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2021/66 “Fighting COVID-19: China’s Soft Power Opportunities in Mainland Southeast Asia” by Chheang Vannarith

 

China has transformed the COVID-19 crisis into a window of opportunity to boost its soft power through sharing information and knowledge, providing medical supplies, deploying medical teams, and providing vaccines. In this picture, a staff member working in Beijing to produce a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at Sinovac, one of 11 Chinese companies approved to carry out clinical trials of potential coronavirus vaccines, on September 24, 2020. Photo: WANG ZHAO, AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • The COVID-19 pandemic provides a window of opportunity for China to exert its international leadership and influence. It has managed to turn the crisis into a diplomatic and strategic opportunity in mainland Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
  • Public health diplomacy has become one of the key sources of China’s soft power projection, enhancing China’s image and influence.
  • In mainland Southeast Asia, the Chinese government’s effective measures to curb the pandemic outbreak at home and the provision of COVID-19 assistance to regional countries have enhanced China’s soft power.
  • This is even though it is clear that China’s intentions are not completely altruistic, and it has other strategic intentions with regards to these measures.
  • Cambodia and Laos have been most receptive to China’s public health diplomacy, including its vaccine diplomacy, while Thailand and Myanmar also have welcomed Chinese assistance. Vietnam has been reluctant to endorse China’s COVID-19 assistance, including Chinese vaccines.

* Chheang Vannarith is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and President of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of the century. It acutely affects human lives and livelihoods, exacerbates inequalities, pushing millions more into poverty, and accentuates geopolitical competition. In addition, the politicisation of the pandemic in the form of a blame game ramped up especially in the first half of 2020. China was criticised, mainly in the US and Europe, for lack of transparency in handling the pandemic. In the Southeast Asian region, China received positive reactions for the decisive, swift and effective response to the pandemic. Southeast Asian countries were among the first to offer political, diplomatic, and humanitarian aid to China. Remarkably, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Beijing on February 5, 2020 to show spiritual and diplomatic support to the Chinese government and people in the fight against the pandemic.

To restore its international image, rigorous public diplomacy and concrete actions on the ground have been implemented by China. After stabilising the situation at home, Beijing started providing COVID-19 assistance to other countries and regions. This article assesses the implications of its COVID-19 assistance on China’s soft power projection in Mainland Southeast Asia. It argues that the pandemic created a strategic opportunity for China to exert soft power in Mainland Southeast Asia through health diplomacy. In general, China’s soft power received a needed leg-up in the region. 

COVID-19 AND CHINA’S SOFT POWER

According to a survey carried out by Pew Research Centre in October 2020, unfavourable views of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing. Across the 14 countries surveyed (Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and other European countries), a median of 61% expressed dissatisfaction with China’s way of dealing with the outbreak.[1] Information operations, especially by the US, were carried out to challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China. To counteract this offensive, China launched a communication initiative, mainly in the realm of public health diplomacy.

Southeast Asia has become the most fertile ground for China in crafting narratives to support its image building and its handling of the pandemic.[2] China has a strong basis for its soft power projection in Southeast Asia, given that these countries are attracted to China’s material resources.[3] Economic resources, cultural assets and technological innovations are the main sources of China’s soft power. Southeast Asian countries have high economic stakes in their relationship with China, which explains why they have stood firmly with China in combating the pandemic. Southeast Asian leaders protested against the politicisation of the pandemic and called for international cooperation and solidarity in which the World Health Organisation (WHO) plays a key role. At the special foreign ministers’ meeting on 14 February 2020, ASEAN expressed “full confidence in China’s abilities to succeed in overcoming the epidemic”.[4] According to the survey on ASEAN perception carried out by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, China is seen as having provided the most assistance to the region during the pandemic.[5]

China designed a humanitarian plan to gain a geopolitical advantage,[6] and has managed to transform the COVID-19 pandemic into a strategic opportunity to assert its leadership role and expand its geopolitical influence. Health diplomacy has become an important tool to project China’s image as a responsible and benign global power.[7] This could of course only be implemented after China had successfully curbed the outbreak at home. Obviously, China’s global influence through soft power projection will be more dynamic in the post-COVID-19 era,[8] but more resources and efforts are needed to better communicate and tell China’s story.[9] China’s overall image in Southeast Asia, according to the survey by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, declined slightly in 2020.[10] It means that although China did well in public health diplomacy, its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, and the perceived risks stemming from overreliance on China, affected China’s soft power status.

MAINLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA FACING THE PANDEMIC

Mainland Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), which were believed to be the most vulnerable to the viral outbreak due to its geopolitical proximity to, and intensive people-to-people contacts with China, have managed the COVID-19 pandemic rather well, measured in terms of number of infections and mortality rate. The economic impact of the pandemic has been monumental. The overall economic performance in 2020 was at its lowest in decades. Thailand was badly hit, with a contraction of 6.1 percent, followed by Cambodia at 3.1 percent, and Lao PDR at 2.5 percent. Myanmar and Vietnam manage positive growth at 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent respectively. 

Thailand was the first country in Mainland Southeast Asia to declare its first infection case on January 13 (a Chinese woman from Wuhan), followed by a confirmed case in Vietnam on January 23 (a Vietnamese woman returning from Wuhan). Cambodia was next, with its first case recorded on January 27 – a Chinese man from Wuhan. Myanmar and Lao PDR were surprisingly spared from pandemic infections until March. Lao reported its first two cases, two Laotians working in the travel and tourism industry, on March 14, while Myanmar reported its first two confirmed cases on March 23 – two  Burmese men, one returning from the United States, and the other from the United Kingdom

Across the region, there have been several waves or spikes of infections. In Cambodia, there were three small infection spikes in 2020 and one big surge from the third wave of community transmission on 20 February. Lao PDR had only an infection spike, which was on November 23 with 14 new cases. Myanmar experienced an abrupt high rate of infections with 100 new cases on September 6, to an average of more than 1,000 daily new cases from October 4 to December 22. Thailand experienced two big spikes from late March to early April with the highest rate of new cases at 143 being on March 29, and from late December 2020 to January 2021 with the resurgence with 809 cases on 21 December. Vietnam had four small spikes in late March with 15 new cases on March 30, 17 cases on May 7, 49 cases on 31 July, and 16 cases on November 15.

The measures adopted by the five governments in Mainland Southeast Asia include restrictions on the movement of people, surveyance and contact tracing, targeted testing (testing individuals with signs or symptoms and asymptomatic individuals with recent known or suspected exposure). A whole-of-society approach, effective crisis leadership, inter-agency coordination, enhancement of healthcare systems, and evidence-based decision making with technical support and cooperation from the World Health Organisation and international organisations have contributed to effective response mechanism. Across the region, the approval rate (approve and strongly approve) of the government’s response to the pandemic is quite high with about 80 percent in Cambodia, about 55 percent in Laos, about 42 percent in Myanmar, about 45 percent in Thailand, and about 97 per cent in Vietnam.[11]

CHINA’S COVID-19 ASSISTANCE

China has played a critical role in offering medical information and supplies such as PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), facemasks, and test kits. and deploying medical teams to Southeast Asian countries to combat the pandemic; some have called this assistance “face mask diplomacy” or “COVID-19 diplomacy”. Overall, China has harvested significant political leverage from this in the region. Its image in Cambodia has definitely improved.[12]

China sent its first anti-epidemic medical team and medical supplies including test kits to Cambodia on 23 March. It was the first international COVID-19 assistance it offered. Then on March 13 and 25, China donated medical supplies and masks and PPE to Vietnam and Thailand respectively. On April 8 and 9, a Chinese medical team arrived in Myanmar and Lao PDR respectively, together with other medical supplies. There were a few more rounds of Chinese assistance after that, particularly to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar.

China’s COVID-19 assistance has been integrated into the narrative on the country’s grand vision of building a community with a shared future. For instance, on March 22, the Communist Party of China sent a congratulatory message to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of its establishment. The message read, “following the outbreak of the COVID-19 in China, the Lao party, government and all sectors of Lao society lost no time in expressing sympathy and solicitude to China for providing financial and material assistance, well embodying the spirit of the China-Laos community with a shared future.”[13]

Chinese companies also donated financial assistance to the region. The Alibaba Foundation, Jack Ma Foundation, and Huawei launched global campaigns to provide medical assistance. At the national level, Chinese companies which had invested in Mainland Southeast Asia also donated resources to support national governments. In Myanmar, for instance, China’s State Power Investment, Pengxin, Hengyi, CITIC Group, and China Communication Constructions donated medical supplies worth about USD2 million.[14] Chinese NGOs also joined China’s mission in offering humanitarian assistance to regional countries. On May 4,  Blue Sky Rescue Team, one of the non-governmental organizations (NGO) in China, sent a team of 10 volunteers and donated medical supplies to Cambodia to help fight the pandemic.[15]

China’s health diplomacy has been boosted by its information and communication strategy. The Chinese embassies, state-owned media, and think tanks have coordinated in structurally advancing China’s COVID-19 diplomacy. The Chinese embassies were unprecedentedly very active in sharing information concerning China’s responses to the pandemic, assistance to other countries, and the call for international solidarity in the fight against the pandemic. China Daily created a special section on “Fighting the COVID-19 the Chinese Way”, People’s Daily has a similar section called “Fight the Novel Coronavirus”, and China Global Television Network created a section on “COVID-19 Frontline”.

REACTIONS FROM MAINLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA

In terms of strategic trust and partnership, from the Chinese perspective, Cambodia and Lao PDR are in the first tier, Myanmar and Thailand in the second, and Vietnam in the third. Cambodia and Lao PDR are staunch supporters of China’s regional initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), while Myanmar and Thailand are somewhat more cautious towards China. Vietnam is very cautious of China’s intentions in the region, and has, for instance, shown a degree of resistance to the BRI[16] and opposed China’s proposal to form a regional secretariat for the LMC.

In the wake of the pandemic outbreak in early 2020, Cambodia did not impose any restrictions on travellers from China. Prime Minister Hun Sen even planned to visit Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic; but due to high health risk, he could only visit Beijing on February 5. During that visit, he met President Xi Jinping to show support to the Chinese government and people in the fight against the pandemic. This was regarded as a vote of confidence in the Chinese leadership, which was then under strong international criticism.[17] During the visit, he said Cambodia would stand with China in all circumstances and work together to combat against the pandemic.[18]

The Lao government highly appreciated China’s COVID-19 assistance such as information sharing, capacity building, and the provision of medical supplies.[19] Bounnhang Vorachith, General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Central Committee and President of Laos said China’s assistance truly reflected the “time-honoured close friendship and the brotherly and comradely relationship of cooperation and mutual assistance between the two parties, countries and peoples, and vividly demonstrates the spirit of the Laos-China community with a shared future”.[20]

Myanmar President U Win Myint also expressed his appreciation of China’s assistance in the fight against the pandemic, and articulated his confidence in the leadership of the Chinese government in controlling the pandemic.[21] He pledged to advance and deepen the China-Myanmar Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership,[22] and build a community with a shared future.[23]At the reception of the fourth batch of medical supplies from China on June 9, Union Minister for Health and Sports Myint Htwe said China’s assistance significantly helped Myanmar in the prevention, treatment and control of the COVID-19 pandemic.[24]

While government leaders praise China’s assistance, some local analysts, however, raised concern over the increasing influence of China in the country. U Maw Htun Aung, Myanmar country manager of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, said Chinese humanitarian assistance aimed to foster China’s influence in the country, while Chinese companies tried to assure political support and enhance their public image. “China is seeking both political and economic gain by promising economic support and delivering aid to Myanmar in a time of crisis. They know that Myanmar needs both”, he added. Another analyst Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, the head of the China desk at the Institute for Strategy and Policy, argued that Chinese aids serve to project China as a benign power and a responsible member of the global community. “This aid to some extent can help China expand its political influence in the recipient countries,” she added.[25]

Thailand-China bilateral relations emerged stronger during the pandemic. During a phone conversation with a Chinese diplomat in Bangkok on 17 March 2020, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that “bilateral ties will emerge even stronger in this joint campaign against the virus”. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Anutin said that China’s assistance exemplified the special friendship of “Thai and China as one family”. He shared the view that the bilateral relationship would be more consolidated.[26] In addition, at the reception of medical supplies donated by China in June 2020, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the long-standing relationship with China would continue in all aspects, including social, cultural and economic ties.[27] At the meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on October 15, Prayut appreciated China for making the COVID-19 vaccine a “global public good” and pledged to build the Silk Road of Health and support the synergies and connectivity between the “Eastern Economic Corridor” with the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.[28] In April 2020, Chuan Leekpai, President of the National Assembly of Thailand, thanked China for helping Thailand and looked forward to welcoming Chinese tourists as soon as the pandemic situation improved.[29]

In January 2021, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc praised China’s fight against the pandemic at home and abroad. He said that learning from its experience in handling Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), China would secure an early victory against the epidemic.[30] Although Vietnam and China have forged cooperation on the COVID-19, deep distrust remains.[31] A Vietnamese government official reportedly said that “the Chinese government won’t give out accurate numbers, so we can’t simply accept what they tell us.”[32] The pandemic crisis accentuates the competition between Vietnam and China, from sovereignty disagreements in the South China Sea to economic disputes.[33]

China’s vaccine diplomacy in promoting vaccine multilateralism since late 2020 and making vaccine a global public good, has been applauded. To some analysts, China’s vaccine diplomacy aims to “increase China’s global influence and iron out…geopolitical issues” or “advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea”.[34]Addressing the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit in August 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged that China would prioritise providing COVID-19 vaccines to Mainland Southeast Asian countries.[35] The regional countries have responded positively, except for Vietnam which seeks other sources of vaccine.

In January 2021, Thailand announced plans to purchase two million doses of Sinovac vaccine. There are three phases of delivery: 200,000 doses to arrive by February 2021, another 800,000 doses to arrive by March, and 1 million in April. In January, China promised Myanmar 300,000 doses of vaccines. In February, Lao PDR received 300,000 doses of vaccines developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm). Cambodia has received 1.3 million doses of vaccine from China (which arrived in March and April) and is going to receive another 1 million doses in 2021. Vietnam is reluctant to administer Chinese vaccines, with some leaders raising concerns over transparency and legitimacy relating to China’s vaccine diplomacy in the region,[36] while others remain sceptical of China’s intentions.[37]

CONCLUSION

China has transformed the COVID-19 crisis into a window of opportunity to boost its soft power through sharing information and knowledge, providing medical supplies, deploying medical teams, and providing vaccines. China’s soft power has been slightly enhanced, based on the perception of policy makers or ruling elites, and its geopolitical influence has increased in Mainland Southeast Asia. The regional countries have applauded and appreciated China for successfully curbing the pandemic outbreak, for the provision of COVID-19 assistance, and for the promotion of vaccine diplomacy. Nevertheless, there are some concerns with regard to China’s strategic intentions.

Cambodia and Lao PDR are the most receptive to China’s assistance, without much questioning of China’s strategic intention. Thailand and Myanmar are also positive towards China, while Vietnam remains the most sceptical towards China’s regional intention, due to the lingering tensions in the South China Sea and relatively high anti-China national sentiments in Vietnam. The prospect of China’s soft power in the region will continue to rise thanks to its economic resources and to its coalition building on international issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are remaining concerns over China’s strategic intentions. Although China is generally regarded as the most influential economic power in the region, its growing assertive or even dominant behaviour will produce a backflow to its goodwill diplomacy and soft power projection.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/66, 10 May 2021


ENDNOTES

[1] Silver, Laura; Devlin, Kat; and Huang, Christine (2020) Unfavourable views of China reach historic highs in many countries. Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries

[2] Lye, Liang Fook (2020) The fight against COVID-19: China’s shifting narrative and Southeast Asia. ISEAS Perspective No. 26. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

[3] Xi, Jinrui and Primiano, Christopher (2020) China’s influence in Asia: How do individual perceptions matter? East Asia (Piscataway) June 2, 1-22.

[4] ASEAN Secretariat, https://asean.org/storage/2020/02/ASEAN-China-SFMM-Statement-on-COVID-19-20-Feb-2020-Final.pdf

[5] ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (2021) The state of Southeast Asia, /wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf

[6] Dorman, David (2020) China’s global COVID-19 assistance is humanitarian and geopolitical. That’s why people are worried. Security Nexus, April 2020. The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, p.4.

[7] Gauttam, Priya; Singh, Bawa; and Kaur, Jaspal (2020) COVID-19 and Chinese Global Health Diplomacy: Geopolitical Opportunity for China’s Hegemony. Millennial Asia 11 (3), 318-340.

[8] Soft power here refers to positive image development and the persuasive influence on the perception and decision making of others.

[9] Gill, Bates (2020) China’s global influence: Post-COVID prospects for soft power. The Washington Quarterly 43 (2), 97-115.

[10] ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (2021) The state of Southeast Asia, /wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf

[11] ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (2021) The state of Southeast Asia, /wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf

[12] Luo, Jing Jing and Un, Kheang (2020) Cambodia: Hard landing for China’s soft power? ISEAS Perspective No. 111, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

[13] Lintner, Bertil (2020, April 10) China comes to the Covid-19 rescue in Laos. Asia Times, https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/china-comes-to-the-covid-19-rescue-in-laos

[14] Tower, Jason (2020, May 27) China using pandemic aid to push Myanmar economic corridor. United Sates Institute of Peace (USIP). https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/05/china-using-pandemic-aid-push-myanmar-economic-corridor

[15] Xinhua News (2020, May 4) China’s humanitarian NGO sent volunteers and donates medical supplies for COVID-19 fight, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/04/c_139029746.htm

[16] Vu, Van-Hoa, Soong Jenn-Jaw, and Nguyen, Khac-Nghia (2020) Vietnam’s perceptions and strategies toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative expansion: Hedging with resisting. The Chinese Economy. DOI: 10.1080/10971475.2020.1809818

[17] Lye Liang Fook (2020, February 10) “Hun Sen’s China visit: Love in the time of Coronavirus”, ISEAS Commentary  /media/commentaries/hun-sens-china-visit-love-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-by-lye-liang-fook

[18] People’s Daily (2020, February 4) World leaders speak highly of support China’s efforts in fighting novel coronavirus, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0205/c90000-9654214.html

[19] Xinhua (2020, April 20)  https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185340.shtml

[20] CGTN (2020, June 15)  https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-06-15/Xi-China-ready-to-strengthen-anti-pandemic-cooperation-with-the-Laos-Rlwjdoai2I/index.html

[21] People’s Daily (2020, February 4) World leaders speak highly of, support China’s efforts in fighting novel coronavirus, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0205/c90000-9654214.html

[22] Chan, Mya Htwe (2020, May 21) China assures Myanmar of support in Covid-19 fight. Myanmar Times. https://www.mmtimes.com/news/china-assures-myanmar-support-covid-19-fight.html

[23] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2020, June 8) https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1787364.shtml

[24] Xinhua (2020, June 9) China donates more medical supplies to Myanmar to fight against COVID-19,  http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0609/c90000-9698996.html

[25] Nan, Lwin (2020, April 24) In Myanmar, Concerns that China’s help on Covid-19 comes with strings attached. The Irrawaddy. https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/analysis/myanmar-concerns-chinas-help-covid-19-comes-strings-attached.html

[26] Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to Thailand, http://www.chinaembassy.or.th/eng/sgxw/t1757986.htm

[27] Xinhua (2020, June 29) China donates medical equipment to Thailand to stem Covid-19. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-06/29/c_139175892.htm

[28] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1824958.shtml

[29] CGTN (2020, April 24) https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-04-24/COVID-19-Frontline-Doctors-from-China-and-Thailand-share-experience-PWZFIVwxQk/index.html

[30] People’s Daily (2020, January 31) World leaders positively evaluate, support China’s fight against virus outbreak, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0131/c90000-9652933.html

[31] Pham, Bac and Murray, Bennett (2020, May 14) Behind Vietnam’s Covid-19 response, deep distrust of China. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/behind-vietnams-covid-19-response-deep-distrust-of-china

[32] Yoichi, Funabashi (2020, August 3) ‘China Literacy’: Vietnam’s key to combatting Covid-19. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/08/10/commentary/china-literacy-vietnam-coronavirus

[33] Marjani, Niranjan (2020, August 7) Covid-19 drives economic, strategic competition between China and Vietnam. ASEAN Today. https://www.aseantoday.com/2020/05/covid-19-drives-economic-strategic-competition-between-china-and-vietnam

[34] Straits Times (2020, December 10) China’s vaccine diplomacy: A global charm offensive. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/chinas-vaccine-diplomacy-a-global-charm-offensive

[35] Xinhua News (2020, August 24) China to prioritize Mekong countries for COVID-19 vaccine. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-08/24/c_139313619.htm 

[36] Khairulanwar Zaini (2021) Chinese vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia seeds goodwill but has limited strategic gains. Chanel News Asia, 21 March 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/chinese-vaccine-diplomacy-sinovac-sinopharm-southeast-asia-14443682

[37] Yang, Lizhong and Chen, Dingding (2021) Is China’s Covid-19 diplomacy working in Southeast Asia? The Diplomat, 20 February 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/is-chinas-covid-19-diplomacy-working-in-southeast-asia

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2021/24 “Thailand’s First Provincial Elections since the 2014 Military Coup: What Has Changed and Not Changed” by Punchada Sirivunnabood

 


Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, attends a press conference in Bangkok on January 21, 2021, after he was accused of contravening Thailand’s strict royal defamation lese majeste laws. In December 2020, the Progressive Movement competed for the post of provincial administrative organisations (PAO) chairman in 42 provinces and ran more than 1,000 candidates for PAO councils in 52 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. Although Thanathorn was banned from politics for 10 years, he involved himself in the campaign through the Progressive Movement. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA, AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • On 20 December 2020, voters across Thailand, except in Bangkok, elected representatives to provincial administrative organisations (PAO), in the first twinkle of hope for decentralisation in the past six years.
  • In previous sub-national elections, political parties chose to separate themselves from PAO candidates in order to balance their power among party allies who might want to contest for the same local positions.
  • In 2020, however, several political parties, including the Phuea Thai Party, the Democrat Party and the Progressive Movement (the successor of the Future Forward Party) officially supported PAO candidates. This suggests that parties now may prefer to have a closer connection with local politicians.
  • The Progressive Movement won only 17 per cent of PAO council races in the provinces in which it contested. Each of the group’s candidates for PAO chairman lost.
  • The Phuea Thai Party faced a challenge in the strategic province of Chiang Mai, the home turf of the Shinawatra family. The party won only 9 of the 25 races for PAO chairman it contested nationwide, including in Chiang Mai.
  • Candidates from local political dynasties and families continued to secure seats both on PAO councils and as PAO chairmen.

* Punchada Sirivunnabood is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of Mahidol University and Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

INTRODUCTION

On 20 December 2020, Thais went to the polls to vote for Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO) councils and chairmen, in the country’s first sub-national electoral exercise since the 2014 coup. PAOs are responsible for public services such as roads, bridges, sewage systems and electricity at the provincial level. While they do not enjoy police powers, they issue local regulations, approve development and budget plans, and scrutinise local administrators, in addition to promoting tourism, preserving natural resources and supporting education and culture. In 76 provinces outside Bangkok, voters were required to cast two ballots in local elections: one to vote for the chairman of the PAO and the other to vote for a member of the PAO’s legislative council. The number of PAO council members varies by province, with between 24 and 48 seats depending upon a province’s population.[1] In the December 2020 elections, more than 300 candidates competed for PAO chairman in 76 provinces, and 8,000 ran for seats on PAO councils. Buriram saw the most candidates, eight for PAO chief and 344 for the council, and Phetchaburi province had the fewest candidates, one and 33 respectively.

The results were not surprising, in that many provincial strongmen, especially candidates representing political dynasties or so-called “Big Houses” (ban yai), were able to secure their seats. Nevertheless, these elections mark a new chapter for local politics in Thailand, featuring a number of losses for Phuea Thai Party members who had controlled politics in their respective provinces for years, the increasing role of national parties in PAO elections and the disappointment of the Progressive Movement—a political vehicle that emerged from the now dissolved Future Forward Party elections. The victories of that party in the 2019 national elections did not translate into success for the Progressive Movement’s 42 candidates for PAO chairman.

THE 2020 PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS IN THAILAND

Provincial strongmen and political families, many without clear loyalties to national parties have dominated “local” electoral politics in Thailand.[2] Candidates from these backgrounds often depend on their capacity to distribute resources and favours, and thus to improve the lives of voters, for electoral success. The law does not require candidates in sub-national elections to affiliate with national parties. Candidates can run individually or set up ad hoc political teams to compete in the elections. Before the 2020 PAO elections, candidates often unofficially affiliated with national parties. The unofficial nature of these connections notwithstanding, links among parties, parliamentarians and local politicians are nevertheless often strong. Many politicians active at the sub-national level share a surname with MPs or ministers.[3] Many national parties avoid direct participation in sub-national politics, because several groups of party members may choose to run for the same local posts. Rather than sponsor one group and risk alienating other party allies, parties often opt not to support any group directly in sub-national elections.

The 2020 provincial polls were the first time that many parties officially fielded candidates who campaigned under their party banners.[4] The Progressive Movement competed in 42 provinces, Phuea Thai in 25 provinces, and the Democrats in two provinces. Phalang Pracharat and Bhumjaithai preferred to eschew formal campaigns with party branding, even as several closely affiliated candidates ran in the PAO elections. For example, in Chainat Province, Anusorn Nakasai, the brother of Phalang Pracharat secretary-general Anucha Nakasai, won a PAO chairmanship. In Phayao, the brother of Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Promphao contested for PAO chairman and triumphed. In Samut Prakan, veteran songstress Nantida Kaewbuasai, backed by her ex-husband former municipal mayor and Phalang Pracharat supporter Chonsawat Asavahame, defeated other candidates for PAO chief. The Asavahame family supported seven candidates to contest in the 2019 general election under the Phalang Pracharat banner, including Akarawut Asavahame and Krung Sivirai. Sic of those candidates won seats. And in Sa Kaew Province, a member of the long locally influential Tientong family defeated another family member for PAO chief.

PAO elections are very competitive, as the organisations have access to large budgets and considerable additional resources. Table 1 shows the budgets allocated by the central government to major PAOs in 2019 and 2020.

Table 1: Budgetary Allocations to Major PAOs in 2019 and 2020

(figures in millions of Thai baht).[5]

After decentralisation initiatives launched in 1997, there were many reports of assassinations targeting local politicians and their family members in daily newspapers. According to Nuttakorn Vittanon, between 2000 and 2009 alone, there were 481 assassination attempts on sub-national politicians.[6] Before last December’s provincial pools, local electoral competition had resulted in the murder of several politicians.[7] These developments have led to the perception that sub-national politics in Thailand are ‘bloody’ politics and simply competitions between local mafias.

In the 2020 provincial elections, the local political situation was no different from the past, as local “persons of influence” (phu mi itthiphon) or members of local elites played a strong role nationwide. The use of vote canvassers was prevalent, and canvassers or hua kanaen were arrested for alleged vote-buying in several provinces.[8] Even though Thailand has moved towards more policy-driven politics at the national level, the patronage system and vote-canvassers continue to drive sub-national elections.

PHUEA THAI AND THAKSIN IN THE 2020 PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS

In the recent PAO elections, Phuea Thai fielded candidates for PAO chairman in 25 provinces. Only nine of these candidates secured their seats. In the Northeastern region, where Phuea Thai controlled a large number of parliamentary seats, its candidates for the PAO chairman won in only four provinces: Udonthani, Yasothon, Ubon Ratchathani and Mukdahan. In the North, Phuea Thai candidates won in five provinces: Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Phrae, Lamphun and Nan. The party lost all races for PAO chairman which it contested in the Central region.[9]

While Phuea Thai may have lost some of its previous influence in local elections, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra asserted his influence in a tight race for the PAO chairmanship in Chiang Mai. From exile, Thaksin threw his support behind Pichai Lertpongadsiron, the candidate that Phuea Thai endorsed. Chiang Mai, as Thaksin’s home province and a Phuea Thai stronghold, is an important strategic area for the party. This factor probably played into Thaksin’s decision to publicly back Pichai, a former senator. Pichai’s principal opponent was Boonlert Booranupakorn, a two-time Chiang Mai PAO chairman running independently but with the support of Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan.[10] Boonlert was suspended from the post of Chiang Mai PAO chairman by order of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta in 2016 after he was linked to a campaign against the junta’s draft constitution. He was reappointed PAO chairman in June 2018. Jatuporn claimed that Boonlert was a real democratic fighter and that Phuea Thai should not abandon him by supporting another candidate in the PAO election.

To support Pichai, Thaksin wrote an open letter in Northern Thai on 3 December, stating that if his home province’s voters were to abandon him, he would “feel very upset”[11]. Later, he also tweeted messages and gave a rare public statement in video clips to urge voters to support Pichai. Thaksin’s support apparently played a role; Pichai defeated his rival Boonlert. Thaksin also wrote a letter to encourage people to vote for Visaradee Techathirawat in her race for the PAO chairmanship in the neighbouring province of Chiang Rai. His messages appeared in Visaradees’s election campaign materials, including in her leaflets.[12] In contrast to what happened in Chiang Mai, however, Visaradee lost her race to a long-time Chiang Rai PAO council member, Athitathorn Wanchaithanawong.

Thaksin’s intervention showed his continued popularity among Chiang Mai voters, though his support could not secure Visaradee’s seat in Chiang Rai. Phuea Thai itself won only nine of the PAO chairman seats it contested. Its losses may be the consequence of its weakening at the local level after a long suspension of sub-national elections and the lack of interest among Phuea Thai top leaders in joining rallies organized by its candidates in other regions, especially in the Northeast or Isan. Many Phuea Thai PAO candidates in Isan turned to Sudarat Keyuraphan, a former chairwoman of Phuea Thai Party’s strategic committee, who resigned from the party in November 2020, to back their campaigns.[13] The Thaksin brand may still be a marketing tool to attract voters both in local and national elections. The question is whether the Phuea Thai brand can remain successful in both local and national elections in the future if the party distances itself further from Thaksin.

NEW CHALLENGES FOR THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT

The Progressive Movement, a successor organisation to the Future Forward Party, competed in provincial elections.[14] Under the leadership of Future Forward founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the movement competed for the post of PAO chairman in 42 provinces and ran more than 1,000 candidates for PAO councils in 52 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. Although Thanathorn was banned from politics for 10 years, he involved himself in the campaign through the Progressive Movement. The movement managed to win only 55 seats in 18 provinces and lost all its contests for PAO chairman. Since its inception, one of the Progressive Movement’s major goals has been to act as a platform in order to compete in sub-national elections across the country. Thanathorn said before the December elections that the Progressive Movement “must win in a landslide”.[15] The results of the polls for PAO chairmen showed, however, that the Progressive Movement could garner only 17 per cent or 2.67 million votes in the 42 provinces in which it fielded candidates. This total was only slightly different from the number of votes that the Future Forward Party won in the 2019 general election in the same 42 provinces—3,183,163 votes or 16.2 per cent of votes cast.[16] The group thus claimed that, since advance voting and the use of absentee ballots were not possible in sub-national elections, it had nevertheless done quite well in maintaining its support in those provinces. [17]

Although the Progressive Movement failed to win any PAO chairmanship, it did secure 55 seats on PAO councils in 18 provinces. (See Table 2)

Table 2: Numbers of successful Progressive Movement candidates for PAO councils, December 2020[18]

Source: Election Commission of Thailand 2020.

Thanathorn admitted that his speeches before the provincial elections on the reform of the monarchy had been a particularly sensitive issue with Thai voters. This issue may have negatively affected voters’ decisions on whether to support the Progressive Movement. Voters in sub-national election have a keen interest in policies relating to the improvement of the quality of their lives rather than concerns such as constitutional amendment or the reform of the monarchy. The December elections thus suggest the maintenance of the status quo in Thai politics, in which sub-national elections have a different emphasis from national ones.

The UPCOMING GUBERNATORIAL ELECTION IN BANGKOK

Gubernatorial elections in Bangkok are expected this year. Incumbent Governor Police General Aswin Kwanmuang, a former deputy national police chief, was installed by the NCPO in 2016, after the military regime ousted Sukhumbhand Paribatra from the position. Sukhumbhand was suspended from office by NCPO which cited him as being involved in corruption relating to projects managed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. Under the unelected governor’s leadership, however, Bangkok’s problems have remained unresolved. PM 2.5 pollution[19] returns to many areas every year. Bangkok continues to experience flooding after heavy rains, and road construction causing heavy traffic jams is seen in every part of the city. A democratic election for the post of Bangkok governor may be what is needed to restore accountability.

Three candidates, one independent candidate and two linked to the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party, are reportedly preparing to contest the Bangkok gubernatorial elections in 2021. Former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt was approached earlier by Phuea Thai leadership to run for the position. However, he declined to join Phuea Thai and will run independently, not under any party’s banner. Chadchart did not wish to protract political conflicts, and running as an independent would also allow him to attract more allies.[20] Chadchart is quite popular among younger Bangkokians and is viewed by Phalang Pracharat as a competitive candidate.[21]

Another two potential candidates, each of whom may run under the Phalang Pracharat Party banner, are former national police chief Police General Chakthip Chaijinda, and incumbent Bangkok Governor Aswin.

Former national police chief Chakthip, who is close to the government of current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, has not officially announced yet whether he will run independently or under the Phalang Pracharat banner. He has reportedly received strong support from party leader Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and from another influential party actor, Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao.[22]

The second candidate is Aswin Kwanmuang. He also has close connections with Prawit Wongsuwan and Prayut, and previously served as a Bangkok deputy governor.

Between these two candidates, Chakthip Chaijinda has the better chance of winning Phalang Pracharat’s support. Aswin’s ineffectiveness during his time as governor of the Thai capital means that his prospects for winning the party’s endorsement are slim. As Phalang Pracharat is seeking a suitable candidate to compete against Chadchart, Chaktip is a better choice since his former role as national police chief has made him well known to Bangkok voters.

Should either of these two candidates run as independents, they may split the pro-government vote—a major consideration in Bangkok elections. If the pro-democracy camp, including Phuea Thai, the Move Forward Party[23] and the Progressive Movement work collectively to contest this election, individual pro-government candidates will face a high risk of losing. On the other hand, should several pro-democracy candidates register to run in the election separately, the Phalang Pracharat candidate would benefit from the split vote. The party is holding a meeting on the Bangkok election sometime in March 2021, and party leader Prawit will make the final decision on whom to field. He will have to exercise great caution in this selection.

CONCLUSION

After the long suspension of local democracy, the results of the 2020 PAO elections show no difference in outcome; local bosses continued to make a strong showing across the country. The same old political families retain their control over the budget of 91 billion baht allocated to the PAOs for fiscal 2021. The losses suffered by the Progressive Movement have highlighted further that local politics is very different from national politics. The patronage system is deeply rooted in local politics. The older generation continues to dominate local politics, and ideology is not significant at the local level.

The Progressive Movement’s campaign on a platform of decentralisation, with the slogan “Changing Thailand Begins at Home”, failed to motivate young voters to return to their home provinces to vote for its candidates. Aside from the failure of its policy platform to attract votes, the Progressive Movement also lacks a deep-rooted ‘canvassing’ network at the provincial level. A member of the Progressive Movement campaign team said that “PAO elections gave us big lessons. The local elections are not easy, but rather complicated”.[24] Unlike incumbent local leaders who have an advantage in that they can better respond to voters’ needs, the Progressive Movement may need more time to expand its local base.

The PAO elections were only the starting point in the restoration of sub-national electoral politics after years of military rule. Municipal elections will occur in March, and that will be the next battle to test the Progressive Movement. The group has already revealed its candidate for mayor in Hat Yai, Songkhla Province. Winning municipal elections will not be an easy task, as it will require defeating incumbent leaders. Although the prospect of winning seats is slim, the Progressive Movement has at least attempted to change Thailand’s sub-national elections, and even if the party did not triumph, its campaign was nevertheless a step in the right direction.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/24, 5 March 2021.


ENDNOTES

[1] Election Commission of Thailand, “Provincial Administration Organization Election”, 2 November 2020 (https://www.ect.go.th/ect_th/news_page.php?nid=8689, downloaded 22 January 2021).

[2] Thailand’s decentralisation structure has four levels: 76 provincial administrative organizations (PAOs), 2,441 municipalities, 5,365 tambon or sub-district administrative organisations (TAOs), and two special forms of local administrative organisations, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the City of Pattaya. See also Michael J. Montesano, “Thailand’s 20 December 2020 Provincial Elections: A Contest among National Political Parties and a Quasi-Party? Evidence from the Andaman Coast” ISEAS Perspective 145/2020, 18 December 2020 (/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_145.pdf, downloaded 6 February 2021).

[3] James Ockey, “Team Work: Shifting Patterns and Relationships in Local and National Politics in Thailand”, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia XXXII, 3 (November 2017): 562-600.

[4] “เลือกตั้งท้องถิ่น: ปรากฏการณ์ใหม่-ข้อมูล-สถิติน่าสนใจในศึกเลือกตั้ง อบจ. 63” [Local Election: New Phenomenon-Interesting Data-Statistics during Provincial Administration Organization Election 2020], BBC News (Thai), 6 December 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/thai/thailand%2D55186329), downloaded 20 January 2020).

[5] “เลือกตั้งท้องถิ่น: ปรากฏการณ์ใหม่-ข้อมูล-สถิติน่าสนใจในศึกเลือกตั้ง อบจ. 63” [Local Election: New Phenomenon-Interesting Data-Statistics during Provincial Administration Organization Election 2020], BBC News (Thai), 6 December 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/thai/thailand%2D55186329), downloaded 20 January 2020).

[6] Nuttakorn Vititanon, “Assassination in Thai Local Politics: A Decade of Decentralization (2000-2009)”, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, issue 21 (https://kyotoreview.org/issue-21/assassination-thai-local-politics/, 22 January 2021).

[7] “บุกจับมือปืน ร่วมทีมฆ่าสองพ่อลูก อดีตประธานสภาอบต. เผยปมสังหาร” [Assassins Caught, Disclosure of the Murder Case of Father and Son, Former Sub-District Administrative Organization Presidents], Khaosod Online, 23 June 2020 (https://www.khaosod.co.th/crime/news_4369109, downloaded 20 January 2020).

[8] “กกต.จับหัวคะแนน3จังหวัดซื้อเสียงเลือกตั้ง” [ECT Caught Three Provincial Election Canvasser Buying Votes], Nation TV, 20 December 2020 (https://www.nationtv.tv/main/content/378810612 , downloaded 21 January 2020).

[9] Hathaikarn Trisuwan, “เลือกตั้งท้องถิ่น : ว่าที่นายก อบจ. 76 จังหวัด ใครอยู่ใต้เงา “บ้านใหญ่” ใครคือหน้าใหม่ล้มแชมป์” [Local Election: 76 PAO Presidents-to-be, Who’s under the “Main House”, Who’s the New Champion], BBC News (Thai), 21 December 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/thai/thailand%2D55394623, downloaded 21 January 2020).

[10] “ข่าวลึกปมลับ: เปิดลับ “ทักษิณ-บุญเลิศ” ใครทิ้งใครแน่!” [Disclosed News, ‘Thaksin-Boonlert’ Who Dumped Whom!], MGR Online, 8 December 2020 (https://mgronline.com/crime/detail/9630000125801 , downloaded 20 January 2020).

[11] “‘ทักษิณ’ ลุยเอง เขียนจม.ด้วยลายมือถึงชาวเชียงใหม่ อ้อนเลือกฝ่ายปชต.นั่งนายกฯอบจ.” [‘Thaksin’ Stepped Forward, Sending a Handwritten Letter to Chiang Mai People, Asking for Choosing a Democratic PAO President Candidate], Matichon, 3 December 2020 (https://www.matichon.co.th/politics/news_2470275, downloaded 20 January 2020).

[12] “ทักษิณสู้ เชียงราย-เชียงใหม่ แพ้บ่ได้” [Thaksin Fights, Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai Can’t be Defeated], Komchadluek, 8 December 2020 (https://www.komchadluek.net/news/scoop/451217 , downloaded 20 January 2020).

[13] “ สุดารัตน์ หาเสียง อบจ. อีสาน ชูเคราะห์กรรมตัวเอง สังเวยเพื่อไทย” [Sudarat campaigned in Isan PAO, raised her karma to quite Phuea Thai], Prachachart, 19 December 2020 (https://www.prachachat.net/politics/news-577106 , downloaded 7 February 2021).

[14] The party was established in 2018 and, buoyed by strong support among young Thais, came in third place in national elections held in March 2019. In February 2020, the party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on charges that Thanathorn lent his own money to the party in violation of the law. The dissolution of the party catalysed a public protest movement in 2019, which has since expanded its demands to include the highly sensitive question on reforms of the monarchy. For an early book-length study of the Future Forward Party, see Duncan McCargo and Anyarat Chattharakul, Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2020).

[15] “เงียบเป็นเป่าสาก! เพจดังวิจารณ์ “ธนาธร” แพ้ศึกเลือกตั้ง อบจ.แลนด์สไลด์น้อยมากแทบจะไม่มีเลย” [A Deadly Silence! Famous Page Insulted ‘Thanathorn’ for his PAO Election Loss, A Big Landslide], MGR Online, 22 December 2020 (https://mgronline.com/onlinesection/detail/9630000130602 , downloaded 22 January 2020).

[16] “คณะก้าวหน้ายอมรับผลเลือกตั้งนายก อบจ.แม้ไร้เก้าอี้แต่คะแนนนิยมเพิ่มขึ้น” [Progressive Movement Accepted the PAO Election Results, Popularity Increased Despite Zero Seats], InfoQuest, 21 December 2020 (https://www.infoquest.co.th/2020/54452 , downloaded 22 January 2020).

[17] “Thanathorn concedes defeat in local elections”, Thai PBS World, 21 December 2020 (https://www.thaipbsworld.com/thanathorn-concedes-defeat-in-local-elections downloaded 22 January 2021).

[18] Office of the Election Commission of Thailand, “Local Election Announcements” (https://www.ect.go.th/ect_th/news_all.php?cid=256 .downloaded 20 January 2021).

[19] PM 2.5 refers to a category of particulate pollutant that is 2.5 microns or smaller in size. PM stands for “particulate matter”. At high levels, the PM 2.5 pollutant can be harmful to people’s health. Because of its small size, PM 2.5 can get deep into the respiratory tract and lungs. It can also potentially enter the bloodstream. Bangkok has faced the high level of PM 2.5 almost every day due to vehicle exhaust gas, forest fires, burning of crop stubble and industrial emissions

[20] “Chadchart Announces Bid for Bangkok”, Bangkok Post, 30 November 2019 (https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1805639/chadchart-announces-bid-for-bangkok?fbclid=IwAR3qwRCzDEX8B0l63BL6Wv6SJFlxjI6j_mIn44EyoNCplKBgPNmFzPeJk7U , downloaded 20 January 2020).

[21] “The Chadchart Online Phenomenon”, Bangkok Post, 8 February 2014 (https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/393863/the-chadchart-online-phenomenon , downloaded 20 January 2020).

[22] “อัศวิน-จักรทิพย์ เปิดศึก เครือข่าย “บิ๊กป้อม” ชิงผู้ว่าฯ กทม.” [Asavin-Jakrathip Started a Fight, “Big Pom” Network Fought Over Bangkok Municipal Council Election], Prachachat, 21 January 2021 (https://www.prachachat.net/politics/news-596884 , downloaded 22 January 2021).

[23] Move Forward Party (MFP) led by Pita Limjaroenrat is the successor to the Future Forward Party. After Future Forward Party (FFP) was dissolved by the constitutional court for taking a 191.2-million baht loan from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, its party executive members, including Thanathorn, are banned from politics for 10 years. Ten of the FFP’s MPs promptly defected to government parties, while the remaining 55 joined the Move Forward Party in order to maintain their status as MPs. Aside from the Move Forward Party, Thanathorn and other former FFP executive members also formed the Progressive Movement group to engage in politics outside parliament, working hand in hand with the MFP which focuses on its parliamentary role.

[24] Author’s interview with former Future Forward candidate in the 2019 general elections, Bangkok, 24 December 2020.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /supportISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
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