Geopolitics

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution, Seen From China's Press And Social Media

While newspapers have been heavily censored, real discussion is taking place on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and other online forums. But even there, someone is keeping watch.

"Change begins with a fight"
"Change begins with a fight"
Meiqi An

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as the pro-democracy "Umbrella" movement holds firm on its fifth day despite warnings from Chinese authorities to disperse. On Thursday, following the previous day's national day celebrating the founding of the People's Republic, state police in Hong Kong warned demonstrators of “serious consequences” if they continue their unauthorized gathering. Up to 87 rounds of tear gas have been tallied, but demonstrators continue to stay in Hong Kong's central financial district, umbrellas in hand, demanding free elections.

And how is it all playing out in mainland China? The movement, like others that challenge the central government directly, has been heavily censored in newspapers and television. Even independent dailies and websites go no further than simply quoting the state-run People’s Daily and Xinhua Agency on this issue.

But as we've seen in other occasions, there is still space to react on social media, notably Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. But the voices of the masses on events were decidedly mixed:

People’s Daily’s Weibo account: "The decision made by the central government of the Hong Kong CE candidates should not be challenged, it is legal…"

Comment from the Weibo user: "We should all fight against those rebels, especially on the birthday of our mother country!"

Though it is still open, even on Weibo certain pro-Hong Kong opinions are not welcome. When you type "Hong Kong" in the search engine of the social media platform, only pro-central government remarks come out among the top results. Still, there is space for both sides:

A lawyer on Weibo: Mainland China provides Hong Kong with as much resources as possible, but Hong Kong never pays back a dime! And they criticized the Chinese kid who pees on the street in Hong Kong! They are cold blood people!

Response from Weibo user: Shame on you as a lawyer!

From a professor of Beijing University: People in Hong Kong are living in indecent conditions, a 100-square-meter apartment is divided into 10 small cabins, in each cabin, live two persons.

But other Chinese don’t share his sympathies.

Dialogue on Weibo between pro-Hong Kong and a pro-central government users:

-Those who say that “only the central government can save the Hong Kong economy” are those who have never visited other places than their home city.

-This dream of democracy will end once mainland China stops providing Hong Kong with fresh water.

-Right, for you the mainland China is the center of the universe.

Meanwhile, Instagram, which has some great images from Hong Kong, has been banned in China since the first day of demonstrations. It joins Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in being banned on the mainland.

Back in Hong Kong, where Facebook is still visible, students called for international support.

Another Hong Kong student explaining why it is wrong to think that “only the central government can save Hong Kong economy.”

The Facebook page of the event: United for Democracy—Global solidarity with Hong Kong

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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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