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Why is this small town mayor accused of being a Chinese spy?

GreenWatch Desk Columns 2024-05-18, 8:09pm

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A sleepy town in the Philippines has been thrust into the national spotlight after its mayor was accused of being a Chinese agent.

Bamban is a nondescript town in the country's rice-growing flood plains north of the capital, Manila.
Its mayor, Alice Guo is the picture of a young, on-the-go public servant.
Bespectacled, with long black hair and a ready smile, the 35-year-old speaks Tagalog with no foreign accent and loves to wear pink in public, reports BBC.
Nothing about her life - she claims she grew up on a pig farm - seemed to raise alarm bells, until she was called to testify before a Senate hearing earlier this month.
Law enforcers had discovered that an online casino - known locally as a Pogo - in her town was really a front for a scam centre.
Authorities raided the facility last March and rescued close to 700 workers, including 202 Chinese nationals and 73 other foreigners who were forced to pose as online lovers.
Pogo stands for Philippine Offshore Gambling Operator whose clients include mainland Chinese people.
These businesses flourished during the tenure of Rodrigo Duterte, whose presidency, which ended in 2022, was marked by close ties to China.
But under current president Ferdinand Marcos, Pogos have come under close scrutiny after it was discovered that some of them have been used as fronts for human trafficking and online scam operations.
Ms Guo's case is unfolding as tensions between Manila and Beijing over reefs and outcrops in the resource-rich South China Sea heat up.
Swimming pool and wine cellar
She was found to have owned half of the land where the Pogo stood, just behind her office. She claims she sold the property before she ran for mayor two years ago.
Video of the nearly eight-hectare compound showed it contained a grocery, warehouse, swimming pool, and even a wine cellar. The scam centre workers toiled on rows and rows of long white tables with computers.
Ms Guo was also found to have a helicopter and a Ford Expedition registered under her name but like the land, she claims, these have been sold long ago.
After the senate hearing, Senator Risa Hontiveros asked if Ms Guo was an "asset" of China based on her "opaque" replies to questions about her personal and business backgrounds.
Late on Thursday, President Marcos added his voice to growing alarm over Ms Guo's case.
"No-one knows her. We wonder where she came from, that's why we are investigating this, together with the Bureau of Immigration, because of the questions about her citizenship," Mr Marcos told reporters late Thursday.
Ms Guo told lawmakers that she was "not a coddler, not a protector of Pogos".
Little is known about her background, which is unusual in rural Philippines, where local officials are often affiliated with political dynasties. She is only on her first term as an elected official.
The Commission on Elections said she registered to vote in Bamban in 2021, or one year before she ran and won as mayor.
Her family name, Guo, is also not among the common family names of Filipinos with Chinese lineage. Though colonised by Spain, the Philippines and China have deep cultural ties because of centuries of trade. In fact, the country is home to the world's oldest Chinatown.
Under questioning by senators, Ms Guo admitted that her birth certificate was registered with local authorities only when she turned 17. She said this was because she was born in a house, not a in a hospital or clinic. She could not give further details.
She said she was home schooled exclusively inside the family compound where they also raised pigs. However, she could not remember the name of her home school organisation and named only one of her teachers.
She said her father is Filipino, but in business records, her father was identified as a Chinese citizen.
"Many are asking, who is Alice Guo?" she said in a 2022 campaign speech, according to Manila broadcaster GMA News.
"I am Alice Guo from Bamban. My mother is Filipina, my father is Chinese," she said in Tagalog.
Ms Hontiveros was among those who quizzed Ms Guo about her birth and education records. When she pressed the mayor to be more specific, she only got "I will get back to you" in reply.
"I am most alarmed at how opaque may Guo's answers have been, especially her background," Ms Hontiveros told reporters.
"Is Mayor Alice, and those like her with mysterious backgrounds, working as an asset for China? Planted in our country so that they will be able to influence Philippine politics?" she said.
"It's hard to believe Bamban Mayor Alice Guo, when her answer to our questions is always 'I don't know' and she can't even remember where she lived," said Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, who was also at the hearing.
Ms Guo has not commented on the spying allegation and has largely avoided media interviews since her appearance at the Senate last week.
Mr Marcos said the investigation on Ms Guo aims to prevent foreign nationals from holding public office in the country. He said the Philippines was "not necessarily looking at just one country".
"We will tighten law enforcement. The laws are there, the problem is some think these people can bring money in, or they get bribed," Mr Marcos said.
The Commission on Elections and the Solicitor General are investigating Guo's case to see whether she had been holding public office unlawfully. If proven, she could be removed from her post.