A group of journalists interviewed Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII) President Dr. Henry Lim Bon Liong, an industrialist and also hybrid rice seedling technology pioneer who graduated with an engineering degree from University of the Philippines (U.P.) and studied also at Harvard Business School. He is also chief convenor of the Filipino Chinese Community Calamity Fund, a coalition of major Filipino Chinese cultural, civic and business federations which has raised and donated over P300 million pesos worth of medical supplies, foods and other reflief goods all over the Philippines during the recent pandemic crisis. Here are excerpts of his candid interview.

Why is the Chinese New Year important?

The Chinese New Year, also called the "Spring Festival", is culturally and historically the most important festival in Chinese civilization since it signals the start of spring season and it marks the beginning of the new year according to the ancient lunar calendar. It symbolizes eternal hope, renewal and the Chinese people's innate optimism for a better future.

Why is the Chinese New Year significant for the Philippines?

It is important, because it is a big tourism festival all over Asia when the biggest wave of affluent tourists travel and enjoy vacations for multiple days, so we at the FFCCCII urge our legislators to formally declare the Lunar New Year as a national holiday so the Philippines can also be in sync with most of Asia and compete for this massive tourism bonanza. Of course, making it a holiday also recognizes and signifies acceptance of our ethnic Chinese minority as integral part of the Filipino nation.

It is not just ethnic Chinese people worldwide who celebrate the Lunar New Year. It is celebrated in other East and Southeast Asian cultures, including the Singaporeans, Thais, Malaysians, Vietnamese who call it the "Tet" festival, Koreans who call it the "Seollal" festival, Indonesians who call it "Tahun Baru Imlek" and others. Even in the West, Chinese New Year is celebrated, such as the annual San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in California State of the U.S. which was first held in 1851. It is the oldest and one of the largest events of its kind outside of Asia, and one of the largest Asian cultural events in North America with hundreds of thousands of spectators.

How do you assess the state visit of President Bongbong Marcos to China and its impact on the future of Philippine-China relations?

President Bongbong Marcos should be congratulated for the success of his January 3 to 5, 2023 state visit to China, our biggest trade partner now and since ancient pre-colonial era, also the world's No. 2 biggest economic superpower and the No. 1 largest consumer market with 1.4 increasingly affluent people. Thank you for China's leaders headed by President Xi Jinping and also to their diplomats led by the pro-active, philanthropic Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian for arranging the grand and warm welcome to President Marcos, First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos and the Philippine delegation.

Let us look at the bigger picture, our Asean and Asian neighbors are our keen competitors for the lucrative tourism, export market and investments of China, and President Marcos' being the first head of state welcomed by China this new year 2023 and amidst their economic reopening, his good diplomacy of befriending the top Chinese leaders, the Philippines has gained much goodwill and economic benefits such as $22.8 billion in investment pledges.

Why do you think did China accord President Marcos and the Philippine delegation such a warm welcome?

We the Philippines have a long, over 1,0000 years of uninterrupted friendship and good relations with China, long before the colonizers came to "discover" our archipelago. Filipinos and Chinese are not just friends and good neighbors, we have always been allies and relatives. President Marcos' state visit also comes right after the era of former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, so he is continuing the positive momentum of good diplomatic relations. China's priority is economic success, so they want harmonious relations with its neighbors like us here the Philippines.

The Chinese people have a strong sense of history and they remember it was the parents of President Marcos, the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos and then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, who in 1975 opened official diplomatic relations between Manila and Beijing at the height of the Cold War. Let us capitalize on this immense goodwill and the Marcos family's sentimental, historical connections to China to boost Philippine trade, tourism and investment links for the benefit of Philippine economic and social progress.

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Chinese New Year, Rabbit Year
Chinese New Year, Rabbit Year

How strong are the ties that bind China and the Philippines? Please elaborate.

The Philippines has been a traditional friend and ally of China for over a thousand years, even during the late 19th century to early 20th century Philippine Revolution against the Spanish and American colonizers when Chinese nationalist revolutionary hero Dr. Sun Yat Sen supported President Emilio Aguinaldo up to World War II when both nations were allies in resisting Japanese militarism and invasion of Asia. Our two countries have also been the closest trading partners since ancient, pre-colonial times up to now with China as still our undisputed No. 1 biggest trade partner.

The Philippines and China are not only good friends for over 1,000 uninterrupted years, but we are also geographically close neighbors, culturally fellow Asians, fraternal brothers and relatives too.

Should we sever or ignore these ties because of current disagreements? Is there a way forward or out of these misunderstandings? How can we resolve them while preserving our deep and long relationship?

We should never burn bridges, but we should strengthen bridges and deepen constructive dialogue with all countries as part of our constitutionally-mandated independent foreign policy. I urge our country the Philippines to not overly focus too much on misunderstandings or differences of opinions on a few issues, because even best friends, even husbands and wives, business partners and siblings often have natural differences or disagreements on some issues. Let us disagree on some issues, but never be disagreeable. The Philippines has disagreements not only with China, but also with Malaysia, Vietnam, etc. What is important is we continuously dialogue and frankly discuss differences as good friends, not as adversarial foes. What is important is we prioritize and focus more on the many and so much bigger areas where we agree on and can cooperate with each other, for the sake of peace and progress.

You prefer cooperation instead of an adversarial relationship with China. You said there was much we could learn about agriculture, particularly about how to feed a large population. Please elaborate.

It would be a tragic mistake to have an adversarial relationship with our neighbor, traditional friend and the world's rising economic superpower China just because of some disagreements on a few issues. We need to look at the bigger picture of our mutually beneficial diplomatic, strategic, economic, agriculture, infrastructure and other cooperation with China, or else we shall lose out to our other ASEAN and Asian neighbors who have for years gained and profited so much from their engagements and good relationships with China.

In agriculture alone, let us learn China's high technologies and pro-farmer policies, how their government, agronomists like my late mentor the Magsaysay Awardee Yuan Longping and farmers were able to amazingly achieve food self-sufficiency and food security for 1.4 billion people.

You also mentioned how we could learn about fishing methodologies instead of insisting on exclusivity. Please explain.

On fisheries, we at FFCCCII advocate fisheries cooperation of the Philippines and China, that instead of disagreements in the sea, let us make the ocean a place for amity and partnerships. I want China to extend technological and other assistance to our rural Filipino fishermen.

You are optimistic about the Philippine economy, expecting a growth rate of 6.5 to 7.5 percent this 2023. What makes your picture of the economy rosier than those of government forecasts? What are your bases?

Do not forget that at the start of 2022, when the world and our country had gloomy prospects then, we at FFCCCII had already publicly announced our Philippine economic growth forecast of 6.5 to 7.5%, and we have been proven accurate! We Filipino Chinese entrepreneurs have a keen sense of the situation on the ground.

I am bullish about the Philippine economic future, despite continuing challenges like inflation or global uncertainties. Why? I have talked to many entrepreneurs on the ground among our 170 Filipino Chinese chambers of commerce nationwide from Aparri to Tawi Tawi, and we are generally optimistic about the positive socio-economic and demographic fundamentals of the Philippines plus the big good news of decisive reopening of the world's No. 2 economy and the world's No. 1 biggest consumer market China.

We believe this is really the golden age of Asia economic renaissance and the Philippines is right smack in the middle of this world's most economically dynamic region. This is one reason I urge our Senators to expedite approval of the the Philippines' participation in the RCEP, which we at FFCCCII and all other business Chambers including foreign Chambers like European Chamber, American Chamber, etc. support.

I am very hopeful of robust and resilient economic growth of the Philippines, ASEAN region and China, all of which contribute to synergy of our whole region, despite some gloomy forecasts on possible worrisome recessions in USA and EU.

Belief in the lunar calendar forecasts is one of the things Filipinos adopted from the Chinese. They are eager to know what to expect this Year of the Rabbit? Is your optimism about the Philippine economy also based on the fact that the year is symbolized by a gentle, cuddly animal? What do you think the year will bring?

Yes, part of our strong optimism about the Philippines and Asia is due to the dynamic, agile rabbit year being predicted to be more prosperous, friendly, cheerful and even supposedly also more romantic too!

Although we have the Feng Shui and the entertaining ancient Asian zodiac, we ethnic Chinese are pragmatists too who believe that true good luck ultimately comes from old-fashioned hard work, frugality, filial piety and love for our parents and ancestors, sincere faith in our Creator or God.

What is your reaction to the popularity of the Chinese "tikoy" as now a Filipino food already?

Our ethnic Chinese minority has for generations become an integral part of the Filipino nation, like the originally Chinese foods of lumpia and pancit have become accepted as Filipino foods already. We are happy that more and more of Chinese traditions have become accepted as part of Filipino culture and national life like the popular and delicious "tikoy" with its sweetness and stickiness symbolizing happiness and family unity during Chinese Lunar New Year. Tikoy comes from the Hokkien or south Fujian language words "ti-ke", with "ti" meaning "sweet" and "ke" meaning "cooked rice for making cake".

Let us build Filipino national unity in cultural diversity, in order to continuously enrich the Filipino national culture. Let us make the Year the Rabbit as the year the whole Philippines shall dynamically bounce back from the past pandemic and economic crisis! Happy Chinese New Year!

What is actually the correct Chinese language greeting for Chinese New Year?

In Hokkien or south Fujian province language used by most members of the ethnic Chinese minority in the Philippines, also in Singapore, Taiwan or Penang and other parts of Malaysia, we greet with "Kiong Hee Huat Chay". The Mandarin Chinese or pudonghua greeting is "Gong Xi Fa Chai", while the Cantonese language greeting of Hong Kong, Guangdong province and Macau is "Kong Hei Fat Choy". Hokkien and Cantonese are like Ilonggo and Ilocano, while Mandarin for the Chinese nation is like Tagalog or Filipino to the Philippines. Mandarin is the official national language of China also in Taiwan and Singapore.