Economy

Lamborghini In China, Racing To Improve Reputation

Visitors view Lamborghini sports cars at the 2013 International Automobile Exhibition in Taiyuan.
Visitors view Lamborghini sports cars at the 2013 International Automobile Exhibition in Taiyuan.
Wang Xueqiao

BEIJING â€" As it marks the 10th anniversary of its entry into China, Lamborghini is undergoing a major rebranding operation â€" and one that cuts against the current. While virtually all other luxury carmakers have focused on attracting younger customers, the iconic Italian sports car brand wants to appeal instead to a more mature customer base.

With a product line entirely consisting of makes and models with eye-catching styles and vivid colors, Lamborghini has gained a reputation as a car that attracts rich brats and priveleged Communist party princelings.

Since President Xi Jinping took office and launched his anti-corruption crusade, not only have sales of luxury cars fallen, but their owners have also been obliged to keep a much lower profile. But there is a built-in paradox: the only point of owning a Lambo is to draw attention to yourself.

This is confirmed by Francesco Scardaoni, the Italian brand’s General Manager for China. “In the past, looking at our sales worldwide, particularly compared to the United States and Europe, China's customers were the youngest," he says. "But the situation has changed.”

Still, though the goal is to shift the marketing toward more well-established entrepreneurs, rather than the offspring of the power establishment, Lamborghini must first face an overall drop in sales.

As publicly available data shows, while Lamborghini’s global sales continued to rise from 2012 to 2014, sales plunged for three consecutive years in China from 320 units to 236. Scardaoni said that through November, the brand’s sales for 2015 have recovered and exceeded its total sales of last year in China.

In the past, Lamborghini made headlines for the wrong reasons, as repeated cases emerged of young owners causing trouble in nightclubs or wrecking their cars when showing off for friends and cameras. Now the brand is focusing on marketing their new SUV model, the Urus, relatively low-profile in its features that an owner can feel comfortable driving to the office each day.

It is an approach that follows on the heels of Porsche, which grew quickly in China after launching its Cayenne SUV on the Chinese market several years ago. Over the past few years, the Cayenne alone accounted for more than 55% of Porsche’s sales in China. Though producing an SUV means renouncing part of its traditional super-car DNA, Lamborghini obviously isn’t indifferent to the German competitor’s success.

The pleasure of owning a sports car is largely linked to horsepower. But, in the face of increasing environmental pressure, Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren have all begun to develop gasoline-electric hybrid technologies. Francesco Scardaoni, however, stated that Lamborghini has no such plans to produce hybrid or electric cars in China, even though at the 2014 Paris Motor Show it unveiled the Asterion LPI910-4 hybrid concept car.

Lamborghini is owned by the German group Volkswagen, but Scardaoni said within the group all brands are relatively independent from each other, so no R&D budget of the sports car has been cut.

Nevertheless, Reuters reported earlier this month that Volkswagen has committed to the 13 banks that provided $21 billion short-term bridge loan that if the group fails to repay in one year’s time it would sell its luxury assets. That of course includes Lamborghini, which may have the company's China operations rebranding itself again.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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