China 2.0

In Minqin, China's Green War On The Encroaching Desert

Farmers in Minqin doing whatever they can against rapid desertification
Farmers in Minqin doing whatever they can against rapid desertification
Harold Thibault

MINQIN — Here, where the sand threatens to encroach, China is waging a long-term war against desert expansion. Just a few steps beyond the cultivated fields, the desert stretches as far as the eye can see. Minqin is menaced by the Tengger Desert to the west and by the Badain Jaran Desert to the east, both emanating from the larger Gobi Desert. Unfortunately for Minqin, the two have grown closer together over the past few years. Rain here is extremely scarce, just 120 millimeters per year, in this windy region.

In this relentless fight, China is banking on a green barrier, a vegetal front, to protect its arable lands. Roots and branches are used to stabilize the sand and prevent it from advancing. Around Minqin, a buffer zone has been established between cultivated areas and the sandy ones.

Over several kilometers, sand dunes are surrounded by straw to create a sanctuary around desert plants. The techniques being used here are destined to be tried elsewhere in the country, as China is witnessing rapid desertification towards its biggest cities. On April 15, the Beijing area suffered its worst sand storm in 13 years.

The most controversial part of this policy to contain the desert is the relocation of village populations that are on the front line. That's what happened in the small town of Huanghui in 2007. Because the sand was on its doorstep, the government ordered that all activity be moved further away, including the waterworks. For Zheng Julian, a 65-year-old farmer, moving was wrenching. "When the time came to leave, I cried so much I thought I'd go blind," she says, adding that her last wish will be to be buried in her old village, whether or not it’s been swallowed by the desert.

Displaced, then misplaced

The people displaced by the encroaching desert are often twice victimized, once by the desert and again by the failings of their government. While the traditional farms of this western Chinese region are made of thick bricks covered with thatch and mud, the walls of their new homes are so thin that people freeze inside during the long and difficult winter months. The kang, or Chinese bed-stove, at Zheng Julian’s house has sunk by half, and the walls of a nearby house are threatening to collapse.

The new location is very far away from the main road yet, paradoxically, very close to the desert they were supposed to be moving away from. The inhabitants believe the location was very poorly chosen, especially given that the fields surrounding the new village are as dry as the old ones and are regularly affected by sand storms. Many Chinese researchers acknowledge that the relocations have had mixed results.

“The migrations are only displacing the problem," says researcher Xue Xian from the Laboratory of Studies on Desertification in the Gansu province, which includes Minqin. "There can be positive results in some places, but the deterioration worsens in others." Making matters worse, some farmers aren't able to produce enough to live on these new lands, which forces them to abandon the fields.

A few kilometers from the relocation site, the old Huanghui is now nothing more than a hamlet with four houses, those of the families who dared to say no when the authorities came to force them out eight years ago. They’re paying a heavy price for their rebellion. They’re no longer benefiting from anti-poverty subsidies and are forbidden from cultivating the earth. "They're not letting us grow anything anymore. We used to have watermelons that big," says Li Ya, 78, stretching her arms wide. Their resources from agriculture gone, Li Ya's son was forced to become a migrant worker. The fear that this discontent might spread is probably what motivated the local propaganda office to follow us with two cars during three days here.

Government missteps

But first and foremost, Minqin and China's dry regions are paying for major human errors. Starting in the 1970s, the central government encouraged agricultural development in the region, whose soil is rich despite the lack of water. "All of this agriculture depends on the Shiyang River,” explains Xue Xian. Which means less water for Minqin, an oasis that draws its water from a huge reservoir fed by the river and used for the whole region.

But because this water wasn't enough, Minqin’s farmers dug countless wells to use groundwater tables. The reserves then shrunk and could no longer guarantee the survival of the plants that formed a natural barrier.

Now, billboards along the road that crosses the county offer reminders that it’s absolutely forbidden to dig new wells, 3,000 of which have already been closed up. Despite the ban, the families of Changxing, another village in Minqin County, have each sent one of their members to help dig a new 60-meter-deep well, with the blessing of local authorities. It's a real dilemma for Minqin. "We know very well that this risks worsening desertification, but if we don't dig a well, we can't grow anything," says one farmer.

In addition to these human factors, there's also the question of how climate change will affect not just Minqin but northern China's deserts in general. "The causes of desertification lie first and foremost with the soil management policy, but also with development and climate change," says Sun Qingwei, a former member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who went on to work for Greenpeace and the Chinese edition of National Geographic. "Rainfall and snowfall patterns have changed in recent years."

To slow down the desert’s progress, it's been necessary for the central government to intervene in the affairs of the region’s different counties fighting over their scant water resources. Volunteer workers have also planted bushes capable of surviving in the desert on the barrier that protects the fields from the approaching sand dunes.

"Some of the methods that were used are not perfect, especially the migrations," notes Xue Xian. "But others are showing results. The number of sand storms has decreased, and the level of humidity is rising again. And that's data, not stories. The environment is improving."

Still, new problems are already arising in this little county. The government must find a way to encourage local farmers to preserve the green barrier around Minqin. Though it doesn't produce food, it's important to water it well and to ensure that the straw doesn't disappear under the sand.

After then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the region in 2007 and promised that Minqin would become "a second Lop Nur," in reference to a lake that disappeared under the desert, Beijing allocated $650 million to the restoration of Minqin. These funds have since dried up.

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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

"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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