At times, Duterte’s public positions seem so outrageous and so contradictory to his country’s sense of pride that it is remarkable he manages to stay in power at all, much less hold on to his sky-high approval rating. Last summer, a few days after a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a Philippine boat operating in traditional Philippine fishing grounds, Duterte echoed China’s statements, calling it “a little maritime incident.” When this sparked calls for his impeachment, he reacted with typical scorn. “Me? Will be impeached? I will jail them all,” he said.
Duterte did shift rhetorical gears for a while, promising to defend his country’s maritime claims, and Beijing helped soothe offended feelings by apologizing for the sinking of the Philippine boat. But when Duterte went to China soon afterward, his fifth visit since becoming president, he committed himself, not to defending his country’s sovereignty but to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Beijing.
In January, in an apparent fit of pique over American human-rights criticism of his regime, Duterte announced that he was ending the Visiting Forces Agreement, which serves as the legal basis for U.S. military cooperation with the Philippines. The move seems likely to be unpopular with many Filipinos, if for no other reason than that it removes yet another obstacle to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Duterte himself probably leans toward China for a couple of reasons. Like other regional strongmen, he appreciates that Beijing, unlike Washington (even under Trump), doesn’t criticize him for human rights violations such as the drug-war killings. China is also the emerging Asian powerhouse, so Duterte’s argument—that the Philippines has little capacity to go to war with it over disputed territories and should instead seek a friendly relationship—has a logic, and appears to persuade many in the country.
Yet a deeper reason for Duterte’s popularity is simply the force of his personality. As the sociologist and author Walden Bello, a prominent Duterte critic, put it to me, “The charismatic figure can get away with anything, even murder.” Bello was speaking of the thousands of drug-war dead, about which Duterte has been spectacularly unrepentant. “My God,” the president has been quoted as saying, “I hate drugs, and I have to kill people because I hate drugs.”
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“People are very aware of the killings, but at the same time, they feel that Duterte’s eliminated the criminals,” Bello says, speaking specifically of a poor, teeming Manila neighborhood near where he lives, a place that has seen many extrajudicial killings. “The thugs, the street-corner boys, are no longer there. Women can walk the streets safely. I don’t know if their lives are actually better than before, but the perception is that they are. They’re pro-Duterte because they feel he’s cleaned up the place.”