Xiaochen Su is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia in academic, NGO, and business sectors.
Barbarians at the Gates
It was 8 am on a hot Wednesday morning at De La Salle University in the heart of Manila, and Tim was letting out the first yearn of the morning. As usual, he had been up since 6 am, rushing to get to the office before the school’s automated employment attendance system marks him tardy. Surprisingly, the roads were not nearly as crowded as usual, and he was able to finish the two-hour commute from his house in the southern suburbs to the school in less than an hour and 45 minutes. With his first class of the day at 10 am, Tim had a couple of hours to relax and catch up on the topics that he prepared to deliver in today’s lectures. With that thought, he rotated his leather chair to have a look out the window. His face, calm a moment ago, immediately turned into a grimace. High up on the tenth floor of the Social Sciences Building, at the very corner of the walled University compound, Tim’s spacious corner office directly looks out to the sights of the city beyond the compound’s high walls. The contrasting view within and beyond these walls was somehow more disturbing on that day even by the standards of this crowded metropolis. De La Salle University has been an oasis of peace and greenery in the city center since the Spanish colonial days when it was first established in this very spot. Always known for its classical European architecture, today the compound also hosts an increasing number of skyscrapers to house more and more students and faculty in the same limited area that has not been expanded in centuries. Despite packing more buildings, the compound still manages to give off a sense of nature through the ingenious placement of small gardens, with plants that selectively dot both the ground level and some floors of multistory towers. Outside the heavily guarded compound of the University is a whole another story. What used to be poshest in Manila, the streets that surround De La Salle have changed dramatically in the last decades. This is because most major businesses left the city center for the suburbs after the 1960s. The stately colonial facades of corporate headquarters and lavish residences left from those days are now occupied by many makeshift businesses selling everything from scrap metal to street food. Several families often cram into a single office-space-turned-residence building. Gone are the historic cafes frequented by white-collar elites, replaced by constant yells of street vendors hawking their cheap plastic wares to the fuming vehicles slowly squeezing through packed avenues. Given the sheer discrepancy, it is unsurprising just how much these “townies” want to get into the De La Salle compound. In the beginning, just the view of smartly suited people in shiny glass skyscrapers was too enticing to pass up. Even just the opportunity to just see how the “others” work in these mesmerizing structures was enough for them. Most of these curious townies seemed to mean no harm to the order of the university and daily lives of its faculty and students. Of course, the University security force disagrees. The guards of the compound, almost paramilitary, frequently and openly display their disdain toward these “townies” by calling them “barbarians,” implying that if they are to enter the compound unauthorized, the oasis of tranquility that is the university will be quickly consumed by the noisy slums that surround it. Hence, they have made it a mission to keep them out by any means. To prevent the “barbarians” from breaking through the gates and breaching the walls, they have used everything from batons to tear gas. The city’s police force, undermanned and underfunded as they are in dealing with the city’s more than 40 million residents, almost gladly turn a blind eye to the University security’s often unnecessary brutality against alleged trespassers. However, in the past few years, the townies’ desire to get into the compound has taken on a bit more urgency than mere bouts of curiosity. This owes much to the introduction of the so-called “regional air cleaning system” (RACS) across the globe, for which De La Salle stood out as one of the first commercial adopters and implementers. The concept of RACS is as controversial as it is simple. With essentially a series of massive air intake devices placed around an implementation area, the system sucks in dirty air from the atmosphere in the designated area and sequesters the polluting particles before releasing the cleaned air back into the skies. After prototyping for decades, the towering devices can now operate so efficiently that those near them can experience the constant breeze of particulate-matter-free air despite sitting in some of the most polluting environments in the world. The only problem is the limited range of RACS. Even when placed in the very corners of the compound, the air suction towers cannot reach beyond the walls, creating a situation that almost comical for the first-time visitor: fresh air flow through blue skies inside the compound, but meters away outside of it, the atmosphere is black with soot, the air smells of chemicals, and visibility goes down to almost zero. When seeing from above, the constant contrast between the rectangular shape of clean air and the grey pollution of central Manila speaks volumes about the miracle of air-cleaning technology just as much as about the desperation of millions who suffer under constant air pollution. Now, many slum-dwellers in the neighborhoods surrounding De La Salle want to get into the University compound just for a breath of fresh air. In response, the university security has been deployed all around the walls and the gates to catch the “barbarians.” For Tim, the sight of the security guards shoving townies back from the walls of the compound has never been pleasant. From his corner office, he inadvertently gets a front seat to see the actions. Against the background of crystal clear skies of the compound, he can see security officers pushing people climbing up the walls back into the grey haze behind them, usually with the help of some rubber batons to inflict some pains on the climbers in the process. For him, nothing illustrates the elitist nature of the De La Salle bubble more than this sight. The poor desperate for just some clean air contrasts so sharply against the violent uniformed agents of the relatively rich like him, directly presenting the gaping inequality that defines the Filipino metropolis in this day and age. Today the air in the slums is especially dark and the number of people climbing the walls especially many. The crowds are only getting bigger and bigger by the minute even though the security guards are violently punishing those who attempt the climb. Tom wonders why this is. Perhaps it also has something to do with his speedier-than-usual morning commute through the thick polluted air of the slum streets. But the not-too-subtle brutality of university security outside his windows is not something he wants to think about it at that moment. Inequality is bad, but it is not as urgent as the class lectures he needs to prepare before 10 am. After all, that sight of inequality is a daily routine here, nothing to be too surprised about.
For Mark, the issue of clean air is not just that it is some nicety to have. It is a matter of life and death. A lifelong asthma sufferer, Mark constantly feels how the worsening air of the neighborhood has made his daily life more and more difficult. As a day laborer dependent on working odd menial jobs in the neighborhood’s various workshops, he has seen his ability to do work become less and less as his coughs grew more and more intense. Many long-time employers, seeing his condition, have stopped giving him work. Less work means less money to buy medicine, and less medicine means even less able to work. A vicious cycle is quickly making him a useless member of a community in which an abundant pool of new workers, in the form of young men from the countryside and other slums, is always available to take jobs for the lowest pay. Meanwhile, living expenses just continue to increase. The neighborhood, crowded with so many new arrivals every day, only has so many rooms to rent out. All the buildings of the neighborhoods are built centuries ago. Sure, their residents have been diligent enough to keep them from collapsing, but to build any sort of meaningfully extensive extensions on them is beyond the financial means of anyone except their elusive owners, who, with their constant absence, show obvious signs of unwillingness to invest any more in the neighborhood. Even more elusive is the local government, which, in the past years, does not even bother to show up in the neighborhood anymore. It is as if they have handed over the policing power of the place entirely to the security guards at De La Salle University. Of course, those guys could care less about what happens in the neighborhood as long as people do not scale their walls and get into the university compound. Mark, like many others in the neighborhood, has long looked into moving out of this place with its sorry state. No luck. Piggybacking on an economy that has grown by double digits nonstop for the last couple of decades, the capital city is undergoing massive gentrification to cater to the more refined tastes of the urban rich. One after the other, inner-city neighborhoods like this one is torn down, replaced by glittering shopping streets, quiet residential compounds, and monumental bastions of capitalist success. There is nowhere else in this city where the left-behind like him can still live and make ends meet in such a low-cost way. That makes De La Salle University perhaps the only sign of modernity that he can remotely aspire to. It is, in many ways, a condensed version of the modern Philippines. It has all the neat skyscrapers of the city’s southern business districts, the clean air and fauna of his rural home, and most importantly, the inhabitants that made what used to be the “sick man of Asia” into one of the most dynamic economies of the region. He wanted to be a part of that, and alleviating his asthma with the compound’s fresh air was going to be just the first step. And this day was the right day to make that advance. The city government, long absent, announced the plan to demolish the neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood watched in alarm on TV broadcasts. The ad hoc housing of Mark and millions like him was going to be torn down, just as many others around the city had been in the past years. The city authorities spoke of the new affordable housing projects that will be provided just for the current residents, but Mark, and others around him, know that those projects, located far out of the city, are not a form of compensation that works in their favor. Instead, it is just the government’s cheap ploy to erase the eyesore that they think the neighborhood, and its people, has become. There would be no jobs, no social support, and no economic activities out there in the new housing projects to support millions like him. They would be dying a slow death in the middle of nowhere. Time was running out. Mark knows that the normal political process is not going to stop the government from acting. After all, urban bottom-feeders like them are already the demographic minority in a city of middle-class white collars and a country of productive entrepreneurs. Democracy would only favor the numerous middle-class people, and the likes of him, without resources, connections, or power, would be quickly swept aside in political decision-making. What they needed was a drastic, sudden action, to let the government know that they are determined to keep the neighborhood intact, and any attempt to change the status quo is going to hurt, not just them, but also the urban rich that threw them into this misery in the first place.
It was just before 9:30 am that the campus-wide loudspeakers announced the cancellation of all classes for the day. It advised students and faculty to stay indoors, and do not make any attempt to leave the university compound. Sirens were rung in conjunction with the announcements as if to instill a sense of greater urgency among the listeners. All that talk was pretty much no more than additional noise for Tim at that moment. From his corner office right next to the walls, the voices of thousands shouting simultaneously were enough to drown out any loudspeaker that the university can muster. Even with the windows closed, chemical smells and smokes of burning tires filled every crevice of the building, overwhelming the limited capacity of RACS. Staying in the building for a prolonged period most likely would likely lead to suffocating in the noxious air. Outside the windows, it was pure chaos. Under the watchful eyes of drones from various news agencies, the townies were throwing hundreds of Molotov cocktails at the security guards manning the top of the walls. The guards, having no weapons beyond their rubber batons, cowered behind their plastic shields as fireballs exploded all around them. It was no longer a few “barbarians” sneaking into the compound. This was a full-on invasion. For the first time since he became a lecturer at the university, Tim saw hundreds of scaling the walls in unison under the cover of Molotovs, reaching the top at dozens of places within a distance of a few hundred meters. The guards, used to dealing with a few individual climbers now and then, were scampering, chased by young invaders determined to take their built-up anger out on the guards with unrestricted violence. The school’s outer barriers, for a long time separation between two worlds, the rich and the poor, the polluted and the clean, the “civilized” and the “barbaric,” were, in a matter of minutes, no more, breached and disappeared under a ceaseless human wave. Tim ducked under his table. He fully expected the Social Sciences building to be, at any moment, quickly inundated with townies, seeking their revenge on society, in the form of beating the likes of him that they can never strive to become. But that vengeance did not come. The building remained quiet. Tim looked curiously out the window from below his table. Outside, just inside the now-vacated and damaged walls, the masses stopped. Shouting at security guards and chanting slogans only a moment ago, the crowds were almost completely silent. They just stood there, congregated around the towering presence of air-cleaning devices of RACS. They were just…breathing, busying themselves with taking in the clean air that they had never experienced on the other side of the wall. It was a moment of peace. Thousands with their eyes closed, sucking in the air as if they have never breathed before. It was a perplexing sight for Tim, who had for years taken the clean air of the university compound for granted.
Mark felt a sense of soothing energy that he had not felt since his childhood in the rural islands. Coughing just minutes before from all the burning gasoline and tires, he was now sensing his asthma somehow leaving him, replaced with a cleanly sensation inside his body. At this moment, he forgot about his anger at the authorities for deciding to tear down his home, and at the systematic inequality that ensures he can never be more than a day laborer among millions of equally desperate men. For one moment, he just wanted to enjoy the miracle of the technology that purified the toxic air into one that almost tasted sweet in the back of his throat. That clean air was addictive, so much so that Mark realized that he just cannot go back to the days of not having it. It was not just good, but necessary, for people outside the compound to get the same equipment. For many protestors in the compound at that moment, being there might have just been a display of frustration toward the urban rich, as stereotypically represented by people in De La Salle, being so insensitive toward the plight of the urban poor. But for Mark, getting this clean air to everyone, not just himself, was a concrete goal he wanted to achieve. Seeing the blue skies of the compound was one thing, but breathing it, he realized, was a complete game-changer. Yet, for all his ignorance about technology, he knew that air-cleaning is not just a matter of putting a tower somewhere to recycle the air. And it is certainly not something little workshops run by his friends in the neighborhood can reverse engineer. It is an expensive, sophisticated system that only rich institutions like an elite university can afford, and only for a small area like this particular compound. Access to such technology that improves a free thing like air, ironically, has become the most visible sign of the divide between the haves and the have-nots. So how does one get the haves to share this thing with the have-nots? For Mark and hundreds of people around him, the answer was simple. If the have-nots like them cannot have it, then the haves should also be made sure to not have them either. The discussions among the protestors below the air-cleaning towers were swift and decisive. One moment they were breathing in the clean air for the very first time, the next moment, they were tossing Molotov cocktails into the tower’s shaft openings for air intake, setting the towers on fire from the inside. With loud bangs, the air-cleaning towers grounded into a halt, their rhythmic operational sounds replaced by noises of parts clinking about in disharmony. The vents for letting out the purified air now only bellow grey smoke. It was the first sign of inequality being demolished.
It did not take long for Tim to notice the growing darkness around him. No, it was no longer the smokes from burning tires. The toxic air rolling through the air was systemic, all-enveloping, and had no intention of letting up. Outside, the masses were no longer peacefully breathing in the clean air. Instead, the dirty air of the neighborhood, long held at bay across the other side of the wall, was now flowing in unabated. The rectangle of blue skies that was the university compound was quickly blending into the grey atmosphere of the neighborhood that surrounds it. It was a sight that was as visual as it is metaphorical. Tim knew that the death of RACS, so eagerly destroyed by the protestors, is a defining symbol for the end of the school’s overtly privileged life inside the country’s poorest neighborhood. And as much as he hated the thought of having to share the low living standards of the townies, Tim realized that perhaps that hatred of that visual privilege, accumulated for so many decades, is what caused today’s eruption among the populace, one big enough that the security guards, also long hated, can no longer hold back. The school announcement system, silent for the last half an hour of chaos outside, blared once again, “all school faculty are advised to lock down their respective buildings, remaining inside until future notice,” the female announcer stated rather mechanically, “the city government has announced delay in the gentrification efforts in our surrounding neighborhood.” Ahh, that’s what it’s about, Tim remembered the news report he was glancing through late last night, about government plans to redevelop the whole area surrounding the school. At that moment, he did not quite catch the nuance behind the word “redevelopment,” assuming renovation of a few buildings and cleaning up a few streets. He forgot that in this particular neighborhood, the city government has not offered that sort of public services in decades. The police do not even step into the area anymore. The few police drones flying through usually just briefly check if the university security is keeping things in order within the school, before quickly flying out of the neighborhood as if evacuating an aerial battlefield. In this context, “redevelopment” can only mean one thing: destruction. Everyone knows that the neighborhood, with its crumbling mansions from the last century, is an embarrassment to De La Salle. Middle-class voters, including most De La Salle alumni, have been clamoring for years to get the neighborhood torn down and replaced with shiny apartment blocks as the city has done for other similar neighborhoods. It is just that the process is so difficult, because this one is so big and populous, making any potentially forceful push to change a logistical nightmare. Now it is finally happening and the residents are understandably furious. And what better way to express their anger than destroy RACS? There is no other symbol more powerful and apparent to show how the politically domineering middle class is living in their little bubble of luxury while the poor suffers. Perhaps it is just the beginning of a wider assault on everything middle class: the malls, the condos, and the university facilities. Tim shivered as he imagined the trail of destruction that the townies can leave behind. The city needs a solution…fast. Just as he concluded with that thought, the city police’s armed drones swooped down on the greying skies of the compound.
Mark could hear the police drones approaching. Above the thundering voices of the thousands that rushed into the compound, the drones were broadcasting something about rescinding the decision to destroy the neighborhood. It is certainly rare to hear the government being conciliatory to them for once. Only when we get violent enough, Mark thought with a sigh. Had the government people bothered to ask them for their needs and opinions in the past, all this would not have happened. But at least now there is a chance. “We want to clean the air! We want clean air!” The crowds were shouting, with more and more joining in unison. It was not only Mark who was thinking about it. It appears that all the protestors were. Mark and cohorts were not satisfied with the government just allowing them to stay where they are now. They wanted something more, something that the government never provided this neighborhood. It was not enough to just leave the people here alone. The authorities have been doing that for decades, leaving the people to rot in their filth and misery. On this day, they had the leverage. The government had to concede big if they wanted to keep the university intact as a symbol of modernity in this part of the city. And there was an obvious candidate for government concession. Those air-cleaning towers being destroying now, they want them near their houses, neighborhoods, everywhere. The protestors knew that to ask for some government social support is pointless. While not politically acute, they know that the interest of the Philippines as a collective is no longer in favor of their kind. The general public, or at least its vast majority, would not agree to curtail their living standards and economic prospects just to ensure that a few millions of menial workers can find some sort of economic equality in a society that neither has nor believes in it. To ask for any sort of financial compensation, then, would only draw more hatred of them as freeloaders who contribute little to the prosperity of society but ask for a lot in return. But clean air, at least, is something everyone can agree to. The right to live in dignity is widely accepted, at least in terms of physical health if not in economic terms. Respiratory diseases would be the antithesis of physical health. Mark, for one, felt that to ask for clean air, even if manufactured, would not be something far-fetched enough for the government and the democratic majority to push back strongly. How about just taking concrete measures to cut pollution? That would not be realistic. There is all this talk about renewable energy, with government effort into windmills and solar panels, but for the residents of the neighborhood, producing pollution as part of their livelihood. The tiny workshops of the neighborhood had no qualms about taking up work that required the use of seriously toxic chemicals. The likes of paints and dyes are distilled as if moonshine, brought to boil in the noxious air of raw coal burned to a crisp. The outputs of that toxic process were the most valuable things the neighborhood can create, something that keeps millions alive directly and indirectly. To take them away, on the grounds of air pollution, would be no different from telling the workers to commit suicide. So they have to settle on cleaning the air afterward. For decades, such a technology did not exist, so people rich and poor equally suffered the consequences of polluting industries. But now, with effective air-cleaning systems put in place, only the rich can benefit from them. The situation just did not make sense, considering it is ultimately the rich who benefit from the products and services the slum-dwellers provide via polluting processes. The people of the slums should at least get their part of the bargain, even if it is something as little as clean air…
Tim is glad that he does not need to get up at 6 am every day anymore to get to work. Quite magically, with the streets in front of the campus pedestrianized, parking the car outside the neighborhood and walking to his office ended up being faster than navigating the traffic to the campus months before. Better yet, he is quite enjoying the unobstructed view of the neighborhood from his office. Gone are the brick walls and the tense guards constantly patrolling the place, and came are the sounds of people jollily roaming around a neighborhood of history and dynamism. It is a sight that he was never able to enjoy at leisure in the past; he always thought of the neighborhood as somewhere he needs to pass through on the way to work rather than a destination in itself. Perhaps one of these days, he will take his family for a weekend stroll in the neighborhood. That stroll would be inevitably made easier with blue skies now prevalent throughout the neighborhood. Uninterrupted brightness now stretches from his office to the horizon. People have put behind memories of the time when a separate wall also marked the border between clean and polluted airs. He once again marveled at how technology like RACS can change the place so fast and so dramatically within such a short period. Moreover, what the technology changed was not just how the neighborhood looks, but more fundamentally, what this neighborhood means for the people of Manila and the Philippines. It is, for better or worse, the very last of the undemolished urban slum, so to speak. The rundown feel of the place, for all the unsightliness that people associate with it, is more of a historical heritage than any modern mall or residence that the newly rich constructed in the city’s outskirts. Indeed, in this particular aspect, the neighborhood preserved heritage even better than the university that has been so eager to tear down the past and replace them with tall buildings for the sake of functionality. Perhaps, in that way, for the neighborhood to be neglected for the past decades was a blessing in disguise. Because everyone shunned it and no one invested in it, the area was able to maintain the same look for centuries. Sure, the people have changed, and so did the economic activities, but the culture of working and interacting in the streets, a value that must have been so treasured in the founding days of the city, is present in this neighborhood more than any other, in a raw, unpretentious form. It is a goldmine for social scientists like him eager to study how people and societies shape and maintain places of identity. It is funny how he has only come to realize all this because of some air-cleaning technology. Had the people in the neighborhood never stood up and fought for something as simple as the right to breathe clean air, the city government would have never backed down and the area would have never been both preserved and transformed. Renewed attention would have never been given to the place, and its people would have been as miserable as ever, relocated to some unknown middle of nowhere while their homes are torn down. He remembered how the security guards of the university used to call the residents “barbarians,” an uncivilized bunch that sought to invade modernity when they did not deserve any of modernity’s perks. But watching the residents interact from afar, Tim thought about just who were the barbarians in the interaction between the university and the neighborhood. Wouldn’t the civilized, if resources are available, share them with others out of the good of heart? Wouldn’t they want to see the populace prosper together as one rather than constantly mire themselves in the anxiety of having to physically defend their wealth? Wouldn’t they provide who they consider being barbarians a chance to become less barbaric? In some ways, the rich were always the barbarians. They held the key to the gate of ensuring growth for everyone, yet they did nothing. Only when these barbarians, after much prodding, stood at the gate and then opened it, did they truly become civilized.