Watching and reading snippets of reports on President Duterte‘s official visit to China, it struck me that what was happening before our eyes and before the world – was the execution of the kowtow, an important part of Chinese custom and tradition.
Here you had a country, which under President Benigno BS Aquino III, made it a point of challenging China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea and even took her to court; and which now under President Rodrigo Duterte is doing its utmost to please China, to the extent of forgetting to mention the hard-won award of the permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague last July, which ruled as illegal China’s map and claims in the SCS and its occupation of Philippine territory under our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as provided by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ( UNCLOS).
As witnesses and props, Mr. Duterte brought along some 150 top Filipino businessmen to bear witness and join in the execution of the kowtow.
Dealing with China, a defining issue
Oxford Dictionary defines kowtow as:
Verb, to act in an excessively subservient manner;
2 . historical, to Kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in worship or submission as part of Chinese custom.
Noun, An act of kowtowing as part of Chinese custom.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before the handover to China of the crown colony on June 30, 1997, relates in his book, East and West (Macmillan, 1998), how he practiced the ritual and how it impacts on contemporary times.
He wrote: “It takes a long time to kowtow. I have just tried it on the carpet of my study. I may have been a bit fast, but it still took one minute and 15 seconds. I guess it is the sort of gymnastic activity that will take longer as the years take their toll.”
Patten says the kowtow custom goes to the heart of all the most common arguments on how nations should deal with China — and how we deal with China will become one of the defining issues of the next decade. “China is more than one-fifth of humanity, and what happens there – which we can affect only at the margins – will matter to us all.”
The kowtow in history
Wikipedia punctiliously relates in great detail the custom and tradition of the kowtow, from imperial times to its usage in the modern world. Kowtow is borrowed from kautau in Cantonese (koutou in Mandarin Chinese); it denotes the act of deep respect shown by kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground.
In East Asian culture, the kowtow is the highest sign of reverence. It was widely used to show reverence for one’s elders, superiors, and especially the Emperor, as well as for religious and cultural objects of worship. In modern times, usage of the kowtow has become reduced.
In Imperial Chinese protocol, the kowtow was performed before the Emperor of China. In the most solemn of ceremonies, for example at the coronation of a new Emperor, the Emperor’s subjects would undertake the ceremony of the “three kneelings and nine knockings of the head on the ground.”
Confucian philosophy held that respect was important for a society, making bowing an important ritual.
Today, only vestiges of the traditional usage of the kowtow remain.
Kowtow entered the English language in the early 19th century to describe the bow itself, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or groveling. The kowtow was a significant issue for diplomats, since it was required of everyone who came into the presence of the Emperor of China, but it meant submission before him. The British embassies of George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1793) and William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst (1816) were unsuccessful, partly because kowtowing would mean acknowledging their King as a subject of the Emperor.
Did we kowtow in Beijing?
Did our proud and brash President Duterte and his 200-strong delegation perform the kowtow during his visit to China?
I don‘t mean the act of kneeling and touching the head to the ground, which disappeared with the last Chinese empress or emperor. I mean rather the analogous act of placing and reshaping our country’s foreign policy in the service of china’s interests or subordinating our own interests in the SCS to China’s own.
On the eve of Duterte’s visit, I wrote a column (“DU 30’s visit to Beijing like Chambelain’s visit to Munich in 1958,” Manila Times, Oct. 15, 2016), wherein I suggested that the visit was showing signs of being a journey of appeasement of China.
I raised the following points:
“1. DU30 will not mention the Hague arbitral award, at any point during his visit, let alone raise the issue directly with President Xi Jinping.
He is betting that for abandoning the Aquino strategy, and for pivoting away from America, China will shower him with money and respect. The visit will be evaluated in transactional terms, such as the total amount of loans and investments it generates.
Declaration of separation from America
The performance of a kowtow was sealed and delivered by Mr. Duterte with his loud Declaration of his “separation” from the United States, on Thursday, as he rebalances the country’s relationship with China.
“I announce my separation from the United States,” he said to applause at a business forum in the Chinese capital. The audience consisted of members of his own delegation and a smattering of Chinese officials.
“America does not control our lives. Enough bullshit,” he added in a rambling speech that flipped between English and Filipino.
“How can you be the most powerful industrial country when you owe China and you are not paying it?”
Our president made the comments after he met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. The meeting ended with the two leaders pledging to enhance trust and friendship, while playing down the maritime dispute on the South China Sea.
Xi called the two countries “neighbours across the sea” with “no reason for hostility or confrontation,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.
For his part, DU 30 said the Philippines had gained little from its long alliance with the US, its former colonial ruler.
China, he said, was “good.” “It has never invaded a piece of my country all these generations.”
Duterte must consult
As if to underscore the discussions that will now follow the Beijing visit, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that Duterte’s statements are not policy until official action is taken.
In declaring separation from America, DU30 spoke of “my separation,” not the separation of the Philippines.
The President needs reminding that he is only the president (the head of one branch), not the entire Philippine Republic.
Extravagant though he often is in his speeches, his authority is limited.
The problems will come when the debates over his declarations in Beijing take place. Congress must be consulted. The Supreme Court will also have its say.
The kowtow must wait a while before collecting its rewards.