eyes on the U.S.

When Trump Went To China, 'America First' Blindness v. Visionary Xi

Xi Jinping knows exactly where he wants to go. Donald Trump, not so much...

Xi and Trump meet school children last week in Beijing
Xi and Trump meet school children last week in Beijing
Dominique Moisi

-Analysis-

PARIS — When John Adams began to compose the opera Nixon in China in 1985, nearly 15 years had passed since the event that marked an important turning point in the history of the Cold War. But whatever the dollar figures involved in the trade deals signed this past week, or the urgency of China-U.S. talks regarding North Korea, it would require nothing less than the comical talent of Gioachino Rossini (who composed The Journey to Reims) to put Donald Trump's Journey to Asia to music.

How things have changed between 1972 and 2017, especially in the balance of power between the United States and China, which was by far the most important stop of the American president's just concluded trip to Asia. In 1972, China was playing in an altogether different league than the U.S. Though it was bogged down as the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia, Nixon's America had just one rival, and one that was on its way to collapsing on itself.

While Washington was looking to isolate the USSR, Beijing was struggling to emerge from decades of isolation. What John Adams captured in his opera, and particularly with his four-part harmony between Nixon, Mao, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, was history with a capital H.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the balance between the two countries has been reversed. China has a long-term strategic vision, while the U.S. no longer has one. Should Washington's goal be to unite Asian countries, particularly its democracies, to counterbalance China? Or should it instead cozy up to China in order to share with Beijing the burden of the world's responsibilities?

Should it resign itself to entering a multipolar world?

Does "America First" imply a stiffening of its economic relationship with China, which, regardless of the deals triumphantly announced, can eventually lead to trade war — and from then on to full war? In other words, should the U.S. contain China as it once did with the USSR or, having distanced itself from multilateralism, should it resign itself to entering a multipolar world?

Partner, rival, adversary: It seems Washington is incapable of choosing among these different possibilities. The worst part is that Trump's America even seems incapable of conceptualizing the options available. A. Wess Mitchell, the freshly appointed Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, was recently in Paris. He just wrote a book entitled The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, but he would be at a loss trying the define his president's "grand strategy," beyond the will to sign lucrative but short-term trade deals and the attempt to get China to do more regarding the crisis with North Korea.

China, on the contrary, has a strategic vision which is not "China First," though this form of nationalism naturally exists, but "China Number One." It's not content being just the biggest Asian power. That goal has already been achieved. It now wants to be the world's singular leader, to overtake the U.S. economically, militarily — there's a still a long way to go on that front — but also, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of civilization and culture.

While America's democracy is in a downward spiral, China no longer has any inferiority complex regarding the Western world. "Why should I learn from you?" it seems to be saying. "From now on, you must learn from me, economically and financially since 2007-2008, politically since 2017 and this new U.S. President took office." A recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center has shown that in Canada, Australia and Germany, more people trust China than the U.S.

During his visit to China, President Trump would have been well inspired to visit the futuristic library, shaped like a giant eye, that recently opened in Tianjin. An architectural wonder, this library symbolizes the contradictory ambition of a country that's scared of writers but nonetheless places books at the core of its cultural project, in a library that is striking in its outward transparency.

This library confirms the message China was already sending the world in 2005, at an exhibition organized by the Chinese government at London's Royal Academy of Arts. Dedicated to Chinese art from the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the main works at this exhibition consisted in a very big painting of a European Jesuit style that portrayed an endless line of foreign ambassadors, most of them Westerners, lining up to pay homage to the Chinese Emperor. The explicit message was crystal clear: "You used to pay homage to us. Prepare yourselves, you'll soon have to do the same again." Everything is happening as if that time had already come, much sooner than even the Chinese themselves had imagined.

Trump's Asian tour, unlike Nixon's visit to China, is not likely to make the history books. It nonetheless marks another step towards the U.S."s involuntary and premature handover of power to China.

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Geopolitics

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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