Fear And Opportunity: A View From Chita, On The Russian-Chinese Border

Bad blood abounds along the Chinese-Russian border. But the lives of the borderland’s Russian and Chinese residents are also intertwined. In the Russian city of Chita, university students have the option to study German or French, but tend to prefer Manda

A tale of two bears: In the Chinese city of Manzouli on the Russian border (dobbs383)
A tale of two bears: In the Chinese city of Manzouli on the Russian border (dobbs383)
Etienne Dubuis

CHITA -- So here they are, the Chinese people everyone has been talking about since we left Moscow. The great demographic "danger" that threatens Russia's eastern borders.

We had to wait until we reached the Ulan-Ude bus station to finally see them. Eight unknowing "ambassadors' of the world's most populated country on board with us. They are heading home to Manchuria, about 700 miles away. We're heading to the Russian border city of Chita. But we're all sharing the same minibus. Maybe because we too are foreigners.

This trip is going to be interesting. The young Russian who places himself behind the wheel of the minibus greets the Chinese passengers by shouting at them. The first of the Chinese people to speak to us says that Ulan-Ude, the southern Russian city we are just leaving, "isn't that great."

An hour into the journey we cross a beautiful steppe at sunset. The vehicle suddenly pulls off on the side of the road. One of the minibus' tires has just burst. As our driver quickly changes the tire, the passengers watch his every move. We get back on the road but soon stop again, this time at a gas station. Soon after we stop a third time, at a roadside restaurant to have a hot meal. In the parking lot, one of the Chinese passengers bursts out angrily: "We pull over too often."

He's right. The young Russian drives too fast and takes too many breaks. At 5 a.m., while he is out eating without having warned the passengers beforehand, a young Chinese man takes out his walkman and plays one of his country's songs on a pair of portable speakers. The melodious female voice contrasts with the drum-based Russian music usually played on the minibus. When the driver returns, before starting the engine, he turns up the volume of his radio in order to drown out the Chinese song.

We enter the city of Chita under the dawn fog. Once the final destination is reached, the driver climbs on the roof of the vehicle and begins to throw down his passengers' luggage. The Chinese passengers remain undisturbed and immediately form a human chain to catch their bags and pass them to their respective owners.

Language as sign of times

Lina Razumova, a French teacher, welcomes us into the College of Foreign Languages at the University of Chita. She shows us around. The place is dark at this time of year because of the summer holidays. The English, French and German lessons are all given on the ground floor. The first floor is entirely dedicated to teaching Chinese.

"Look," says Lina, "you have pictures of China everywhere here." She says it surprised her a bit at first, but now she's used to seeing the images. "There wasn't much we could do about it. More and more young Russian people from around here think China holds a future for them," says Lina. "Why would they spend all their money to go to France to study a language that for them, belongs to the past?"

Lina knows China quite well, especially the border city of Manzhuli, which she visited several times. "In 1990, in Manzhuli, Russians used to sell households appliances and buy a few clothes. Today, they sell nearly nothing and buy everything, even computers and television sets."

We speak with one of Lina's colleagues, Oleg Terechin, who admits that "yes, he fears Chinese expansionism." On Chinese maps, borders have been redrawn to now include Russia's Baikal Lake. Sometimes they show Chinese territory as extending all the way to the Ural Mountains. "They will come and settle in our country without declaring war on us," says Oleg. "They will slowly infiltrate. There are more than a billion of them and they are smart. "

Lina says her colleague is going too far, and that Russia is a strong enough country to defend its own interests. But Oleg will hear none of it. Upon leaving us, he reveals that he did his national service as a border police officer back in the mid 1970s. At the time, Russia and China were locked in a bitter dispute over the Amur River, also known as the Heilong.

"I spent two years being afraid the Chinese army would jump out at us," he remembers. "Fortunately, nothing happened"

Read the original article in French

Photo - dobbs383

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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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