Government misdeed

Dr. Carol Hau on China

Thanks to sir Roland Tolentino and JPaul Manzanilla, I got to interview via e-mail one of the most cogent Filipino intellectuals out there, Dr. Carol Hau, associate professor in cultural studies at the Kyoto University, whose analyses of nationalist literature in the context of the revolutionary movement I greatly admire. Dr. Hau also studies Chinese-Filipino history and cultural production.

I asked her about her analyses and opinion on post-Maoist China and its implications in the Filipino-Chinese relations. I also asked her to comment on Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s much-publicized racist comments on the Chinese. Here is the e-mailed interview:

1. How has the Chinese society changed culturally over the years since Mao’s death and the reversal of many of the Communist Party’s earlier socialist undertakings? How has it affected the manner by which the Chinese culturally relates to other countries like, say, the Philippines?

The fact that post-Maoist China has emerged as an economic powerhouse certainly has enormous global and regional implications. Not only is it playing a more visible and assertive political role on the world stage (as seen, for example, in its participation in multilateral forums such as ASEAN-plus-Three, the East Asia Summit, and the North Korea negotiations), its own society has undergone wholesale reorganization along capitalist lines. Deng’s “it doesn’t matter whether it’s a black cat or a white cat as long as it catches mice” captures the kind of “pragmatism” that has become an official ideology to legitimize the wholesale transformation of Chinese society. This pragmatism often appears as a measure of superficial “freedom” most especially in the realm of accumulation and consumption (for example, the “freedom” to be fashionable and own the latest gadgets and show off one’s wealth). Critics have lamented the relentless materialism and status-seeking, the growing gap between rich and poor and immiseration of the countryside, and the steady erosion of social safety nets that the government used to provide in the areas of education and health, that characterize China today.

Culturally speaking, Chinese and Chinese intellectuals have long been obsessed by China’s relationship with the West (not surprising, in light of its experience of Western imperialism); it is not surprising that most of the public and intellectual debates are either focused on China itself or on China’s evolving relations with the West. This has resulted in the relative downplaying of China’s relations with the developing countries. In recent years, though, China has attempted to foster better relations with Southeast Asian and African countries, but it is obviously no longer presenting itself as a model of socialist transformation. It is now a stakeholder in the evolution of the global and regional order, as well as one of the major sources of foreign direct investment and aid, and these necessarily shape the kind of attitude it takes toward the countries it channels funds to, as well as its relations with other developing countries.

Ordinary Chinese once viewed the Philippines (of the 1950s and 1960s) as being “better off” than China, but the continuing economic malaise and political instability of our country have largely erased this positive image from the popular imagination. Chinese who visit our country as tourists often remark on how bad our roads are, how dilapidated the buildings are, and the peace-and-order situation (the kidnappings, for example, have been routinely reported in China as well as internationally). I should add that Chinese attitudes toward the Philippines are not very different from, for example, Thai or even American attitudes in the sense that peoples of different countries always view other countries through the lenses of their respective historical and contemporary experiences.

2. Mao’s government during the 70s was accused of aiding national liberation movements, particularly, the Philippine revolutionary movement. Now the Chinese government intervenes into Philippine politics by way of scandalous business transactions like the one with ZTE. Please comment.

I’m not sure what “intervention in politics” means in this context–in fact, this accusation of Chinese intervention in Philippine politics through shady business transactions tells us more about the Philippines than about China. What it tells us is that business and politics are inextricably linked in the Philippines, and no country or corporation that wants to do business with the Philippine government can escape the corruption and collusion that are endemic to the business of governing the Philippines.

Having said this, I should also add that what it tells us about the Chinese government is its failure to cultivate deeper understanding between Filipinos and Chinese, and deeper understanding of countries other than the West (this goes back to my earlier comment about the longstanding Chinese obsession witht the West). This has something to do with the Chinese state’s practice of reshuffling its diplomatic personnel every two to three years, so that these people have very little chance to get to know their counterparts in the Philippines and forge working relationships with them. But far more important, this has something to do with the fact that, unlike Japan, China does not have–and therefore cannot benefit from the advice of–good “area studies specialists” who have deep knowledge of developing countries, who can speak fluently the languages of their areas of specialization, and who have lived and worked in the Philippines or Indonesia or Thailand for many years and have many Filipino, Indonesian or Thai friends who can tell them the “unofficial” stories behind the headlines and diplomatic reports. Owing to this lack of area expertise, the Chinese government has had to rely on Chinese community leaders (who are often businessmen) to mediate their dealings with not just with the Chinese Filipino community but with the Filipinos and the Philippine government in general. In this way, the Chinese government cannot escape the kind of complicity between business and politics that obtains in the Philippines more generally.

3. Please comment on Sen. Miriam Santiago’s statement before the Senate ZTE investigation that “the Chinese invented corruption”.

First of all, corruption is a two-way business–you can’t accuse one party of corruption since corruption requires the connivance of the other party.

Secondly, this statement beautifully showcases Santiago’s penchant for mouthing off without first thinking about what she is saying. More generally, it reveals the kind of kneejerk racism that comes so easily to our elites who, instead of also blaming themselves, like to close rank and band together and act as if they were innocent, helpless virgins who are “corrupted” by the “predatory” Chinese. Well, they are neither innocent nor helpless (nor, as far as Santiago is concerned, virgin), these elites of ours.

The Chinese invented paper, printing, and the compass, and gave the world Confucius and Lao Tze, but they certainly did not invent corruption. Homo sapiens invented corruption.

4. As far as you know, how has the Filipino-Chinese community changed since the fall of socialism in China, if it has been affected at all?

A lot. For one thing, internecine political conflicts between pro-KMT and pro-Mainland Chinese elements in the Chinese community have largely become moot and irrelevant owing to generational change as well as the political situation in both the Philippines and China. Most Chinese Filipinos look at China now as a place for potential investment and as a place of employment. I should add that research on Chinese-Filipino entrepreneurship has emphatically showed that Chinese Filipinos don’t invest in China because they are “Chinese” or that they are part of some “bamboo network” connecting all Chinese culturally. They invest in China because they–like other people from other countries who invest in China–think that they can make money in China. There is more evidence of competition rather than cooperation among Chinese big business in the Philippines, and joint ventures with Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese companies are based on considerations of expertise, technology and capital rather than common ethnic ties. So-called networks based on ethnic ties have been shown to be very superficial and not long-lasting–meaning, for example if a Taiwanese firm sets up business in the Philippines, it tends at first to link up with Filipino-Chinese businesses owing to common lingua franca or a perception of shared “cultural” ties, but these links do not in fact last (nor were they pre-existing to begin with), and are largely situation-driven rather than longstanding or indicative of a supranational “Chinese” network.


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