Germany And China: Reluctant Leaders In An Anxious World

Analysis: Neighbors in Europe worry that Germany is either acting too boldly, or not boldly enough. China's Asian neighbors wonder about the emerging global giant's long-term plans. Berlin and Beijing face a similar question: What to do

Who's laughing now? (RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ)
Who's laughing now? (RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ)
Sylvie Kauffmann

If Vladimir Putin or Victor Orban think they're being treated badly by the Western media, they should head over to Greece. At the height of their misfortune, the Greeks have found a perfect target at which to vent their collective rage, like a voodoo doll to sink needles in: Angela Merkel.

The German chancellor is regularly dragged through the press, occasionally depicted with guards in Nazi uniforms, and even with a Hitler-style moustache. Beyond the chancellor, the disgrace extends to all her compatriots, the so-called German occupiers and the historical wrong they haven't finished atoning for. The European Union is portrayed as the "Fourth Reich." Horst Reichenbach, head of the E.U. mission of 45 experts working to straighten out Greece's finances, rarely appears in the papers without a whip and an SS uniform. The austere European bureaucrat told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he had clearly underestimated the challenge that his German nationality would pose in Greece's current climate.

The Germans now find themselves in the unusual position of being respected, and even admired, in the rest of the world – nothing impresses the Chinese or the Singaporeans more than German efficiency – but still constrained to feign humility around their E.U. neighbors. This discomfort is all the more ironic with Germany having emerged from the euro crisis as the obvious leader of Europe. Not only because of the size of its population and of its GDP, but also because its economy is better managed than others; and also because the situation is so serious, the players so weakened, that they are desperately looking for a leader.

Increasingly, willingly or not, Germany is filling this role. When Merkel goes to Beijing to ask China to invest in Europe, she presents herself as the de facto leader of Europe. It was, after all, in Berlin and not in Paris or London that the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski chose to give his final speech as the head of the Polish presidency of the European Union. Many Germans and Poles may have been surprised to hear Poland's leading diplomat proclaim: "I am less afraid of German power than of German passivity."

Europe to Asia

Such is the German dilemma: act and expose itself to caricatures, or not act and invite criticism? It incites a form of schizophrenia. The German press is divided: if Germany has to pay Europe's bills, why should it stay quiet? For Süddeutsche Zeitung, "Germany finds itself today where it had never wanted to be after 1945: the dominant power in the heart of Europe. But in the european crisis, we must not confuse firmness with arrogance, because our power is real, and it can scare others."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung adds: "Leadership is something you learn. It doesn't only consist of giving orders, but it also does not mean merely sacrificing itself and then handing out benefits."

There is, in this era of globalization, another emerging great power in spite of itself: China. As is the case with Germany, its economic weight has inevitably tipped its political and diplomatic balance faster than expected. China now finds itself encumbered with unforeseen responsibilities, and is solicited, pushed, pulled and criticized. Whether it's having to organize the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese workers in Libya, negotiating the liberation of compatriots taken hostage in Sudan or the Sinai. The Chinese want to take on space exploration? They must also ensure the protection of their energy supplies and raw materials on earth in order to feed their incredible growth.

But given the aircraft carriers they're building, their increasing military budget and the dictators they protect: their neighbors are afraid. Called on to behave as a responsible power on the international scene, China alarms as soon as it moves – because its intentions are not clear. What does Germany want? To play its card as an emerging power or as the leader of a united Europe? What does China want? Superpower status or a responsible role in a multi-polar world? Given the choices, Beijing and Berlin seem to be still hesitating about their answer.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - RuckSackKruemel/SFTHQ

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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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