Business along Quirino Avenue near Manila’s airport had been in a period of long decline until it began a sudden resurgence over the last year. Restaurants, spas and apartments have opened. Locals were hired as security guards, drivers and housekeepers, all catering to the area’s new clientele: Chinese migrants.
The area’s recovery could have been a perfect case study in how Manila’s diplomatic entente with China could result in tangible benefits for the people of the Philippines. The reality is more complex. The boom has been fueled by money from online gambling, an industry that is loathed by Beijing, straining relations between the two countries. At the same time, the influx of migrants has created pockets of social tension.
“Business used to be dead here, but not anymore,” a firefighter assigned to Quirino said “But many are also annoyed.”
Three years ago, Manila opened its door to online casinos. Sixty companies secured licenses for Philippine offshore gaming operations, known as “POGO,” many of them launching operations targeting Chinese gamblers.
The industry now employs close to half a million, many of them Chinese, for customer support and marketing, and is driving Manila’s real estate sector, according to Leechiu Property Consultants, a top POGO broker.
Yet China has pressured the Philippines to shut down the industry. Breaking its silence in August, the embassy in Manila delivered a scathing rebuke of the sector in a lengthy statement, in which it accused the industry of fueling a raft of social problems in China, from gambling addiction and telecom fraud to cross-border money laundering. Chinese workers in Manila are also subject to “modern slavery,” the embassy said.
With improved diplomatic ties and a relaxed visa policy under Duterte, the annual number of Chinese tourists has nearly tripled since 2015 to around 1.2 million — however, a number stay in the country to work in online casinos, often without permits. Manila is grappling to contain the consequences.
The immigration bureau has carried out frequent raids to hunt illegal aliens, deporting hundreds last year. This month, the police raided a high-end bar near the Makati central business district and rescued 91 Chinese and four Filipinos suspected of working as prostitutes, local media reported.