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Look beyond the territorial dispute: We must learn from China

First of an occasional series on China

I AM quite sure that history will judge that one of President Duterte’s most important achievements is that he steered our country quickly away from what would have been a disastrous path charted by President Aquino and his Yellow Cult: A belligerent stance towards the People’s Republic of China, the superpower in our region, and the second largest economy in the world.

That bellicose foreign policy stance would have been the 21st century rightwing version of Cuba’s and Albania’s leftwing hostility against the US and Europe, the hegemonic power in the second half of the 20th century that completely dominated the Western hemisphere. What did that get Cuba and Albania after seven decades?

The Yellow Cult, following the lead of its US master that was worried about the rise of China in Asia, wanted to demonize it as the regional bully, and exploited our territorial dispute with it in the South China Sea.

This is obvious from the following statement of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio—who currently leads the campaign of painting China as an imperialist bully—quoted in his e-book The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.

“This battle to defend our EEZ from China…is the 21st-century equivalent of the battles that our forebears waged against Western and Eastern colonizers from the 16th to the 20th century. The best and the brightest of our forebears fought the Western and Eastern colonizers, and even sacrificed their lives, to make the Philippines free.”

Shanghai in 1987 (above), and in 2014. Even more remarkable, 800 million Chinese were lifted out of poverty in that same 27-year period.

Those statements reflect either Carpio’s ignorance of Philippine history, his intellectual dishonesty, or his inexplicable animosity towards China. Whichever, his statements aren’t becoming of a Supreme Court justice, nor even of an ordinary attorney, whose profession requires the highest level of adherence to facts and logic.

How can Carpio put China’s claims and even recent actions in the South China Sea on par with the Spaniards’ conquest of  the Philippines, during which they killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, and forced them under pain of death to convert to Catholicism; the US’ war to subjugate the country that resulted in 250,000 Filipinos killed; or the Japanese invasion that led to one million Filipinos killed? (Carpio’s inappropriate comparison does bring up a major point: Has China ever invaded and occupied a far-flung country, as did Spain, the US and Japan?)

A thousand territorial disputes
Look, there are a thousand disputes over territory among the world’s nations. China has over a dozen disputes, with a few, like its claim over Japan-occupied Senkaku islands, and with India near the Himalayan mountains involving swathes of land, in contrast to reefs and small islands in the South China Sea.

But most countries in the world maturely recognize that each country has its own national interests, that such disputes should not be in the forefront of their relations with others. Vietnam had 53 of its navy men killed in its 1974 battle with the Chinese navy which it tried to expel from the waters of the Paracel islands that China claimed. Has Vietnam ever compared the Chinese to its French colonizers and to the Americans that waged a war of aggression against it?

While I will be devoting a few future columns critiquing Carpio’s propaganda vehicle, his e-book, it will suffice to point out the following in this column:

Yes, we have a territorial dispute with the Chinese over the Spratly island group, which Marcos acquired for us in 1978, and over Scarborough Shoal, which we lost because of the Aquino government’s bungling in 2012. We certainly cannot give up these claims.

But, as other claimants over territory in the South China Sea have wisely done, this dispute cannot be at the forefront of our relationship with the emerging superpower, the way former President Aquino did, and for which stance Carpio has been undertaking an intense propaganda campaign.

There is a simple reason why Aquino and Carpio found it easy to get the country to adopt an antagonistic stance towards China, which only a popular President like Duterte—because of his popularity—has been able to reverse.

Because of the US colonization of the country and its brainwashing of our elites, we do not see ourselves as Asians but as America’s little brown brothers. Despite the fact that the US is halfway around the world, some 2 million Filipinos have migrated to the US, and our culture has been more American than Asian. Our eyes have always been fixated on the US and the West, and hardly on Asia. Worse, while most Filipinos understand English, few know Mandarin. We are therefore susceptible to Carpio’s demagoguery that exploits our nationalism.

I consider myself as more well-informed than the average Filipino elite, as it is my job as a journalist to be more informed not only about the country but also of the world.

Yet after a recent trip to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai—which also forced me to do much research on China’s system and economic growth—I was astonished at how much I didn’t know about this superpower, which is so near, just a few hours by plane from Manila. It was as if living in a residential subdivision with an American as my best friend and neighbor a few blocks away whom I always socialized with, I was so unaware that an Asian neighbor adjacent to my lot, who just lived in a hut a decade ago, had grown so rich, and had built a mansion.

Indeed, as reflected in editorial cartoons, the image of China among many Filipinos is still the Mao-era place of slant-eyed people in black pajamas, with their cities’ avenues filled not with cars but with bicycles.

Rather than reporting on figures on China’s economy, which are really difficult to wrap your mind around, consider skyscrapers as reflecting a nation’s wealth and modernity.

China now has 1,045 skyscrapers (buildings 150 meters in height or over) in six cities that are in the list of top 10 cities with the most such buildings in the world. The US in this list is a far second, with only 378 skyscrapers, while Japan, 151. (We’re not in this roster of course, having only 82 skyscrapers, all in Metro Manila.) And yes, China’s cities are still filled with bicycles, but now fleets of them rented out by tech companies using hi-tech GPS to track them, with payments done over cell phones. These bicycles are in neat bicycle-only lanes, with the main roads often in horrific traffic – of Porsches, Volvos and Range Rovers.

Such are the cosmopolitan cities of China now, which in 1987 was a poor country with a GDP per capita of only $635, more than half of our $1,412. China overtook us in terms of GDP per capita only in 1999, and is now classified as a middle-income country with a GDP per capita in 2015 of $6,498, two-and-a-half times bigger than our $2,640.

800 million out of poverty
One very impressive accomplishment though should be very relevant to us. According to the World Bank, China lifted out of extreme poverty (those living on $1.90 per day, roughly P96 per day) 800 million of its citizens from 1988 to 2013.

That number is roughly equivalent to eight “Philippines.” How many poor Filipinos have managed to crawl out of poverty after the EDSA Revolution to today? Just 20 million, although the net increase, according to World Bank data, is just 2.5 million because of our population growth, that has bred more poor.

“China’s progress accounted for more than three-quarters of global poverty reduction and is the reason why the world reached the UN millennium development goal of halving extreme poverty,” a recent article in the UK-based The Guardian pointed out. China’s poverty reduction was even seen by several scholars as a “modern miracle’”as never in humankind’s history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short span of time as three decades.

Shouldn’t we be real nationalists concerned about the plight of poor Filipinos so we’ll study how China achieved this feat of making life better for 800 million souls?

Observers and economists steeped in Western liberal-capitalist ideology have noted that China’s move towards a capitalist system explains much of its growth.

This is hogwash. While a significant chunk of its economy is capitalist, much of China’s growth, as I have discovered, is due to a framework totally different from the free-market, capitalist templates the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have been imposing on the developing countries – and us. Some of these important elements, which has been little discussed in the reports on China’s growth are as follows:

• The crucial role of the Communist Party (with its 80 million members) as the disciplined core of its bureaucracy, imbued with a serve-the-people commitment, that has enabled the state to be efficient and undertake swift effective changes in economic policy

• While the West (especially since the Thatcher and Reagan eras) have condemned state corporations, China’s growth owes much to what are called there “state-owned enterprises,” which among other crucial sectors control its telecommunications, power, and other utility firms. Imagine if PLDT, Globe, Meralco, the Aboitiz companies, and other power firms were owned and run efficiently by the state, with its billions of pesos in profits going not to oligarchs but to government, using these for social services and infrastructure. China’s 12 firms that are among the Fortune 500 list of the largest global firms are all state-owned firms. Most of the Chinese cellphone manufacturers – which are now the world’s biggest in this industry – are majority-owned by state firms (ZTE, for example), or secretly, as alleged in the case of Huawei, supported by state financial institutions.

• The crucial role of state banks in funding the country’s infrastructure – now said to be among the most developed for urban areas – and directing development towards industries determined to be important to economic growth. Imagine if instead of posh condominium projects, BDO, Metrobank, BPI were owned by the state, and focused their loans for low-interest medium and small housing projects. Banks here now give minute interests to small depositors, yet lend these funds out at 8 to 12 percent. No wonder these oligarchs just keep growing bigger and bigger.

• China’s template of first trying out on the ground, and on a limited scale, an economic policy before making it a national policy, as in the case of China’s export-processing zones which was experimented first in Guangzhou, before it was adopted in other areas.

• The crucial role of “think-tanks” in China’s government. These are mostly independent institutions staffed by academics which are commissioned by government or state corporations to undertake detailed, objective studies of an issue or a course of action, before these are actually undertaken. According to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program database, China has 435, coming in second place to the US which has 1,835 think tanks. In our case, do we really have a single, independent think-tank?

I will discuss these elements and a few others that contributed much to China’s growth, in the succeeding installments of this series.