POGO politics

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

If the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China wasn’t heating up, Alice Leal Guo would have likely remained under the government radar, free to indulge her fondness for McLaren 620R supercars with personalized license plates (local price tag as of 2020: P33 million, plus an estimated P16.8 million in import duties) and to set up more companies.

The US, after all, isn’t the only country where it’s easy for illegal aliens to stay for years and find work, waiting for immigration amnesty or marriage to a US citizen, whichever comes first.

 Guo, if she was born in China and relocated to the Philippines in her teens, would also not be the first Chinese to do so. A visit to Divisoria in Manila could unearth Chinese folks of modest means who seem like illegal aliens, unable to speak Hokkien, the dialect of Tsinoys, or even fluent Mandarin, which all Chinese citizens including those in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong are required to learn.

 A number of these foreigners could be fleeing China’s communist system – just as many did (including my relatives from Fujian) when Mao Zedong took power, driving away the Nationalists in 1949 and forcing Chiang Kai-shek to retreat to Taiwan.  

Other Chinese, however, are suspected of engaging in criminal activities in the Philippines, and these days, perhaps even spying for Beijing.

Filipinos take pride in being hospitable and welcoming to all. But because of the intensifying conflict with China in the West Philippine Sea, corruption scandals implicating Chinese or Tsinoys in the previous administration, criminal activities linked to offshore gaming plus recent geopolitical developments, Guo has come under intense public scrutiny.

President Marcos said he knows all the politicians in Tarlac, but no one knows Guo. If this is true, that’s a serious lapse on the part of the politicians. Bamban, while a second-class municipality, is not the boondocks. Travelers in Central and Northern Luzon often pass through Bamban. It has 15 barangays, with a population of 78,260 based on the 2020 census. How can Tarlac politicians not know the mayor of Bamban?

Video footage and photographs are now circulating, showing Guo with BBM himself as well as Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, whose maternal Cojuangco clan has roots in Tarlac.

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Guo owns 50 percent of the sprawling compound just behind the municipal building in Bamban that was raided last March 13 after a Vietnamese escaped from one of the buildings housing the Philippine offshore gaming operator firm Zun Yuan Technology Inc. Zun Yuan had replaced another POGO in the compound, Hongsheng Gaming Technology Inc., which was also raided in February last year.

The Vietnamese complained of illegal activities at the POGO. The raid by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission reportedly led to the rescue of nearly 700 workers, 202 of them Chinese and 73 other foreigners. 

Senators suspect that Zun Yuan was engaged not only in cyber scams but also spying and the hacking of government websites.

At 7.9 hectares, the compound owned by Baofu Land Development Inc. has been likened to a mini city, lined with tunnels through which Guo’s business partner is suspected to have escaped during the raid. Guo claims she sold her 50 percent share in the compound before she ran for mayor.

She has denied involvement in illegal POGO activities. A prominent member of the Tsinoy community has also pointed out that offshore gaming is illegal in China and Beijing is in fact cracking down on its citizens found to be engaging or working in offshore gaming. 

The implication is that Beijing won’t use POGOs to advance China’s strategic interests. But won’t it, really? At this point, the Philippine government isn’t taking any chances.

 Guo also raised eyebrows when she faced the Senate. She has yet to present documents about her birth, her Filipina mother, her supposed homeschooling and possibly the source of her substantial wealth as a single 35-year-old with no college education. Her father Jian Zhong Guo is a hog raiser.

The requirements for those seeking local elective posts are pretty basic and Guo met all of these, according to Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials, who invoked presumption of regularity in accepting her certificate of candidacy in 2022.

Guo speaks fluent Filipino and is hardly the first person of Chinese blood to seek public office in this country. Being a natural born Philippine citizen is not a requirement for local elective posts. Comelec officials said they received no electoral protest against Guo, who won by a narrow margin in a seven-cornered fight.

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Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who has been pushing for a complete ban on POGOs, recently expressed concern that POGOs may now be financing election bids in the Philippines. There’s narco politics, he noted; do we now have POGO politics? 

This wouldn’t be surprising, although we shouldn’t stop at POGOs and drug trafficking financing election campaigns. Philippine elections are heavily bankrolled by dirty money, starting with the fruits of large-scale corruption. The larger the amount plundered from the people, the higher the elective post won.

Politics is the largest and most efficient laundromat for dirty money in this county. Notorious jueteng lords, smugglers, drug traffickers, gunrunners and ransom kidnappers have used their dirty money to finance their bids for elective office – and several of them have won. Certain notorious gambling barons have even built political dynasties.

During the previous administration, an official of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency told us in a TV interview that they had asked arrested Chinese suspects why they operated in the Philippines despite the bloody war on drugs. A common answer, the PDEA official said, was that it’s easy to bribe Philippine public officials.

 Crooks in government don’t care about the source of grease money. As long as the price is right, a foreigner without the required documents can breeze past immigration and tons of narcotics can be waved through customs. Tourist visas can be converted instantly into working or resident alien visas and Philippine citizenship papers can be produced. 

The system allowed Alice Guo to become mayor of Bamban.

As for the POGOs, the government can’t seem to let go of the revenues it manages to collect from the gaming firms, despite reports that POGOs are evading taxes.

Beijing has been asking Manila to shut down the POGOs. Manila’s response: POGOs are now being recycled into “internet gaming licensees” or IGLs.

POGOs operate, and could be financing politics, for the same reason that the Chinese keep harassing Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea: because they can.

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