China: Despite Current Crackdown, Desire For Reform Quietly Takes Root

Political change may at last be forced upon China’s Communist Party, as the society, rich and poor, starts to show that economic growth alone will no longer keep them quiet.

Mao is still omnipresent, at least in public (Richard Fisher)
Mao is still omnipresent, at least in public (Richard Fisher)
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING – Is China about to enter a genuine phase of political reform that will set it on the path to democracy? The question may seem absurd in the face of the recent repression suffered by some of the country's most committed social activists, including the artist Ai Weiwei and many well-known lawyers.

Whether it is because the police hysteria has missed its target, or because it has backfired and galvanized the opposition, the situation in China is far from harmonious. The skeletons are out of the closet. For example, the liberal intellectual and well-known economist Mao Yushi – no relation to the revolution's so-called Great Helmsman – denounced Mao's crimes in a scathing attack published on the Caixin news site at the end of April. It is time, he writes, to consider him an "ordinary human being," and not a god.

That was daring in this day and age. Since then, diehard Maoists have attempted to silence him, making a spectacle of their obsolete idolatry. Another dissonant sign in a regime that has long given off the impression of consensus reigning within its ranks was a series of editorials of a new tone published in May in The People's Daily, the Communist Party's press organ. They are pleas for a "de-ideologized" vision of public affairs, where the respect for pluralism and the freedom of expression would dominate. On the civic action front, sociologist Yu Jianrong – who is also an academic, painter, and documentarian – has replaced Ai Weiwei as the troublemaker-in-chief of the Chinese web. He is the organizer of a new campaign for citizen voting, using social networks to relay updates.

The threat of a Chinese "jasmine revolution" that has so frightened the security apparatus in the wave of the Arab uprisins has now been replaced by a fear of social implosion. There is an urgent need "to improve and innovate social management," pleaded President Hu Jintao at the end of May at a meeting of the political office dedicated to "major social contradictions," which grabbed headlines in the form of self-immolations, revenge attacks by rebuffed petitioners, and "mass incidents," that is to say, protests. The "maintenance of stability," the regime's number one priority since the 2008 Olympic Games, has caused the old methods of repression to continue indiscriminately – all that is unstable is politically "subversive" and "counter-revolutionary" – and has called into question the creation of the "State of law" that accompanied the opening up of the economy at the end of the 1980s.

A new progressive vision?

This approach is criticized today as too simplistic and counter-productive. Yu Jianrong is among those attempting to promote a "dynamic" version of the "maintenance of stability"—during seminars for party or police members—in accordance with China's level of development today. This moderate and progressive vision is also being promoted by the more liberal wing of the party, mainly in the editorials of The People's Daily, which are supposed to be pedagogical, or in speechs by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The dream of a more liberal China also aims to challenge the current neototalitarian drift as nothing more than a maneuver to benefit powerful interest groups under the pretext of serving a political line that barely maintains any relevance. Beyond that, the liberal offensive aims of course at showing the necessity of implementing long-delayed political reforms, notably by adopting an effective balance of powers.

Avoided for a long time by an all-powerful Communist party confident of its economic record, is the debate on political reform quietly becoming inevitable? "The age of avoiding debate has passed," the intellectual Zhang Musheng recently declared. Despite the astronomic growth of the Chinese GDP, the urban middle class, whose standard-of-living is now reaching that of developing nations, is suffering from a genuine lack of rule of law that prevents them from securing their assets. In the countryside, where Third-World China still exists and which provides the migrant workers needed to operate the factories of the "world's workshop," the people are increasingly aware of their formal rights and determined to defend them.

Rich or poor, the Chinese harbor a feeling of extreme distrust of local authorities, whether large or small, that manage the people's lives. "Whenever the GDP per head reaches a certain threshold, the people inevitably have other aspirations than just satisfying material needs. They need to participate in matters that concern them," explains one local independent candidates for a district deputy seat. The "growth pact" between the society and the State-party imposed after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago—in exchange of improved standard of living, people had to gave up their civil rights—is no longer sufficient. The Chinese are thirsty for political participation.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Richard Fisher

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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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