BEIJING - After the end of last month's 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, China seems to have witnessed a nationwide wave of corruption investigations against the rich and powerful. First several high-ranking officials from Canton were dismissed from their posts. Then it was the turn of Li Chungcheng, the Deputy Party Secretary of Sichuan Province, who had just been elected as an alternate member of Party's Central Committee to be put under investigation. Two other cases soon folllowed.
This succession of cases has dazzled the public, astonished officialdom and aroused attention from abroad. Public opinion generally sees this as an indication that the spirit of the 18th Congress is taking hold. Individual authorities are following up on the instructions and requirements for anti-corruption work laid down by Xi Jinping, the newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party.
While Chinese officials have themselves set off an upsurge of anti-corruption actions, the Chinese public has also started discussing calls to set up a system for curbing corruption. They are listening in particular to the advice of several influential intellectuals who are calling for the establishment of a fixed system for preventing corruption.
I am confident that the public demands, after years of being ignored, will now finally enter the “discernment” of the decision makers in Beijing. Why the change in attitude? And what actions will be taken?
In the past, many of China’s anti-corruption actions were only vigorous in appearance. Rather than actually aiming to curb corruption, they were the tools of political struggles and attacks between officialdom’s internal cliques. Such anti-corruption convinces neither the corrupt officials nor the people.
An even more important point is that anti-corruption, which begins as a purely legal issue, is always bound to wind up as a political one. Whether or not to arrest a corrupt official, when to arrest him, exactly who is to be arrested and who is not, as well as whether the case is to be publicized, these all become important factors for political consideration.
What decision makers are most worried about is that too much exposure of corrupt officials may affect their image and shake the pattern of some sort of balance in the party.
There are in fact two very sensitive features in this wave of anti-corruption. First the Party's Central Committee has only just elected its members and one of them was immediately put under investigation, which was unimaginable before. Within their conformist thinking, the party cadres would have seen it as scandalous to risk damaging the party’s image.
Listening to public opinion
Second, the Shanxi Deputy-Director was removed from his office just because his son was guilty of drunk driving and had made trouble. The police have always been one of the Party's important tools for safeguarding its rule. Normally, the policy makers have always been particularly tolerant towards them, in particular when it concerns high-ranking police officers. But this time the unwritten pact was broken.
In addition, the Chinese government has begun to show some positive interaction between authority and public opinion. Take the exposure of the video of Lei Zhengfu’s having sex as an example. The Communist Party has demonstrated trust, tolerance and even dependence on public opinion. Were it to have happened in the past, the usual practice would have been to first block the expression of public opinion, and then try to refute the rumors.
Not only has the government tolerated the Internet buzz and listened to the people, but also it responded in a timely fashion with an investigation. Several websites that had been banned have now been discreetly restored.
Obviously, this round of anti-corruption action has won praise for China’s new leaders. At the beginning of the new phase of leadership, it was important to mobilize the propaganda machine and present a good image. The corruption that discredits the Party is not to be tolerated. Leaders have realized that not only will exposing their colleagues' ugliness not damage their own image but rather gives people an honest and pragmatic impression of the Party.
Chinese leaders have realized that although anti-corruption work is closely related to politics, it is above all a matter of rules rather than political skill. If the anti-corruption work still follows the political thinking of the past, not only will the sacked corrupt officials as well as the public be unconvinced, those who are not sacked will also be snickering. Only if the rule of law is the only anti-corruption benchmark will fair results and convincing social effects be achieved.
In practice the attack on corruption needs to follow only two principles - the facts and the system. Various oversight mechanisms should be fully mobilized, in particular public opinion and public supervision. Only if the door to fight corruption is kept truly open can the hidden corrupt be exposed, which becomes a standing deterrence for others.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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