Thailand’s detention of Joshua Wong shows how deeply some Southeast Asian nations are in China’s orbit

Standing up to China.
Standing up to China.
Image: EPA/Rungroj Yongrit
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Thai authorities yesterday (Oct. 5) detained Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong at Bangkok’s airport and barred him from attending an event at a university, drawing attention once more to how Thailand and some neighboring countries are increasingly bowing to China’s demands.

In response, some Thai citizens have been circulating a drawing on social media showing Thailand as an extension of China. The artist highlighted Taiwan in the drawing, a nod to comments by Thai student Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, who noted that the 19-year-old Hong Kong activist had no problems entering Taiwan earlier.

According to a statement by the Thai government, it received no direct order to arrest Wong, but the decision was taken to avoid an “escalation of political conflict” as Wong’s activism in other countries could “affect Thailand’s relations with other nations.”

The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand, cited an official at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport as saying that the request to arrest Wong came from China. Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Wong’s expulsion from Thailand was “China’s issue.” 

The incident comes after Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship, went missing last October in Thailand and later reappeared in China. In January, Chinese journalist Li Xin disappeared (paywall) while traveling from China to Thailand via Laos.

Writing after Gui’s disappearance, Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London, said that “we seem to be seeing a wholly new form of the Chinese state acting outside its borders in ways which are opaque, arbitrary, and worryingly predatory.”

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial, what happened in Thailand fits a “global pattern.” China’s long arm of the law has extended as far as Kenya and Armenia, where authorities deported suspected Taiwanese suspects of fraud to China. Beijing claims Taiwan as a Chinese province.

Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East Asia at Amnesty International, said that following violent protests in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, after which many Tibetans and Uighurs fled China for neighboring Nepal, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, China started to systematically put pressure on those countries.

It’s not illegitimate for China to demand the repatriation of people who have committed offences in that country, or who have committed crimes against Chinese citizens from abroad. The problem is the fact that the government systematically conflates criminal offences with the exercise of fundamental rights of freedom such as expression or assembly when it is critical of the Chinese government.

Thailand last year repatriated about 100 Uighurs from detention camps back to China. Laos and Cambodia had also sent Uighurs back to China in the past. Malaysia last year also barred pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, including Wong, from entering the country.  

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said that Southeast Asian countries are increasingly reliant on China’s aid and investment—which comes without criticism of human rights abuses, unlike that of the US or other Western countries. Cambodia, ruled by strongman Hun Sen, scuppered a statement critical of China’s position in the South China Sea at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting this summer, for example. In Thailand, where the military junta is increasingly cracking down on any form dissent, China’s influence may be of secondary importance, said Connelly.

“Would Thailand under Yingluck Shinawatra’s government have returned Joshua Wong? I’m not so sure,” said Connelly, referring to Thailand’s previous prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2014. “The key dynamic in Thailand isn’t so much China’s investment, but it’s first and foremost that it’s not a democratic government… but any ASEAN country would have been pretty receptive to banning Wong.”