No-go destination

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A Chinese woman from Shanghai was kidnapped on Sept. 17 in Angeles City, Pampanga. She was brought to a safehouse in Batangas where she was held in a dog cage for 20 days, during which she was beaten with a baseball bat.

Her Chinese boyfriend said she was snatched by two other Chinese men and a Filipino in a white Fortuner. On Sept. 18, the boyfriend received a call from someone who demanded ransom of $200,000. The caller forwarded a video of the victim naked and screaming in pain as she was beaten repeatedly with a metal baseball bat.

The boyfriend reported the kidnapping to the Philippine National Police at Camp Crame.

In the early hours of Oct. 6, the woman, 28, managed to escape from the safehouse in Nueva Villa Subdivision in Barangay Alangilan in Batangas City. She was found by police in a convenience store. The kidnappers are at large.

This story was reported not only in the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, but even in The Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin, where photos were splashed of the victim with her eyes blacked out, the dog cage with pillows and a red bucket, and the baseball bats painted candy pink and neon green.

In its issue dated Oct. 14, The Irish Sun reported that days before the woman was snatched, the Chinese ambassador in Manila had warned that Chinese women were being targeted in a wave of kidnappings in the Philippines linked to gambling gangs.

“It said there had been frequent cases of ‘kidnapping, blackmailing, illegal detention, and other vicious cases’ targeting its nationals linked to online gaming and telecommunications fraud,” the report said.

“Victims – mainly female – are held hostage by casinos and may be turned over to syndicated collectors linked to underworld rings,” it said. “The women are tortured and threatened while their families in China are extorted to pay ransoms, reports the South China Morning Post.”

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Meanwhile, in the past weeks, we have seen dozens of young female foreigners being rescued from slave-like working conditions in Philippine offshore gaming operators.

POGOs have shown, over and over, the validity of the Chinese government’s complaint about the criminality and other social ills engendered by offshore gaming, in both the Philippines and China.

The Chinese embassy released a long list of crimes committed by their citizens working in POGOs, including kidnapping for ransom, torture and murder.

Recently, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian denied the “misinformation” peddled by the Senate president of the Philippines, no less, that Beijing has blacklisted our country as a travel destination.

A miffed Migz Zubiri said something must have been lost in translation in his meeting with Huang, as he heatedly denied being a purveyor of misinformation. We don’t know if Huang has apologized to Zubiri.

The buzz in the Tsinoy community, however, is that such blacklists are rarely publicly announced or officially confirmed.

What happens is that word is quietly sent out by authorities to China’s travel industry, identifying a country as an undesirable destination. Processing of travel documents can suddenly become an obstacle course, with negative consequences for those who defy the blacklist.

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It’s not unusual for Beijing to take a non-confrontational approach to express displeasure over other countries’ policies affecting China.

In March 2016 for example, as the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea dispute was being awaited, Philippine banana exports to China were suddenly subjected to more stringent quality standards. Citing the presence of pests and high levels of a certain fungicide, the Chinese destroyed 35 tons of bananas from the Philippines and suspended 27 exporters. The ban on Philippine bananas and pineapples was lifted only in October 2016.

A minor redefinition of quality standards can mean the rejection of large quantities of products exported to the world’s second largest economy. And Beijing has not shied away from engaging other countries in trade wars.

In the case of tourism, Beijing may not even need to send word to its travel industry that the Philippines is a no-go destination because of POGOs. All it has to do is flood multimedia with horror stories of what awaits Chinese nationals in the Philippines – such as the genuine kidnapping and torture of that woman from Shanghai.

There is also that classification of the Philippines as a medium-risk travel destination due to criminality and other threats to personal security. The assessment was conducted by a company that provides travel risk assessment and actual security services to the world’s wealthiest individuals and Forbes 500 companies.

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With the government starting the deportation of over 40,000 Chinese POGO workers, there has been a spirited campaign to allow the continued operation of licensed POGOs.

The principal argument is that such POGOs and their service providers employ nearly 20,000 Filipinos.

On the other hand, the tourism industry, which will be affected by a blacklist of the country for being an unsafe travel destination, accounts for about 11.1 percent of total employment in the country.

According to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas data, pre-pandemic in 2019, the tourism sector employed 5.7 million, representing 13.6 percent of the total workforce with jobs. In 2019, foreign tourists spent P600 billion during their stay in the Philippines, accounting for 3.1 percent of GDP. Out of 8.26 million foreign tourists who visited the Philippines in that year, over 1.74 million were from China.

With the COVID lockdowns, both the international tourist arrivals and tourism receipts fell by 80 percent in 2020 and 90 percent in 2021. The industry is only just starting to recover, and needs all the help it can get.

While the POGOs may have Filipino employees, their clients are mainly foreigners. Beijing considers online gaming a crime, even if the operator manages to obtain a foreign license. If ever the employee of such a licensed offshore gaming firm returns to China, the employee faces criminal prosecution.

Should we be dependent on foreign online gamers for revenues, even if their government has already said what they are doing is a crime? Where is our national pride?

There is a similar campaign to revive e-sabong, even if we have seen the pernicious activities it has engendered, including the still unsolved enforced disappearance of at least 34 sabungeros.

At this point when the tourism industry is just emerging from the pandemic ICU, we can’t afford to risk a reputation as an unsafe travel destination.

And we have to start attracting solid, sustainable and wholesome investments.


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