On F. Sionil Jose’s Antiquated Racial Nationalism

Dr. Caroline S. Hau confronts F. Sionil Jose's sweeping generalizations of the Chinese.

Some people never learn from their mistakes. The National Artist F. Sionil Jose is evidently one of them. On ne transforme pas un bourrin en cheval de course.  Or as the Americans prefer to put it: you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

In his latest Star column, Jose has decided to drop all pretense, ditch all qualifiers–hedging adjectives like “some,” “many,” and “most”–and go all out in his sweeping, lazy generalizations about “the Chinese”:

“Realize that 80 percent of the Philippine economy is now in the hands of ethnic Chinese. They came to the Philippines with nothing, and became wealthy through exploitation of the land and the people. The priority, therefore, is for us now to see to it that the economic power of these ethnic Chinese, whose loyalty to the Philippines is in doubt, should be emasculated. The silence of our Filipino Chinese on this crucial issue is deafening. Vietnam is a very good model.

“Vietnam has not hesitated to fight the Chinese frontally and yet maintains a close relationship with China. Its economy had been dominated by ethnic Chinese. Cholon, then Saigon’s busiest district, was actually a Chinese enclave. After the triumph of the Revolution in 1975, Vietnam applied a simple solution to its China problem. The Chinese were simply expelled and their properties were confiscated. Several Chinese establishments were set up through the following years, but during the riots some three years ago, when China set up an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, to which the Vietnamese objected furiously, the Chinese factories in Vietnam were burned.”


Jose decries the “silence of our Filipino Chinese on this crucial issue.” If Filipino Chinese are silent on the issue, it’s because they have no idea what Jose is talking about.

Where, for instance, did Jose get the statistics showing that “80% of the Philippine economy is now in the hands of the ethnic Chinese”? Where is his proof that these ethnic Chinese became wealthy “through exploitation of the land and the people” and how would he know that these ethnic Chinese are disloyal? Judging by the responses of Teresita Ang-See and Leloy Claudio to similar racist remarks made by Solita “Winnie” Monsod in her Inquirer columns last December, such blanket generalizations about the “ethnic Chinese”–even the “wealthy” ones–are indefensible, both intellectually and morally.

I cannot think of any intellectually rigorous research vetted by, and published in, reputable international journals and presses that makes a case for the ethnic Chinese controlling 80% of the Philippine economy.

In fact, we don’t even know how big the ethnic Chinese community is–or if we can even call it a community at all. There are plenty of Filipinos of Chinese ancestry, bearing Chinese surnames like Lim or Tan, who do not identify as ethnic Chinese. Are they to be subject to expulsion and seizure of property as well?

Moreover, the “1.5%-of-population” rough estimate is based on projections from postwar statistics that do not factor in the all-important criteria of self-identification, changes in citizenship, outmigration, among others. Most of the academic studies that cite this figure are careful to point out the problems with such an estimate.

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Instead of Indonesia, Jose now cites the Vietnamese expulsion and confiscation of property of the Chinese as a worthy model for the Philippines. Jose may look to Southeast Asian racial nationalism for inspiration, but Filipinos who know their history are quick to realize that Jose is merely plagiarizing from the playbook of our Spanish colonizers, who periodically engaged in expulsion and confiscation of properties.

Should we be thankful at least that, in this particular column, Jose is not actively inciting and justifying violence against the ethnic Chinese, as he did in 1999?

I have argued before in my book, The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and beyond the Philippines, that what is interesting and important about Filipino citizenship is the fact that, unlike our neighbors in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, our state does not continue to tabulate and track the ethnicity of foreigners once they have acquired Filipino citizenship.

This is the reason we do not have accurate statistics on our so-called ethnic Chinese. This lack of accuracy, far from being an impediment, is actually a blessing, because it frees us Filipinos to imagine our nation–and what it means to be Filipino–in ways that avoid the racism and exclusionary impulses of a narrow kind of nationalist dogma.

Because in the eyes of the law, our citizens are counted and treated as Filipinos, because our country refuses to define Filipino in racial terms, our people have avoided the large-scale racial discrimination and violence that have marred the histories of our neighboring countries. (Tragically, however, this doesn’t mean that Filipinos aren’t capable of discriminating and going to war against fellow Filipinos.) Refusing a nationalism built on racist exclusion is not something we ought to be ashamed of, but something we should take pride in.


We do not need the likes of Jose–with his stubbornly held racial prejudices,  antiquated views of nationalism, and armchair-commando machismo (“emasculated,” anyone?)– to tell us how to be Filipino and what kind of country we deserve.

We deserve National Artists who are far wiser and more knowledgeable than F. Sionil Jose.

P.S. For those who want an introduction to the complicated history of Vietnam-China relations beyond Jose’s glib, imprecise summary of a paragraph, I recommend Keith Taylor’s A History of the Vietnamese; Christopher Goscha’s Vietnam; Alexander Woodside’s Vietnam and the Chinese Model; Brantly Womack’s China and Vietnam; and Qiang Zhai’s China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975.

This essay was originally published on Dr. Caroline S. Hau's blog ikanga.wordpress.com

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About The Author
Caroline S. Hau
Caroline S. Hau is Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, and the author of Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture and The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and Beyond the Philippines, both published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. She carries a Philippine passport, and no other.
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