food / travel

Why The Vatican Is Now 'Off Limits' For Chinese Tourists

Chinese tourist agencies will be severely punished for organizing tour groups to St. Peter's Square and the Sistine Chapel (as well as the tiny Pacific island of Palau). The reason? Taiwan

Chinese pilgrims in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 2016
Chinese pilgrims in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 2016

"Travel agencies are required to cancel any tours that include the Vatican or St. Peter's Basilica in the itinerary ..." These words are part of a new, bluntly-word directive issued by China's National Tourism Administration. The Chinese-language outlet of Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports that the new restriction is justified: "because China has no diplomatic relation with the country."

Most of China's travel agencies are state-run, and the authorities allow them to organize tours to 127 countries and regions in the world, excluding the 20 countries that still have official ties with Taiwan. However, until recently, Beijing had allowed Chinese tourists to visit the Holy See, the enclave that usually makes up an integral part of any trip to Rome.

Though as the report also pointed out, Beijing "never leaves a paper trail" for such interference, the new directive is regarded as a way for China to put pressure on the Vatican to sever its official ties with Taiwan.

Citing an industry source, the RFA reported that the Chinese authorities "frequently order the industry to comply with its political or diplomatic requirements, without being seen to do so publicly. Examples in the past include South Korea, Sweden and Japan."

Ever since Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's female president, took office a year ago, organized Chinese tours to the island state have also dropped sharply, due to Tsai's refusal to affirm China's "92 Consensus' which says "there is only one China."

It's not the first time there has been tension between Vatican and Beijing.

Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, it has always held to atheism. Not only are religious believers frequently persecuted, including Catholics, but China also maintains control by ordaining more and more of its own state-designated bishops, without Vatican approval, to meet the needs of a Catholic population that continues to grow nonetheless, the RFA reported.

The papal city-state is the only country in the advanced world to maintain a diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan, for the very reason of its religious discord with China.

Only a few days ago, local authorities in Jiangxi Province demanded that Protestant farmers remove Christian paintings and writings from their home, and put up the photo of President Xi Jinping instead. This was in an effort to "convert religious belief to belief in the Party," The Liberty Times reported.

A party staff was cited as saying that "many villagers regard God as their savior. But after Communist cadres work on them, they will understand that they shouldn't rely on Jesus, but to turn to the Party."

Last July, China's State Administration for Religious Affairs also told Chinese Communist Party members that they are not allowed to have religious beliefs and "Between the party and God or Buddha, you can only choose one."

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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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