Pro-democracy publishing house in Thailand targeted for shutdown by Chinese buyer

Sam Yan Press refuses two-million-baht offer to dissolve itself and boost a businessman's standing with Beijing.
By Qiao Xinxin for RFA Mandarin
2022.10.28
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Pro-democracy publishing house in Thailand targeted for shutdown by Chinese buyer Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, founder of Sam Yan Publishing House, complained to Thailand's Matichon TV station that he was repeatedly threatened by CCP agents with bids of 2 million baht and the shutdown of the business.
Video screenshot

A pro-democracy publishing house in Thailand was approached by a Chinese businessman who wanted to pay it to shut down to boost his relationship with Beijing in the wake of the ruling Chinese Communist Party congress, its editors said in a statement.

A private investigation agency contacted Sam Yan Press in May with an offer of two million baht from a Chinese businessman who wanted to buy the company in order to shut it down, the publishing house said in a statement on its website dated Oct. 26.

"They said that the Chinese businessman was keen to make good relations with the Chinese government. We were in utter disbelief and thought it was a fraud. Therefore, we completely ignored the messages from the agency and continued with our causes," the statement, signed by the press' editorial board, said.

By September, the approaches had gotten far more persistent, with agency staff tracking Sam Yan Press founder and prominent Thai democracy activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal down at his home and at a Buddhist temple where he was in retreat as a monk.

"Our team members also received calls from the agency and more messages stating the urgency of this offer," the statement said. "This posed a serious threat to our independence, security, and freedom of expression."

The agency told the editors at Sam Yan Press in a face-to-face meeting that a Chinese businessman named as Huang Chengde was offering them two million baht in cash for an official letter stating that the press had been dissolved.

"We strongly rejected the offer, making it unmistakably clear that we would not be co-opted for the money," the editors said, adding that they will continue to translate and publish works in line with their core values of promoting democracy in Thailand.

"We encourage all press, media, and international publishing sectors to stand up against the regime’s attempt at censorship and resist the manipulation and domination of independent organizations," the statement said.

Chinese business owners in foreign countries have cropped up in the past as unofficial representatives of Beijing, especially where the Chinese Communist Party hopes to wield covert influence beyond its borders.

In 2019, Sweden's foreign ministry recalled its ambassador to China after she was accused of holding a meeting between two unnamed Chinese businessmen and the daughter of detained Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai without official authorization.

Ambassador Anna Lindstedt was later charged by Swedish prosecutors with "arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power," specifically linked to a meeting with Angela Gui during which she was "in contact with persons representing the interests of the Chinese State." 

Screenshots of the initial email to Sam Yan showed that it included the possibility of the publishing house restarting six months later under a new name.

The main motivation for the purchase was Huang's desire for "good relationship" with the Chinese government.

RFA contacted the Chinese embassy in Thailand for comment on the story, but no reply had been received by the time of writing.

Sam Yan was founded by a group of college students in 2017, and was a participant in the regional Milk Tea Alliance of pro-democracy movements and anti-Beijing protests.

It has published books by Hong Kong, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese authors, including 2014 Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong, late 2010 Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti.

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A recent tweet from Sam Yan Publishing House. Credit: RFA screenshot

Standing in solidarity

Milk Tea Alliance supporter Ken Wu, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), said progressive organizations should stand in solidarity with Sam Yan.

"Organizations like Sam Yan that promote democracy, freedom and human rights, and support anti-authoritarian movements like the Milk Tea Alliance are going to be rejected by a totalitarian state like the Chinese Communist Party," Wu told RFA.

"If totalitarian states get that powerful, they don't stop at limiting freedom of speech in their own country," he said. "They also extend their clutches overseas and try to totally eliminate anything that could threaten their stability."

Wu said Beijing likely fears regional publishers with a progressive bent, for fear that their books will find their way back to China.

China has jailed or detained several Hong Kong booksellers including Gui Minhai in recent years for selling political books banned in China to its citizens. Gui turned up in police custody in China after disappearing from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand.

Wu said that given the fact that Southeast Asian countries are typically economically dependent on Beijing, the attempt to take down a progressive Thai publishing house was "worrying."

A Chinese national currently seeking asylum at UNHCR in Bangkok, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said there has been a huge spike in Chinese espionage activities in Southeast Asia in recent years.

The Thai authorities have proven themselves willing to cooperate with Beijing in repatriating exiled dissidents, where they have gone on to face trial. 

Australia-based rights activist Lu Ruichao said making such scandals public is the only way to respond.

"Keep the electronic evidence, and if that's not available, take photos or video, and give it to the media and law enforcement agencies," Lu said.

Lu said he had been followed by several Chinese consular officials in Perth after attending an event marking the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre -- a taboo topic for Beijing -- in June 2020.

The officials had also tried to put pressure on local police to delete the report he made, prompting Lu to take the story to the local media.

Lu said he hasn't experienced anything similar since blowing the whistle on the incident.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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