This is a column about high geopolitics: the United States, China, the Philippines, the fate of the American order in the Pacific. But the great forces that move history often have their origins at a much lower level. And some of them were visible last week on a cellphone in Manila.
The phone belonged to an acquaintance, an intelligent and well-educated man in his 20s. As we were talking, he pulled it out to illustrate a point. “Look,” he said, flicking through selfies taken at parties and restaurants. “Here’s a picture of me with the son of Marcos. And here’s me with Imelda.” He flicked again. “And here I am with the son of Duterte.” And again: “Here’s me with the son of Aquino.”
In a few moments, he’d shown us the children and grandchildren of three decades’ worth of Filipino politicians: Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator overthrown by street demonstrations in 1986; Imelda Marcos, his wife, who became famous for her extensive collection of shoes; Benigno Aquino Jr., who was assassinated after challenging Marcos ; Benigno Aquino III, who has just finished serving a six-year presidential term; and newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte, who has already gained renown for swearing at President Obama, praising China — he is visiting Beijing this week — and executing alleged drug dealers without evidence or trial.
In theory, these were photographs of bitter political enemies. In practice, they illustrated the extraordinary homogeneity of the Filipino political class. Imagine a country in which you have not just a few people named Bush and Clinton at the top of the political totem poll, but dozens of them, and at every level: cousins, nephews and sisters-in-law, occupying mayors’ offices, Senate seats and governors’ posts across the country.
Now think of the unease that Hillary Clinton inspires simply by virtue of her surname — the sense that she is part of a dynasty — and multiply it by the same proportion. Add to that a government finance system that includes both “budget” and “off-budget” spending that no one controls, and influence networks upon which everyone is reliant in order to obtain licenses, permits and even ordinary public services.
Throw in fast growth — last year the Philippines grew even faster than China — and social media: More than 47 million people, nearly half the country, are on Facebook; like the rest of us, they are accustomed to a world where you can make something happen instantly, with a mouse click, and where angry trolls, fake websites and phony news are just part of politics.
Put all of that together, and you have the beginning of the explanation for the wave of populism that brought Duterte to power, as well as evidence that Asian democracies are just as irrational as those in the West. For in fact, Duterte is part of the same elite as his predecessors: His father was the governor of the province where he served as mayor. Voting for him on the grounds that he is an “outsider” is like voting for Donald Trump in order to kick millionaires out of politics. His slogan — “change is coming” — has the same empty appeal as “make America great again.” But it worked. Duterte won because he convinced people that he could find simple solutions to complex problems in a society where reform always seems to be blocked or delayed.
Since his election, Duterte has lost no time trying to fulfill his open-ended promise. His “war on drugs” has been literally that: the shooting of alleged drug traffickers, because trying and sentencing them take too long. Anyone killed by accident, including children, is “collateral damage”; as for human rights, he says, “I don’t give a s--t.” But the drug war is already having side effects — there is a rise in vigilantism and spreading gang violence — and it won’t improve the daily lives of the majority. Sooner or later, Duterte will need to do more to demonstrate “change.”
In that context, Duterte’s turn to China — here is where we get back to geopolitics — makes sense. There is little evidence of rising anti-Americanism in the Philippines, one of the most pro-American countries in the world. China’s militarization of the South China Sea — an area Manila calls the West Philippine Sea — and its claim on Philippine territory still make people nervous. But the Chinese offer a model of authoritarian decision-making. They have openly supported Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and his attack on human rights. They are offering infrastructure investments. They may be offering more financial inducements behind the scenes.
Above all, they offer a symbolic change. Standing with China, Duterte looks new and different, bold and fast, a man ready to gamble, to junk a decades-old alliance in favor of a partnership with a decades-old rival. And in a country where the president desperately needs to appear “different” from his own political class, that’s invaluable.
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