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China's Top Trendsetter Is Communist Party Royalty With Fashion Lessons For The French

Hung Huang has come to Paris to unlock the secrets of the Chinese fashion market.

Hung Huang speaking at a TED conference in Beijing
Hung Huang speaking at a TED conference in Beijing
Claude Soula

PARIS - Hung Huang talks about herself with a humility that can disarming, if not misleading. The 51-year-old woman, who made it on Time’s Most Influential People list, declares herself “from the Chinese middle class.”

“I am not rich! I don’t own a yacht or a private jet," she says. "I'm a journalist, so my income is really very average. I have influence because I write a blog, but that’s it."

She says the most important thing in life is her eight-year-old daughter, having free time, cooking …” She sounds like an ordinary person, but don't be fooled.

Few like her have grown up inside Beijing’s Forbidden City during China’s Cultural Revolution. Hung Huang’s mother was Mao Zedong’s English teacher – she was his interpreter when he met Nixon in 1972. Her father was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Like many Chinese “princelings,” she studied in one of the most prestigious U.S. universities – Vassar College. She speaks English without an accent.

And not many average people are invited to Paris by an advertising company (CLM BBDO) to talk to all the Parisian luxury specialists. They listen to what she has to say, because her specialty is – luxury. She talks about it in her magazine, “iLook,” sells luxury items in her shop, BNC, and mostly, she blogs about it online to her 6,5 million followers. When she likes something, all the luxury specialists know about it. They know, for instance, that she loves Chanel and Hermes, and that this year she particularly liked the Dior fashion show by Raf Simons.

With her well-connected parents and her brilliant studies, Hung Huang could have done what most of the Chinese princelings do – use her connections to make a fortune. But, she didn’t want to. She was too independent. “Our middle class is so much more interesting than our nouveau riche. The middle class is the one who works, who speaks English, who has been opening itself to the outside world,” she explains.

So she decided to live out her passions. “I came back to China to save a fashion magazine that was failing, iLook. But I soon realized that it was much harder to put out than it was to read. And that dealing with advertisers took up a huge chunk of our time. When American giants Condé Nast and Hearst launched their magazines on the Chinese market, we went through a difficult time. Compared to them, we looked pathetic. But we survived, by staying original, and also thanks to the support of smaller European brands.”

More than six million followers

To survive, she opened a shop in Beijing to sell the objects featured in the magazine. It was a huge success. Then she discovered the Internet: “I started writing a blog, and very quickly, it had more readers than the magazine,” she says.

Then she went on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – Weibo. About 6.5 million people follow here online. She writes about fashion and every thing she can think of. The Chinese authorities don’t always approve: “From time to time they make my posts disappear. Between them and me, it’sa game of cat and mouse.” She’s not about to rise against the machine, though.

“What do we want? A revolution? Certainly not. To go through what Egypt is going through? No. Our history has been very violent in the past decades; I don’t think anyone wants re-live that. When western people talk to me about freedom or censorship, I am always a bit… hesitant. Am I free today? Not really according to your values, but I am a lot freer than before.”

“The government has at least succeeded in developing the country economically. So I find it quite annoying when western people judge us. I don’t think China should be judged using western values. You are so hypocritical – you criticize us but it doesn’t stop you from coming here to invest and profit from our market."

"Yes, it’s true; China is still a medieval country. Mao was an emperor and every time we change leaders it’s like a new king ascends to the throne. But at least they are trying to change things. They just want to avoid the pain of a revolution. Is this good, is this bad? I don’t know, but I don’t want to see riots."

"And don’t forget that it’s amazing to live in today’s China. I lived in the U.S. for 15 years, and I never regretted moving back to China. I wanted to go back to my city, and even if it’s the worlds most polluted city, it’s where I am happy.”

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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

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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