Chinese President Xi Jinping has been capitalizing on his relationship with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his significantly pro-Beijing stance, to press its claims in the South China Sea and win economic benefits in favor of China’s interests. China is the Philippines’ largest trading partner, export destination, and source of imports, demonstrating the two countries’ flourishing bilateral trade relations. In 2019 alone, for example, bilateral trade between the Philippines and China reached nearly $50 billion. Bilateral trade grew by 17 percent per year on average between 2014 and 2019. These figures reveal the Philippines’ role as an active business partner and trading market for China.
With a friendly Philippine president in office, Beijing has also been pushing to bolster its soft power through the entertainment industry. Under Xi, China has been spending billions of dollars to promote Chinese language, educational exchange, media expansion and cooperation, and pop culture icons – all potential tools of soft power by which is hopes to gain diplomatic and economic advantages.
Based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2019, public views of China are more positive in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, than in Europe or North America. In 2019, 42 percent of Filipinos had favorable views of China, compared to just 26 percent in the United States and 34 percent in Germany. Xi personally was well regarded in the Philippines, with 58 percent of Filipinos expressing confidence in him “to do the right thing in world affairs,” just below 59 percent of Russians who thought the same.
Beijing interprets the growth of media influence and Chinese pop culture expansion to the Philippines as a means to strengthen its soft power and further improve Filipino public views of China.
The Chinese government has long believed that the success and international influence of Hollywood – the world leading pop-culture industry – effectively promotes U.S. lifestyle and political attitudes as international values. Seeking to capture that same success, Beijing endeavors to develop its own alternative to Hollywood in the Philippines, and in Asia more widely. For example, China has launched “China TV Theater” on the Philippine state-run broadcasting network People’s Television Network (PTV)-4. Also, Chinese entertainment shows have been aired on ABS-CBN and Global Media Arts (GMA), the two largest Philippine private broadcasting networks. Aside from television programs, Chinese movies are also getting more popular in the Philippines.
Given the increasing popularity of China’s pop culture products in the Philippines, it is alarming that China’s pop culture industry is politically instrumentalized to enhance China’s soft power in the Southeast Asian country. While seeking to attract the Filipino public to Chinese culture and lifestyle, Beijing is also attempting to convince it that China is a benevolent power and that the positive growth of Sino-Philippine relations is beneficial to the Philippine economy in the long-term.
Chinese television shows and films are not the only useful platforms for Beijing to disseminate Chinese propaganda for the purpose of shaping the Filipino audience’s public views on China. Filipino critics have also criticized the Philippine government for airing pro-China radio shows on Philippine radio broadcasting channels. “Wow China,” a radio program produced through a collaboration between China Radio International and the Philippine Broadcasting Service, has been airing on the local radio station Radyo Pilipinas since mid-2018. These media platforms are utilized by Beijing to disseminate pro-China information in order to improve China’s international image in the Philippines.
As long as China increases its pop culture influence and expands its media coverage in the Philippines, Beijing will plausibly have growing leverage to present biased images of itself to the general public of the Philippines and even minimize voices critical of Beijing within the Southeast Asian country.