‘Money can’t buy me love’

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - November 29, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — So lament the Beatles in their 1964 hit song “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Presidential Spokesperson Sal Panelo, self-styled fashionista and eternal optimist, however thinks otherwise.

Panelo was reacting to a recent SWS poll that showed Filipinos’ trust in China has fallen to a new low. The survey showed that 54 percent of Filipinos had little trust in China, while only 21 percent said they had. According to SWS, net trust in China has been positive in only nine out of 51 surveys since the first survey in 1994.

He said the survey was “foreseeable” and “understandable” because of the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines, which hardly describes what is actually happening on the ground. He added, “it is in our belief, however, that China, like any other country, will be eventually appreciated by the Filipinos by reason of the President’s independent foreign policy which has resulted in significant benefits favorable to the Philippines.”

Panelo was referring to the Duterte administration’s pivot from traditional long-time allies such as the United States to countries like China and Russia, which he claims has resulted in significant economic gains. China is now the country’s largest trading partner and the second largest source of tourists. It has offered to fund spending under the government’s infrastructure program.

But here’s why I think Chinese money can’t buy the love of Filipinos. Even if we assume that the promised economic largesse do materialize, China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea will continue to shape attitudes and perspectives towards it. China’s aggression under Duterte has not decreased, but has, in fact, intensified. This will continue since this is in China’s core interest. It may even escalate if a post-Duterte administration choose not to be as submissive.

Panelo’s hope vs. SWS

Beyond this immediate cause, there is an underlying reason why Panelo’s forlorn hope that Filipinos will love China will take a while to develop – if at all. That is evident by the outcome of the same survey which found that 80 percent of Filipinos had much trust in the US, with eight percent having little trust. SWS said net trust in the US has been positive since the first survey in 1994. It begs the question, if the US was the one fortifying islands in the South China Sea for reasons that it says is to preserve the environment and ensure the freedom of navigation, would there have been as much hue and cry?

‘Soft power’

Thirty years ago, Harvard’s Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to describe America’s non-coercive power to influence the world through its cultural, ideological, and institutional appeal. “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.” That is, he argued, “if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.” For Nye, the basis of US soft power was democratic politics, free market economics, and fundamental values such as human rights, which many countries bought into. Although there has been a push back since then because it did not work for everyone, these values retain their currency even as its proponent – led by one Donald Trump – has taken a step back from it.

China has belatedly embarked on its own soft power strategy. Its appeal – particularly to governments who have rejected the American ideals of free speech and human rights – is that it doesn’t ask countries to be like them as America did. Unfortunately, even without arguably self-serving criticism from the West – it has done enough on its own to undermine its efforts. Much of it is the result of the accumulation of many things that gives a picture of a repressive, distrustful government with a hidden agenda despite its impressive accomplishments and its good intentions. 

Negative soft power

Nowhere is this more apparent than its use of economic soft power. Many of its initiatives and leading edge brands have been reduced to negative word associations such as “Belt and Road Initiative” with debt trap, Huawei with espionage, ZTE with corruption, and POGO with tax evasion. In the Philippines, many see the government’s papering over of the dispute – particularly the bullying of our fishermen – as acquiescence to Chinese territorial demands in exchange for economic favors which have yet to be realized.

To burnish its cultural appeal, China has presented itself as the ancient cradle of civilization and has even revived Confucius. In the Philippines, that appeal is up against centuries of Spanish colonial history, pervasive American influence and waves of Chinese immigration has made it an anomaly in this part of the world and disproving Rudyard Kipling’s assertion that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. Chinese influence in our culture and tradition has, indeed, become ingrained, but it was more a natural outcome of the assimilation of the Chinese diaspora rather than owed to Mother China which, in fact, had tried to eradicate that past. Christmas, Noche Buena, Eid Al fitr, Moon Festival are all celebrated with quezo de bola, puto bungbong and moon cakes happily coexisting.  

We should not underestimate the power of culture – even pop-culture – to influence attitudes and perceptions. America’s cultural influence remains strong.  But now it is Facebook and Netflix instead of Coca Cola and Marlboro.  In fact, one can argue that Filipinos have a more favorable view of South Korea thanks to K-Pop, Bon Chon Chicken and Samgyeopsal.

Beijing still has a long way to go to address its global trust problems. It will require China to trust the rest of the world and wean itself from “us against them” mindset. It should realize that if one’s ideology and culture have no appeal, cash won’t fix that.

Given this reality, it would, therefore, be well for Mr. Panelo to heed the lyrics of the Beatles song “Fool on the Hill” or risk becoming irrelevant:

“Head in a cloud

The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud

But nobody ever hears him

Or the sound he appears to make

And he never seems to notice

The fool on the hill”

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