In today’s popular parlance, a Manchurian candidate popularly refers to someone who is “China’s puppet,” one that the Chinese government (hereafter, China) propped up to win top government positions to forward Chinese interest. 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 while he was running 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 evidence-based understanding of China and international politics.
I point out three reasons.
First, there is simply no accepted data to support that China has aggressively funded candidates across the world. China certainly prefers some politicians over others due to their stated positions but so do other great powers. Most scholars who specialize in Chinese politics and political economy point out that China is very decentralized, often relying on bureaucrats who interpret grand pronouncements by the Chinese leadership.
China’s Going Out Movement and Belt and Road Initiative were implemented by bureaucrats who interpreted the vague “directions” by Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping. In other words, these initiatives do not represent grand plans but, rather, were a product of fine-tuning and improvisation.
In the Philippines, China’s United Front, 国民革命统一战线, is the alleged organization that serves to carry out China’s political goals. There are signs that the United Front has been in operation for quite some time. For instance, pro-China Philippine groups, which one-sidedly praise China and echo the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can be interpreted as United Front activities. Apart from the United Front, Chinese investors and firms can also forward Chinese interests through the pro-China groups in the Philippines.
Crucially, interpreting the activities of the pro-China groups as part of a long-term and premeditated Chinese government scheme borders on conspiracy theorizing. Again, on one hand, China is very decentralized, meaning that the United Front forces and their Philippine partners could simply be operating in the Philippines to answer the vague demands of their superiors. This means that activities in the country are products of improvisation and experiments. On the other hand, the pro-China Philippine groups may have also used their Chinese networks to forward their own interests, such as garnering political power and material wealth. Indeed, this may explain why some activities of these groups appear 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 more likely explanation is that Duterte and Marcos are politicians who have tailored their political strategy to accommodate the Chinese in order to forward their own political agendas. In my paper 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, i.e., their tenure in official positions and their powers. The Dutertes and Marcoses have used Chinese financing to reward their coalition supporters, expand public goods, and become external mediators.
Even if Marcos or Duterte were Chinese agents, both politicians have agency and capacity to turn against their benefactors when convenient. What history has shown is that the relationship between major powers and their host country partners is muddled with principal-agent problems. The United States has a long history of working with autocrats or groups that eventually acted on their own behalf at the expense of American interests: Panama’s Manuel Norriega, Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, and Afghanistan’s Taliban. Cambodia’s Hun Sen was initially a pro-US anti-communist leader, but he has changed tune to consolidate his hold over his country. Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew was a communist supporter in the 1950s but turned against his Marxist beliefs to use US support and take hold of his country.
In other words, China’s influence in the Philippines, like that in many other Global South countries, is constrained due to their reliance on host country intermediaries who will always have agency. Without the participation of these intermediaries, like Duterte and Marcos, China’s influence wanes. The main problem is that the more an external power – China – relies on the intermediaries, the more that the intermediaries will take advantage of that power because of dependency.
As my research has shown, host country leaders – Duterte and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo – have pushed back against Chinese interest and the Chinese could not punish these leaders. Duterte protected online gambling at the expense of the Chinese government, while Jokowi pushed back on the Natuna Islands knowing that the Chinese needs to work with him in Indonesia. This pushback situation is largely because China could not afford to sully its relationship with these leaders.
In the context of Marcos, he will likely work with China, but he will never fully kowtow to their interests. He will take advantage of his position knowing that the Chinese will fully rely on him. This relationship may become unstable over time, leading to Marcos joining the US side of the equation.
The limits of China’s influence apply to local politicians as well. In the Duterte era, China has attempted to make friends through donation drives and sponsorships of provincial programs. However, the effectiveness of these efforts is questionable. China has certainly increased their material and social presence in some provinces, but China’s activities in the South China Sea will always be a negative in the eyes of Filipinos.
Local politicians who prioritize political survival will always value their electability above and beyond paying back their Chinese donors. China’s influence can have some effect on the Filipino disposition towards the Chinese, but any positive effect will happen in a longer time period.
And finally, this myth that China directly buys off candidates is a spinoff of a similar myth about the United States. In circles across the world, there is an idea that the Central Intelligence Agency has its hands on every political event. This same line of thinking has been echoed by pro-China Philippine figures who pencil in their opponents as pawns of the US’ National Endowment of Democracy.
This thinking is erroneous because it vastly overestimates the capacity of an external power, creating the picture 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 demonstrated that outcomes are results of hundreds of thousands of networks working against, and coordinating with, one another. These interactions often have unpredictable, complicated, and unintended consequences.
This conspiratorial thinking erases the notion that political events are ultimately products of domestic politics. China’s involvement in Philippine politics is certainly related to geopolitics, but it is more so driven by Philippine political elites cognizant of the new resources that they could mobilize to garner power.
China is a country of 1.4 billion with 500,000 party elites and 60 million government officials. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese actors in the Philippines with disparate beliefs and interests. It is time to go beyond this notion that geopolitics drives everything – i.e. that an external planner is scheming something – and take a closer look at what is happening at home. – Rappler.com
Alvin Camba is assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a faculty affiliate at the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University. More information about his work can be found on his website (alvincamba.com).