Lorenzana hits back at Chinese envoy; calls remark on OFWs 'preposterous'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 18) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday lambasted what he called a "preposterous" statement by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, who reportedly said that Filipinos working in China could also be suspected of being spies.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador "Sal" Panelo on Saturday quoted a text message that he said came from the Chinese envoy. The message allegedly said: "What if we also think that your overseas workers are also spying on us?" This came after Lorenzana expressed concern that Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGO), which largely employ Chinese nationals, may "shift their operations to spying".

READ: Defense chief fears POGOs may shift operations to spying

"That’s the most preposterous statement I heard in a long while," Lorenzana said in a statement.

The defense chief said POGO workers "are not comparable to OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) in China," as they have different reasons for leaving their respective countries.

Lorenzana said POGO workers likely came to the Philippines to be tourists, but eventually got visas to work in gambling operations that are prohibited in China.

OFWs, meanwhile, go to the China with visas for legitimate work, he added.

"They are more like Chinese nationals working in construction projects here in the Philippines, as mutually agreed upon by both countries. There are no POGO-like centers in China that can be operated purely by Filipinos near Chinese military camps," the secretary said.

Lorenzana said OFWs are also "widely dispersed in China, working in homes and schools that are far away from military camps" while POGO hubs in the Philippines "are very near military camps and naval bases."

"It could be just coincidental because these were the only facilities offered for POGO operations and I believe that the POGO workers are here just for work only. What I am alarmed is the potential that they could be tapped for info gathering purposes," he said.

"That is why I support the relocation of the POGO centers to eco zones that are not proximate to military camps," Lorenzana added.

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson called out Panelo for supposedly speaking on behalf of the Chinese embassy, after he shared Jianhua's text message.

“Why would the country's presidential spokesperson whose salary and other miscellaneous expenses are being paid out of our taxes take on the embassy spokesman's job?” said Senator Lacson on Sunday.

“The thing is, the Chinese embassy has its own spokesman who should speak on their behalf because that's his job,” the senator added.

Lawmakers and government officials have aired concerns the past few weeks about the location of some POGOs and their proximity to military bases such as the headquarters of the Armed Forces, the Navy and the Philippine National Police.