Europe, Trapped Between U.S. Protectionism And Chinese Ambition

BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany
BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany
Evgeny Morozov


MUNICH — As far as industrial strategies and international competition are concerned, there's no greater contrast than that between Europe's resignation and China's iron determination. It's not surprising that it was China — and not Europe — that proposed to form an alliance against Trump's raving protectionist madness. With little success: Even Washington's harassment cannot pull European politicians out of their slumber — or, more likely, their afternoon nap.

Hardly a week goes by without more alarming news that Beijing has once again managed to overtake Brussels in yet another area. China Merchants Group joined forces with SPF Group and Centricus — asset management companies based in Beijing and London — to form a $15-billion fund to compete with Japan's Softbank and its $100-billion Vision Fund. It was founded to invest in the world's most promising technology companies. This happened a few weeks after Sequoia Capital, America's leading venture capital firm, completed the first round of fundraising for its own $8-billion alternative to Vision Fund.

Contemporary Amperex Technology, one of China's largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries and a beneficiary of the government's quest for world domination in this industry, signed a billion-euro deal with German car-manufacturer BMW shortly afterward. The Chinese company's intention is to establish its own factory in Europe in order to meet the rapidly increasing demand for batteries. Daimler, another crown jewel of the German car industry, is now reportedly considering placing a similar order.

The Bolloré Group, one of France's leading conglomerates in the media, energy and logistics industries, has signed an agreement with China's technology giant Alibaba. Bolloré hopes to use Alibaba's cloud computing empire for its operations, including its own battery production department.

These developments can be interpreted as neutral, or even as positive. European capital — British in the first case, German in the second, French in the third — simply seizes the opportunities for the most lucrative prospects. And China currently offers more than any other nation.

Nevertheless, each of these three developments reveals a big hole in Europe's own industrial strategy. It's one thing for European capital to be invested only passively in the most promising projects in robotics or AI. Daimler, for example, is one of the few European sponsors of Softbank's Vision Fund. But it's quite a different thing to do so with the end goal of seeing Europe dominate these areas.

The European Commission's artificial intelligence strategy published in April is based on the unverified assumption that Brussels will be able to raise almost 18 billion euros in private capital to add to the few billion from existing European programs. This, however, requires convincing companies like Daimler — whose largest shareholder today is Geely from China — that their investments should go to a European tech fund instead of Softbank or China Merchants Group.

This dependence was easier to justify when global trade was still running smoothly.

This challenge is similar to Europe's unsuccessful efforts to get the European industry to build a joint European battery manufacturer for electric cars in order to minimize dependence on China and South Korea. The European Battery Alliance, an industry-wide initiative launched by the European Union, was established last year but has not yet borne fruit. European politicians seem to recognize the battery challenge, as do Germany's strongest trade unions. But how will this problem ever be solved if companies such as BMW and Daimler continue to place orders worth billions with Chinese battery manufacturers?

The history of cloud computing, which is increasingly linked to AI services, is not much different. Even if the European industry wanted to turn its back on Amazon and Microsoft to use a European supplier instead, it wouldn't have much choice. Basically, it's trapped between the American and the Chinese giants.

A big data visual analysis decision platform in China — Photo: Tao Liang/Xinhua/ZUMA

This dependence was easier to justify when global trade was still running smoothly and all industries looked similar (that is, equally unimportant from the perspective of national or regional interests). Now that the European car industry is under heavy fire from Trump, Brussels is extremely cautious in its reaction.

If Trump threatens Europe's most important industry, the logical response would be to threaten a retaliatory response against America's most important industry, which — whatever Trump may believe — is located in Silicon Valley and Seattle, not Detroit.

But that's not an option: No one will believe that the same Europe that has integrated Alphabet, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon services deeply into the infrastructure of its hospitals, transport systems and universities will switch off those very services. The best thing Europe can hope for at the moment is simply to diversify its dependence on the U.S. giants by doing business with the Chinese.

None of these are good signs for a future Europe at the heart of the world economy. Its industry giants certainly won't disappear, but they will increasingly be dominated by non-European owners and technologies. While this might have been praiseworthy in the rosier days of globalization, this strategy borders on suicide in the new normal of today. That is why that proverbial afternoon nap European politicians are taking increasingly looks like a coma.

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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