By Perry Diaz
Since Rodrigo Duterte took over the presidency of the Philippines, the influx of Chinese nationals has increased dramatically. As a result, gambling and prostitution have become a huge problem. Most of the Chinese nationals who have come to the Philippines are involved in a new gaming industry called Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (Pogos). Hundreds of Pogos are in operation right now, employing hundreds of thousands of Chinese from the mainland, many whom have entered the country illegally. The reason why Pogos employ Chinese nationals is they speak Chinese, which is the language used in Pogos because most of the Pogo clients are Chinese from the mainland.
And because virtually all the Chinese workers are male, they need women to satisfy their sexual appetites. And this is where thousands of female Chinese are in the Philippines, to cater to the Chinese male employees in Pogos and other industries such as construction and restaurants.
But here is the problem: Chinese prostitutes in the Philippines cater exclusively to Chinese clients. ABS-CBN reported that about 300 Chinese sex workers and their clients were rounded up by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in 12 brothels in six cities in the second half of last year. The agents believe that all the raided premises were being run by mainland Chinese for Chinese clients. Also, the owners, managers are also Chinese nationals. The managers were jailed for “human trafficking” but the owners live outside the Philippines in China. The Chinese women – ages from 18 to 30 – were sent to shelters, their passports were confiscated, and referred to the immigration bureau.
Many of the sex workers were victims themselves of the illegal gambling trade. They were enticed to come to the Philippines to make money from gambling. If they ran out of money, they get loans from Chinese loan sharks. And when they lose their money, they’re forced to turn in their passports and become prostitutes to pay their debts.
Meanwhile, a Chinese crime wave grows unchecked. Brothels are used as karaoke bars with valid permits to operate. Nobody would have known it if not for the tip-offs the police received from Chinese and Filipino informants.
Pogos are supposed to be generating income for the Philippine government. But many Pogos who operate in Manila and other cities are unregistered and pay no taxes. The PNP has already shut down about 200 illegal Pogos.
But the Philippine authorities have a hard time tracking Pogos because of their ability to disappear and move their operations. Typically, the operators will find a broker, lease a place, set up and operate without a permit.
Since most of the workers are undocumented aliens, the Immigration Bureau have a hard time looking for them unless they’re caught in a police raid.
One of the problems is the “visa upon arrival” program, which allows a visitor to get a visa upon arrival at the port of entry. Upon entering the country, the visitor vanishes and ends up working in a Pogo. Current estimates of the number of Chinses workers in the Philippines is placed between 400,000 and 800,000. But many believe there could be more. And this unabated entry of Chinese nationals contributes to the rising crime rate involving Pogos workers. The key to cutting down crimes involving Chinese nationals was to implement stricter immigration rules, stop issuing Pogo licenses, and crack down on illegal gambling. But this is easier said than done. Simply put the Philippine government doesn’t have the means to stop the “Pogo runaway train,” which is at this time unstoppable.
Recently, China indicated its unhappiness about the Pogos, saying that its nationals are being targeted by gambling firms, resulting in hundreds of millions of yuan illegally flowing into the Philippines.
Beijing has urged Manila to step up its protection of Chinese citizens, which it said were subjected to “modern slavery” after being lured into working illegally in gaming firms. Also, it called for the Philippine government to punish Pogos subjecting Chinese citizens to “modern slavery.”
The Chinese embassy said its nationals had been kidnapped, tortured, and even killed after working for Pogos, which in some cases confiscated their passports.
Beijing emphasized that it will step up its crackdown on cross-border gambling and online payment platforms that provided technical support for such activities, pressing Manila to pay more attention to its position and “prevent and punish” Pogos for crimes that hurt Chinese citizens.
China accused the Philippines of luring Chinese citizens into gambling, which resulted in an increase of crimes and social problems in China. But the Chinese who go to Manila as tourists on temporary visas end up converting their visas to working visas, which is a normal procedure under Philippines immigration laws. But once the Chinese are in the Philippines, they can go anywhere they want and overstay their visas.
Non-convertible 30-day visa
Chinese ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilin said. “China is ready to crack down on Pogos, it’s the Philippines that’s not ready.” The strongly worded statement from China caught the Duterte administration flat-footed.
A few days ago, the Philippines scrapped a special six-month visa for Chinese travelers in a bid to clamp down on a crime wave blamed on visitors from China. Instead of the six-month “Temporary Visitor – Visa Upon Arrival” that could be converted to into a work visa, Chinese nationals will now be eligible for a “non-extendable 30-day visa” that cannot be converted. Under the new rules, applicants will have to submit inbound and outbound flight details and proof of booked accommodation. The visa will still be available on arrival.
Last January 8, 2020, Duterte disclosed that Beijing had adopted a hands-off stance insofar as the Philippine government policy on Pogos was concerned. He quoted Ambassador Huang as saying: “‘If you must do it, do it, because the law is the law. You have the prerogative to do what you want to enforce the law.”
Ban online gambling
The rise of the Pogo industry has caused friction between the two countries. In August last year, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged the Philippines to “ban all online gambling.” When Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in August, Xi told Duterte that China would “appreciate” a total ban. Xi explained that “gambling is illegal in China and most of the players gambling with Pogos are Chinese nationals and that crimes are committed with respect to things like money laundering.”
Xi’s appeal to Duterte came after the Chinese Embassy in Manila warned that China would investigate crimes related to organized gambling. China vowed to destroy networks of criminal organizations involved in recruiting gamblers from China by overseas casinos and using the internet to open casinos in China.”
On January 13, Duterte got part of the message. He said he would cap the number of Pogos because otherwise the Philippines would “not be able to police them all.” But the other half of the message, which Duterte didn’t seem to understand, is that China wants a “total ban” on Pogos.
For as long as Pogos exist in the Philippines, the problem of crime and prostitution associated with Pogos would continue in the Philippines. Indeed, Pogos breed crime and prostitution.