The Chinese Filipinos of the Philippines have historically persisted through waves of discrimination. While the country takes pride in its multiculturalism, recent anger directed toward China has inflicted what experts call “collateral damage” upon the Tsinoys.
The headlines are unwavering: The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has opened its arms to China. This sentiment has alarmed Filipinos, who are fearful that China will trample their country’s sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea, handicapping the archipelago with burdensome “debt trap” Belt and Road projects and sending waves of workers from the Chinese mainland, who often stay illegally on tourist visas and have a predilection for getting up to no good. “We are Filipinos,” one young protester told me at an April demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Manila, “and we hate China!”
According to a series of surveys by the research outfit Social Weather Stations, which are frequently referenced in Philippine media, most Filipinos harbor a deep distrust of China. This made for the basis of a widely shared argument in November by Philippine Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod, who, despite claiming to register her discontent with the country of China rather than Chinese people, raised the ire of many readers by lambasting the Chinese Filipino community.
Chinese Filipinos, often known as Tsinoys, have long been accepted in the Philippines’ multicultural society — they’re known for holding prominent roles in politics and business, establishing schools and charitable foundations, and populating the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo, since its founding in 1594. However, there is a fear that rising anti-China sentiments in the country “might spill over and hurt the Tsinoy community,” says Chinese-Filipino academic and author Caroline Hau.
Monsod’s column, along with a series of entries by acclaimed Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose, have made for a spate of what Hau calls “intelligentsia peddling racist bullshit,” which has played a role in threatening the peaceful coexistence of Filipinos and Tsinoys.
Who are the Chinese Filipinos?
Nobody knows exactly how many Chinese Filipinos are in the Philippines.
Some estimates say the number of “Chinese mestizos” — those with one Chinese and one Filipino parent — hovers around 1.35 million, or between 1.2 percent and 1.8 percent of the population. Millions more Filipinos have Chinese ancestry — potentially as many as 25 percent — but unlike many Southeast Asian contemporaries, the Philippine government does not conduct surveys on the ethnicity of its citizens.
People with Chinese heritage have not always been treated as equals in the Philippines. During the era of Spanish colonization, Chinese Filipinos were displaced, expelled from their communities, and victimized by numerous massacres. When the United States occupied the country, it applied its domestic Chinese Exclusion Act to the Philippines and refused entry to all but merchants and their sons. Things began to change when the Philippines formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1975 and nationality laws were changed to provide Chinese Filipinos with a path to Philippine citizenship. Since then, Tsinoys have rapidly integrated into Philippine society rather than being relegated to its fringes, according to Teresita Ang See, founder of the organization Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran, or Kaisa, which aims to foster the integration of Chinese Filipinos into Philippine society.
“The integration happened very smoothly,” she says. “It became a natural social phenomenon.”
Ang See says at least 93 percent of Tsinoys come from China’s Fujian Province, with more than 60 percent hailing from Jinjiang, a county-level city of Quanzhou prefecture; many still speak Hokkien along with English and Filipino. Her figures come from an extensive project documenting tombstones in Chinese Filipino cemeteries, for which Kaisa partnered with the Taipei-based Academia Sinica. Kaisa regularly assists Tsinoys in tracing their roots in southeast China — many Tsinoys, especially among elder generations, fear these connections are starting to be lost. “We don’t have firsthand experience [of China] anymore,” Ang See says. “The China we know is the China we know from the stories of our parents, from what we read, and from what we learn in school.”
According to Ang See, the overwhelming majority of Tsinoys see themselves as Filipinos. In the early 1990s, Ang See and Kaisa began a concerted effort to popularize the term “Tsinoy” to differentiate Chinese Filipinos from new immigrants, who had become associated with kidnapping and smuggling.
In her November column, Monsod wrote that, in her observation, “a Chinese Filipino will never state unequivocally that he/she is a Filipino first, and a Chinese second (meaning, his loyalty is to the Philippines).” Ang See insists this notion is absurd — if anything, since their path to citizenship was made easier, Tsinoys have departed further than ever from their Chinese heritage. “The predominant identity,” she says, “has already been transformed to a Filipino identity.”
What has been changing?
Most observers start with President Duterte’s apparent love affair toward China — a rare position on which most Filipinos disagree with their wildly popular leader.
Several factors are at play here, including Duterte’s public accommodations of China’s “nine-dash line” — a demarcation line Beijing uses to claim many contested islands in the South China Sea — a recent influx of Chinese business and investment, and the surge of mainland Chinese workers who have come along with it.
While many Filipinos differentiate between Chinese Filipinos and the actions of the Chinese government and new Chinese immigrants, recent events — and ensuing reactions by Philippine media — have made some Tsinoy leaders inclined to reassert the unique identity of their community.
The South China Sea
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled China’s nine-dash line invalid under international law. This was a victory for the Philippines, which had filed its case during the administration of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. However, Duterte later said his administration would set aside the decision in an effort to strengthen ties with China. The move was highly unpopular among Filipinos protective of their country’s sovereignty, who were only further enraged in late March when a U.S. admiral said Chinese coast guard vessels operating near the Scarborough Shoal “regularly harass and intimidate” Filipino fishermen in the area — a direct violation of the 2016 tribunal ruling.
Duterte has stepped up his rhetoric as of late, saying he will send Filipino soldiers on “suicide missions” to protect the sovereignty of Pagasa Island, but his uneven stance as president has earned him the impression of kowtowing to China. When Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited the Philippines last November, Filipinos welcomed him with Winnie the Pooh memes showing the banned-in-China bear eating out of a West Philippine Sea honeypot and leading his “puppy” — Duterte — on a leash. Months earlier, on the two-year anniversary of the 2016 court ruling, banners went up in Manila declaring the Philippines to be a “province of China.” (Duterte had previously joked about making the country into the “province of Philippines, Republic of China” — although the gaffe-prone president had surely not meant to refer to Taiwan.)
This has led to a widespread impression that the Philippines has radically shifted away from the U.S., its closest ally, in favor of a new era of warm ties with China. When asked whether this is true, Herman Kraft, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, gives a simple answer: “No.” Instead, he says, Duterte appears to be bringing Philippine-China ties closer to where they stood prior to the Aquino administration, which had a tense relationship with China as the two side failed to negotiate on competing land claims in the South China Sea. Kraft says Duterte has positioned the Philippines as uncommonly friendly toward China, especially from an economic standpoint — but, at the same time, the Philippine military has maintained its historically strong ties with the U.S. “Bilateral relations have a very strong anchor,” he says. “Not even Duterte’s popularity can change that.”
Ang See points to a “breakdown of communication” between the Philippines and China, which, she says, has cultural roots. In 2013, she led a delegation of Philippines-based China experts who visited several major think tanks in China, including the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, Hainan, and came away feeling that neither side had clearly relayed the basis of its claim to the other. Chinese officials have struggled to dissociate the Philippine claim from its U.S. support, while the Philippines has refused to find space for negotiation while China refuses to drop its claim of sovereignty.
“There is still a cultural difference in the way they see things,” says Ang See, who points out that the overwhelming majority of the Tsinoy community — herself included — is inclined to support the Philippine claim in the South China Sea.
Belt and Road facilitates Chinese investment
The Chinese Filipino community does have one clear and lasting connection with China: the willingness of its business leaders to promote economic ties between the two countries.
“The Filipino Chinese community is acting more as an agent of improving the investment climate for mainland Chinese,” says Enrico Gloria, an assistant professor of political science at UP Diliman. “In terms of the geopolitical aspect…they are more in support of the current government in terms of trying to stand our ground and defend the sovereignty of our country.”
Since Duterte swept into power and rendered the country, as Kraft puts it, “open for business” in China, several controversial Belt and Road projects have raised concern over how easily the Philippines can separate its economic and political relations with its larger neighbor. The Duterte administration has come under fire for not revealing the details of several loan agreements with China, raising concerns of insurmountable debt and, upon nonpayment, the claiming of Philippine land by China.
The onus may ultimately be on the two governments to keep economic and political ties separate, but in the meantime, Tsinoys are caught in the crossfire. Hau has seen a renewal of old stereotypes claiming that Chinese Filipinos control a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth — this was present in Monsod’s column, she points out, despite it being impossible to verify. Many families with monosyllabic names tracing back to Chinese ancestors have become fully Filipino, losing their ability to speak Mandarin and Hokkien throughout the generations, she says.
Ultimately, Kraft and Gloria both insist the Belt and Road projects pale in importance to most Filipinos compared to their feelings over the nation’s sovereignty — and to the growing skepticism over the recent influx of Chinese workers into the country.
The arrival of Chinese workers
From 2015 to 2018, the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment issued more than 85,000 alien working permits to Chinese workers. In addition, according to Rappler, industry insiders have estimated that between 100,000 and 250,000 Chinese nationals may be working illegally in the Philippines.
“They arrived here mainly as tourists, and they ended up working or doing business, and quite a number of them are illegally staying here,” says Ang See. “It brings a huge slew of new problems that exacerbate the ethnic tensions and racial conflict that has been happening. And the Tsinoys become collateral damage of these tensions.”
Duterte has opted not to take a hard line on deporting illegal Chinese workers, citing a fear of retribution toward Filipino workers in mainland China. But the increasing number of Chinese nationals working in the Philippines has led to a Senate inquiry, which sparked concerns that special working permits — not the same as alien working permits — may have been issued fraudulently.
Chinese nationals in the Philippines have found themselves ensnared in a growing list of controversies. In February, a Chinese student threw a cup of taho, a popular Filipino snack, at a MRT worker, inciting a backlash on social media. In early May, a public official accused individuals who “appeared to be Chinese nationals” of cutting in line at the airport in Manila. Chinese nationals have also coalesced in the country’s booming online gambling industry, controlled by mainland Chinese immigrants, which hires Chinese speakers to cater to its largest market and has drawn criticism for driving up real estate prices in some Metro Manila neighborhoods. “They create a lot of problems with peace and order,” says Ang See, whose organization has attempted to work with government authorities to end kidnappings and violent crimes allegedly spurred by the industry’s bad actors.
Ang See says many Tsinoys harbor “a very strong resentment” toward mainland Chinese immigrants, regularly complaining about their behaviors and attitudes. “Tsinoys will look at it very, very negatively,” she says. However, her organization stresses the need to foster an understanding inclusive of Chinese newcomers while still differentiating them from Chinese Filipinos.
Hau gives the Tsinoy community a two-part prescription: “On the one hand, protect yourself against racism by claiming your Filipino-ness. On the other hand, make sure not to be racist against new migrants” — many of whom are vulnerable themselves upon entering Philippine society.
Tsinoys have begun to embrace the first part, taking strides to assert their Filipino identity. “Many Tsinoy friends and relatives I have feel insecure,” Hau says. “When they go out in public, they want to emphasize they speak Filipino… There’s a sense it’s harder now, you need to be more careful in emphasizing you’re a Filipino.”
Hau bristles at media insinuations that there is a “fifth column” of Tsinoys in the Philippines — or that Chinese Filipinos must pass a “loyalty test,” a concept F. Sionil Jose, the writer, has flirted with in newspaper columns. However, she maintains attitudes toward Chinese in the Philippines have changed for the better since the diplomatic recognition of Beijing — and that the Philippines will avoid the ethnic conflicts which have plagued overseas Chinese communities in other Asian countries.
“In the past few decades, Chinese have been much more proud of their ancestry, as Asia is rising,” she says. “Chinese Filipinos feel they are [now] sort of vulnerable, so they must act. At the same time, they feel Filipino nationalism is inclusive. They believe in it — and I believe in it.”