After A Whiff Of Online Glasnost, China Cracks Down On Whistleblower Bloggers

Beijing subway
Beijing subway
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING – Is recess time over for China’s whistleblowers? Are we seeing the beginnings of a crackdown on this group of influential bloggers who have contributed to exposing corrupt public officials over the past few months?

These digital activists and journalists had believed their crusade had the implicit backing of the central government after new President Xi Jinping called for "flies" and "tigers" (junior and senior officials) not to be spared in the hunt for corruption. But now they are the ones being hounded.

Zhou Lubao is one of them. The 28 year-old sales representative was investigating the mayor of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province in northeast of China. Lubao used to say he trusted the "power of public opinion" and the "power of law." He has been detained since early August in a secret location. The Ministry of Public Security said on August 25 that he was suspected of "blackmail" and "fabrication of information about a terrorist attack."

Several journalists were also arrested in recent days, including reporter Liu Hu, on August 23. He had exposed on the microblogging website Weibo a case of corruption involving the former deputy mayor of Chongqing, who is now China’s Vice Minister for Industry and Commerce. Earlier this year, the media outlets closest to the government were passionate about how the Chinese Twitter-like platform had become an anti-corruption weapon, hailing the "new era of whistleblowers." Now, in their columns, they are lynching those they call "rumor peddlers."

Another type of figure is in the authorities' line of fire. Chinese web users call them the "Big V," because their identities are "verified," and they are famous. These are the microbloggers who have millions of followers. Some of them come from the intelligentsia, others from show business or finance. With increasing openness, they make critical stances against the system, tacitly making themselves the advocates of a liberalization of the regime.

The arrest on August 23 of one of them, Charles Xue, on prostitution solicitation charges sparked intense debate because of the extraordinary splash the arrest made on official state media. Xue, who launched several successful startups, is an American citizen and has been quite outspoken with his very progressive political opinions.

It must be said that two weeks earlier, the "Big V" had been invited by the state Internet Information Office (the governmental arm for propaganda) to a lecture on the "social responsibility of Internet celebrities". According to press reports, the goal was to exchange points of view on the lines not to cross when it comes to discussing law, the socialist political system, morality, the best interests of the state, and other sensitive topics.

In its August 26 editorial on the Xue affair, the newspaper Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times, linked with the conservative fringe of the Chinese Communist Party) confirmed web activists’ worst fears. The title read, "The arrest of Xue is a stinging reminder for opinion leaders," and the piece vehemently denounced people who are "doped on political confrontation" arguing they would be better off "with a clean conscience."

This apparent witch-hunt outraged Xia Cai, a teacher from the department of studies for the building of the Party in the Chinese Communist Party Central School. In a column published in Gongshiwang ("the consensus network", a website linked with liberal circles), Cai denounced Xue's arrest and the accompanying propaganda campaign, attributing it to "manipulations of a minority of powerful people" hiding behind "the authority of the state" but indulging in "blatant abuse of power."

If nothing else, these past few weeks show that the fights for power behind the scenes of the Party are back. Now all eyes are on the next big political event: the third plenum of the Party congress in November.

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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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