The Risks Of China's GDP Obsession

Beijing eternally under construction
Beijing eternally under construction
Hu Jiayuan

BEIJING — Last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech and released a document to local authorities reaffirming a key new reform message: From now on, “officials should no longer blindly compare only their GDP when it comes to performance and success."

Xi added that "the problem of "GDP-based promotions' shall be rectified.”

His words are widely regarded as a call to arms by the Chinese central government to carry out a governmental structural reform, transforming the very way the country develops. Indeed, up to now, economic performance has always been the overriding indicator of local officials’ political achievements.

To be objective as a way of measuring economic development the gross domestic product indicator isn’t bad at all. It was thanks to double-digit GDP growth over the past two decades that the Chinese miracle could be quantified for the world.

Even now, in a new phase, GDP still retain its far-reaching significance. In particular, since the Chinese economy began to slow to a more normal pace this year, it has been made clear to all that maintaining the past high rate of growth is no longer realistic.

But beyond its obvious social utility, the problem with GDP in China is that it created a statistically-driven, development-oriented government economic model, as well as a corresponding top-down political achievement assessment system.

Shanghai from above (Yakobusan)

Under the baton of this singular benchmark, many local officials focus more on numbers than on real substance. So as to compete with others on GDP, low-quality construction projects are repeated. This inevitably leads to both waste and excess product capacity and what we can call a kind of "economic development deformity."

End of GDPism

China is paying for it with such social costs of pollution and the deepening polarization of rich and poor. The “smog economy” and the “demolition economy”, as they are dubbed by the public, all reflect people’s discontent. The various "grey GDPs," or even "bloody GDPs," have not only weakened Chinese economic health — but it has also reduced Chinese people’s sense of well-being.

It’s imperative that China gets rid of its GDP-ism. Only if the governors in power can be stripped of the vanity of pursuing GDP growth can people’s livelihood, happiness and sustainability become the rightful aim of economic development.

Such an assessment requires the setting-up of a GDP weighting ratio in political achievement evaluations. Various reasonable alternatives such as improvement in standards of living, social progress and ecological efficiency could be taken into account so that governmental actions can meet the people’s expectations.

After all, were a government really “public services-oriented,” then the local authorities’ service level should be judged and examined by local people. Only by enhancing people’s participation, the right to speak and the right to judge and form the checks and balances can the assessment criteria such as well-being and eco-efficiency — so hard to quantify — avoid falling into being vague window-dressing.

Only if local authorities and local officials are supervised by the local public can China cultivate civil servants who not only are responsible to their superiors, but even more so to the public at large, who understand better what it means to achieve truly sustainable development.

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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

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

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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