SIM Report: Southeast Asia, Issue 4

PHILIPPINES: Growing anti-Chinese sentiment increases travel risks in the short-to-medium term

In January 2020, the Philippines recorded a spike in crime that President Rodrigo Duterte blamed on an increase in offshore online gambling operators. These operators are known as Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), which are mostly run by Chinese staff and cater to customers in China, where gambling is prohibited. In response, the Filipino government revoked a special six-month visa for Chinese travellers and increased bureaucratic hurdles for Chinese visa applications. The Philippine Senate also opened a probe into Chinese prostitution rings that allegedly primarily service Chinese POGO staff, and opposition politicians have opened investigation into the links between Chinese migration and an increase in criminal activities such as prostitution and kidnappings. Police said that the 71 per cent spike in kidnappings from 2018 to 2019 are mostly tied to POGOs. 

The revocation reflects an increasingly precarious balancing act as Manila strives to appear as cracking down on POGOs while not fully banning them. Despite repeated calls by Beijing for Manila to fully outlaw the operators, Manila has refrained from doing so due to the POGOs economic contributions. Beijing has been on a campaign to shut down the operators – which the Anti-Money Laundering Council, a Filipino government agency, says is a ‘high risk’ sector for money laundering – across the Asia-Pacific region, including Mongolia and Nepal. The Chinese government in 2019 described online gambling as ‘the most dangerous tumour in modern society detested by people all across the world.’ Chinese POGO workers according to one estimate number at 100,000-150,000 as of August 2019, though another 2019 estimate puts it at 400,000 with many of them in the country illegally. The Filipino government has so far refused to deport them out of concerns that Beijing would retaliate by deporting Filipinos from China. 

POGOs have caused rent prices in the capital Manila to surge above the grasp of middle-income Filipinos, contributing towards growing concerns among Filipinos that Manila is prioritising relations with Beijing over its own citizens. Such concerns have in recent years also been fuelled by the Filipinos worries around the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines involvement with a Chinese state-owned company, as well as the Filipino government’s perceived inaction towards China regarding the territorial dispute over the South China Sea. In April 2019, approximately 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside the Chinese embassy in Manila over Beijing’s perceived growing influence over the Philippines, including in the South China Sea and via illegal Chinese workers. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines has recently been compounded over Manila’s initially tempered response towards the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks, with increasing public pressure leading to a full ban on Chinese travellers on 3 February. However, potential trigger points for anti-Chinese unrest are likely to persist in the short-to-medium term. These include any moves that Filipinos view as acquiescing to Beijing’s demands, including an easing of Chinese travel curbs despite potential increases in recorded COVID-19 cases. Another trigger point is insufficient measures to crack down on POGOs and associated criminal activities, especially if government probes reveal concrete links between POGOs or Chinese migration and crime. Anti-Chinese unrest could result in increased security risks for Chinese business travellers and staff, which are already facing heightened levels of xenophobia and discrimination relating to COVID-19.

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