympics, writer Ross Clark titled his commentary, “Sinophobia, the last acceptable racism.” He wrote about how Western coaches questioned China’s win of gold medals, initially insinuating possible illegal drug use, then later the use of inhumane and brutal training regimes.
I took note of Clark’s term, wondering whether or not there is ever a level of racism that can be deemed acceptable or justifiable. If black is black and white is white, then the appropriate reply to this query is “none.” For racism can never be acceptable or justified. But, in reality, we live in a world filled with various shades of gray, and not just black and white.
I have never considered racism much of an issue in modern-day Philippines, perhaps until now. I am not an academic, neither am I an expert in Sociology. However, as a journalist in the last 25 years, I have had the opportunity to closely observe many things happening in the country. And, to date, I sense an increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among our people.
People appear to have begun to dislike the Chinese because of their unilateral politics, their supposed territorial intrusions, their alleged “bullying,” and their use of economic might to get other countries’ compliance. As such, those who are vocal against the Chinese are labeled patriots and nationalists, while those seen supportive are labeled traitors and opportunists.
In reality, the issue has nothing to do with skin color or race. It is not strictly racism per se, as it doesn’t seem to be a matter of Filipinos seeing the foreign Chinese as inferior to them or seeing themselves as superior to the Chinese. People perhaps don’t like the Chinese not for who they are, but for what they do and how they do them.
My concern is that for some people, the distinction may not be clear. And their sentiment against what the Chinese do and how they do them may yet translate to a sentiment against the Chinese, in general. And this, I believe, is a brewing issue. The last thing we need now is a situation where the unscrupulous can take advantage of circumstances and feed the fire.
Is it possible for the sentiment against mainly foreign Chinese to broadly cover Chinese-Filipinos, too? Will Filipinos miss the distinction and lump them all together? Many Chinese-Filipinos do business in China or have business dealings with their foreign brothers. They entertain Chinese investments. So, does the government. Will anti-Chinese sentiment affect them as well?
More than 20 years ago, in May 1998, major riots occurred in the Indonesian cities of Medan, Jakarta, and Surakarta. This was in reaction to allegations of widespread cheating in legislative elections as well as the economic downturn resulting from the Asian financial crisis in 1997. The riots eventually saw the resignation of President Suharto and the creation of a new government.
The riots took place as the country grappled with food shortages and mass unemployment, and the main targets of the violence were not foreign but ethnic Chinese. More than a thousand people were estimated to have died in the riots. The ethnic Chinese, or the Chinese Indonesians, were blamed for the hardships, with many of them being in control of business and food supply.
Shops and supermarkets owned by Chinese Indonesians were looted, while those owned by indigenous peoples were left alone. Jakarta’s Chinatown was badly damaged, and some store owners allegedly paid local thugs to protect them because the police could not. In Surabaya, rioters also targeted Chinese-owned stores and homes, burning their contents.
Every time the issue of anti-Chinese sentiment arises, I cannot help but recall what happened in Indonesia 20 years ago. For, it is a fact that big businesses even in the Philippines are also controlled by ethnic Chinese, the Chinese Filipinos, including businesses involved in the supply of food, whether locally produced or imported.
Sentiment against the Chinese is not new in the Philippines, and it can happen again.
In a paper on retail trade by Assistant Professor Bing Baltazar C. Brillo of the Department of Social Sciences of UP Los Banos, he noted that as early as the Constitutional Convention in 1934-1935, government was already moving against Chinese businesses as “the Committee on Commerce headed by Salvador Araneta recommended the inclusion of a provision that only citizens of the Philippines and the United States would be allowed to engage in the retail business in the proposed Philippine Constitution” of 1935.
But, then President Manuel Quezon counseled against the passage of such laws for being ill-timed, and that it can come after the Philippines gained independence from the US. Moreover, “legislators feared international repercussions, particularly from the United States, China, and Japan (which at the time was poised to be a regional power).”
After the war, Congress actually passed a retail nationalization law but President Sergio Osmeña vetoed it, warning that other countries and the United Nations might see the law as discriminatory against their nationals residing in the Philippines. Incidentally, Osmeña, an illegitimate child, is of Chinese-Filipino ancestry. His father was surnamed “Sanson,” and his mother was a Suico-Osmeña. His wives, Estefania Chiong Veloso and Esperanza Limjap, were also of Chinese-Filipino ancestry.
A third attempt to block Chinese retailers occurred in 1950 during the Quirino Administration, but the bill filed in Congress was not passed for lack of time. But, in 1954, during the Magsaysay Administration, a fourth attempt succeeded. The Third Congress passed Republic Act No. 1180, or the Retail Trade Nationalization Act, which remained in effect until retail trade was “liberalized” in 2001 through a repealing law.
At the time, Prof. Brillo noted, data from the Bureau of the Census and Statistics showed that Filipinos owned only 51.9% of the total assets of the country, and the rest were owned by foreigners. Moreover, the same bureau reported in 1948 that of the total 12,274 alien retail trade establishments in the Philippines at the time, 12,087 were run by Chinese, and only the remaining 187 were operated by non-Chinese.
“The fundamental premise for nationalizing the retail trade was that Chinese domination resulted in an industry controlled by aliens,” Brillo noted. As RA 1180’s explanatory note stated, “Its purpose is to prevent persons who are not citizens of the Philippines from having a stranglehold upon our economic life. If the persons who control this vital artery of our economic life are those who owe no allegiance to this Republic, who have no profound devotion to our free institutions and who have no permanent stake in our people’s welfare, we are not really masters of our own destiny.”
Those who successfully lobbied for nationalizing the retail trade were the Filipino retail businesses, merchants and vendors, supported by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce (PCC) and the Philippine Chamber of Industries (PCI), as well as the state agency Bureau of Commerce. Those opposed were the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce (CGCC) and the Federation of Chinese Chambers of Commerce (FCCC). Both were supported by the Chinese government in Taiwan, and the American Chamber of Commerce (ACC). Filipino retailers threatened to use their votes to influence lawmakers, while the Chinese turned to the international community to pressure the Philippine Government.
About 46 years after RA 1180 was enacted, its critics claimed the law had already outlived its usefulness. By then, the assimilation of the ethnic Chinese has resulted in a retail industry full of Chinese-Filipinos, rather than pure or foreign Chinese nationals. And given other reasons as well, Congress deemed it already reasonable to “liberalize” retail trade in 2000.
But, with the way things are now, are we about to see “protectionism” rear its head once more? Will we see people or business groups lobby for Congress and the Executive to move towards curtailing, or limiting, particularly Chinese efforts to play a greater role in the Philippine economy?
Will we again discriminate against Chinese business and Chinese investments like we did in 1934-1954? Will we once again close certain industries to Chinese nationals, like in 1954-2000? Should we consider such seemingly racist effort “acceptable” like in 1954? Will there be increasing pressure on the government, from local and external sources, to reconsider its China pivot?
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council