China Boasts Of 'Building The Countryside' As Farmers Get Robbed Blind

Op-Ed: In China, the government has long been deciding who does what, where and when, even jailing people for moving without a "permit." Now, its "Building The Socialist Countryside" policy has been relocating farmers i

Qin Hui

BEIJING – In China, local governments are organizing large-scale relocations of farmers, moving them into apartments in order to sell their land. They are calling this "Building the New Countryside," but it seems that building will take precedence over the countryside.

Should farmers be forced to leave their land for an apartment? I could understand the question if it were raised by an agricultural family.

But the issue becomes so obviously absurd when the people asking the question are officials -- and these officials are using their power to promote the answer as a public policy.

If a question such as "whether farmers should live in apartments' can be decided by the government, should it also decide what the farmers are to plant, how much and how they plant as well as who they eventually sell the harvest to? Housing makes up one of the basic necessities of people's livelihood - clothing, food, housing and mobility - if the government starts interfering in people's housing, where will it end?

Many of China's rural areas still lack basic public services. The government has the responsibility of these services, which go a long way to reduce the gap between urban and rural areas and should be made a priority. This is what the government should focus on, rather than trying to decide who can do what and where.

The government is supposed to serve the farmers and not the other way round. This should be common sense. It is also the norm in developed countries where public policy and social welfare go hand in hand. Although Chinese officials are accustomed to saying that they are "at the people's service," in practice it's actually the people who are at the officials' service.

Want to move to another city? That could land you in jail

Fortunately, common sense does seem to have made headway in recent years. It used to be very common for urban authorities to put migrant workers in jail for not having a stable residence or work in the city. In 2003, Sun Zhigang was forcibly taken into custody and beaten to death in jail. His crime? Not having a temporary resident permit. He had just arrived in the city of Guangzhou when he was stopped by police and "forced into resettlement."

Since that very public case, some local governments have decided that citizens are free to come and go as they like, without risking arrest. The homeless have freedom of movement, so shouldn't it be expected that ordinary people be allowed to live wherever they want?

In recent decades, a lot of farmers have built houses either for their own use or to rent out. The government has, up to now, denied permanent land-use rights to farmers and continues to threaten to take the land back. The reason why local governments are pushing farmers off their land is so that they can gain fiscal revenue and improve their "performance and image indicators' by doing so.

It is only in extraordinary circumstances, for instance due to significant public interest, that the civil rights of the people are constrained. Any change in land stewardship should be implemented under the vigorous democratic rule of law so that the definition of public interest is clear, the land transaction is voluntary, the alternatives have been taken into account, the price evaluation is independent and the compensation isn't lower than the market price.

Although the commercial exploitation of land involves the thorny issue of profit redistribution -which should not be wholly attributed to farmers- authorities could adjust the situation through the land tax instead of robbing farmers of the fruits of their efforts.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Kyle Taylor

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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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