Chinese businessmen flock to Duterte's Malacañang

MANILA, Philippines – Of all foreign businessmen, it’s the Chinese who have been most successful in securing appointments with President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang. 

A tally by Rappler, based on Palace press releases and inside information show that of the at least 32 meetings Duterte has held with businessmen in Malacañang or in his Davao City office, many were with Chinese businessmen or business groups.

Since the start of his presidency, Duterte has had at least 14 meetings with the Chinese, 13 with Filipino businessmen and groups, 3 with Americans, and two with Japanese. This does not include courtesy calls of businessmen during his trips abroad.

Courtesy calls of corporate magnates to a sitting president are not out of the ordinary. But the significant number of meetings with Chinese businessmen is a manifestation of Duterte’s friendly policy to China and Chinese investments.

In some cases, there is a distinct effort of the Chinese companies to beat the drum on their projects, all of them large-scale ventures, in front of no less than the Philippine President.

Here's a list of Duterte's meetings with Chinese businessmen or executives of Chinese companies*:

Proposing reclamation to Malacañang 

A number of the Chinese businessmen who have secured private meetings with Duterte work for state-funded companies. A number presented big-ticket projects requiring government approval such as plans for massive reclamation, casino-resorts, and theme parks.

Executives of one Chinese company even got to present their proposed reclamation project in Manila Bay during a full Cabinet meeting, Rappler learned.

Senior management of Landing International Development Ltd, a Hong Kong developer, were able to join part of the 18th Cabinet meeting on September 4, 2017, according to two sources.  

The executives presented plans to reclaim 147 hectares of Manila Bay to build a multi-billion-dollar theme park and resort.

Another corporate executive eyeing massive reclamation projects has secured an audience with the Philippine leader.

Chinese-Filipino Kitson Soriano Kho, chairman of Hong Kong-based The Kho Group and executive director of UAA Kinming Development Corporation, was present in two private meetings with Duterte.

Kho’s company is also gunning for a massive reclamation project in Manila Bay with Chinese partners – the 407-hectare New Manila International Community, a smart “city within a city” that got the nod of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and the Philippine Reclamation Authority. 

Duterte’s meeting with Lui Che-woo and Francis Lui Yiu Tung of Galaxy Entertainment is well-known because it involved the controversial planned Boracay casino-resort. 

Duterte has also met with Clarence Chung and Lawrence Ho of Melco Crown (Philippines) Resorts Corporation and Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts and Entertainment, respectively, the companies behind City of Dreams in the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation's (PAGCOR's) Entertainment City in Parañaque. 

Meetings with large Chinese construction firms

Several of the Chinese businessmen Duterte had met with are top executives of large Chinese contractors and construction companies.

Wilson Chu of China Gezhouba Group Company paid a courtesy call on him in February 2017. The firm is a general construction contractor based in Wuhan but is also engaged in natural gas and oil distribution, hydropower, construction and operation of highways, and among other operations, according to a description of the company on Bloomberg.

A week after his meeting with Chu, Duterte met with Zhang Zongyan, president of China Railway Group Limited, a Chinese construction company whose majority shares belong to state-owned China Railway Engineering Corporation. 

A month after that, on March 30, 2017, Malacañang said Duterte had a meeting with “China state-owned companies.”

Executives of China Communications Construction Co Ltd, a transportation infrastructure firm with operations worldwide, had their time with the Philippine President on August 23 that year. 

Two months later, on October 25, Duterte met senior management of Shanghai Nanjiang Group Co Ltd, a real estate, mining and energy company that has a memorandum of understanding with the Makati city government for a mass housing project. 

That meeting also included officials of Shanghai-based Arcplus Group PLC that does architecture design and engineering.  

On the same day, Duterte got to meet China’s most famous businessman, Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Charitable works

On at least 3 occasions, Chinese businessmen scored meetings with Duterte because of charitable deeds. Chinese tycoon Huang Rulun, who donated a drug rehabilitation center in Nueva Ecija, was the first Chinese businessman to secure a private audience with the President in Malacañang. Their meeting took place on December 5, 2016.

Another real estate magnate, Jose Kho (in photo above), offered to donate a similar center in Malaybalay, Bukidnon. Kho is the president of Friends of the Philippines Foundation, a group of Chinese businessmen with roots or business interests in Xiamen. They had lunch with Duterte during his first official visit to Beijing.

A devotee of the Chinese goddess Mazu, Kho even offered to foot the bill for the construction of a Mazu shrine in the Manila Bay area. He had gotten as far as talks with former tourism secretary Wanda Teo who he took to the Mazu cultural festival in Macau in October 2017.

Four months after his first meeting with Duterte, where he was accompanied by Ramon Tulfo, Teo’s brother, Kho got to meet the President again, this time to receive the Kamagi Medal of the Order of Lapu-Lapu.

Duterte created the Order of Lapu-Lapu to recognize individuals, either in government or in the private sector, who "actively participated in and contributed significantly to a campaign or advocacy" of Duterte.

Favored for projects?

With the Philippines turning a friendly face to China, it's not surprising that Chinese companies are being considered for major government projects that involve billions of funds.

Chinese-led consortium, referred to as the Bangon Marawi Consortium, is expected to win the P17-billion contract to rebuild the former main battle area of Marawi City. When concerns arose over the World Bank's previous blacklisting of two of the Chinese companies involved, Malacañang said the firms deserve a "second chance."

Duterte, in a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang no less, offered China the chance to name any of its companies as the firm that will help put up the Philippines' 3rd telecommunications player.

Then there are the dozens of infrastructure and transportation projects under the government's Build, Build, Build program that the Chinese are interested in financing.

While Duterte has assured the public that the loans would be at generous rates, the Chinese will have the right to select contractors and suppliers for the project. Some economists have also warned of China's "debt trap diplomacy" where developing countries are offered loans they end up unable to pay, forcing them to give China unprecedented access to their natural resources or other assets.

But economic managers like Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III have said that loan deals offered by China will go through evaluation processes like all other offers from other countries. – Rappler.com

(*Editor's note: We removed the Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Liong Tek Go Family Association from the list of Chinese businesspersons who have met with President Duterte. Both are Filipino-Chinese organizations.) 

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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