Student publisher bribed to close by Chinese businessman

Samyan Press, a publishing house run by Chulalongkorn University students, said last week that its staff was approached by a Chinese businessman who tried to bribe them into closing their business in order to improve the businessman’s relations with the Chinese authorities.

A Twitter thread by Samyan Press detailing the incident and evidence from their conversation with the Thai private investigation agency.

Founded by student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, Samyan Press publishes books about human rights, social justice, and political movements. They previously published a translation of “Taiwan is not Chinese: A History of Taiwan Nationality,” a book about Taiwan’s history and independence written by Hsueh Hua-yuan, Tai Pao-tsun and Chow Mei-li, and “The Age of Openness: China before Mao” by historian Frank Dikötter. They have also published on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, the Uyghur people’s human rights situation, and writings by Chinese democracy activists.

According to a statement issued by the publisher’s Board of Editors on 26 October 2022, they were contacted by a Thai private investigation agency in May 2022 via an email informing them that a Chinese businessman wanted to propose a financial offer and that the businessman wanted to create good relations with the Chinese government.

The publisher’s staff initially thought that the email was a fraud and ignored the message. However, in September 2022, Netiwit told the rest of the staff that the agency visited his house and the temple where he is currently ordained as a Buddhist monk. Staff members also received calls from the agency demanding that they urgently respond to the offer.

Samyan Press released an email from the private investigator on their Twitter account, which claims that their client wanted the staff to sign a dissolution document and close the company, but said that they may continue to work in the publishing business and publish works criticizing the Chinese government, and may re-open the company within 6 months. The email also says that the client will pay the publisher 2 million baht in exchange for the business’ closure.

After consulting with a lawyer, the staff decided to meet with a representative of the agency in person on 30 September 2022. They were told that the agency did not know who the client was and only got the job through another Chinese agency. The staff rejected the offer, and told the Thai agency that they should remove themselves from the affair.

On 2 October 2022, Samyan Press received another email, which they also released on their Twitter account. The email included a letter from the client, who claimed that they are not a member of the Chinese Communist Party and only wanted to have a good relationship with the Chinese government.

The email also says that the Chinese authorities would not have hired a private company, and that they would make the staff permanently close Sam Yan Press and stop selling books. The staff repeated their rejection, but the agency continued to try to convince them, sending another email along with a copy of the client’s passport. The staff called the agency again to reject the offer, and has not received another email from the agency since.

“Despite the incidents, we stand our ground and continue to carry on our tasks of protecting and promoting freedom of expression,” said the publisher in their Board of Editors’ statement.

“We denounce this liaison of censoring and violation of such rights. We condemn every means and measure used by the authorities to harass, intimidate and manipulate the challenges.”  

According to a report published by Radio Free Asia (RFA), the businessman who was making offers to Sam Yan Press is allegedly named Huang Chengde. It also said that there have been past instances where Chinese businessmen act as “unofficial representatives” of the Chinese government, such as in 2019, when then-Swedish ambassador to China Anna Lindstedt was accused of holding unauthorized meetings with two Chinese businessmen and the daughter of detained Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. The accusation led the Swedish Foreign Ministry to recall Lindstedt, and she was later charged with “arbitrariness during negotiations with a foreign power” in relation to the meeting in which she was accused of being in contact with “persons representing the interests of the Chinese state.”

RFA contacted the Chinese Embassy in Thailand for comment but did not receive a reply.

Ken Wu, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), told RFA that organizations that promote democracy and human rights and support anti-authoritarian movements are going to be rejected by totalitarian states like China, and that once such a state gets very powerful, it will not stop at limiting freedom of speech in their own country but will also try to eliminate any threat in other countries. He also said that the Chinese authorities are likely to fear regional, progressive publishers out of concerns that such books will find their way back to China. 

The Hong Kong Democracy Council, a US-based non-profit organization working for democracy in Hong Kong, shared Sam Yan Press’ statement on their Twitter account, saying that Sam Yan Press is a “consistent supporter” of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and detained activist Joshua Wong, and that it “stands in solidarity” with the publisher.

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