‘Keep fighting’: the Thai student publishing house that stared down Chinese intimidation

Thai student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal began getting strange messages in-may offering him money to dissolve the publishing company he previously worked so hard to create. He ignored them, assuming it was a hoax, or an elaborate piece of trolling. After all, this individual was used to this type of attention after yrs as a prominent pro-democracy activist.

Netiwit has been a home name in Asia since his high school days, when their campaigns to change the country’s archaic education system produced national headlines. He then founded Sam Yan Press while learning political science in Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, working overtime to publish dozens of titles on topics as varied as municipal disobedience, socialism, urban planning and veganism.

Their student-run company provides sold thousands of textbooks across the country, helping to nourish a political waking up amongst Thai youngsters that would blossom in to the mass pro-democracy motion of 2020-2021. Great someone was providing him an entice to shut it all down, which a statement posted at the Sam Yan Press website said “posed a serious threat to our independence, security, and freedom of expression”.

Netiwit has been a thorn within the side of the Thailänder establishment for years. Designed for his activism, they have suffered harassment, legal charges and expulsion as head from the university’s student authorities. But as much as it will please the Thailänder government and their particular conservative supporters to see the end of Mike Yan Press, it had been not them seeking to close it down. According to Netiwit, it had been a Chinese resident who wanted rid of the publisher.  

The attempt to bribe Mike Yan Press represents anxieties over the usually corrupting effects of China’s growing wealth plus influence in the region. Regarding Netiwit and his peers at Sam Yan, taking the bribe might have been an acceptance of China’s increasingly authoritarian reach, plus they were not willing to give an inch.

A snapshot of the shelves of Sam Yan Press, displaying a book focusing on the suffering of the Uyghurs under the Chinese communist regime. Photo: supplied

Since it launched in 2017, Sam Yan Press has preserved a special focus on Tiongkok, publishing books on topics considered highly sensitive by the Chinese language regime, like the Hk protests, the status of Taiwan, plus policies towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And it would appear to Netiwit and his team which the Chinese Communist Party would prefer these very hot button issues not have to get discussed, even by a small, student-run book publisher in Asia.  

The first contact arrived by email, from a Thai private real estate agent who said he or she represented a Chinese businessman based in Thailand. When Netiwit failed to reply, the personal agent tried again by phone, having the offer. His Chinese client would give Sam Yan Push the considerable sum of $55, 000 (2 million Thai baht), if they agreed to close down the business.

Netiwit and the small team who seem to run the company made a decision to ignore the dubious proposal. Yet the private real estate agent persisted, sending a lot more messages, then finally showing up unannounced on the young activist’s home.

Feeling infringed upon, the particular Sam Yan Press team arranged a meeting at a Starbucks near their university, to resolve the matter once and for all. Right now there, the private realtor spent an hour endeavoring to persuade them to take the money and close up down their organization, which he mentioned would help their client win favour with the Chinese authorities. Sam Yan Press politely declined, detailing that it would not in favor of their principles.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s leaders are most focused on how the government will be viewed within Cina itself, ” mentioned Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the historian of modern China at the University associated with California, Irvine. “But it also does pay attention to its global popularity and is eager to be observed in a positive light, especially in the region and among members of the Chinese diaspora. ”

With around 7-10 million people, the Chinese diaspora in Asia is the largest on the planet. On a recent trip to Thailand for the APEC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “China and Asia are as close as one family. ” But ethnic Chinese language identity in Asia is complex and private. With fewer barriers to integration compared to regional neighbours such as Malaysia or Indonesia, the Thai-Chinese happen to be free to either treasure or shed their particular Chinese-ness over the generations.

China’s Chief executive Xi Jinping and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha cause for a photo throughout a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) peak in Bangkok, upon 19 November, 2022. Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/AFP

Netiwit, whose grandma and grandpa came to Thailand through Guangdong, seems to low fat into his Chinese ethnicity. His moniker, ’Franky Qin’, is a shortened version associated with his Chinese name, Qin Lian Feng. But he signifies a younger generation of Thai-Chinese who have a less good view of Tiongkok than their parents and grandparents. Multicultural and progressive, they prefer the cultures associated with Hong Kong and Taiwan, which they see as more open than the landmass. It’s not that they refuse their Chinese identification, but that they deny the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party, and are wary of its influence in the region.  

This sentiment has grown recently. Sales of Sam Yan’s first guide, about Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong, were poor. The particular political stand-off between China and Hong Kong seemed too far removed from life in Asia for people to worry about. But as young Thais watched the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests unfold online, their emotions started to change. This particular led to the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ trend; an online transnational democracy movement comprising Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Suddenly, the issues Netiwit had been talking about for a long time became more popular, and interest in Mike Yan Press guides spiked.

Protesters hold signs relating to the “Milk Green tea Alliance” during a demo against the military hen house in Yangon on 28 February, 2021. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

The Chinese language Embassy in Thailand issued a tetchy response to the Dairy Tea Alliance upon its facebook page, reaffirming the “One China” claims of sovereignty over Taiwan and dismissing “the recent online noises” as “bias and ignorance. ” Bellicose statements are common from Chinese officials, yet this is only one from the ways they attempt to enforce China’s story beyond its borders.  

“The Chinese authorities maintains extensive systems of assets and co-optees around the world, and Thailand is not likely to be an exception, ” said Alex Joske, author of Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Procedures Fooled the World . “These contacts could be involved in a range of activities, including political influence work designed to suppress opposition to China and taiwan and advance pro-China positions. ”

It’s difficult to know if the attempt to close Sam Yan Press was orchestrated by these systems, known as the United Front, or just one overzealous Chinese citizen acting independently. But Joske notes that “suppressing foreign dissident companies has been a top priority for the Chinese Communist Celebration in recent decades, and the Sam Yan Press case fits that general pattern’. ” 

The incident is usually “unusual but not totally isolated, ” Wasserstrom added. His  guide, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink had been translated into Thailänder by Sam Yan Press. “One can see it as part of the pattern that includes efforts to block showings of a film critical of the Chinese Communist Party and discouraging universities in different parts of the entire world from putting on events featuring dissidents in exile. ”

Although the negotiations between Sam Yan Press and the personal agent were beneficial, the situation left them feeling on advantage.

Jirapreeya Saeboo, the publisher’s managing editor, stated the decision to go open public about the incident had been for their safety. Pointing to the website of the private agent organization, Sky International Legal, she notes that will bodyguard protection and debt-collecting are detailed among the services it provides. It’s an unsavoury world that the 21-year-old student would clearly prefer not to be mixed up in.  

Latest headlines of Chinese organised crime operating in Thailand might have added to Jirapreeya’s problems. A series of ongoing research and high-profile raids have revealed an alleged network associated with Chinese organised crime in the country, with heavy pockets and potential links to well-placed Thai officials. Elsewhere, such networks are actually known to assist the Chinese Communist Celebration with its agenda.

“In countries such as Australia, Europe and Taiwan, supposed organised crime systems have documented overlap with United Front side organisations, ” Joske said. “As previous Chinese Minister associated with Public Security Tao Siju reportedly stated, ‘organised crime can be patriotic’ – the particular Chinese Communist Celebration appears to be happy to work together with criminal organisations provided that their interests are aligned. ” 

But the possible risks don’t deter Netiwit from their goal of building his own progressive transnational networks in the region. “Dictators study from each other, adopting exactly the same mechanisms of control and fear, ” he said.. “But we can learn from some other activists, too. We are able to learn about their techniques, their ideas, their spirit…about why they risk their life, and about what type of community they want to make take place. ” 

The solidarity from Thailand is well-received by Hong Kong active supporters and workers as well. Alex Chow, a prominent leader of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that saw tens of thousands of protesters take to the roads, said  “gaining transnational allies such as the Thai people reaffirms the moral cause of Hong Kongers who are battling for freedom and democracy. ” 

Supporters hold yellow-colored umbrellas after four pro-democracy activists had been sentenced at the Western Kowloon Magistrates Courtroom in Hong Kong on April 24, 2019, following their convictions on April nine on colonial-era ‘public nuisance’ charges for his or her role in the 2014 mass pro-democracy protests. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

Another core head of the Umbrella Movement, Nathan Law, provides that people in Hong Kong are “very thankful” that Thais focus on their struggle. Like so many who got part in the Hk protests, Law left his home to avoid reprisals from the Chinese government, and now lives in the UK. “The assistance from outside means a lot to us when it’s hard to protest inside Hk, ” he stated.

Title ‘Sam Yan’ describes the Bangkok neighborhood where the publisher is based, and alongside the big, far-reaching issues like authoritarianism in The far east, Netiwit and the group find time to emphasize smaller, more local concerns.    

Earlier this year, they published an oral history of the life span and memories associated with ‘Aunt Tiw’, the Thai 70-year older cook who has invested much of her life at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Politics Science. The book, which Aunt Tiw said she is “proud and pleased” to be part of, shows the way the university and the country have changed on the decades, as observed through the eyes of the ordinary person.  

Nevertheless at the draft stage is a book for the plight of a 150-year old shrine built by Thai-Chinese immigrants, which sits upon land owned simply by Chulalongkorn University. The particular shrine and its caretaker, 44-year-old Penprapa Ploysrisuay, are embroiled inside a protracted legal struggle with the university, who want to evict her and demolish the shrine to make way for a new high-rise development.

Netiwit continues to be helping Penprapa raise money and enhance the cause. “Frank is full of kindness, ” she said about Netiwit, using their nickname. “Without their help, nobody away from community would learn about what’s happening using the shrine. ”

Not long after turning down the cash to close Mike Yan Press, controlling editor Jirapreeya is usually busy packing up mail orders, which have poured in after media coverage of the incident. The small work place Sam Yan Press rent is decorated with pictures associated with Martin Luther Ruler, Joshua Wong, and also a Tibetan flag.

A bust of the iconic 1950s-1960s Thai activist, Chit Phumisak, sits on a well-stocked bookcase. Because she places the particular orders into the mailers, Jirapreeya admits the offer of such a wide range of cash was “alluring. ”  Sam Yan’s finances are precarious, and with money still to recoup from previous editions, the business is stuck with a backlog of new titles they can’t afford to print.

But Cousin Tiw said the particular attempt to bribe the publisher was wrong, and the team need to “keep fighting. ” Whether it’s within their local community in Sam Yan, or additional afield in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Netiwit and Sam Yan Press are advertising causes they have confidence in, and which are often underrepresented.

“I look around and I see the silence of the Thailänder media on the struggling of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, and I don’t want to be like that, ” stated Netiwit. “We are usually proud that our small publishers have contributed to changing the attitude of younger Thais on these topics. It is worth staying true to the principles. The work we now have done is priceless compared with money. ”