Old Corruption

Benedict Anderson writes about the Philippines

She is today, as the widowed ‘Cory’ Aquino, Time’s widely admired Woman of the Year. But she started life as Corazon Cojuangco, daughter of the wealthy sugar magnate Don Jose Cojuangco, and cousin of that Eduardo Cojuangco who in the Marcos era became one of the most notorious plunderers of the Filipino economy. She owes her present eminence to both names, but it is the earlier one that is the more significant for assessing the situation in which the Philippines finds itself.

Like almost all Christian Filipinos, she bears a Spanish Christian name, although Spanish colonial rule ended ninety years ago, and today almost no Filipinos understand the Spanish language. The suffix ‘-co’ to her maiden name, a suffix common to the family names of some of the Philippines’ more powerful dynasties (Cuenco, Chioco, Tiangco), derives from the Hokkien Chinese suffix-of-politeness for males: it shows that she belongs to that Chinese-mestizo class, blooming between the 1760s and 1850s, which has largely monopolised political power in the islands in modern times.[1] Important as American influence has been since 1900, it has served primarily to reinforce a social system and cultural order which is profoundly rooted in over three hundred and thirty years of Spanish rule. Not for nothing is it sometimes said that the Philippines is as much a part of Latin America as it is of South-East Asia.

Yet it was Latin America with a difference. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1560s, Felipe II’s empire was already in decline, and the Philippines, named after him, was the last major imperial conquest. Most of Madrid’s energies were spent on her vast American possessions; the few Spaniards who came to the Philippines found neither gold nor silver to plunder; the only source of rapid wealth lay in the fabled ‘galleon trade’ by which Chinese porcelains and silks were exchanged in Manila for Mexican silver and sold at vast profit in Spanish America and Madrid. Outside the Manila entrepot – where Chinese merchants and artisans rapidly increased in number – few Spaniards, except for soldiers and clerics, resided. It was through the latter, above all, that the islands were to be ruled.

The timing turned out to be crucial. In the Americas Christian missionary zeal confronted local, state religions which it crushed with ruthless ease. In the Philippines, however, it found itself in a neck-and-neck race with an energetic Islam sweeping rapidly northeastward across island South-East Asia. (Had the Spanish arrived forty years later, much of the archipelago would probably have become religiously impenetrable, as predominantly Islamic as Indonesia and Malaysia are today.) Thus the late 15th-century politico-religious struggle in Andalusia was renewed, not many decades later, on the other side of the world – and in the same vocabulary. To this day, the Muslim populations of the southwestern Philippines, most of whom the Spaniards never subdued, are known, even to themselves, as ‘Moros’ (‘Moors’), and their armed resistance to Manila as the Moro National Liberation Front. Yet anti-Muslim (and Counter-Reformation) zealotry would not have been enough to ensure a programme of conversion so successful, ultimately, that 90 per cent of today’s Filipinos are at least nominally Christians. What proved critical, and not merely in this religious respect, was the absence anywhere in the Philippines (except where Islam had recently moved in) of indigenous states. Nothing remotely like the Burmese Buddhist monarchy, the Vietnamese Mandarinate, or the Javanese and Malay Hindu-Muslim dynastic realms. Christianisation of scattered pagan communities could proceed largely by peaceful means, a fact nicely underlined by the complete absence in the Philippines of the Inquisition. It was also carried out in the many local vernaculars – to the acquisition of which immense clerical energy was committed – and not in Spanish. Thanks to this policy, as well as the remoteness of the archipelago, and the pervasive, reactionary power of the clerisy, even after three hundred and thirty years of Spanish rule no more than 5 per cent of the population had command of Spanish. Spanish culture, in the most general sense, had a deep, continuing impact: but it was mediated not so much by the Spanish language as by Iberian Christian clerics – a vast, if largely ‘accidental’ difference from the experience of the southern Americas (except perhaps of the Jesuits’ Paraguay).

Ecclesiastical power had one other decisive influence on the development of the 20th-century Philippines’ social structure. While the Church in general, and the Orders in particular, gradually acquired vast wealth, especially in land, and while many clerics fathered children on local women, a formally celibate Spanish clergy could not, by its very nature, create a class capable, through the legal inheritance of family property, of creating vast private latifundia. What it did do, however, was to set a landowning example, create the social space for a mestizo latifundism in due course, and prepare a huge treasure for looting under early 20th-century American colonial rule.

The beneficiaries turned out to be the likes of Corazon Cojuangco’s late 18th-century forebears (the ‘patriarch’ immigrated from Fukien). From the early days the priesthood, dreaming of a Christian Middle Kingdom, had put much effort into conversion of those whom they called sangleys (‘traders’ in Hokkien), and whom we think of today as ‘Chinese’. If they had little success with the sangleys themselves, they did very well with the children born to such men by Christianised native women. Spanish law helped by assigning the formal legal status of mestizo to such children: i.e. preventing them from assuming their fathers’ sangley status. Assigned their own distinctive hybrid costumes and gremios (guild organisations), they emerged quickly as a distinct community – above all, in the environs of Manila.

Historical luck was with them. During the two-year English occupation of Manila in 1762-64, the often-victimised sangleys supplied and fought alongside the invaders; in revenge, the returning Spaniards expelled the bulk of the sangley community, and barred substantial further entry by mainland Chinese for close on a century. They could afford to do so because by then the galleon trade was in steep decline (the last galleon sailed in 1811), and the enlightened Bourbon despot Carlos III was expanding Spanish power into the countryside and promoting a quite new commercial export agriculture (including a royal monopoly in tobacco). With the sangleys out of the way, and the few resident Spaniards mainly occupied with administrative and ecclesiastical tasks, the ‘Chinese-mestizos’ took over most significant local commercial activity, and began moving out into the countryside of Luzon and the Visayas in Carlos III’s wake.

It is striking that when Spain’s American empire was disintegrating between 1810 and 1825, all was calm in the distant Philippines. The creole magnates, lawyers and petty officials who led nationalist revolutions against the Bourbons’ ‘second conquest of the Americas’ found no counterpart in the archipelago – even though the islands were administratively subordinated to the Viceroyalty of Mexico. The Church used its monopoly on education and control of printing to guard against any intrusion of liberal ideas; and the mestizos had good reason to be grateful for the new policies of Madrid. They might have no role in the Orders, and little in the decrepit administrative system, but they were entrenched in the expanding urban and rural economy. When in 1834 Madrid decided fully to open Manila (and a bit later Cebu City) to international trade, the mestizos were poised to take optimal advantage of the new opportunities. By then there were almost two hundred and fifty thousand of them in a total population of not much more than four million.

In the 19th century it was with British capital that the mestizos happily joined hands, as in the 20th century they would do with American and Japanese. For example, the island of Negros was almost uninhabited when British interests set up the first sugar mill there in 1857. Forty years later the population had increased tenfold, mainly by mestizo-organised immigration, and 274 steam mills were in operation.[2] Two great Chinese-mestizo ‘sugar’ families with British connections, the Osmeñas and the Cuencos, came so to dominate Cebu’s ‘party’ politics that by the 1950s it was said that in that island ‘there are no Nacionalistas and Liberals – there are only Osmeñistas and Cuenquistas.’[3]

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[1] On this group the locus classicus is Edgar Wickberg’s The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850-1898 (Yale, 1965).

[2] David Steinberg, ‘Tradition and Response’, in Crisis in the Philippines: The Marcos Era and Beyond, edited by John Bresnan (Princeton University Press, 1986). Along with essays on ‘The Social Situation’ by Wilfredo Arce and Ricardo Abad, and on ‘The Economic Crisis’ by Bernardo Villegas, Steinberg’s text is a valuable contribution to an otherwise conventional ‘How did things go so wrong?’ volume.

[3] Cited in Onofre Corpuz, The Philippines (Prentice-Hall, 1965).

[4] See John Larkin’s The Pampangans: Colonial Society in a Philippine Province (University of California Press, 1972), for a splendid account of this evolution, between 1765 and 1920, in the sugar-dominated province of Pampanga. Larkin notes that the mestizos also married into some of the petty indio cacique families, enriching and mestizo-ising them in the process.

[5] For the popular side of the revolutionary struggle, which continued, even against American might, until about 1910, see Reynaldo Ileto’s brilliant study, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 1979).

[6] The creation of a powerful ‘American’ presidency under the Commonwealth Constitution of 1935 (which grew still more powerful after independence in 1946) always had the potential of disrupting the intra-oligarchy equilibrium. But the oligarchy, recognising the problem, sensibly imposed a constitutional limit of two terms on any president – forcing Marcos effectively to abolish the constitution in 1973 in order to stay in power after the prospective end of his second term.

[7] For some amusing glimpses of these eminent ruffians at work, see Chapter Five of Renato and Letizia Constantino’s The Philippines: The Continuing Past (Quezon City: The Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1978).

[8] See Benedict Kerkvliet’s masterly The Huk Rebellion (University of California Press, 1977).

[9] See William Manchester’s American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (Hutchinson, 1979).

[10] The ‘war damage’ racket was compounded by the decision of MacArthur to turn over to Filipino leaders the huge stocks of military equipment and supplies prepared for a prolonged military campaign against the Japanese in the archipelago. ‘The disposition of these stocks was scandalous,’ wrote the usually unshockable Onofre Corpuz in his still useful The Philippines, p. 85.

[11] The best structural accounts of the decay of the political system in the 1960s remain Thomas Nowak and Kay Snyder’s ‘Clientelist Politics in the Philippines: Integration or Instability?’ (American Political Science Review, September 1974) and Thomas Nowak’s ‘The Philippines before Martial Law; A Study in Politics and Administration’ (American Political Science Review, June 1977).

[12] New York Times, 16 November 1969.

[13] New York Times, 6 December 1969.

[14] ‘Nobody in the Philippines has ever heard of a successful prosecution for graft’: Corpuz, The Philippines, p. 86.

[15] Time, 5 January 1987.

[16] Characteristically, about 72.5 per cent of state revenues in the 1960s came from regressive sales and excise taxes; a mere 27.5 per cent from income and property taxes; Corpuz, The Philippines, p. 105.

[17] The New York Times, 9 August 1967, gives an account of Cojuangco financing of Aquino’s political career, and of the heavily-guarded family compound (six California-style houses grouped round a huge swimming-pool), which is a useful antidote to the martyrology surrounding the assassinated senator.

[18] See Bernardo Villegas’s ‘The Economic Crisis’, in Crisis in the Philippines, pp. 168-75. He notes that Filipinos (excluding the Marcoses) probably hold at least $10,000 million in deposits and other assets overseas: no sign of confidence in their country’s future.