China, Africa And The Speed Of History

A visiting medical student watches a teacher to post anti-epidemic poster in Changchun University.
A visiting medical student watches a teacher to post anti-epidemic poster in Changchun University.
Carl-Johan Karlsson

From the downfall of the European Union to the end of capitalism, grand political theories of a post-pandemic world loom large. These are times where talk of watersheds and historic shifts suddenly can't be brushed away as mere sensationalism. Yet rather than trying to identify what will change, it may be more useful to gauge the rate of acceleration of power dynamics that have already been underway for decades.

The global rise of China is perhaps the most crucial — if most complicated — such shift. And in no place has that been more evident and underestimated than on the African continent. Much remains to be seen how the China-Africa relationship will evolve, and potentially accelerate, as a result of COVID-19, but there's little doubt about Beijing's intentions or ambitions.

After the virus first spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan, and was apparently mostly contained, Beijing has looked to step up its role as global leader by sending healthcare equipment abroad. Chief among the recipients have been several countries in Africa, which has in the last decade been a key region in China's strategy for long-term economic growth.

With the U.S. and EU busy consolidating their own economic and humanitarian response, African governments are now calling for an additional $100 billion in assistance from China as well as debt relief, according to The Africa Report. Perhaps wary of setting too soft a precedent, China has so far asked at least one nation, Zambia, to provide collateral in the form of copper-mining assets.

What arises are the same questions, only more urgent, over what ramped-up Chinese dominance in Africa could mean for the 1.3 billion-strong continent, as well as for the rest of the world. Beijing has been an attractive business partner for African leaders, mostly as trade agreements have been free of the ideological and transparency conditionality typical of the West.

Still, detaching business from ideology is no guarantor of equality and fairness. Should China's broader policy in Africa become financial-aid-for-resources, it would be little less than a continuation of a long list of skewed arrangements with resource-rich but underdeveloped African countries. One prime example is the minerals-for-infrastructure deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by which China was given mining rights to $50-billion worth of cobalt in exchange for a $6-billion investment into the DRC's war-torn infrastructure. Indeed, for democracies around the world, while China tightens its grip on Africa's resources (including the many minerals used in our technological revolution) the list of anxieties should also include the strengthening of authoritarian undercurrents should China step in to fill the leadership void left by the U.S.

Still, China's ambitions in Africa and elsewhere will be questioned ever more closely in light of the pandemic. Beijing is progressively earning the opprobrium of the whole world for its silencing of whistleblowers at the beginning of the outbreak, and more recently for the ongoing hostilities towards Africans in the Chinese port city of Guangzhou. Yet, with many fearing Africa's worst period in the crisis still ahead, and relatively little aid expected from the West, it would leave the poverty-ridden continent even more open to exploitation by its largest trade partner from the east. One more reason this crisis will have its place in history, even if it's just in making it arrive even faster.

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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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