The reactions of Thailand’s commanding northern neighbour have been heavy on the minds of Western media during the events of recent weeks. As the BBC noted in the aftermath of the protests that postponed the ASEAN Summit:
Mr Abhisit had to make a grovelling phone call to apologise to Premier Wen, who, despite diplomatically saying he understood the prime minister’s actions, must have been thinking: “This could never happen in China.”
Yet an attempt to calculate exactly what Grandpa Wen thought of the events in Thailand is difficult. Coverage of the Thai situation in the Chinese media has been fairly limited. The august China Daily, and Xinhua have shared the same daily stories (usually a brief 300 word coverage of the respective event) for the past week with stories on 13 April (“Water Festival not so happy”); 14 April (“Protesters go home”); 16 April (“ASEAN summit must be held – Abhisit”); 17 April (“Yellow-Shirt leader shot; Thai gov’t says additional loan needed to boost post-political-crisis economy”) and 19 April (“Thai PM: time for solving political crisis, not for cabinet reshuffle”).
Of these stories, the clear focus is on the economic impact of the turmoil. Stories such as “Thai gov’t says additional loan needed to boost post-political-crisis economy” focus on the economic impacts of the crisis above all else, spelling out how:
Following the recent scattered rioting due to anti-government rallies, the Thai economy was estimated to contract as much as 5 percent for 2009 as the political chaos has tremendously affected investors’ confidence, according to the Finance Ministry. The cabinet meeting also decided not to lift a state of emergency as it would be lifted only when peace was fully restored.
Note the order of importance.
Similarly, stories around the earlier events in the crisis centered largely upon the effects on tourism and what the correspondent termed “normal life”:
…violent confrontations were sporadic, at least till the Songkran Festival Friday afternoon. But sadly enough, the conflict sent tourists fleeing back home and some countries and regions, such as Australia, Russia and Hong Kong of China have issued warnings against travel to Bangkok and Thailand. This would undoubtedly affect tourism, the backbone sector and a major foreign currency earner of Thailand, which has already been reeling from the cancellation of the ASEAN summits politically.
Indeed, the official media line has been somewhat relaxed about the protests, including this gem from the China Daily:
Despite all these (referring to “violent protests” in previous para- ed.), life goes on. Just several blocks from the rallies and excited protestors, a couple of kids and youngsters were enjoying their Songkran Festival, soaked, with each armed with a huge water gun. To them, all the fuss had better be left to those adults to take care of. It’s new year coming, so let’s just have fun!
Thailand related stories have generally been given short shrift in state media. In the past two weeks, no story on Thailand has (to the best of my knowledge) appeared in the front sections of major newspapers, nor been on the “most viewed” or “most emailed” lists. To give a flavour for what has instead been preoccupying Chinese state media, the following stories have, on the other hand, all been placed in far more prominent positions: “Chinese, Bahrainian leaders exchange congratulatory messages on anniversary of ties”, “Albanian PM arrives in Hainan for Asian Forum”
and the riveting “Would-be world’s tallest man receives foot surgery”.
Chinese media is always going to be wary around this period. It marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang, a noted reformer forced out of power in 1987 whose death is often thought of as precipitating much of the student-led part of the protests which led to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and deadly crackdowns of early June. The absence of any discussion of Hu’s death has dominated Chinese dissident blogs and related Western trackers (see here and here).
Another reason for the blandness of the coverage is the ubiquity of certain viewpoints presented in China: the majority of in-depth pieces are all coming through Xinhua correspondent Zhang Qiulai (including not only his syndicated pieces for Xinhua, but also interviews in Nanfang Zhoumo and Sina.net).
Hence, Zhang’s perspective tends to dominate coverage. He is relatively positive, seeing the situation as stabilising somewhat and being a test for the Abhisit government rather than anything else. Many of his reports discuss the “contradictions in Thai politics”, and he believes that the crisis is much more about “breaking the vicious cycle of Thai politics” than anything else.
This view is common in major media in China. Sina, for example, argues that Thailand faces the “4 difficults”:
1. The military forces have difficulty retaining control (attributed to the split in support in the forces)
2. The government has very little scope to act
3. Thaksin will find it hard to return
4. The dispute will be hard to bring to an end.
In this way, most of the media coverage over the past two weeks has centered upon the dispute between “red and yellow shirts” and the instability of Thai politics. The structural and historical factors behind the chaos has been often swept up in the rubric of “instability”, with the reasons for Thailand’s disputes attributed to Thailand’s “historical instability” . It is difficult to read an in-depth news piece in Chinese without reading that Thailand has had “18 military coups since 1932”.
A recent argument is that followed by both iFeng journalist Zhao Lingmin and RedNet, who both argue that Thailand’s current instability is a representation of the limitations of Thai democracy. Rednet, for example, posits that:
Although democracy is a “good thing” (terminology is from a famous Chinese speech a few years back), different countries are not able to institute it immediately. Thailand’s democracy has not succeeded, it still lacks many of the requirements for success and it faces a long road ahead.
Zhao Lingmin takes this a step further and links a class-based analysis into his critique of Thai democracy. An annotated translation of his argument follows below:
At the surface, the Red shirts deserve to take the blame for the demonstrations, but a deeper examination shows that it is difficult to separate the coup leading to Thaksin stepping down and the current disorderly situation. Thaksin is Thailand’s only post-war Prime Minister to complete a 4 year term, and he “implemented measures relieving the burden on the poor, improved the conditions of a deteriorating society and earned the respect and praise of the lower-to-middle class that makeup 70% of the Thai population”.
To the upper classes (note that these are referred to with some derision) Thaksin only had his mandate through “toadying” (шоихе╜) to grass-roots voters, and was actually damaging the interests of the middle class. This opposition, the article argues, had considerable influence- comprising some 80% of the economy, and having even greater influence on public opinion. As such, they were able to “band together” (ч╗Дч╗Зш╡╖цЭе) and thus were “always able to launch large-scale attacks on the majority-elected government”.
Samak is then seen as Thaksin’s logical successor, and one who was “groundlessly””dismissed. Somchai was Thaksin’s “puppet” according to the elite, and the loss of tourist revenue noted as a major factor in his dismissal for bribery. Abhisit is “in a dilemma”. He is thought to have underestimated the Red Shirts, and is now unable to crack down on them too heavily as Thai history indicates that many coups start from police or military suppression of dissent. Moreover, economically, they think he has “done nothing” with the economy projected to shrink 4%.
However, the real victim is “the Thai democratic system”. Though Thaksin had “blemishes from a corruption perspective”, the toppling of a government through military coup is merely piling more damage upon a country whose democratic system has yet to solidify. This, he argues, is like “opening Pandora’s box”. The demands of the protesters on the street are thus seen as “legitimate”, but the methods “illegal”, and “an abuse of their own rights and responsibilities.” Both Yellow and Redshirts are thus “contravening democracy”- however, the yellow shirts are seen as the “originating party” breaking the “rules of the game”. Although the Red Shirts follow the same pattern — that of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth — the real problem he thinks is that Thai democracy is too immature.
Structurally, this means that “popular rule and military control are destined to continue cycling in and out of fashion, that rule will continue to change hands and that the Constitution will continue to be ignored. Thai political powers do not have enough reverence for, or belief in, democracy. They haven’t studied how to compromise, nor realized that compromise involves two parties. Democracy is seen as a tool for serving themselves. This is just not a failure of Thai democracy, it represents the principle cause of the failure of democracy in most 3rd world countries.”
Interestingly, since Zhao’s article, a considerable amount of Chinese press has focussed in on this idea of a failure of Thai democracy. The RedNet article above, for example, was released 3 days after Zhao’s piece.
Finally, it would be remiss to not note what is clearly lacking from discussions in the past two weeks.
The first notable absence is discussion of the role of the king, and his high profile, status and influence upon Thai politics. As opposed to discussions on New Mandala and other sites, the “uneasy compromise between the people, the military and the palace” is left completely unmentioned.
The second notable absence is a discussion of the influence of the rural-urban socio-economic divide in Thai politics. Sheridan, for example, argued recently in a similar lament about Thai political governance in The Australian that “in Thailand, governments are made in the countryside and destroyed in the city due to Thailand’s central fault line between rich Bangkok and the rural poor”. With the notable exception of the Zhao Lingmin piece above, which makes an oblique reference at best, there is no discussion of any form of rural-urban socio-economic divide. Given China’s own problems in this area, this probably isn’t all that surprising.