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Inside The Global Expansion Of Chinese Industrial Parks

A key component of the growing "Chinese-style" international capitalism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the China-Belarus Industrial Park with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on May 12
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the China-Belarus Industrial Park with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on May 12
Zhang Yanlong, Zeng Jianzhong and Shen Nianzu

BEIJING â€" It was in the late 1990s that the first batch of Chinese businessmen launched the idea of building overseas industrial parks, also called "economic zones," where they could both better sell their goods locally and capitalize on lower labor and transport costs.

Over the last dozen years, the model has proven to be one of the most successful features of the Chinese economic reforms and opening-up to the world.

From India’s Deccan Plateau, to the coast of the Red Sea, to the heartland of America, Chinese industrial parks can be found almost everywhere that Chinese goods are sold. Li Zhipeng, deputy director of the Overseas Investment Advisory Centre of China’s Commerce Ministry, says more than 100 types of Chinese industrial parks have been built abroad, "the six largest ones of which account for a total investment of over 10 billion RMB ($1.6 billion), more than 400 companies creating over 40,000 jobs locally."

The best way to go abroad

Industrial parks are by no means a Chinese invention, having begun decades earlier in developed countries. But China has been efficient in adopting the model, and the pace of new construction is an impressive showing of China's economic progress. To such extent that other developing countries are turning to China to help them follow the same path.

Tianjin Teda, a state-owned conglomerate, set up the Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone project with the Egyptian government. Egyptian executives declared that their goal was “to copy the model used by Teda to run its economic zone back at home.”

The original vision for setting up an economic zone was for the purpose of manufacturing convenience â€" the leading industry would attract and gather support industries, thus forming a complete industrial chain. It can also avoid the risks of struggling alone abroad.

For instance, in 1999, Haier, a home appliance and consumer electronics multinational, built its first production facility park in South Carolina, in the United States. Two year later, there followed its second park in Pakistan. This also marked the beginning of Haier’s brand-building abroad.

Haier's HQ in Qingdao, eastern China â€" Photo: Brücke-Osteuropa

Li Zhipeng notes that the large and systematic establishment of Chinese industrial parks began around 2006, in line with the country’s "Go Out" policy to building overseas economic zones. “Before that, these parks were set up by enterprises themselves at a relatively small scale. They were fragmented and overall not very big."

The Holley Group, a conglomerate with diversified investments, set up the Rayong Industrial Park in Thailand, and attracted more than 20 Chinese enterprises. The success of the park changed the Thai government’s weary attitude toward China, says Hu Hai, Holley’s general manager for overseas businesses, who took part in the establishment of the Rayong Industrial Park. “They discovered that they had spent years themselves trying to attract Chinese investments without success while it was much easier for us," says Hu. "Since then, the Thai authorities make the approaches for joint ventures with us.”

Hu also pointed out that Chinese companies weren’t really set up for foreign direct investment a decade ago, which made building out an economic and trading zone the logical way to begin expanding abroad.

Since then, Chinese parks have mushroomed on every continent. They have also become more and more integrated locally. “Our first generation parks were just to meet Chinese firms’ manufacturing needs," says Hu. "But our second generation parks are not just about sending in bulldozers, building roads and equipping them with water and electricity. We also have to consider how we integrate with the local community more harmoniously.”

The many differences in laws, policies, culture and customs are among the biggest challenges these overseas Chinese parks all face. In order to be better accepted by the locals, Holley chose to cooperate with Thailand’ largest real estate company AMATA.

In Mexico it works with an influential local family business in the telecommunication industry. Meanwhile Haier is obliged to adjust its operation and management mentalities according to local conditions in India and Pakistan.

While adapting themselves locally, these Chinese industrial parks are quietly changing the locals. In a garment factory of the Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone one slogan, in Arabic and in Chinese, reads: “If you don’t work hard today, you’ll be looking hard for work tomorrow.”

A national strategy

The success stories eventually attracted the interest of higher authorities and the fragmented action was integrated into a national strategy. The China-Belarus Industrial Park is one such product. During his recent visit to Belarus in May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited this park and called the project a model of China’s new Silk Road initiative and international cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Sino-Russia Silk Road Innovation Park is being put forward with the “One Park Two Places” model, meaning that two innovation centers are to be built respectively in China’s western city of Xian and Skolkovo in Russia, with a unified management. The goal is to promote each other’s enterprises by investing mutually in the other country and sharing resources reciprocally.

Chinese-style economic zones are going abroad. In history, large scale commercial communication has always led to far-reaching cultural and ideological fusion. Whether successful or not, the experiences of Chinese economic zone exploration will also become part of the history of China opening up to the world.

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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

"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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