Juan L. Mercado

Clueless pawn

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Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada went viral with his bid to apologize and compensate for the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists in a botched bus hijack rescue in August 2010.


This is “buffoonery,” snaps Philip Bowring who writes for South China Morning Post and International Herald Tribune. This journalist has tracked Asia for 39 years.

Estrada tried to show up former mayor Alfredo Lim “under whose watch the Luneta bus attack occurred,” Bowring notes in a column on Hong Kong’s demands. Instead, he ends up a clueless pawn in China’s complex West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) claim.

Sanctions would be imposed unless Hong Kong’s demands were met, threatened the appointed Mayor Leung Chun-ying. The Legislative Council last week clamped a time frame: one month. Suspend visa-free arrangement for Philippine visitors, the council proposed.

“It’s bizarre for the head of a city of seven million people to threaten sanctions against a sovereign nation of 97 million,” Bowring writes. “But that’s the outcome of barely disguised racism in Hong Kong.” (It is) underpinned by “China’s desire to punish the Philippines for standing up to Beijing’s claims to almost the whole of South China Sea.”

“Filipinos have long been overtaken by Indonesia in supply of domestic helpers” and barring Filipinos would upset many Hong Kong employers, Bowring notes. Significantly, Filipinos “have other work options.”

Overseas Filipino workers work in over 160 countries, the Asian Development Bank notes. Among these are pilots, doctors, physics professors, domestic helpers, computer specialists and airport controllers. One in every 10 Filipinos works abroad.

Trade sanctions are verboten. “Hong Kong would make an idiot of itself before the World Trade Organization and Asia Pacific Economic Council, the two organizations on which Hong Kong has separate international status,” Bowring scoffs.

Hong Kong tacked the Philippines on a travel blacklist with Syria. This affects group tours from Hong Kong. But (it) had scant impact on the Philippines which is currently enjoying a  tourist boom. Visitors come notably from Korea and China. “In Hong Kong, foreigners ignore this blacklist.”

Leung and company demand “as though presidents routinely apologize on behalf of a whole country for the misdeeds of a few.” That’s ironic coming a few days after a Filipino woman-physician was among those killed in a Tiananmen Square attack by five Uighurs,” Bowring says and notes: Filipinos were killed in Beijing in 2008. “No presidential apology or compensation was offered by the central government.”

Leung uses the Manila bus case to divert attention “from issues at home. His popularity is at a low ebb.” Recently, (he) denied a TV channel license to favor “existing players—owned by property tycoons with connections to members of the Executive Council and to Beijing-friendly interests,” Bowring says.

Hong Kong boasts of laws to protect domestic workers. “But in practice, (it) declines to enforce them.” The result is employees “being paid less than the statutory wage, denied time off to which they are entitled, see their passports confiscated and with limited time to find new jobs if they leave an abusive employer.”

“All Southeast and South Asian minorities in Hong Kong—some there for generations—suffer constant discrimination. There is an Equal Opportunities Commission supposed to tackle discrimination issues, some stemming from government policies. Domestic helpers on contracts get no help from it.”

Leung used the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to make demands of President Aquino. “This was itself beyond his remit and under other circumstances, (this) would have incurred Beijing’s wrath for

addressing an issue to a head of state rather than leaving this to the central government.” Hong Kong has no independence in international affairs other than trade and financial issues.

“But Beijing saw advantage in letting Leung act as though he were a head of state,” Bowring continues. “It’d bolster Leung’s battered image in Hong Kong and provide a stick to beat Manila. Leung never does anything without getting a green light from Beijing. So it is clear that the sanctions threat had its backing.”

Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also challenge China’s claim to almost the whole of the West Philippine Sea, BBC points out. They claim territory in the West Philippine Sea that, they say, falls within their exclusive economic zones.

The smell of oil overhangs the issue. The US Energy Information Administration cites one Chinese estimate which puts possible oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels. That’s 10 times the proven reserves of the United States, BBC notes. But American scientists have estimated the amount of oil at 28 billion barrels.

“The real wealth of the area may well be natural gas reserves. Estimates say the area holds about 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic meters).” That’s in the same league as Qatar’s  proven reserves.

“Beijing is suspicious of Hong Kong’s pretensions. Many look down on mainlanders and resent their increasing prominence in the territory. It rightly senses that Hong Kong has an inflated sense of its importance and a very parochial world view,” Bowring adds. “But on this occasion it is happy to buy into Hong Kong’s assumptions of Chinese ethnic superiority in general and of Hongkongers’ value in particular.”

President Aquino has refused payment. “As a people, Filipinos had no part in this tragedy…. In the end this may never get to sanctions,” Bowring notes, adding that enough money and apologies could be squeezed and extracted from Filipinos for Hong Kong to claim victory.

If that comes to pass, credit the buffoonery of an utterly clueless Mayor Joseph Estrada. 

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