A FRIEND and classmate of mine retired from teaching in the United States and decided to settle back in the Philippines. Finding her parental home eaten away by termites, she had it torn down and built a new house. Just before the coronavirus lockdown, as a housewarming, she had an evening of songs and literary readings and invited us, her old classmates and other friends, to come.

But for her precise directions, we would not have found her place. How her neighborhood has changed from the time she hosted parties in our college days! Establishments bearing colorful signages in Chinese characters were all over. No translation in Filipino or English in Roman letters. What was once a posh area in Parañaque City by the bay for Manila’s elite has become, it seems, a part of China.

These only-Chinese-speaking establishments are sprouting like mushrooms in my friend’s neighborhood and all along the bay area because of proximity to the online gambling center along Aseana Avenue in the Mall of Asia complex. Our curiosity pricked, we’ve come to know that actually they’re not only in Parañaque but have proliferated all over Metro Manila. There are reportedly some 60 licensed and 30 unlicensed online gambling centers in the metropolis. There is a new trend to combine the online gambling operators’ offices with the employees’ housing and other support services in one location, in a “hub.” One such has been built just outside Manila, in Cavite. Other hubs may be expected to appear in more parts of the country. Before you know it, the signage of only Chinese characters may be all over our beloved Philippines. What would our country seem like then?

But the Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) have been a disturbing phenomenon to many for more than superficial reasons. Enter the POGO-associated restaurant and the Filipino. You will be at a loss placing your order because the menu is all in Chinese and the waiters can only speak Chinese. Or ask your kasambahay to go to the grocery store to buy an egg and she comes home complaining she was charged double the usual price of the item. For now Filipinos in reaction blurt out, “Discrimination!” but in a joking way. Could anyone believe Filipinos are being discriminated against in their own country?

There are others who take the POGO phenomenon more seriously, rather grimly in fact, suspecting it to be a prelude to a Chinese invasion. The licensed POGOs have brought some 70,000 workers from mainland China. At no time in the history of the Chinese presence in the Philippines has there been such a staggering influx of Chinese coming to the Philippines to work. They have always come in trickles by the proverbial back door. Those observing the situation from the eyes of older generations are reminded of the time before the Second World War when there was a large Japanese community in the Philippines thought to be Catholics fleeing from persecution in Japan but who suddenly turned up in military uniforms when the Japanese occupation forces arrived. The younger ones of these observers base their suspicions on the Chinese interest in the natural resources in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and in mining the minerals in the land territory of the country that are essential to their military and information technology (IT) industries. And there are those computer-savvy observers who think of the danger in all this in the present tense because many of the workers brought in by the POGOs are IT specialists and personnel, possibly an army of hackers poised to conduct cyberattacks.

Even with these historical, geopolitical and security reasons aside, certain things about the POGO phenomenon are disturbing. The POGO is wrapped up in logical contradictions. For one, gambling, including online gambling, is illegal in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Chinese Embassy seems ever ready to issue a clear and unequivocal statement to that effect. Another proof is the POGOs themselves. They are here in the Philippines because they are not allowed in maniland China. It is the restrictions on online gambling in such countries as China that online gambling sites have located in Singapore, Australia, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. According to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), which licenses them, the POGOs are not allowed to be accessed by Filipinos as well as citizens of countries where online gambling is illegal. In other words, they cannot be accessed by citizens of the PRC. Yet it is obvious that their main clientele are mainland Chinese from the fact that the majority of their employees are imported from China and must be able speak Mandarin. How can an authoritarian China prohibit online gambling while it lets its citizens with money to throw it away to indulge in it?

There can be a nonconspiratorial explanation for this state of affairs: social hypocrisy. The gambling virus that plagued decadent Chinese society before Mao’s revolution has reinfected the new millionaires and billionaires of China who have found not only that it is nice to be wealthy but also that it is nice to gamble. The casinos that sprung up in Laos and Cambodia after the liberalization of the regimes in these countries were founded to capture the gambling market in the richer, neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia that for religious reasons prohibit gambling in their territories.

As a former visa officer in the Foreign Service, I was shocked to learn from the expose of Sen. An Theresia Hontiveros that the POGOs’ employees imported from China enter the country under the Visas Upon Arrival Program that was conceived in the 1980s to promote tourism and investments among the Chinese nd directed at temporary visitors traveling in groups. The POGOs employees are prearranged workers falling under provision 9(G) of the good old Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 for nonquota immigrants whose visas “can only be authorized on petition with the Commission on Immigration establishing that no person can be found in the Philippines willing and competent to perform the labor or service for which the immigrant is desired and that the immigrant’s admission would be beneficial to the public interest.” The petition “shall state fully the nature of the labor or service for which he is to be engaged, the wages and other compensation, and the reasons why a person in the Philippines cannot be engaged to perform the labor or service.” The foreign workers in the POGOs coming in droves can thus be seen to proceed from a less than diligent and honest enforcement of the Philippine Immigration Act by those concerned.

For a country in which millions of whose people are abroad looking for jobs, it is indeed strange for the Philippines to allow its investors to bring in the overwhelming majority of their employees from a foreign country. However, they learn the skills necessary to work in gambling casinos, many of our overseas workers are employed in gambling casinos. I know because I once visited the gambling casinos in Cambodia and Laos to see the Filipinos working there.

Actually, one-fourth of POGO employees, according to Pagcor, are Filipinos, but why only one-fourth in the light of the clear preference for Filipinos in the law?

The ability to speak Mandarin seems to have been required to circumvent the preference for Filipinos provided by the law. From the gambling scenes I watched in James Bond movies, casino personnel, from the card dealers, shakers of the dices and the roulettes and the gamblers themselves do not seem to talk much. You do not go to casinos for conversation. It is said that knowledge of Mandarin is necessary to explain to a new gambler how a game is played. But does it have to be a live person on the other end of the line? Won’t a soft interactive program do the work and would you only then need mastery of Mandarin in the programmer? For the rest of the POGO employees, won’ t a crash course in Mandarin be enough? Apart from maybe those operating the Internet in the Chinese language, the other employees do not have to speak Chinese only. Certainly not the waiter in a POGO restaurant. Or the usherette bringing you to a table. Or…

The Philippine visa regime regarding China reflects the Filipinos’ general confusion on how to deal with the country. They have not made up their minds on how they should relate to a country that has suddenly become the dominant power in the region. It helps to recall that while China has become the second economic superpower in the world, China has remained at the same time a developing country with half of its population in poverty. Already it is the principal trading partner of almost every country in the region. It is a country with a rich potential as a source of tourists and investors. But as in olden days, if we do not watch out, we might be saddled with a flood of migrants from our nearest neighbor looking for a job or greener pastures.

It is relevant, if not wise, to keep the delineation in the Immigration Act of 1920 between temporary visitors coming for pleasure or business and those seeking gainful employment in the country. As for the first, we may consider doing away, in agreement with China, with temporary visitors visas altogether. As for the second, we must protect the natural share of Filipinos in the local labor market. Even were we to settle the sources of tension in our present relations and our countries so become the best of friends that we are compelled to tear down physical borders and allow the free movement of our peoples, an invisible line must be drawn and kept between us showing that we are sovereign countries which must mutually respect that fact.

A colleague explained to me the online gambling situation in China as being made possible by gray areas in the law. Recent developments in the Philippines and China and elsewhere suggest that online gambling also somehow attracts the dark shadows of criminality and other social problems. Philippine authorities have found 200 employees of POGOs to have criminal records in China. The Senate hearing exposed how the online gambling sector has bred corruption among those who administer immigration laws and encouraged prostitution and human trafficking. Cambodia has stopped licensing online gaming operations, citing “online fraud.” The possibility of the Philippines rejoicing over gaining customers because of the ban in Cambodia has been quashed by China’s recent launching of a determined campaign to stop offshore online gambling. According to a statement from the embassy here, “a large number of Chinese citizens are lured into illegal gambling resulting in an increase in crimes and social problems.” The statement suggests the involvement of mafia-like organizations, with victims being “physically tortured, injured or even murdered.” Under these new and developing circumstances, it is not difficult to contemplate China succeeding in eliminating the main clientele of the POGOs by such measures as censure or disruption of the Internet or the speedy execution of all players implicated in capital crimes, these practices not being unknown to authorities in China. It is said that playing online games in defiance of the law by the new rich in China is taken and resented by Communist Party authorities as an indication of the former’s heads swelling in an exaggerated and misplaced sense of their power and importance. Could the beginning of the end for the POGOs be near?