Filipinos Turn on Duterte as Coronavirus Fears Spread

Anti-Chinese and anti-American conspiracy theories have followed the first death.

Filipinos wearing face masks attend Sunday Mass at a church in Paranaque, Metro Manila, on Feb. 9.
Filipinos wearing face masks attend Sunday Mass at a church in Paranaque, Metro Manila, on Feb. 9. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines—On Feb. 2, the Philippines announced the first death outside China from the coronavirus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. The news set into motion a considerable public outcry targeting popular Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and pried open the wounds of a long history of racist treatment toward those of Chinese heritage.

Duterte’s perceived reluctance to respond quickly to the virus, which critics saw as tied to his administration’s warm relations with the Chinese government, led the hashtag #OustDuterte to trend on Twitter. The virus has not only shaken public trust in Duterte’s government, which remains broadly popular, but it has also worsened the already fraught relationship between the majority of ethnic Filipinos and the country’s sizable community of Chinese Filipinos, known locally as Tsinoys, along with hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals residing in the Philippines. While Chinese Filipinos are well integrated into Philippine society, resentment sometimes arises due to their relative wealth and their traditional presence among the nation’s elite.

Duterte announced an entry ban on Chinese travelers from affected areas on Jan. 31, one day after saying he did not want to restrict the entry of Chinese nationals. Two days later, the ban was expanded to all foreigners traveling from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. The travel restrictions, however, came long after two infected Chinese nationals had arrived in Manila from Wuhan via Hong Kong on Jan. 21 and traveled to three Philippine provinces before being hospitalized on Jan. 25. One of the patients, a 44-year-old man from Wuhan, died from the virus on Feb. 1.

As of Friday, three cases had been confirmed in the Philippines, and 215 people remain under watch for possible infections.

The anti-government backlash was sparked in the days before the travel ban. As Filipinos fretted about the virus’s arrival, Health Secretary Francisco Duque rejected the idea of a temporary ban on Chinese tourists, saying it would spark “political and diplomatic repercussions.”

The government’s slow response—and the public outcry over it—has ignited long-standing perceptions that Duterte is soft on China at the expense of protecting the rights of Filipinos and the country’s sovereignty, said Herman Kraft, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

The popular president has faced criticism for a weak response to Chinese naval incursions into Philippine-claimed areas of the South China Sea, along with allowing China to build artificial islands in the South China Sea and signing high-interest loan deals with Chinese companies for big-ticket infrastructure projects.

“It feeds impressions that more people who might carry the virus could have entered the country because the president was more concerned with hurting China’s feelings than protecting Filipinos,” Kraft said.

Duterte recognized that calls to ban entry to travelers from China “threatened the goodwill he had built” with Chinese leadership, Kraft said, contrasting Duterte’s hesitance to implement a travel ban with his plan to end an agreement allowing visiting U.S. forces legal status in the Philippines after the United States canceled the visa of Ronald Dela Rosa, a senator who led the national police during the peak of the deadly drug war.

The online response to the coronavirus outbreak has not only ensnared Duterte but has spawned online misinformation racially targeting people of Chinese ethnicity, mirroring similar trends throughout the rest of the world—including Indonesia, which also has a large Chinese community.

For some Philippine politicians, the virus isn’t the real enemy. At a Tuesday Senate hearing to discuss government responses to the coronavirus—the culmination of an effort to combat the virus that the public already sees as clumsy and slow-moving—Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go lashed out at internet users peddling fake news, saying they should be “quarantined.” Later in the hearing, Senate President Vicente Sotto III used his time to show a debunked video accusing Western countries of developing the coronavirus as a biowarfare weapon against China, calling the conspiracy theory “very interesting, if not revealing.”

Teodoro Locsin Jr., the foreign secretary, criticized the video in response and simultaneously praised the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus, saying the disease was “proving the resilience and strength of China.” But the praise did not align with the Philippine public’s distrust of China and its closeness to Duterte.

The virus response has played into that distrust. On Jan. 26, Sen. Richard Gordon, the CEO of the Philippine Red Cross, said $1.4 million worth of Philippine-made face masks had been sent to China to help combat the spread of coronavirus. Filipinos quickly noted that the government had failed to provide masks to those affected by the Taal volcano eruption in January. There are no plans to hand out free masks to the public, according to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, who said on Jan. 31: “How can you give [face masks for free] if there’s none?”

In Davao City, the hometown of Duterte, sidewalk peddlers hawked masks at inflated prices as pharmacies posted signs saying they were out of stock. Scheduled flights from Jinjiang, in China’s Fujian province, entered Davao as late as Jan. 29, infuriating residents. On Saturday, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that Chinese visitors had entered a tourist destination in Mindanao without going through a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Tyrone Velez, a Tsinoy and a columnist for the SunStar Davao, said the city had begun to prioritize mainland Chinese business over local Tsinoy enterprise since Duterte, who was formerly the mayor of Davao, became president. The resentment toward Duterte’s rapprochement with China, he added, has only boiled over during the coronavirus outbreak.

“There seems to be no one in government in control, even just simply showing a presence that is calm or on top of the situation,” Velez said.

This left Tsinoys, many of whom champion trade with China but identify as Filipinos, in an awkward position. Henry Lim Bon Liong, the president of the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said in a statement that Filipinos should refrain from “anti-China racist stereotypes” and instead praise China and its government for its transparency and “remarkable political will,” noting its importance as an “ally and long-standing trade partner.”

Tsinoys, who make up as much as 25 percent of the country’s population, are often caught in the middle when anti-China sentiments wash over the Philippines. Tensions are not as acute as in some Southeast Asia countries, such as Indonesia, and the community is generally well integrated, but Tsinoy citizens come in for scrutiny when Beijing and Manila clash. The Chinese Filipino business community, many of whose members are descendants of merchants from Fujian, has traditionally promoted economic and cultural ties with China, leaving it vulnerable to critics of Duterte’s China policy and subjected to essential loyalty tests by some Filipino writers and columnists.

The vast majority of Chinese Filipinos consider themselves Filipinos first and support the country in disputes with China. However, when Tsinoy organizations are perceived as mixing accusations of racism with calls of support for China, it “ignores the real concerns of Filipinos over how China has treated the Philippines,” Kraft said, citing territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, as Filipinos call the South China Sea, and the image of Duterte as subservient to the whims of Chinese leadership—famously summarized by internet users in a popular meme portraying Winnie the Pooh, representing China, eagerly eating out of the honey pot of Philippine sovereignty.

Many Chinese nationals also work in the Philippines, with insiders estimating that around 100,000 to 250,000 Chinese work illegally in its online gambling industry alone. The public reputation of some Chinese for what one regulator called “unruly behavior,” along with sentiments that Chinese nationals are taking jobs from Filipinos, renders them a frequent target of racism in the Philippines.

On Jan. 31, Manila’s Adamson University ordered all its students from China to self-quarantine for 14 days “to ensure a healthy and virus-free environment.” The school apologized the next day, saying the quarantine order covered those who had traveled in affected countries within the last month. A Facebook post lauding a group of Chinese nationals distributing free face masks in Manila was inundated with racist comments calling Chinese “thieves” of Philippine wealth and telling them to go back to China.

Marietta Subong, an actress and comedian who goes by Pokwang, released a statement on Instagram apologizing on behalf of Filipinos for the “harsh words and the rejection” directed toward Chinese tourists and citizens. Other public figures have followed suit. Duterte, responding on Feb. 3 to online calls to ban all Chinese nationals from the Philippines, said blaming Chinese for the spread of the virus was “xenophobia.”

For many Filipinos, including the Tsinoy community, the hope is that the rapidly spreading coronavirus and the recent surge of anti-Chinese racism can both be contained.

“We should act as one,” Teresita Ang See of the Tsinoy organization Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran said in a statement. “The ‘you vs. us’ attitude, finger-pointing, and racism are deadlier and cause more permanent damage than the virus we are now fighting collectively as one humanity.”

Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large at Ketagalan Media. Twitter: @Nick1Aspinwall

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