Expats Abroad: Grim in Thailand, Hopeful in China

We often talk about questionable surveillance tactics in the western world here at LiquidVPN. From Stingrays to XKEYSCORE and other NSA and GCHQ programs there is quite a lot to be wary of. However, netizens of the western world feel safe from persecution for the most part. Disregarding of course, the sometimes harsh punishments handed down to people like Ross Ulbricht and Chelsea Manning, as well as the exile and attempts at character assassination of Edward Snowden.

Despite these trespasses by their governments, there is still plenty for westerners to be thankful for when it comes to the freedom of, albeit surveilled, internet browsing.

The following year will be very interesting for internet freedom: especially for expats abroad. Tensions are rising in the popular destination of Thailand, and doors may be opening for tech giants to re-enter, and expand, in China’s market.

Crackdown in Thailand

In a post a few months ago I talked about the woes of expats abroad, particularly Thailand, where I was living at the time. In that article I highlighted the explosion of blocked sites since 2006. Including their King’s Wikipedia page, the government has blocked over 22,000 URLs. Certain stories from BBC, CNN, and other respected news organizations have been known to be blocked as well.

Essentially it’s just a peg down from the Great Firewall of China. At least in Thailand you can still access Google, Facebook, and YouTube. Besides Thailand’s trigger happy firewall scheme they are also exceptionally harsh on those who violate the notorious lèse majesté law. Which forbids any negative comments about any of the royal family.

This is not without warrant, however, since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 the Thai people have been generally unhappy with their governance. In the past 83 years there have been 19 coups, of which 12 successfully overthrew the ruling government.

2014 was the most recent of those coups. After a month of political unrest in March, the military stepped in and declared martial law. Thailand immediately saw an uptick of arrests, especially of those critical of the monarchy. Martial law gave the military the power to detain suspects for up to a week without charges, force them to hand over passwords to social media accounts, and later hand down sentences of 10 years for a single offense. A single Facebook post, or blog entry.

In the prior seven years to the coup 75 people were investigated for lèse majesté, 27 for online activity. Since the martial law was initiated 53 people have been arrested and 40 of them for posting or even sharing comments online. With an overwhelming majority in both cases leading to charges.

Martial law was lifted in April of this year. But the subsequent decrease in arrests correlated to an increase emphasis on the efficiency of the courts. Not only have the cases proceeded with unprecedented speed but the harshness has been unparalleled as well.

In March the courts sentenced a man to 50 years in prison- 10 years each for 5 Facebook posts. Which was later cut in half after he was denied bail and pleaded guilty. To outdo themselves, on August 7, the government also sentenced a hotel worker to 56 years (cut in half for pleading guilty) for 7 Facebook posts. To set their personal best, later that same day they sentenced another man to 30 years after his sentence was cut in half.

An independent academic researcher of lèse majesté law from Khon Kaen, David Streckfuss said:

It’s trying to send the message that this is a taboo subject and that discussion of the monarchy will be punished at all costs

Although never receiving quite as harsh a punishment as Thai nationals, expats abroad- typically bloggers or journalists- have felt the wrath of lèse majesté laws as well. An American spent two and a half years in jail for his case, several other westerners have been jailed and or deported for their crimes in Thailand too.

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Expats Abroad

After depressing news in Thailand there is good news from a country in which there usually is none: China.

Tech giants, including Google which had a highly publicized feud with China in 2010, are trying to shoehorn their way back into China’s market.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is also trying to tap into the potential goldmine of China. Current monthly active users on the largest social media website is just slightly smaller than the entire population of China at 1.4 billion. Expats abroad should be pleased to know that he is doing his best to woo China into accepting Facebook.

Currently Facebook is on the wrong side of the Great Firewall of China. Any expats overseas that want to access Facebook have to go through a VPN like LiquidVPN in order to do so. Being able to freely access Facebook in China would do wonders for bumping membership and put Facebook out of reach of the competition. Not to mention also give Facebook a sizable increase in the stock market.

He’s giving it the all-American try. He did a full interview in Mandarin last October and also released a short video for Chinese new years in February of this year. Only time will tell if he is able to infiltrate the Great Firewall by learning Mandarin and recommending China President Xi Jinping’s latest book. Expats abroad, like myself, are keeping our fingers crossed.

Apple also has it’s gaze fixed at the world’s largest mobile market. In October of 2014 Tim Cook was quoted as saying that, “It’s only a matter of time,” until China brings in more revenue for Apple than any other country. Apple is rapidly expanding. In 2014 they planned to go from 15 to 40 stores in Greater China (a term that encompasses Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau along with the mainland) by 2016. Making Apple products more easily accessible can only be good news for expats abroad.

One of the biggest adaptations for expats when they move to China is not the smog, the different culture, or the ‘anything is food’ mentality that China has. No, no, the toughest thing for expats is learning to live without Google. Services like Google search, Gmail, Google maps, even official support for Android and the all-important YouTube find themselves next to Facebook: stuck behind the Great Firewall.

Progress is tangible on this front at least. Reports indicate that Google is partnered with ChinaPay in order to provide payments for their Google Play Store. Approval to open their store can come from the Chinese government as early as this fall. Expats abroad can only pray that this spells a potential return for the full suite of Google products and services- but there has been no movement on that as of yet.

feature image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

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