‘China out’: Demonstrations at Chinese consulate on Philippines Independence Day

Foreign Affairs

Protesters converged on the Chinese consulate in Manila on Saturday, calling for President Rodrigo Duterte to end his reliance on China, and for China to stop encroaching on Filipino waters.

Anti-China protest on Philippines Independence Day
Photo by Neil Ambion

On Philippines Independence Day on Saturday, close to a thousand protesters converged on the Chinese consulate in Manila in a coordinated protest, defying the government’s ban on mass gatherings. Led by the Duterte Wakasan (End Duterte) Movement, a newly formed coalition of militants, lawmakers, artists, church workers, etc., protesters descended onto the steps of the consulate, chanting and waving signs with phrases such as “China out.”

The main targets of the protests were China’s increased presence in the part of the South China Sea that the Philippines government calls the West Philippine Sea and President Rodrigo Duterte’s perceived reliance on Beijing.

Independence Day in the Philippines — this year marked 123 years of independence from Spain — often sees protests by various political groups. The rally at the Chinese consulate was one of the largest Independence Day demonstrations in recent memory. It was also the first major protest to be coordinated among several groups since the country went into COVID lockdown in March 2020.

Renato Reyes of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), or BAYAN, one of the conveners of Duterte Wakasan, told SupChina, “The collaboration between Duterte and China puts our country at risk. China is seizing our islands, oceans, and eventually the oil reserves. This only benefits the cronies and allies of the administration.”

China’s territorial and maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea have long been disputed. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying this part of the ocean was the country’s exclusive economic zone. Despite the decision, Chinese ships have repeatedly been sighted in those waters, sometimes coming into direct contact with Filipino fishermen. Duterte has done little to push China back.

During the protest, former Supreme Court Justice and longstanding critic of Chinese interventionism Antonio Carpio delivered a message. “President Duterte has stated that he will align with the ideological flow of China,” he said. “President Duterte says that China owns the West Philippine Sea. He says the arbitral award is a scrap of paper that should be thrown in the wastebasket. The president’s policy is to appease China at the expense of our exclusive maritime zones and natural resources. President Duterte is making the Philippines a satellite state of China.”

Last June 9, Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and Duterte exchanged messages on the anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The former affirmed an “everlasting friendship” while the latter characterized their connection as a “win-win cooperation.”

In March, around 200 Chinese ships were sighted along the contested waters. In response, Duterte said that China was a “good friend” and that he was reluctant to confront the issue for fears of starting an international incident. The response on Twitter was unforgiving, deeming his actions treasonous. #DuterteTraydor (DuterteTraitor) trended, along with hashtags calling for his removal from office.

Throughout Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines has become markedly close with China. Since 2017, China has been the country’s top trading partner, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, overtaking the United States and Japan.

A protester holds a sign that reads, “Philippines is ours” (photo by Maykel Beltran)
“Genuine reform to our fisheries!” “End Duterte!” (Photo by Maykel Beltran)
Photo by Neil Ambion
Photo by Neil Ambion

Fisherfolk march on the streets

Fisherfolk are among the most aggravated sectors with regards to the president’s stance on territorial integrity. During the 2016 electoral period, Duterte was asked by a fisherman how he would handle Chinese encroachment. He answered that he would steer a jet ski toward the Chinese in one hand and hold a Philippine flag in another, much to the public’s approval.

Last May, when Duterte was reminded of this remark, he said that it was only a joke, and chided the public for taking him seriously.

Filipinos entering the disputed waters have been at the mercy of the Chinese coast guard. In June 2019, a Chinese vessel scuttled a boat of Filipino fishermen, leaving 22 of them stranded at sea after the collision.

Fernando Hicap, chairperson of Pamalakaya, the national federation of small fisherfolk, told SupChina, “The hardship and hunger of ordinary fisherfolk have been unparalleled since Duterte allowed for China’s plunder of our resources in the West Philippine Sea. We need to hold Duterte accountable. We need to end his puppetry toward China.”

“Duterte’s ‘win-win’ description is a lie. Because our fishermen continue to be robbed of their livelihood and the country of its resources,” said Congresswoman and Assistant Minority Leader Arlene Brosas. “If Duterte’s puppetry will remain, these problems will only intensify. Left unaddressed, it will surely become a big issue in the 2022 elections. The people will want to know how those going up against Duterte-backed candidates will make their positions.”

Does China want a ‘Duterte Dynasty’?

Photo by Neil Ambion

Presidents are only allowed a six-year single term, and Duterte’s time in the top post comes to an end in May 2022. This month, Duterte’s political party, PDP-Laban, called for the president to enter the electoral race again, but as vice president. He would act as running mate to his daughter Sara, who has been on the receiving end of a considerable push to enter the race. Both Dutertes have yet to express any clear intentions, but the noise surrounding the issue makes the pairing a likely prospect, akin to a presidential dynasty.

Reyes believes that upholding the country’s sovereign rights is impossible under a Duterte presidency, and thus called for stopping the power grab in its tracks. He also spoke of the possibility of Chinese meddling in the electoral process.

“It isn’t unthinkable that China would intervene in the elections,” he said. “They have sampled what a ‘friendly’ administration can do for them, and they will want to preserve this relationship. We can say that a Duterte candidate is China’s candidate. If Duterte runs for office, China will support.

Reyes pointed to an incident in September 2020, when Facebook shut down more than a hundred China-based accounts dedicated to supporting the presidential father-daughter combo. He said this was a sign of Chinese interference that could happen during the next election.