Mr. Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).
When I received word that Chito Sta. Romana would be the guest speaker of the Diliman Book Club, I had myself invited to the event. I was determined to see and listen to Chito, even if it meant finding lame excuses not to attend other commitments that night.
I like Chito and his wife Nancy’s company. When we visited Beijing in the autumn of 2007, Chito and Nancy were warm, hospitable hosts, and together with Jimmy Florcruz and Eric Baculinao, they treated us to perhaps the best lauriat and Peking duck we ever had. The last time I saw Chito and Jimmy was in 2008 during their short vacation in Manila. High time I got reconnected with Chito, I told myself.
And so off I went to the Diliman Book Club event. As expected, Chito was asked to talk about China, the burning issue of the day. Chito is one of a handful of Pinoys, together with Jimmy and Eric, who have a mastery of Chinese politics, economics and culture.
In 1971, the three of them were part of a Philippine youth delegation that visited China. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and eventually the declaration of martial law meant that they could not return to the Philippines, lest they get arrested and imprisoned. They thus became political exiles in China. Later, they were recruited to become journalists of foreign news bureaus. Chito retired as bureau chief of ABC news in 2010, and relocated to the Philippines. As a resident of China for close to four decades and being the senior correspondent in China for a prestigious foreign news agency for a long time, he admits that he has a better understanding of China than the Philippines.
In the packed room, everyone—First Quarter Storm activists, journalists, professors, and other Pinoy and Chinoy intellectuals—listened attentively to Chito’s presentation. So what did Chito talk about? It was very comprehensive, which could be deconstructed into five parts: 1) the life of the Pinoy exiles in China; 2) the factional struggles, leading to the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping and the retreat of Mao Zedong’s rigid ideology; 3) the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse; 4) the rupture in the relationship between the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the Philippines; and 5) the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
Chito’s presentation took at least five hours, and I lost count of the number of PowerPoint slides he used for the lecture (at least 80 slides). Chito presented fresh or provocative insights, stimulating a lively debate on the various issues. Further, some ex-activists, including those exiled in China, recalled the Mao era, sharing juicy stories and gossip, especially about the meeting between Imelda Marcos and Mao and the relationship of the Philippine communists with their Chinese counterparts.
What interested me most were the topics on Deng’s socialism and the escalation of the tension arising from the disputed territories on the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea).
Chito summarized how Deng and his faction define socialism: the growth of the productive forces, the over-all strengthening of the country, and the improved living conditions of the ordinary people. To be sure, China has achieved all this, but the tradeoff has been the rise of inequality. (Chito reminds the audience that inequality in China is worse than that in the Philippines, as measured by the Gini co-efficient.) Deng’s statement to “let some get people rich first” now haunts the Deng reformers as social unrest heightens, despite China’s rapid growth.
The debate whether China is capitalist or socialist is actually irrelevant. As Deng emphasized, the market is compatible with a socialist economy. Indeed, the market as an institution pre-dated the emergence of capitalism. In short, the market exists in any system.
Socialism, for Deng and his reformers, is thus about outcomes. And the market economy has certainly led to the growth of China’s productive forces and the lifting of billions of people from extreme poverty.
What is still missing as an outcome though is achieving an egalitarian society, which should be socialism’s distinguishing feature. Chito repeatedly pointed out, nevertheless, that the building of an egalitarian society is a work in progress in China.
One crucial lesson from the Deng reforms is that a revolution can proceed in incremental steps. The Chinese communist policy makers are guided by the saying: “Cross the river by feeling the stones.” This approach in fact has been embraced by multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, who now encourage doing growth diagnostics and identifying a few binding constraints.
On the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, Chito is a welcome voice of sobriety and reason. Neither China nor the Philippines gains from an escalation of the tension in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). China faces bigger problems—social unrest at home, the Tibetan and Taiwanese questions, among other issues. So does the Philippines. We must be focused on reinvigorating the economy, creating jobs, and rebuilding the institutions that the Gloria Arroyo administration destroyed.
But neither China nor the Philippines, understandably, will give in on territorial sovereignty. At a time that China continues to pursue peace and development as the building block of its foreign policy—even though it has become assertive in pursuing its core national interests—the resolution of the conflict must be done through “quiet diplomacy.” It is a matter of sending the right signals and doing action that will not be humiliating for both parties.
Chito’s word of advice is inspired by what he has learned from China, from Sun Tzu, Mao and Deng: That the art of war also involves knowing your enemy well, knowing when to fight, knowing when to retreat, and recognizing that the prevention of war, no matter how limited, is a most sublime objective.