China's Delicate Dance To Keep The Peace With Ethnic Minorities

Uyghurs at a market
Uyghurs at a market
Brendan O’Reilly

Tensions between China’s majority Han population and various ethnic minorities tend to simmer just below the surface. But the issue is now stirring open debate following this month’s coordinated knife attack on a train station in the southern city of Kunming that killed 29. The attack has been blamed on separatist extremists of the Uyghur people, whom Beijing had also held responsible for the 2009 Ürümqi Riots in northwest China.

From Beijing’s view, the aftermath of the March 1 killings fits into the broader social issue of ethnic minority policies. A look at popular and official state media coverage over the past two weeks shows one overriding goal for the government: to tamp the flames of inter-ethnic resentment and maintain social and political stability.

The Kunming station where the attack took place (40fifw0)

Chinese media does acknowledge the existence of inter-communal troubles, while simultaneously blaming such troubles on religious fundamentalism and foreign interference. Xinjiang, home to millions of Muslim Uyghurs, and Tibet, are the two most restive areas.

Phoenix Television — a Hong Kong-based channel that is one of the few private broadcasters allowed into the mainland Chinese market — recently aired a press conference by Padma Cholong, head of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s People’s Congress. Cholong discussed the differences between ethnic problems in Xinjiang and in Tibet, and made a point of condemning U.S. President Barack Obama for meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The Second Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress (the most important political meeting in China this year) recently wrapped up in Beijing. Coverage of minority issues addressed by the Congress was predictably optimistic. The constant themes being stressed are progress, prosperity, and unity.

A piece from Sohu News entitled "Delegate: Promote Minority’s Distinctive Culture, Strengthen the ‘Silk Road’ Cultural Exchange" was also characteristically upbeat. It focused on the vice-chairman of the Chinese Dancer’s association Dilinaer Abdullah — a Uyghur delegate to the National People’s Congress. Instead of addressing inter-ethnic strife, the article looked at efforts to preserve Uyghur folk dancing.

This emphasis on dance is interesting. Western media coverage of China often condemns the Chinese government for appropriating ethnic minority culture for its own political purposes. In the "Latitude" blog of the New York Times, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote: “Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes.”

Which brings us to coverage from Dongbei Wang regarding ethnic minority affairs in the National People’s Congress: “Minority Delegates’ Special Hats”. This photo compilation shows the distinctive and seemingly impractical hats worn by ethnic minority delegates to China’s most important political meeting of the year.

Festive hats and dancing can only go so far to promote inter-ethnic harmony in China. However, it is possible that some more sophisticated efforts may be at play. In the wake of the Kunming attacks, Chinese television began to prominently feature Shila Amzah, a female contestant in China’s hugely popular I Am a Singer television competition, who was wearing a traditional Islamic veil.

Millions of passengers waiting in Chinese train stations were shown Amzah’s spirited performance over and over again. Although some Chinese Internet users pointed out Amzah’s supposed resemblance to Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, she is actually from Malaysia. Nevertheless, the fact that a religious Muslim wearing a traditional headscarf was prominently featured on Chinese TV in the days following the worst Islamist terror attack on China in modern history may say much more than any declaration from party headquarters.

*Brendan O’Reilly is a writer and educator based in Mainland China, specialized in China foreign policy. He is the author of 50 Things You Didn’t Know About China (Alchemy Books, upcoming). He blogs at

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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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