A trip to China at this point in time can only be embroiled in questions about the crisis that is the West Philippine Sea dispute.
But also it is about everything that we know of China from third world Philippines, where global news means Western media, talking about China and Asia using a gaze that is far from objective, and always necessarily – and maybe inevitably – about protecting the interests of the world-power-that-be, i.e., America.
There is nothing like seeing Asia as separate from America, to realize that we might really only be understanding very little about the world.
The regional mindset
Traveling through China, from Shanghai to Suzhou, Dezhou to Beijing, one realizes that there is little we know of what ties us together as Asia. One realizes that where we look to America and view it as the model against which we might measure our own achievements and failures in terms of governance and politics and culture, one in fact need not go far to find mirrors against which we might reflect on what we’re doing wrong. Or right.
Doing right by heritage and history for example, is something that we might learn from a city like Suzhou, which has maintained its cultural heritage sites and historical monuments alongside the fast development of its main business and technological district. The balance between the two is in the very clear line drawn between new town and old town, where the shift in ideology that this requires is no difficult task, and the respect for history and valuation of heritage is not at all sacrificed for development and infrastructure.
Environmental preservation as both the beginning and the end of technological development meanwhile is at the heart of Dezhou’s major industries. The provincial town’s landscape is one of large parks built around old lakes, its food the freshest and healthiest had on this trip. They claim the simplest of things: thoughtful development and technological innovation that is about ecology and sustainability for a greater majority.
Between the two cities of Suzhou and Dezhou, across two provinces, much might be learned about different types of development, both equally important, but also equally risky. Between these two cities, one finds that the sameness in our models of development in the Philippines, across every province and city, big and small, might be part of our undoing.
Of tombs and kings
The trip to Dezhou was also about a visit to the tomb of the Sulu East King Paduka Pahala. It is a little known fact that the only foreign king and leader who has a mausoleum in China is a Filipino from Sulu. King Pahala had visited China to pay tribute to Emperor Yongle in August 1417, on the 15th year of the Yongle Empire. He would die from illness on his way back to Sulu from China, on September 13 1417, and Emperor Yongle would give him an elaborate funeral fit for an Emperor’s brother and build him a tomb and mausoleum worthy of royalty. A whole village would have the historical responsibility to guard and protect the mausoleum.
The Sulu East King’s wife and two sons would stay behind in China, while the eldest son Rakiah Baginda returned to Sulu to take over the Sultanate. The king’s wife Kamulin and two sons would live and die in China; their tombs are to the south of the King Pahala’s.
In 1713, the Qing government approved the citizenship of the King’s descendants, who have lived in China up to the current 21st generation.
King Pahala’s mausoleum is considered as part of the Dezhou’s Cultural Heritage. Various members of the Sultanate of Sulu have visited the mausoleum through the years; and some of his descendants in China have also visited Sulu.
Complex friendships and rough seas
The existence of this mausoleum and village in Dezhou, the friendship between King Pahala and Emperor Yongle, is of course historical proof of the kind of relations that existed between the Philippines and China long before we were colonized as nation.
But one is hard put to believe that this means more than just a historical footnote to a relationship that can only be more complex in the present – and not just because of how our perceptions about each other have been clouded by Western media.
Because any Filipino would know that our government had failed at maintaining friendly relations when the world watched the President and the local police mishandle the bus hostage taking of HongKong tourists in 2010. To make matters worse, this President refused to face the families of victims and the survivors of that hostage taking.
And then there is the dispute over Scarborough Shoal, one that is at this point wrought with the complexity of foreign policies and a he-said-he-said that is also embroiled in the existence of the US as world superpower, whose own foreign policy speaks of a pivot to Asia as “a sustained and different allocation of diplomatic and military resources” to the region. (foreignpolicyi.org)
It is clear though that both the Philippines and China have acted on the offensive in relation to Scarborough Shoal, without a smidgen of friendliness, without a sense of this history of brotherhood that we are being told we must hold dear given Emperor Yongle and King Pahala. And yes, certainly our (bloated) belief in ourselves as allies of the US has made things worse; but certainly China’s construction on the island is far from being an indication of brotherly love.
If there’s anything that has become clear to me, while we might imagine that America is succeeding at dividing and ruling Asia, it seems that this is also about one Asian superpower throwing its weight around the seas that used to be friendly, disengaging from the friendship its own Emperor Yongle had thought valuable.
At no other time, one finds, has history been deemed most irrelevant. We’ve always known this given how blind we are in relation to America. One hopes we need not fail history in relation to Asia.
Thi was published with the title “Beyond Western Eyes” on September 13 in The Manila Times.