China In Doubt, Contradictions Of A Nation On The Defensive

Faced with enormous challenges both at home and abroad, China reveals itself as a land of double standards and growing uncertainty.

In Beijing, all in one place.
In Beijing, all in one place.
Dominique Moïsi


BEIJING â€" French President François Hollande went to China last week, arriving just after German Chancellor Angela Merkel had left. In the past few weeks, the Chinese president also met with President Barack Obama in the United States and was received with great pomp by the United Kingdom.

No matter how much noise Vladimir Putin makes, it's China, not Russia, that the international community is wooing. Beijing no doubts appreciates this added legitimacy as the Chinese economy slows, and doubts grow, for the first time in memory.

Chinese power can control the climate (by closing factories around Beijing). It can control demographics by permitting two children per couple. The mandatory one-child limit was "a gift from China to humanity," a high-ranking Chinese official told me privately two weeks ago in Beijing. Without this, the population of China would have been close to 2 billion!

But China's Communist Party has so far failed to find an answer to another, much more serious problem. How does it keep its power intact when everything, inside and outside of China, is changing?

Visiting Beijing, it seemed to me that the world trusted China more than China trusted itself. The 2008 Olympic Games were perhaps the high point of Chinese self-confidence. Since then, the convergence of economic crisis and slowing growth, on the one hand, and the personalization of power behind President Xi Jinping on the other, have created a whole new atmosphere. Chinese officials seem to be taking positions that are more defensive, making the country's contradictions more visible.

On an international level, how can China preach a democratization that itself refuses with such virulence? How can it wrap itself in respect for international law, talk about standards like a model of virtue, when it shows great understanding towards Russia's faits accomplis in Crimea? You can't build trust when you demonstrate so deep a divide between words and deeds.

How, finally, does China conciliate a discreet role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, while being so active in the South China Sea? It's true that China no longer rules out an intervention in Syria, but officials have said it would only act under very specific conditions: that is, if the Syrian government asks, and if there is a United Nations mandate.

Mixed messages

Why does China continue hiding behind great philosophical principals while it behaves with as cynically as any other country?

The Great Wall in the rain. Photo: Luis LuCheng

While participating in a debate about world order in Beijing, Merkel was surprised to see her Chinese interlocutors concentrate on cybersecurity and not on the refugee crisis. After playing the commerce and finance card with the British, the Chinese played the resentment card with Germany. When Merkel mentioned Putin, they answered by talking about the American wiretapping of her cell phone.

It seems that the less self-confident China is, the tougher it becomes with other countries.

It's true that the country's domestic challenges are huge. How do you handle a country that now has more billionaires that the U.S. and almost as much poverty as India? How do you both forcefully encourage individualism on an economic level and completely reject it on a political level? While the heart of Beijing has become a gigantic luxury shopping center â€" like a more modern version of Tokyo â€" the Great Hall of the People, the headquarters of political power, seems frozen in time.

And what about the respect for authority, which seems to reflect a kind of schizophrenia on the streets of Beijing. The men in green police uniforms and white gloves are everywhere, but no one seems to follow the traffic rules â€" pedestrians or drivers.

Double standards and paradoxes abound in Beijing. The rhetoric of the most conventional regime supporters has become tougher, while those inside the system are more open, gently expressing doubt about the new nature of power.

But China's strength is the Chinese, despite the existential contradictions of the country's regime. Their energy, their very American cult of excellency in both study and work are more present than ever. The question is, will that be enough?

No one can predict China's future. A few years ago, I wrote that the country looked to be taking small steps in the right direction. I cannot say that today. What remains to be seen is if China is taking small or big steps in the wrong direction, or just walking in place.

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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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