January 25, 2020 (2:12 PM)

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Despite the current tension between China and the Philippines, the Filipino-Chinese community in the country continues to celebrate Chinese New Year. Photo courtesy of Adonis Joshua Po

In celebrating the Chinese New Year, it is tradition to have hopes of a brand new beginning filled with luck and abundance. When President Rodrigo Duterte addressed the Chinese community of the Philippines during last year’s celebration of the Chinese New Year, for instance, he hoped for prosperity, peace, and growth together. Looking back in hindsight, it seems that 2019 has turned out to be the other way around: a year of tantamount challenges that threatened to break the already trembling relationship between the Philippines and China.

Four years after the much-disputed South China Sea standoff in 2012, an international tribunal ruled China’s nine-dash-line invalid in international law—a victorious feat for Filipinos who pushed for the country’s sovereignty. The celebration stopped short, however, when reports surfaced that Chinese vessels operating near the Scarborough Shoal were allegedly “harassing” Filipino fisherfolks. This was considered a direct violation of the 2016 tribunal ruling. Just last year, another issue swept rounds on the internet: a Chinese woman threw taho at an MRT worker. This was followed by another online outcry in May when a Filipino public official claimed that individuals who “appeared to be Chinese nationals” were cutting lines on an airport.

With many controversies surrounding the two countries especially of late, it becomes unclear as to what the celebration of the Chinese New Year means, especially in terms of China-Philippines relations.

“Those events are sad but there are many countries in conflict with one another, too. The relevance of Chinese New Year is for the Chinese or Chinese-Filipinos to come together to celebrate,Crystal Valerie Yee, President of the Ateneo Filipino-Chinese Community in Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU), expressed.

Independent yet selective foreign policy

In September 2016, Duterte declared an ‘independent foreign policy.’ This pronouncement, later on, gave weight when, in October, he proclaimed an economic and military split with the United States of America, a long-held ally of the country, establishing closer ties with China and Russia instead.

 “If you look at the overall relationship between China and the Philippines under Duterte’s administration, essentially, it’s warm. I find it easier for both the Philippines and China to navigate their shared interests because the President has this warm attitude towards China compared to the previous administration,” Ms. Rhisan Morales, Director of the Center for Politics and International Affairs (CPIA) of AdDU explained.

Ironically, this ‘independent’ foreign policy strikes in contrast with reality. Many believe that Duterte is batting his eyes on the many instances China has over crossed the friendship barometer. For one, Duterte is quick at lambasting critics against his war on drugs but has reservations with his use of profanities when it comes to China which, according to him, is a source of drug traffickers. Not to mention the influx of cases of illegal Chinese workers that led to a Senate inquiry. Duterte, claiming to be wary of retribution from China towards Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), opted not to act on the issue. With these, critics have ruthlessly expressed that for Duterte, at least, independence applies selectively to the west, while with China, we find him in both knees.

Effects to the state

As part of the Philippine government’s thrust for warmer relations with China, it has been aligning its domestic policies with the former as well. According to Ms. Morales, Duterte’s ‘Build, build, build’ policy, a parallel to the Belt and Road initiative of China, is an example.

“It’s just a matter of how, at the domestic level, the Philippines would craft policies as to how we could engage China in a friendlier manner, but essentially also protecting our own rights, sovereignty, and integrity as a state,” she related.

 “Of course Duterte’s not blind in all this. While he’s forging closer ties with China, he’s also protecting the Philippines’ interests, for example, to other issues concerning Chinese immigrants.”

Amid these friendlier ties, though, a build-up of prejudice against Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos has also emerged. Yee, being a Chinese-Filipina herself, experienced first-hand these prejudices. At one point, she was told that she should just get deported. She also shared that she has faced mockeries all throughout her life, just because of her slanted eyes and pale skin.

“We may be Chinese but we’re also Filipinos. We were born here, we were raised here, we can speak Filipino, and we also love the Philippines since we grew up here,” she stressed.

Celebrating Chinese New Year

Amid all the issues pervading the two nations, Professor Morales believes in the relevance of celebrating Chinese New Year in the Philippines— a country of countless Chinese diasporas.

“We are diverse as a nation. It’s very important that we celebrate along with Chinese and Chinese-Filipino communities because that’s one way to start understanding each other,” she emphasized.

“China is an incomplete and misunderstood hegemon. So we need to understand China more,” she added.

Meanwhile, for Chinese-Filipinos like Yee, the politics surrounding China and the Philippines, though significant in determining the present and future of the two nations, remains a far cry from their actual lived experiences. While the two governments are establishing ‘warmer’ ties, prejudice abounds among their people, especially those who are caught in between the Chinese and Filipino divide. And while this friendly relationship between China and the Philippines remains shaky, long-established cultures and traditions by the Filipino-Chinese community in the Philippines have built the bedrock of cultural and social connections.

That’s why Chinese New Year is very meaningful to us. Because it’s celebrating our roots, celebrating family,” Yee emphasized.



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