[OPINION] Beyond the Manchu Candidate
In today’s popular parlance, a Manchurian candidate usually refers to someone who is “China’s puppet”, a puppet that the Chinese government (hereafter, China) has supported to win positions high-level government officials to advance Chinese interests. In the 2022 Philippine elections, this so-called Manchurian candidate is supposed to be Bongbong Marcos. This criticism was also widely applied to current President Rodrigo Duterte as he ran for office.
I argue that this concept of a Manchurian candidate is unsupported by any form of acceptable empirical research and ultimately distorts the understanding of a more factual understanding of China and international politics.
I give three reasons.
First, there is simply no accepted data to support that China has aggressively funded candidates around the world. China certainly favors some politicians over others because of their stated positions, but so do other major powers. Most academics specializing in Chinese politics and economics point out that China is highly decentralized, often relying on bureaucrats who interpret grand pronouncements from Chinese leaders.
China’s exit movement and Belt and Road Initiative were implemented by bureaucrats who interpreted vague “instructions” from Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping. In other words, these initiatives do not represent grand projects, but rather the product of adjustments and improvisations.
In the Philippines, the Chinese United Front, 国民革命统一战线, is the alleged organization that serves to achieve China’s political goals. There are signs that the United Front has been operational for some time. For example, pro-China Filipino groups, which unilaterally praise China and echo the Foreign Ministry, can be interpreted as United Front activities. Besides the United Front, Chinese investors and companies can also convey Chinese interests through pro-China groups in the Philippines.
Fundamentally, interpreting the activities of pro-China groups as part of a long-term, premeditated plan by the Chinese government borders on conspiracy theory. Again, on the one hand, China is highly decentralized, meaning that United Front forces and their Filipino partners could simply operate in the Philippines to respond to vague requests from their superiors. This means that the activities in the country are the fruit of improvisation and experimentation. On the other hand, pro-China Filipino groups may also have used their Chinese networks to advance their own interests, such as gaining political power and material wealth. Indeed, this may explain why some activities of these groups seem amateurish.
Second, there is no doubt that Duterte and Marcos favor China, but it is not because they are agents of the Chinese Communist Party. The most likely explanation is that Duterte and Marcos are politicians who have adapted their political strategy to accommodate the Chinese in order to advance their own political agendas. In my article at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, I show that Duterte used several Chinese projects to reward local elites. In a recent op-ed, I argue that Marcos will likely do the same. Politicians will always prioritize political survival, that is, their tenure in official positions and their powers. The Dutertes and Marcos have used Chinese funding to reward their coalition supporters, develop public goods and become external mediators.
Even if Marcos or Duterte were Chinese agents, both politicians have the agency and ability to turn on their benefactors when it suits them. What history has shown is that the relationship between great powers and their host country partners is confused with principal-agent issues. The United States has a long history of working with autocrats or groups that have ultimately acted in their own name at the expense of American interests: Manuel Norriega of Panama, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, and the Taliban of Afghanistan. Cambodian Hun Sen was initially a pro-American anti-Communist leader, but changed his tune to consolidate his grip on his country. Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew was a communist supporter in the 1950s but turned against his Marxist beliefs to use American support and take over his country.
In other words, China’s influence in the Philippines, like in many other countries in the Global South, is limited due to their reliance on host country intermediaries who will always have an agency. Without the participation of these intermediaries, like Duterte and Marcos, China’s influence declines. The main problem is that the more an outside power – China – relies on the intermediaries, the more the intermediaries will profit from this power due to dependency.
As my research has shown, the leaders of the host countries – Duterte and the Indonesian Joko Widodo – pushed back against Chinese interests and the Chinese could not punish these leaders. Duterte protected online gambling at the expense of the Chinese government, while Jokowi pushed back the Natuna Islands knowing the Chinese had to work with him in Indonesia. This situation of pushback is largely due to the fact that China could not afford to sully its relations with these leaders.
In Marcos’ context, he will likely work with China, but he will never fully pander to their interests. He will take advantage of his position knowing that the Chinese will trust him completely. This relationship may become unstable over time, leading Marcos to join the American side of the equation.
The limits of China’s influence also apply to local politicians. In the Duterte era, China tried to make friends through donation drives and provincial program sponsorships. However, the effectiveness of these efforts is questionable. China has certainly increased its material and social presence in some provinces, but China’s activities in the South China Sea will always be negative in the eyes of Filipinos.
Local politicians who prioritize political survival will always value their eligibility above reimbursing their Chinese donors. China’s influence may have some effect on Filipinos’ disposition towards the Chinese, but any positive effect will occur over a longer period of time.
And finally, this myth that China directly buys candidates is a spin-off from a similar myth about the United States. In circles around the world there is a notion that the Central Intelligence Agency has its hands on every political event. This same line of thinking has been echoed by pro-China Filipino figures who view their opponents as pawns of the US National Endowment of Democracy.
This thinking is misguided because it vastly overestimates the capacity of an external power, creating the image of central coordination and a “cabal” of planners behind the scenes of every move. This idea that the CIA is behind every move is the direct counterpart of China’s Manchurian candidate.
However, research has shown that the results are the results of hundreds of thousands of networks working against each other and coordinating with each other. These interactions often have unpredictable, complicated and unforeseen consequences.
This conspiratorial thinking obliterates the idea that political events are ultimately products of domestic politics. China’s involvement in Philippine politics is certainly tied to geopolitics, but it is driven more by Filipino political elites aware of the new resources they could muster to seize power.
China is a country of 1.4 billion people with 500,000 party elites and 60 million civil servants. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese actors in the Philippines with disparate beliefs and interests. It’s time to move beyond this notion that geopolitics is running everything – that is, an external planner is plotting something – and take a closer look at what is happening at home. – Rappler.com
Alvin Camba is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an affiliate professor at the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University. More information about his work can be found on his website (alvincamba.com).