Argument

Xi Jinping's Bad Dream

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China is writing a new legacy of repression.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine is in overdrive. Extolling the virtues of President Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream," which the government plans to enact through a deepening of "reform and opening," the government media has touted Xi's vision for a rejuvenated China based on values like "equity and fairness," and "high morals." Even the untrained observer, however, can see that this "dream" is far from reality. For while officials preach fairness, the public security bureau has been busily rounding up activists and government critics ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary on June 4.

Disturbingly, the latest wave of persecution -- which has seen dozens of activists detained, questioned, or placed under house arrest in recent weeks -- goes further than in previous years. A clampdown on activists at such a politically sensitive time is sadly predictable. The authorities' campaign to prevent people from commemorating the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed civilians who were killed or injured in the 1989 crackdown is an annual event. But this year, the drive to quiet dissent has been more severe than in years past -- including on the 20th anniversary -- with harsher methods being deployed and more people facing criminal detention.

The Tiananmen anniversary is a critical test for Xi's claims to be delivering greater openness. It is a test he has so far failed, opting for repression over true reform. Just like his predecessors, Xi seems unable to look history in the face. He has persisted in playing politics with the past, trying to wipe out the truth of what happened in 1989. His government has barred mothers and fathers from publicly grieving for children they lost in the bloody crackdown. Parents' calls for truth, compensation, and accountability fall on deaf ears.

Xi has also failed to move away from the stability-above-all-else mindset that leads to a vicious cycle of injustice.

Take the trumped-up charges against prominent journalist Gao Yu. The 70-year-old, who has been an outspoken campaigner for victims of the 1989 crackdown, was detained ahead of a Tiananmen memorial event last month, accused of disclosing state secrets by allegedly leaking an ideological Communist Party paper called Document No. 9 to a foreign website last August. She was last seen on April 24 before appearing on Chinese television on May 8 to "confess." And Gao is just one of the many activists whom the government has targeted under China's vaguely worded and arbitrary state-secret laws.

Document No. 9, an internal memo, can by no reasonable measure be considered a state secret. And it exposes the current leadership's disdain for human rights: The document is scathingly hostile towards universal values, the rule of law, civil society, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Xi's claims to be deepening reform are increasingly being exposed as empty rhetoric, as China's leaders are more and more hostile to any discourse on human rights. Anyone who attempts to raise such issues is perceived as challenging the Communist Party's authority and is severely dealt with.

The death of another activist in March, Cao Shunli, who for months was denied medical care while in detention, shows how far the authorities are prepared to go. Cao had led attempts to allow activists to contribute to China's national human rights report, as part of a U.N. review.

Yet Xi still claims China is a country operating under the rule of law. The fallacy of this assertion is seen in the sentences handed down to those linked with the New Citizens' Movement, a loosely knit grassroots network of activists who discuss issues like government transparency and children's education rights. The most notable sentence was the four years given to the movement's leader, Xu Zhiyong, who was accused of organizing protests. His appeal was denied in April.

On the surface, the calls by the New Citizens' Movement for greater transparency and an end to corruption align with many of those made by Xi. Their so-called crime appears to be urging the party to heed the legitimate demands of Chinese citizens.

There is a direct link from the calls made by protesters in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago to those being made today. Most want to see incremental change within the current political system based on rights enshrined in China's constitution.

If we are to judge Xi on the response to the Tiananmen 25th anniversary, he has failed to seize this historic opportunity to demonstrate that he is a genuine reformer. Instead, he has taken a repressive path, captive to the practices and attitudes of the past. Dealing with history honestly and genuinely promoting human rights will build the foundation for a stable future, a government with legitimacy both at home and abroad. Without that, China's dream will end up as a continuing nightmare.

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Argument

After the Putsch Come the Punches

Why Thailand’s coup is destined to fail.

It's not a question if the Thai coup will go wrong; it's a question of when, and how badly. You might think the Royal Thai Army would be good at quelling unrest by now -- Thailand has been in permanent political crisis since the 2005 protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and politically unstable for most of the 20th century. But like the last coup in September 2006, the military's May 22 seizure of power in a bloodless coup will be disastrous.

At the core of Thailand's problems is a huge gulf between supporters of Thaksin -- who was ousted in the 2006 coup and whose sister Yingluck was prime minister from 2011 until May -- and those who vigorously oppose the Shinawatra clan. (Pro-Thaksin forces comprise a majority in Thailand but a minority among the Bangkok elite and the country's middle class.)

The military claimed it needed to avert potential violence and bring together two warring factions that had paralyzed the country's government since November. Although coups are going out of style in much of the world, the Thais still know how to stage them brilliantly: take over the TV stations, earn praise for rescuing the nation from disorder, and receive instant global media attention. Indeed, for the first time in several months, Bangkok is largely clear of street protests -- creating the impression of a return to normalcy.

That illusion, however, will not last. For better or worse, Thais have the world's lowest political boredom threshold. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has alternated between spells of parliamentary rule and periods of military dictatorship; electoral politics have been gaining ground since the late 1970s, but the monarchical network has consistently exercised behind-the-scenes power in shaping governing regimes. Since the 1991 coup, there have been no less than 13 prime ministers (not including several acting ones), three military coups, 10 general elections, four constitutions (not counting the interim ones), and six rounds of massive street protests.

Thailand's military deserves much of the blame. Seizing power is glamorous and exciting -- the dream of every young cadet who graduates from Thailand's Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, the Army's officer training academy. But after the putsch come the punches: the daily hard knocks of running a country and facing continual criticism. Far from being smiling, passive, and deferential to authority (like the tourism authority would have you believe), Thailand's 69 million people are some of the most politicized and polarized people on the planet. The notion that they are going to embrace peace and orderliness on the instructions of a few guys in uniform is a joke. Thais like the rhetoric of order and enjoy the idea of a strong leader, but the novelty wears off once they have had a few weeks of stiff military paternalism. Already, Thais are finding novel ways to demonstrate displeasure with their new rulers.

Unfortunately, the military does not seem to understand this. Thai generals experience little criticism during their professional lives. Socialized into military culture from the day they enter pre-cadet school at age 15, they can look forward to a 45-year career in the Army. Thailand has one of the world's largest contingents of serving generals -- around 1,500 across the three services, from a total military personnel of just over 300,000. Many of them have literally nothing to do except dabble in business and meddle in politics. Surrounded by yes men for most of their lives, they are ill-equipped to run real businesses or assume ministerial, political, or other public offices. The Thai Army is a uniformed bureaucracy that has not fought a real war since playing a supporting role to the Americans in Vietnam.

The commander of the Royal Thai Army (in practice senior to the notionally higher-ranking supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces) can enjoy pronouncing loftily on the foibles of elected politicians and setting himself up as a moral arbiter. Back in December, before the armed government takeover, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha declared that the military will uphold a balanced stance that doesn't erode its goal of fostering love and unity among Thais, according to the Bangkok Post. He added, "Soldiers will always belong to the nation, religion, and the people." After a coup, however, the Army chief's moral authority and pontification capacity quickly wanes, as the professed goal of encouraging love and unity grows more elusive.

Immediately after seizing power, Prayuth appointed himself the interim prime minister, thereby making himself a lightning rod for all complaints. If he's wise, he'll select a civilian to fill those shoes as soon as possible. The 1991 coup group smartly picked respected former ambassador to the United States and royal confidant Anand Panyarachun to handle all the ensuing grief. Anand was able to win over the international community and take the pressure off the generals -- at least for a while.

However, by contrast, the 2006 coup plotters chose badly, handing power to a former Army chief, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who soon acquired a well-deserved reputation for dithering and lack of focus. The result was a rapid decline in the coup's popularity. Likewise, today Prayuth is looking dangerously exposed, trying to front the whole coup himself rather than presenting it as a team effort.

In 1991, the coup-makers were initially viewed as dashing, even romantic figures, especially Supreme Commander Sunthorn Kongsompong, a smooth-talking cavalry officer who played well on TV. Their post-coup honeymoon period lasted for around four months, until it became increasingly obvious that his charmless colleague, Army chief Suchinda Kraprayoon, was eyeing a key role for himself in the post-electoral order. When Suchinda elbowed his way into the premiership in 1992, he triggered mass protests, shootings, and a royal intervention -- King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned both Suchinda and the main protest leader for a dressing-down -- that helped force him out of office. Suchinda remains widely reviled, though his missteps helped pave the way for a progressive "people's constitution" in 1997.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, probably the most likable Army commander of the past few decades, staged the 2006 coup. But even he soon realized that he could never parlay the coup into a bid for longer-term political office and that eradicating Thaksin's influence and remarkably resilient voter support was impossible. Initially popular with many Bangkokians, Sonthi's nice-guy coup slowly degenerated into a catalog of popular frustrations and disappointments, and pro-Thaksin parties staged a successful comeback in the subsequent election.

A coup turns the tables on top generals in ways they do not enjoy. Soon their misery begins to infect the wider population, which starts to yearn again for political leaders the people can more easily eject from office. Thai coup-makers now in power would do best to scale back their own visibility, appoint a civilian prime minister and cabinet to take pressure off the junta, and plan for a speedy departure.

Prayuth shows no sign so far that he grasps any of this. He may even believe that he should stay prime minister. If so, he should think again; the same people who are right now celebrating his bold seizure of power will very soon want to see the back of him.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images