Philippine Senate investigates mayor suspected of China link, illegal gaming ties

“No one knows where she came from,” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told reporters on Thursday.
Camille Elemia
Philippine Senate investigates mayor suspected of China link, illegal gaming ties Alice Leal Guo, mayor of Bamban town in Tarlac province, attends a Senate hearing in Metro Manila, May 7, 2024.
Handout/Office of Sen. Risa Hontiveros]

The Philippine government is investigating a town mayor accused of involvement in illegal gaming operations and ties to China amid heightened territorial tensions between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea.

Senators this month began questioning Alice Leal Guo, the mayor of Bamban town in Tarlac province on both allegations, although she has maintained she is a Philippine citizen and denied her involvement in unlawful gaming.

The probe comes amid a controversy over an alleged phone conversation between a Chinese official and a senior Filipino military commander about an “agreement” on a “new model” for Manila’s resupply missions for forces at its base on a contested shoal in the South China Sea.

The Philippines said Monday it was investigating whether Chinese embassy staff in Manila had engaged in a disinformation campaign related to the contested sea by making public the alleged phone conversation, which was released recently, amid allegations of illegal wiretapping.

In the midst of these accusations about clandestine operations, opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros grilled Guo in the Senate last week about her “mysterious past” and alleged involvement in two gaming operations in Bamban.

“We nearly drowned in numerous revelations that led to more questions. … is it true that Mayor Alice Guo is a Chinese national?” asked Hontiveros, who is leading the Senate probe into what are referred to as Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGOs).

The two allegedly illegal POGOs in Bamban were operating on property apparently owned by Guo’s company. Documents presented to the Senate allegedly showed that Guo had personally applied for one of the two’s permits in 2020.

Questionable business partner

Guo read out from a prepared statement at the hearing.

“It is sad that I have been judged prematurely. I was tried publicly based on baseless allegations and made-up stories,” she said.

Guo acknowledged that she had once owned half of the company on which the two POGOS were operating, but had divested from the business as required, before running for public office – in this case, the post of Bamban mayor – in 2022.

POGOs are online gaming firms that cater to foreign customers, especially nationals from China, where gambling is illegal. They are subject to government regulation, and flourished under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

Thousands of Chinese nationals work in the Philippines for POGOs, according to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), a government-owned entity. 

POGOs hired at least 69,000 Chinese nationals for their language skills, PAGCOR says. But some lawmakers believed that number may be higher if undocumented Chinese nationals working in POGOs were included.

In recent years, Philippine authorities have accused these POGOs of being involved in various crimes such as human trafficking, hacking, and online scams.

In fact, one senator, Sherwin Gatchalian, accused Guo of having a fugitive as a business partner.

He cited Philippine immigration records as indicating that Huang Zhiyong, the chief of one of the POGOs linked to Guo, was apparently evading a Chinese arrest warrant.

An asset that China sent?’

Allegations about Guo’s business partner aside, what struck the senators and the public the most when she was questioned, were the mayor’s fishy answers on May 7 to basic personal questions about her family, school and similar facts.

For instance, Sen. Hontiveros, who had in her possession a copy of Guo’s birth registration, asked the mayor whether her birth had only been registered when she was 17 years old.

Guo said she could not remember.

She said her father is named Guo Jianzhong, and his English name is Angelito Guo, while her mother is a certain Amelia Leal. But she said she has no idea if they were married.

So bizarre did Filipinos find these and other answers that the video clip of this interrogation – the Senate proceedings were aired on television – went viral on social media, with many people creating memes from Guo’s answers.

Hontiveros asked Senate members: “Is Guo … an ‘asset’ that China sent to enter our government for them to have an influence in Philippine politics?”

Senators said they suspected Guo had infiltrated the Philippine administration by winning the 2022 mayoral election in Bamban town on the country’s main island of Luzon.

Guo has yet to respond to allegations about her links to China but has continued to assert she is a citizen of the Philippines.

‘No one knows her’

Meanwhile, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told journalists on Thursday that he supported the probe, local media reported.

“I know all the politicians from Tarlac [province], no one knows her,” he said.

“So, we are wondering where she came from? We don't know. That’s why an investigation is really needed.”

BenarNews on Thursday sought comment on Guo from the Chinese Embassy in Manila but did not hear back.

Members of the Philippine House of Representatives are eyeing a parallel probe into Guo, citing possible implications to national security.

“It’s possible to have a parallel investigation here in the House of Representatives,” House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Raul Angelo Bongalon told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is very serious and at the same time very alarming. This is a national security issue.”

The solicitor general’s office on Thursday also said it was investigating Guo.

The Senate, which took a short break from questioning, resumes the investigation on May 22.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.