In China, Club Med Is A Brand New Idea 65 Years After Its Founding

Rich families from Guangzhou or Beijing are flocking to the new Asian "villages" of the famous French vacation brand. Activities include mahjong and karaoke but the beloved GOs (Genteel Organizers) are still here.

A Chinese GO giving a tai-chi class in Guilin
A Chinese GO giving a tai-chi class in Guilin
Ursula Gauthier

GUILIN â€" As soon as you step foot in the huge lobby of Guilin's Club Med, you're transported to a magical world. On the other side of the glass wall stretches a breathtaking panorama, far from the sunny beaches and the coconut trees that we tend to find in so many holiday pictures. Here, as far as you can see, there are only rock hills with strange shapes, surrounded by mist, dotted with thickets of trees, intertwined by ponds and streams.

Foreign visitors are astounded by this fabulous scenery. The Chinese, though, aren't moved in quite the same way. Guilin is a world-renowned location that has been glorified for centuries in numerous poems, paintings, pictures and tourism leaflets. Its splendor is no longer surprising to them.

No, what arouses the curiosity of Chinese guests here is the Club Med concept itself, and its bizarre French lifestyle. For example, there are many foreigners on staff, from all over the globe, who don't speak a word of Chinese. Also on offer are a plethora of activity choices still unknown in China: from rock climbing to mountain biking, golf and water aerobics and also cooking lessons, sculpture and yoga.

To Chinese visitors, the strangest thing is the omnipresence of the Club Med employees â€" known the world over as GOs, or "genteel organizers" â€" who welcome clients with open arms, watch the sports activities, dine with guests, and do their best to have conversations with clients even though they don't speak a common language.

"What does GO mean?"

A Chinese GO struggles to explain the subtleties of the Club Med system to a group of newcomers, while driving them in an electric car to visit the buildings spread all over the 113-acre "village" â€" hotels, restaurants, workshops, pools, golf. "I didn't get it," a woman whispers to her daughter. "What does GO mean?"

In China, Club Med is known only in the narrow ranks of the ultra rich who can afford to pay for "village" holidays in Malaysia, Thailand or the Maldives. The hundreds of millions working-class Chinese have never heard of it.

So far, there are three Club Med villages in China. Vincent Grandsire, who was its director until very recently, was able to measure the general ignorance. “When they arrive, Chinese don’t know a thing about the concept of the Club Med," he says. "They think that they bought a simple stay in a five-star hotel. They don't understand that everything is included in the price, not just the meals."

Enjoying the supervision

This situation will be changing soon. After a business proposal that took 18 months to be accepted â€" the longest one in the history of the Parisian Stock Exchange â€" Club Med, the jewel of French tourism, was bought by Fosun, the most powerful private conglomerate in China, worth $51 billion. Its boss, Guo Guangchang, a 48-year-old billionaire who wants to take care of the Chinese elite, is convinced that "Club Med is really well suited for the current way of life of the Chinese society."

Indeed, the upper classes are eager for new experiences and discoveries. Luxurious hotels are multiplying, but in China there's no other place that offers a privileged setting, unparalleled service and a range of activities to satisfy this hyperactive generation.

In a curious way, the GO system also satisfies a more secret need, inherited from the dictatorship: the need to be supervised by a "team leader" who manages the group activities. One of the GOs confirms, laughing, "Despite all our efforts to help our Chinese friends feel comfortable, they tend to see us as authority figures and thus behave with discipline. If we tell them that it's time for archery, they will go to the archery class. If we say it's time to dance, they will dance."

The preference for group activities is so strong that Club Med, which had originally planned a singe karaoke room and mahjong table â€" a Chinese favorite hobby â€" had to create six times the karaoke rooms and 20 times the mahjong tables it had first envisioned. But though 400 deck chairs were ordered, only 100 have been set around the swimming pool.

The guests in all their splendor

For Raphaël Erez, who has been director of the Giulin village for four months, China is a breath of fresh air compared to the "blasé" atmosphere of the European villages. "Here, everything is new for the vacationers," he says. "Chinese people are delighted, full of enthusiasm. They want to try everything and have new experiences. It's just like in the original Club Med, in 1950, when France welcomed, amazed, this new concept of holidays."

Still, there are a few significant differences, especially concerning the way the Chinese approach the day. No matter whether they are overtired or on holiday, Chinese people invariably wake up early and go to bed early. Having a lie-in is not their cup of tea. The Club then has to adapt to this rhythm, offering a very early breakfast, lunch at noon sharp and dinner at 6.30 p.m. And if the GOs want to have people attending their dance nights, they better start them at 8 p.m. because at 10 p.m., it's lights out for Chinese guests.

Providing that this special timetable is followed, the after-dinner shows animated by the GOs are a great success.

Family holidays

Another big difference between European and Chinese guests is that Chinese vacationers don't dream of solitary holidays. Instead, they are meant to be spent with the family and, preferably, the whole family. Mrs. Xiao, a stylish forty-something, explains in perfect English: "This place is exactly what we needed. My husband and I are diplomats, working in North Korea, and we take this opportunity to spend time with our son and with my in-laws."

The Xiaos move as a family here, the old ones watching the achievements of the young ones. Even when the precious child participates in activities reserved for young people, the whole family follows him to immortalize every moment, snapping dozens of pictures. They eat together, dance together at night and sing karaoke together.

Fosun, Club Med's new owner, has already made some major investments. Three villages are set to be opened before 2016. In the meantime, the group is launching a new formula, Joyview, which offers short stays in very chic and comfortable places, near big cities, made for the new young "bourgeois."

For the moment, Fosun doesn't seem to want to change the company's French style, which has attracted waves of Chinese guests. The challenge must seem exciting for Club Med's directors, but what it has in store for China is ultimately very different than the course it charted during the company's more than half-century history.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!