This is a response to Mark Yuray’s recent article, “How to Explain the Rise of Rodrigo Duterte”. Yuray’s post has two main assertions: first, that the Chinese Communist Party has leveraged their longstanding economic and military ties and ethnic footprint in the Philippines to propel President Rodrigo Duterte’s candidacy and shape his policies. Second, that the United States was unable to foresee Duterte’s rise or his realignment to China, and is further unable to foment a color revolution because the American imperium has reached a new level of impotence.
While the apparent facts of the matter bear out Yuray’s conclusions, his analysis is too simple and does not accurately enough portray Filipino demographics, economics, or politics.
First, Yuray mischaracterizes Chinese influence in the Philippines.
The rumor that Duterte is a possible Chinese agent – based on his open socialism, communist sympathies and connections, who took campaign contributions from the CCP – has circulated around the Philippines since the campaign. Yuray’s analysis implies that the Chinese-mixed Filipinos in the north support China’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s interests in the Philippines. In other words, he assumes that the mestizos de Sangley behave the same as the pure Chinese Sangleys. This is incorrect.
Over the course of the Philippines’ history, the pure Chinese diaspora community has largely remained separate from the Hispanicized and Americanized population of Malay and indigenous Filipinos. They did not convert to Catholicism, unlike those Chinese who intermarried with Spaniards or the local datu princes. Before and during Duterte’s campaign and presidency, the pure Chinese community in the Philippines has been one of his strongest bases of support.
Historically and today, the Catholic Chinese-mixed Filipinos live on the northern island of Luzon as well as Visayas. Aside from Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces, Luzon voted for representatives of local families, Jejomar Binay and Grace Poe; Visayas voted for Manuel Roxas. Like the Tornatrás and mestizos de Español, Filipino mestizos de Sangley have, since the Philippine Revolution, been some of the staunchest advocates of Filipino nationalism and independence.
Moreover, violence against pure Chinese in the Philippines has been increasing in the decades since Marcos’ ouster. Like those in Malaysia, anti-Chinese attacks are manifestations of Filipino resentment of the Chinese business community, perceived as a greedy, valueless, unethical, and alien hostile minority.
In emphasizing his Chinese grandfather, Duterte is pandering. He emphasizes more prominently and commonly his connections to the Moros of Mindanao via his mother, Soledad Roa, who had ties to the Muslim Camayo and Maranao tribes, and his Muslim grandchildren by his son Paolo’s part Maranao wife.
Second, Yuray ignores the Filipino oligarchy and its stake in American patronage.
Yuray does not consider the Filipino dynastic families’ degree of local control and their paramilitary, political, and economic power. Accordingly, Yuray’s analysis ignores their deep connections to the United States and the fact that they have benefited politically and economically from the past century of close American-Filipino imperial and bilateral relations.
The United States, like the Spanish Empire before it, largely left the traditional Filipino elite families to govern of the country and allowed them to plunder it as they pleased. Spanish and American policies of decentralization and local government entrusted a largely stable class of educated, landholding principalia, ilustrados, and mestizos with administrative and fiscal duties that enabled them to extract rents from the Filipino export economy for two centuries. Some families with indigenous roots have held power since before Magellan.
The Philippines is an “anarchy of families”. It is silly to discount this notion in any analysis of the country. Politics in the Philippines proceeds according to political and business clan interests rather than ideological principle and has done so since Filipino independence in 1946. The highly low-information Filipino population reliably votes based on name recognition and loyalty to established local clans. With the introduction of automated elections in 2010, the proportion of members of political dynasties at all levels of government only increased.
Globalization and American patronage after the Cold War accelerated economic growth in the Philippines (between 5% and 8% annually since 2010) that has mainly accrued to the oligarch class. In 2011, 40 richest families in the Philippines accounted for 76% of GDP growth; the dynastic class controls the majority of fixed assets. Moreover, there are 3.5 million Filipinos living in the United States who send the Philippines up to $28 billion in remittances per year, as of 2015.
The Philippines has a trade surplus with the US-aligned Japan ($12.3b Ex/$6.4b Im) and the United States ($9.0b Ex/$7.5b Im). The Filipino economy profits from these economic connections. While China is the Philippines’ second largest trading partner, the Philippines has a trade deficit with China ($6.2b Ex/$11.5b Im). Defection from the American-led globalist economic order threatens the circumstances that have only further enriched the Filipino elite.
Duterte’s popularity outside Mindanao largely rests on his populist, anti-elite crusade: “The plan really is to destroy the oligarchs that are embedded in government,” Duterte promised in August. His separation from the United States, should it manifest economically as well, would certainly impact the Imperial Manila oligarchs’ incomes and capacity for control. It might also threaten business and provincial dynasties.
Yuray’s assessment that USG was not ready for and currently cannot execute a color revolution in the Philippines is most likely correct. However, it is possible that disaffected families could seek to replace Duterte without American prompting.
The possibility of a color revolution to oust Duterte rests largely on the pro-USA (anti-China) dynasties’ and upper middle class’ will and capacity to implement one. Filipinos already had their “Yellow Revolution” – the “People Power Revolution” – to oust the State Department-backed Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. (Marcos’ had plunged the country into staggering debt.) In the United States and around the world, the People Power Revolution was hailed as an organic triumph of western liberalism and evidence that Americans had succeeded in “teaching the Filipinos democracy”. In reality, the People Power Revolution merely replaced Marcos and his cronies with a coalition of old families: The oligarchs and provincial elites effectively leveraged populist anger to recapture their former position, which they have only consolidated since.
Whether the Filipino elite class attempts to overthrow Duterte will depend on whether his regime’s anti-American stance will materially threaten a sufficient amount of dynastic interests in the military, Imperial Manila, the provinces, and the business and industrial communities. That the Marcos family has expressed support for Duterte suggests he will follow former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ example and merely retain a few current powers sympathetic to his rule, while elevating new favorites. Duterte’s recently-released campaign finance filings reveal that the wealthy Floriendo, Uy and Alacantra families are also behind him. Other political and business families that made campaign contributions have members or associates in Duterte’s cabinet. If Duterte only snubs Imperial Manila but allows enough of the opportunistic provincial elites and business dynasties to operate undisturbed, the country may remain stable.
Political and business clans throughout the country maintain private armies or own security companies that serve as not only protection from Communist or Muslim rebels and criminal violence, but also to strong-arm election outcomes, silence activists and journalists, and eliminate rivals. Members of these private armies are often also soldiers or officers in the Philippine Army or Philippine National Police.
Moreover: after decades of joint exercises and collaboration with Americans, the Filipino military at large and top Filipino security officials are very pro-United States. Whether it would, in whole or in part, aid an anti-Duterte coup attempt or protect the president against one remains uncertain.
Do the Filipino oligarchs have enough resources, capital, loyal loyalty, and paramilitary capacity to succeed in either overthrowing or fomenting popular rebellion on their own? A regime change effort would certainly fail in the event that China supported Duterte militarily. Would China even intervene if the Filipino elite attempted to overthrow Duterte? Or would China do business with whichever regime ruled in Manila? If the Americans do not intervene, it is difficult to predict how Beijing would react.
The Philippines’ future will likely be violent, whether or not the traditional oligarchy moves to replace Duterte. Given Duterte’s death squads, it is improbable that any coup effort would be peaceful. More likely than not, private armies and factions of the military would be involved. If Duterte remains, his drug war will continue and may even expand to purge accused collaborators: government officials and members of the police and military who likely have ties to rival families. If he is Beijing’s man in Manila, would Duterte follow Mao’s example?
Pray for the only Christian nation in Asia.