Managers of a Bangkok publishing house known for its releases critical of China say they were twice approached by representatives of a Chinese businessman offering them large sums of money to shut down their business.
The representatives, who identified themselves as employees of a private investigative firm, reportedly told the publishers that their client was not acting on behalf of the Chinese government but was hoping to curry favor with authorities in Beijing.
Sam Yan Press is an independent publisher founded in 2017 by student activists at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and managed by five individuals. It is known for books and translated works focusing on freedom of speech, human rights and democracy, which include critical views on the Chinese central government.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a Thai activist and founder of Sam Yan Press, told VOA he received an email in May from a Bangkok investigator who wanted to arrange a meeting between the publishers and a Chinese businessman. Netiwit said he and his team ignored the communication, believing it to be fraud.
In July, according to an online posting by the publishing group, the investigator approached another member of the management team with an email saying the Chinese businessman wanted to offer Sam Yan Press 4 million baht ($105,540) to shut down the operation.
The businessman’s purpose, the investigator explained, was to show the Chinese government that he had influence in Thailand.
In September, the group’s posting said the management team received yet another email from the investigative firm. This time they were offered $52,770 (2 million baht) if they would sign a “dissolution document” shutting down the business.
After consulting a lawyer, the Sam Yan team arranged a meeting where, the posting said, a representative of the investigation agency confirmed the email offer. It was rejected by the student activists, who said it would be a “betrayal” of what they stand for.
“They said that [they wanted] an official document of the dissolution of the company, just the document,” said Jirapreeya Saeboo, the managing editor of Sam Yan Press, who was at that meeting.
“They would deliver the document to the client, which is the Chinese businessman, just to have [Chinese officials] thinking he has influence in Thailand in order to make good relations with the Chinese government," she told VOA.
The management team received additional email from the investigative firm on October 2 asserting that the businessman was not a member of the Chinese government and containing a copy of his passport. Sam Yan Press again rejected the offer.
Sam Yan Press named SkyInter Legal as the Bangkok-based private investigation agency that contacted them with both proposals.
VOA has repeatedly contacted SkyInter Legal seeking comment about the allegations but has yet to receive a reply.
“I think it’s because we have been publishing Thai books about Chinese politics and about the dissidents, about Hong Kong, Joshua Wong, about the repression in Xinjiang and recently about Taiwan’s independence,” Jirapreeya said.
“We actually feel intimidated, but we will not change, we will still continue publishing and updating about Chinese politics and other issues as well as we did before. But we will have to train more about how to secure ourselves.”
There have been concerns over China's growing influence in Thailand in recent years, from politics to trade.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist with the news website Khaosod English said he worries that the incident could affect relations between the two countries.
“It’s hope[d] that China will be astute enough to not resort to less than honorable tactics for it’s bad PR in the eyes of Thais. Thailand is a friend of China. Do not ruin cordial and warm ties by trying to bully Thais who think differently. Respect press freedom. This is Thailand, not China," he said in an interview.
Wasana Wongsurawat, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University, doesn’t believe the approach was commissioned by the Chinese government.
“My feeling was that the reality is we live in a society where if the Chinese Communist government wanted Sam Yan Press disappeared, they could easily make them disappear. I don’t think this businessperson, whoever he is, came with a mandate from the [Chinese Communist] party,” Wongsurawat said.
"This offer of 2 million baht, or 4 million baht seems really bizarre. I don’t believe for a moment that money is going to be produced if Sam Yan Press decided to shut down. If you follow the intimidation tactics of the Chinese state across the world, you don’t hear about this too much,” she added.
Krittapas Chedjaroenrat, the executive editor of Sam Yan Press, said the publisher felt it was necessary to publicly announce the unusual approach to raise public awareness.
Otherwise, he said, “We don’t know in the future if we … [will] still be safe. For the best, I think we should publish, to at least guarantee to society and acknowledge we have faced this before.”
A timeline of the events has been published on the Sam Yan Press Twitter account, as well as a full statement on its website.