You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Why are Chinese workers so unpopular in Southeast Asia?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6/2/2019 Phila Siu
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Filipino policemen guard Chinese nationals detained for allegedly working illegally. Photo: AFP © AFP Filipino policemen guard Chinese nationals detained for allegedly working illegally. Photo: AFP

When Michael Xu arrived in Manila 22 years ago to pursue his "Philippine dream", he was just another Chinese teenager fresh out of high school with little idea of what lay ahead. Making his way from the airport to his flat for the first time, Xu was surprised to see slum after slum. The youngster was left with the impression that the Philippines was even more backward and poverty stricken than the China he recalled from the 1980s.

Xu, then 17 years old, had made the journey from his native Fujian province to help his family set up a small business. The coming years would give him a front-row seat on the local Chinese immigrant experience, as workers and entrepreneurs from the Middle Kingdom streamed into the Philippines in search of opportunity. Some opened shops and restaurants. Others became the labour that powered those businesses.

But he and other Chinese who have spent many years in Manila say the influx has become particularly acute in recent years. More Filipinos have been openly complaining about the upwards pressure on property prices and inflation. The surge has been made worse by scores of foreign workers recruited by online casinos based in the Philippines to cater to their biggest customer group - the Chinese.

Xu says he and his immigrant friends all believe Filipinos are generally friendly and the Chinese in the country rarely ever feel like outcasts.

But last month he had the shock of his life when he walked out of a restaurant in Manila's Chinatown, in Binondo district, and saw five Filipinos on motorbikes all pointing guns at him and two friends.

"I didn't know if they wanted to kidnap me or rob me," Xu, now 39, says. "My friend was forced to the ground and one of the robbers was pointing a gun to his head. They took my stuff and left. We started yelling but they fired a shot in the air and warned us not to follow. I was scared."

Xu says he might have been robbed because Filipinos tend to think the Chinese are well off. It is a perception not always rooted in reality but it persists, not just in the Philippines but also elsewhere in the region.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Filipino policemen guard Chinese nationals detained for allegedly working illegally at a mining site in the town of Masinloc, north of Manila. Photo: AFP © AFP Filipino policemen guard Chinese nationals detained for allegedly working illegally at a mining site in the town of Masinloc, north of Manila. Photo: AFP

The Chinese have been migrating to Southeast Asia for centuries, and periodically, problems over their place in their adopted society have emerged. These problems have sometimes been resolved with time, but sometimes they have resulted in violent clashes.

Many Chinese flooded the region in the wake of their nation's communist revolution of 1949, bringing with them new vigour but also issues of absorption for their host countries.

In recent decades, as China grew richer and its companies eager for overseas markets, fresh waves of workers and investors have ventured to Nanyang, the Chinese reference to Southeast Asian lands. Various communities have had to adapt to having them in their midst, some fearing they take away jobs and crowd out locals in the competition for real estate, amenities and school places, even as their presence helps the economy grow.

a group of people standing in front of a store: Stores in major Manila malls have started taking payments via WeChat Pay and Alipay, the two dominant forms of digital transaction in China. Photo: Phila Siu © Phila Siu Stores in major Manila malls have started taking payments via WeChat Pay and Alipay, the two dominant forms of digital transaction in China. Photo: Phila Siu

Anxieties about Chinese workers wax and wane, depending on myriad factors such as the prevailing economic situation, the tenor of local politics and other vested interests. Thus in recent years, for example, trade unions in Indonesia have accused Chinese firms of spurning local jobseekers in favour of their own nationals.

In Cambodia, residents in the beach town of Sihanoukville say the traditionally tranquil destination has been transformed into a massive Chinatown, with locally run stores replaced by casinos and Chinese restaurants.

But among these countries, it is perhaps the Philippines that has felt the heavy presence of Chinese workers the most in recent years. The government is currently finalising new rules to crack down on illegal workers, but doubts linger about the difference the measures will make.

"The problem here is that there is a lot of corruption at the Department of Labour and Employment, and also the Bureau of Immigration. If illegal Chinese workers pay off the immigration officers and the department of labour, if you multiply that by, say, 100,000 to 200,000, that's a lot of money," says Pilo Hilbay, a former solicitor general.

He represented the Philippines when it took China to an international tribunal at The Hague over conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Manila won the case in 2016, but Beijing refused to accept the court's decision.

When Xu was a teenager, his parents ran an underwear shop in Fujian. Some of their biggest customers were Filipino Chinese traders who bought garments in bulk and sold them on in the Philippines. It was this that eventually prompted the family to embark on their Philippine adventure, and in 1997 Xu visited the country for the first time to scout out opportunities. Two years later their decision had been made, and Xu's father completed the paperwork to emigrate, bringing the rest of the family as dependants.

Their early days there were rough. They had no language skills in either Tagalog or English, and Xu says the authorities frequently shut down businesses in Chinatown, partly because many were evading taxes. He found himself in a police station on more than one occasion.

"I would get in there and everyone arrested would be Chinese. I was scared. I was so young at the time," he says.

Now the owner of a range of businesses offering services from rice imports to printing, Xu believes Chinese immigrants must adjust and integrate into the local culture, which he says includes small but significant idiosyncrasies such as the tendency for Filipinos to dislike Chinese bosses disciplining staff in front of other workers.

He does not see a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment outside of a small group of Filipinos he believes are seeking to incite hatred.

a group of people riding a motorcycle on a city street: Chinese gangsters and loan sharks have been lending cash to gamblers in the Philippines at sky-high interest rates, according to one Chinese migrant. Photo: Phila Siu © Phila Siu Chinese gangsters and loan sharks have been lending cash to gamblers in the Philippines at sky-high interest rates, according to one Chinese migrant. Photo: Phila Siu

Fellow immigrant Ken Hong, 43 and also from Fujian, has done almost every job imaginable since he arrived in Manila nine years ago. He went house to house selling curtains. He cooked up lunchboxes at home to sell to friends. Surviving in a strange city has not been easy for newcomers like him.

"I came here empty-handed. A good friend told me to come. I did not want to at first but eventually did. I felt there might be more opportunities here," says Hong, who is now a restaurant boss.

Another catering entrepreneur, Tony Gan, knows Chinatown like the back of his hand after living in the area for 36 years. The composition of the Chinese community in Manila has changed for the worse in recent times, Gan believes.

I would get in there and everyone arrested would be Chinese. I was scared. I was so young
Michael Xu

Gangsters and loan sharks have infiltrated local businesses, lending cash to casino punters at sky-high interest rates, sparking social ills. Gan says he has a friend whose son four years ago borrowed 2 million yuan to 3 million yuan (US$290,000 to US$430,000) from Chinese underground lenders, who then demanded repayment of 5 million yuan. Unable to meet the gangsters' demands, the young man was murdered and his body dumped in a river.

Academic Leo Suryadinata, a senior visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, says early Chinese migrants to Southeast Asia were usually poor with little education.

"Many maritime Southeast Asian states were 'indigenous states' and were less open to migrants, especially Chinese migrants. But in the age of globalisation, it is impossible to halt migration," he says.

That resistance has remained but is now targeted at a new type of migrant - one with a different culture that has emerged from a changing China.

"Some of the local population, often also including the Southeast Asian Chinese, feel rather resentful towards new migrants. Apparently, this is not only due to the economic competition but also the different culture they bring," Suryadinata says.

a motorcycle parked in a parking lot: Some police vehicles in Manila carry the Chinese national flag with the words: © Phila Siu Some police vehicles in Manila carry the Chinese national flag with the words:

China's state-owned or state-linked firms have begun branching out overseas, armed with cash and the confidence born of an ascendant nation. They have brought with them Chinese workers who sometimes rub locals the wrong way or create the perception they are stealing jobs and not sharing the fruits of prosperity with the community.

"Indonesia is a Southeast Asian country with many anti-Chinese riots. It harbours a rather strong prejudice against China and the Chinese overseas, especially among the elites of the political opposition. Therefore the Joko Widodo government has been quite careful in dealing with mainland Chinese workers," Suryadinata says, referring to the Indonesian president.

About 12,000 foreign nationals are working without the required permit for Philippine gaming operators serving overseas gamblers, the country's labour department said last month. It is believed many of these unofficial employees are Chinese since the punters are often their countrymen seeking a way round gambling restrictions at home. Betting is illegal in mainland China, with the exception of state-run lotteries.

The new employment rules proposed by the Philippine government state foreign workers must obtain a tax identification number before securing permission to take a job.

Chinese entrepreneurs say work permits are currently easy to obtain even for semi-skilled positions such as chefs. But the business owners also insist they mostly hire locals because these applicants accept lower wages.

Florin Hilbay standing in front of a building: Pilo Hilbay, a former Philippine solicitor general, says corruption is a problem at the country's labour authority. Photo: Phila Siu © Phila Siu Pilo Hilbay, a former Philippine solicitor general, says corruption is a problem at the country's labour authority. Photo: Phila Siu

Adverts for positions in online gaming companies are readily visible on social media despite the government's crackdown. One recruiter says his company offers a monthly wage of 6,000 yuan plus a bonus and benefits, with a raise of 500 yuan every month. Such salaries can be enticing compared with employment in mainland China, where the average urban wage in the private sector was 3,813 yuan in 2017, according to official statistics.

Another employment agent says jobseekers enter the Philippines on tourist visas before their companies secure them work permits. Women from China often become dealers for gamblers on live-streaming platforms. Others work as customer service officers, helping these gamers with any queries.

They are frequently lured abroad by pictures of spacious dormitories, gyms and swimming pools, but in reality many workers complain of having passports confiscated and being crammed into tiny bedrooms.

Ex-solicitor general Hilbay says he knows of one commercial building in Manila containing accommodation stacked with Chinese workers.

"I asked the security guard, how many Chinese are working here? He replied that more than half of the floors were occupied by Chinese workers," Hilbay says. "They are brought in by van. The security guard did not know what they did there."

a store inside of a building: Chinese shoppers are an increasing source of income for businesses. Photo: Phila Siu © Phila Siu Chinese shoppers are an increasing source of income for businesses. Photo: Phila Siu

Other Filipinos have also shared stories of seeing their neighbourhoods and shopping districts flooded with new arrivals. Stores in major malls have started taking payments via WeChat Pay and Alipay, the two dominant types of digital transactions in China.

Philippine immigration laws must ensure every foreign worker coming to the Philippines is properly scrutinised, Hilbay says. He proposes migrants be made to obtain work permits before coming.

But in February President Rodrigo Duterte indicated he was content with the status quo because of the large number of Filipinos working in China.

"The mindset of the president is to not do anything about it," Hilbay says.

Congressman Tom Villarin believes Duterte is wary of antagonising Beijing.

"If these new rules are to be adopted, strict compliance is important as there will be more opportunities for corruption when regulatory pressures are brought down in this lucrative business," he says.

Law enforcers and local governments sometimes "even lay down the red carpet" for firms hiring foreign workers, he adds. "Filipinos are uneasy and even angry that foreigners have taken over their jobs, public spaces and even social services that should have been given to them."

a motorcycle parked on a city street: Locals say the Philippines is less welcoming to Chinese migrants than in the past. Photo: Phila Siu © Phila Siu Locals say the Philippines is less welcoming to Chinese migrants than in the past. Photo: Phila Siu

According to Luis Corral, vice-president of the Associated Labour Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, the Chinese ambassador in Manila, Zhao Jianhua, told unionists this year that Filipinos sometimes displayed a racist attitude towards Chinese workers.

Corral recalls: "He asked how come Filipinos don't have that attitude towards the South Koreans and the Japanese?"

But the labour leader adds that the issue is not racism but about ensuring the rights of Filipinos. Unemployment and underemployment rates are high in the country, which means foreign workers are unnecessary in some industries such as construction, Corral says.

He estimates between 5,000 and 15,000 Chinese construction workers are toiling away in Manila at jobs Filipinos are more than capable of undertaking. Authorities should restrict immigrants to certain positions using a clearly defined list, the unionist insists.

However, the opposing commercial pressures on the government from businesses eyeing profits are fierce. Lester Yupingkun, managing director of Strongbond Products Philippines, which provides structural repairs and retrofitting services, says the firm's gross revenue rose by 33 per cent last year compared with 2017's figure, largely on the back of projects serving the online gambling industry.

"I personally find it unfortunate that the mood surrounding the arrival of these Chinese immigrant workers leans more towards fear rather than opportunity. These workers do not necessarily represent the more selfish interests of the Chinese government," he says.

"It is ironic because Filipino immigrant workers became the backbone of our own economy. Why deny the Chinese the same privilege offered to our compatriots abroad?"

About 2.3 million of the Philippines' population of 100 million work overseas, many as domestic workers, and the money they send home is a vital source of income for the domestic economy.

Yupingkun worries about the consequences of any reciprocal crackdown from Beijing. He also says stemming the flow of Chinese cash into the Philippines could hit the property, retail and hotel markets hard.

a man holding a gun: A Chinese Indonesian man offers incense as he prays at the 300-year-old Buddhist temple Vihara Dharma Bhakti in Jakarta's Chinatown. Photo: AFP © AFP A Chinese Indonesian man offers incense as he prays at the 300-year-old Buddhist temple Vihara Dharma Bhakti in Jakarta's Chinatown. Photo: AFP

Professor Maria Ela Atienza, from the political science department at the University of the Philippines Diliman, believes Filipinos are generally tolerant and welcoming of immigrants, as a multicultural nation in which many households have a member of the family overseas.

"Filipinos of Chinese descent mingle or have assimilated well with the rest of the population. However, Filipinos nowadays are wary of Chinese from mainland China because there have been instances where they have violated laws such as anti-smoking and anti-littering regulations," she says. "In surveys, anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, especially if they are here illegally and not paying taxes."

Authorities started out tolerant of the Chinese influx, she says, but have since come under pressure to act.

"When Filipinos got angry, government agencies started to respond more strongly. However, we are not sure if this stricter policy will continue."

Dr Parag Khanna, author of new book The Future is Asian, says the two-way flow of people between China and Southeast Asia has been mutually beneficial.

"There have been centuries of trading relations among merchants across the South China Sea, and today most Asean countries have China as their largest trading partner," he says, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

a group of people sitting around a fire: Indonesian mobs burn cars and Chinese businesses as they plunder stores in Jakarta during rioting in 1998. Photo: AFP © AFP Indonesian mobs burn cars and Chinese businesses as they plunder stores in Jakarta during rioting in 1998. Photo: AFP

In Cambodia, the government has launched an investigation into the employment status of Chinese migrants running businesses in Sihanoukville. Of the 210,000 Chinese nationals living in the country, 78,000 live in the town, according to official figures. But only 20,000 hold a work permit.

"There are now more Chinese businesses in Cambodia - restaurants, hotels, massage parlours, karaoke lounges, casinos. Even the small businesses in Sihanoukville are run by the Chinese," says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger who attends a weekly forum titled Politikoffee in Phnom Penh set up to discuss politics and youth-related issues.

Last month Cambodian police revealed the Chinese had been the country's top perpetrators of crime in the first quarter of 2019. Of 341 foreigners arrested, 241 were from China, followed by 49 Vietnamese nationals and 26 Thais.

The Middle Kingdom has been both a source of prosperity and pain for its Southeast Asian neighbours, with a history of immigration spanning centuries. As many in the region look to China to be the economic motor behind this much touted "Asian century", signs are the Chinese will keep coming.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

More from South China Morning Post

South China Morning Post
South China Morning Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon