Future

Chinese Lessons In How Not To Invest In Technology

In China, there is no shortage of economic commitment to research and technical advancement. But state graft and insider favors drive the process rather than a pure pursuit of innovation.

In a welding workshop in Suzhou, eastern China
In a welding workshop in Suzhou, eastern China
Liu Jinsong

BEIJING — China is one of the world's top investors in technological research, having spent $193 billion in 2013. Nearly half of that money ($80 billion) was funded by the state. Yet it continues to lag behind with regards to scientific innovation, ranking only 19th in the world. China's scientific and technological achievement transformation rate, futhermore, is a mere 10%.

The quality of China's scientific papers, the most basic proof of its research performance, also reflects a vexing truth. According to data from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, each Chinese scientific paper is on average cited 6.92 times, whereas the world average is 10.69 times. That is to say that although China is at the forefront of the world in spending on scientific research, its research quality and results are not even reaching the global average level.

So why is China's research output efficiency so poor? The reasons are multifold, but the most critical of all is the seriously unreasonable distribution of research funding. As numerous recent cases suggest, much the funding is simply being misappropriated.

Just a few days ago, Zhang Lixin, a former professor at Beijing Normal University, was given an 11-year sentence for graft. Not only did he use his students' names to gain payment for labor and inflated contract expenditure, he also used the illicit money to buy himself a sports car.

Chen Yingxu, director of the Water Environment Research Institute of Zhejiang University, took advantage of a national program for river research to falsify budget invoices and accounts and reallocate nearly $1.5 million into the accounts of a shell company he controlled.

And when a task force from Shandong University of Finance was set up to research regional tourism and planning, the staff amused themselves, in the name of travel expenses, by journeying between towns that had nothing to do with the project. The train tickets, as many as 1,505 of them billing in at approximately $45,000, accounted for nearly 50% of project's total budget.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. When one looks into China's research funding, one discovers that though the expenditure is nowhere trivial, the baffling amount of theft is also stunning — vehicle purchasing, house building, furnishings, welfare, bonuses and study tours abroad. In brief, all personal benefits justify the use of research funds. As the China Association for Science and Technology's survey shows, in China only 40% of research funds are used for research. It's no wonder that although huge financial investments are put in, China doesn't yet have much to boast about with regards to its scientific and technological output.

To put an end to corruption and waste in China's grotesque embezzlement of research funds it is imperative that good institutional construction starts right from the roots. Most important of all is the establishment of a unified reporting and oversight channel. At present, China's research programs are mostly managed in a diffuse way. Different fields of research are supervised by different departments. Due to poor communication and coordination between various departments, research efficiency is low while oversight is difficult.

In addition, a research funding publication system should be put in place. Except for research involving state secrets, all research projects should publicize the use of funds in detail so that the responsible authorities, their peers in the same field, and the community at large can conduct a multi-faceted supervision.

Finally, Chinese authorities ought to reduce administrative intervention and set up a professional project evaluation mechanism. Currently, China's scientific management system remains government-led. Lacking a capacity to assess research achievement, more emphasis is put on the process of supervision. As long as one manages to fix the authoritative departments, one will have a whole series of green lights — from the approval of the project subject to the funds to the final review of the research.

In short, only if China can separate administrative power and academic authorities, and introduce a fair and open evaluation system of expertise, can it guarantee that the billions being pumped into scientific research will yield a corresponding output.

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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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