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Huawei Offers to Sign 'No-Spy' Agreements

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 09:31
As anticipation builds for the next-generation mobile communications or 5G, security has become a heated topic. The U.S. government has launched an unprecedented campaign urging countries to ban one of the key makers of equipment for the new network, China-based telecom titan Huawei. But Huawei is vowing to refuse to assist any country in spying and even claims it would rather go out of business. VOA's Bill Ide recently visited the company's headquarters in China's southern city of Shenzhen.

Diplomat Confirms Limits on Ramadan in Xinjiang

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 08:16
A Chinese official denies allegations by activists that China’s government is blocking Muslim religious practices in the restive Xinjiang region during the holy month of Ramadan. A Chinese diplomat in neighboring Pakistan said Beijing has put only partial restrictions on Ramadan activities, not a total ban on fasting by the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. “There’s no blanket ban. That’s Western propaganda,” Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission at China’s embassy in Islamabad, told VOA. Zhao said that Xinjiang residents were free to fast during Ramadan and that restrictions were limited to those with official responsibilities to ensure their religious practices did not interfere with their public duties. “Restrictions are with the Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; and students who are with compulsory education and hard learning tasks,” he said. The official’s comments come as human rights activists and Uighur advocacy groups have expressed concern about the Chinese government's widening its repression of thousands of Uighurs as they joined millions of Muslims from around the world to fast during Ramadan, which began May 5 and continues for a month. ​Tougher restrictions Dolkun Isa, the head of the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, told VOA that Uighurs who are working in the public sector and students are asked to appear daily at canteens during lunch or they will be accused of secretly fasting and hiding “extremist” tendencies. Disputing Zhao’s assertion that the restrictions were limited, the exiled Uighur leader Isa said government workers were also forced to take home food and share with their family members. Other common Muslim practices, such as attending prayer and wearing a headscarf, are also banned for local residents. “In some cases, Uighur employees are forced to take home pork and ordered to share with their families,” said Isa. “The restrictions on Ramadan have been in place every year since 2016, but they are especially hard this year.” Separatist movement The vast region of deserts and mountains in the northwest is home to nearly 22 million people and has the greatest concentration of Muslims in China, estimated to be about 11 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities. Conflict in the region is not new. The Chinese government has for decades suppressed a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government in Beijing has in recent years faced growing international condemnation over the detention of more than a million minority Uighurs and other Muslims in so-called re-education camps. ​Detention camps Earlier this month, Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, said that the estimated number of detainees could be “closer to 3 million citizens.” “The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” Schriver said at a Pentagon briefing. The term “concentration camps” is generally associated with the death camps operated by Nazi Germany in 1940s. Chinese officials, however, say that their measures in Xinjiang are needed to combat the threat of terrorism and that the camps are nothing but vocational training centers. They are asking the U.S. to “stop interfering” in their domestic affairs. “We urge the relevant U.S. individual to respect the fact, abandon bias, exercise prudence in words and deeds, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs, and earnestly contribute to mutual trust and cooperation between us,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang at a press briefing last week. Shuang said their measures at “vocational and educational training institutions” operate according to law and they endorse all ethnic group members with “positive social effects.” Anti-terror law In December 2015, China passed its controversial anti-terror law, which according to Human Rights Watch gave government agencies “enormous discretionary powers.” The government’s April 2017 regulations to “prevent extremism” drew international outcry, with critics saying they violated basic human rights and religious freedom. According to the state-run newspaper China Daily, the regulations forbid people in the region from wearing full-face coverings and long beards. They also prohibit them from “choosing names in an abnormal way” or “rejecting or refusing state products and services that include radio and television programming.”

Taiwan to Vote on Formal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 07:32
Taiwanese legislators are scheduled to decide Friday on legalizing same-sex marriage, marking a potential first in Asia.   Lawmakers pressured over the past two years by LGBT groups as well as church organizations opposed to same-sex marriage will choose between bills that broadly legalize the unions and give couples many of the tax, insurance and child custody benefits available to male-female married couples.   If the legal changes are approved, Taiwan would become the first place in Asia with a comprehensive law supporting same-sex marriage.   Taiwan's Constitutional Court in May 2017 said the constitution allows same-sex marriages and gave parliament two years to adjust laws accordingly.   The court order mobilized LGBT advocacy groups pushing for fair treatment, as well as opponents among church groups and advocates of traditional Chinese family values.   "It's a breakthrough, I have to say so. I could not imagine that could happen in just a few years,'' said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan.   Religion, conservative family values and political systems that discourage LGBT activism have stopped momentum in Asian countries from China through much of Southeast Asia into the Middle East. Thailand, however, is exploring the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships.   Taiwan's acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships began in the 1990s when leaders in today's ruling Democratic Progressive Party championed the cause to help Taiwan stand out in Asia as an open society. Although claimed by China as its own territory, Taiwan is a self-governing democracy with a vibrant civil society.   Opponents have raised fears of incest, insurance benefit scams and children confused by having two mothers or two fathers. Both sides of the issue have held colorful street demonstrations and lobbied lawmakers.   In November 2018, a majority of Taiwan voters rejected same-sex marriage in an advisory referendum.   Bills on the table Friday include one authored by the government. Another version plays to both sides of the debate by allowing marriages but with conditions such as calling them "unions'' and imposing restrictions on adopting children.   "If it doesn't go through, that would be disappointing,'' said Hsu Pei-chieh, 30, a Taipei office worker hoping to marry her female partner and raise at least one child. "If we're married it would be easier for the outside world to understand us.''   Opinion surveys in 2012 and 2015 found that slight majorities of Taiwanese backed legalizing same-sex marriage.   A defeat for the bill in the legislature on Friday would allow the Constitutional Court order to proceed, effective May 24. Same-sex couples could register their marriages then with local governments, but without guarantees of the legal benefits given to male-female couples.

Chinese-American Pei, Famed Architect, Dies at 102

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 06:36
I.M. Pei, the versatile, globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has died at age 102.   Pei's death was confirmed Thursday by Marc Diamond, a spokesman for Pei's New York architectural firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.   Pei's works ranged from the trapezoidal addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the chiseled towers of the National Center of Atmospheric Research that blend in with the reddish mountains in Boulder, Colorado.   His buildings added elegance to landscapes worldwide with their powerful geometric shapes and grand spaces. Among them are the striking steel and glass Bank of China skyscraper in Hong Kong and the Fragrant Hill Hotel near Beijing. His work spanned decades, starting in the late 1940s and continuing through the new millennium. Two of his last major projects, the Museum of Islamic Art, located on an artificial island just off the waterfront in Doha, Qatar, and the Macau Science Center, in China, opened in 2008 and 2009.   Pei painstakingly researched each project, studying its use and relating it to the environment. But he also was interested in architecture as art -- and the effect he could create.   "At one level my goal is simply to give people pleasure in being in a space and walking around it,'' he said. "But I also think architecture can reach a level where it influences people to want to do something more with their lives. That is the challenge that I find most interesting.''   Pei, who as a schoolboy in Shanghai was inspired by its building boom in the 1930s, immigrated to the United States and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He advanced from his early work of designing office buildings, low-income housing and mixed-used complexes to a worldwide collection of museums, municipal buildings and hotels.   He fell into a modernist style blending elegance and technology, creating crisp, precise buildings.   His big break was in 1964, when he was chosen over many prestigious architects, such as Louis Kahn and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to design the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.   At the time, Jacqueline Kennedy said all the candidates were excellent, "But Pei! He loves things to be beautiful.'' The two became friends.   A slight, unpretentious man, Pei developed a reputation as a skilled diplomat, persuading clients to spend the money for his grand-scale projects and working with a cast of engineers and developers.   Some of his designs were met with much controversy, such as the 71-foot faceted glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre museum in Paris. French President Francois Mitterrand, who personally selected Pei to oversee the decaying, overcrowded museum's renovation, endured a barrage of criticism when he unveiled the plan in 1984.   Many of the French vehemently opposed such a change to their symbol of their culture, once a medieval fortress and then a national palace. Some resented that Pei, a foreigner, was in charge.   But Mitterrand and his supporters prevailed and the pyramid was finished in 1989. It serves as the Louvre's entrance, and a staircase leads visitors down to a vast, light-drenched lobby featuring ticket windows, shops, restaurants, an auditorium and escalators to other parts of the vast museum.   "All through the centuries, the Louvre has undergone violent change,'' Pei said. "The time had to be right. I was confident because this was the right time.''   Another building designed by Pei's firm -- the John Hancock Tower in Boston -- had a questionable future in the early 1970s when dozens of windows cracked and popped out, sending glass crashing to the sidewalks, during the time the building was under construction.   A flurry of lawsuits followed among the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., the glass manufacturer, and Pei's firm. A settlement was reached in 1981.   No challenge seemed to be too great for Pei, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Pei, who admitted he was just catching up with the Beatles, researched the roots of rock `n' roll and came up with an array of contrasting shapes for the museum. He topped it off with a transparent tent-like structure, which was "open -- like the music,'' he said.   In 1988, President Reagan honored him with a National Medal of Arts. He also won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, 1983, and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, 1979. President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.   Pei officially retired in 1990 but continued to work on projects. Two of his sons, Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei, former members of their father's firm, formed Pei Partnership Archiitects in 1992. Their father's firm, previously I.M. Pei and Partners, was renamed Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.   The museum in Qatar that opened in 2008 was inspired by Islamic architectural history, especially the 9th century mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. It was established by the tiny, oil-rich nation to compete with rival Persian Gulf countries for international attention and investment.   Ieoh Ming Pei (pronounced YEE-oh ming pay) was born April 26, 1917, in Canton, China, the son of a banker. He later said, "I did not know what architecture really was in China. At that time, there was no difference between an architect, a construction man, or an engineer.''   Pei came to the United States in 1935 with plans to study architecture, then return to practice in China. However, World War II and the revolution in China prevented him from coming back.   During the war, Pei worked for the National Defense Research Committee. As an "expert'' in Japanese construction, his job was to determine the best way to burn down Japanese towns. "It was awful,'' he later said.   In 1948, New York City real estate developer William Zeckendorf hired Pei as his director of architecture. During this period, Pei worked on many large urban projects and gained experience in areas of building development, economics and construction.   Some of his early successes included the Mile High Center office building in Denver, the Kips Bay Plaza Apartments in Manhattan, and the Society Hill apartment complex in Philadelphia.   Pei established his own architectural firm in 1955, a year after he became a U.S. citizen. He remained based in New York City. Among the firm's accomplishments are the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.   Pei's wife, Eileen, who he married in 1942, died in 2014. A son, T'ing Chung, died in 2003. Besides sons Chien Chung Pei and Li Chung Pei, he is survived by a daughter, Liane.

Facebook Busts Israeli-Led Campaign to Sway Elections

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 21:22
Facebook has announced it removed 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages, groups, and events from its service Thursday because of what it called "coordinated inauthentic behavior." In a statement, the company said the objectionable activity originated in Israel and focused on events in Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger, and Tunisia, along with some activity in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Facebook said "the people behind this network used fake accounts to run pages, disseminate their content, and artificially increase engagement. They also represented themselves as locals, including local news organizations, and published allegedly leaked information about politicians." The statement said the people in question "frequently" posted about political news, including elections, candidates' views, and criticism of political opponents. In the statement, Facebook said "We're taking down these pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted." Facebook said it has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the organization responsible for the posts, which it named as Archimedes Group. It said the group and all its subsidiaries are now banned from Facebook for "repeatedly" violating Facebook policies. In detail, Facebook said it has removed 65 Facebook accounts, 161 pages, 23 groups, 12 events, and four Instagram accounts. The accounts had, collectively, some 2.8 million followers and the groups had some 5,500 members. Archimedes Group's spending on ads in Facebook amounted to some $812,000, paid in U.S. dollars, Israeli shekels, and Brazilian reals. It was not clear whether the events listed by Archimedes Group on Facebook ever took place. Facebook said it could not confirm.  

Thai Election Body Advises Disqualifying Major Party Leader

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 20:21
Thailand's Election Commission recommended Thursday that the leader of major political party opposed to military rule be barred from taking his seat in the soon-to-be-convened parliament because he is accused of violating electoral rules. The commission announced that evidence showed that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward party had violated the law by holding shares in a media company, and it was passing its findings to the Constitutional Court for a ruling. The party already denied breaking any rules when the issue was first raised last month. Thanathorn already faces several criminal complaints and other protests to election authorities that could lead to his or his party's disqualification. Thanathorn is the co-founder of Future Forward, which positioned itself as youth-oriented and deeply opposed to military rule ahead of its strong, surprise third place finish in the March 24 general election. He comes from a family that made its fortune in the auto parts industry, and his wealth helped him establish the party just last year. The military-backed Palang Pracharath party is tipped to lead a government expected to be formed in the next few weeks and headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has served as prime minister since seizing power in a 2014 army coup. Thanathorn's supporters believe Thailand's conservative establishment is trying to eliminate his party to boost Prayuth's chances. The Election Commission was appointed by the ruling junta's allies, while the Constitutional Court has a long history of ruling in favor of the country's conservative establishment. Speaking at a news conference shortly after the commission's announcement, Thanathorn tried to assure his followers that he would survive the challenge. “We are not at risk,” he said. “Even the Election Commission is too afraid to make the ruling themselves. We are confident that with the truth and the evidence that we have, that this matter shouldn't affect my candidacy.” Thanathorn's party has said it would support the bid of the anti-military Pheu Thai party, which won the most seats in the lower house, to form the next government. Palang Pracharath, which came in second, is also trying to put together a ruling coalition. On Thursday, however, Thanathorn said that Future Forward might try to lead a majority coalition. “Future Forward party is ready to be the government and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is ready to be the prime minister,” he said, adding that he has spoken with some other parties about blocking the military's efforts to keep its allies in power.

China Formally Charges 2 Canadians with Stealing State Secrets

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 19:47
China says two Canadian citizens who have been in detention since late last year have been formally charged with stealing state secrets, a move that is expected to further increase tension between the two countries. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang announced the arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on Thursday in Beijing during a regular press briefing. Lu said the arrests were made in accordance with Chinese law. Lu said China hopes that Ottawa "will not make irresponsible remarks" about the country's judicial system.  In a statement issued hours after Beijing's announcement, Canada's Foreign Ministry said Ottawa "strongly condemns" the "arbitrary arrest" of the two men and demanded their immediate release.  Kovrig and Spavor were detained separately Dec. 10 on suspicion of "engaging in activities that endanger the national security of China." The move came days after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for Chinese tech giant Huawei, was arrested at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. warrant on charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is under house arrest awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. Canada has refused China's demand to release Meng. Kovrig once served Canada as a diplomat to Beijing. He is a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, which researches peaceful solutions to global conflicts. Spavor is a businessman and director of an exchange group that arranges sports and educational exchanges with North Korea. Another Canadian citizen sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug charges in China now faces the death penalty. 

Hong Kong Democracy Activist Sent Back to Jail

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 18:05
Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong was sent back to jail Thursday over his role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy street protests. Wong, along with fellow student activists Nathan Law and Alex Chow, stormed a courtyard on the grounds of the government's headquarters in September of that year, which led to the "Umbrella Revolution" that shut down several major highways for more than two months, demanding fully free elections. He was sentenced last January to serve three months in jail on a charge of failing to obey a court order to leave a protest camp during the demonstrations. But he was released on bail after only six days so he could appeal the sentence. In its decision ordering Wong back to jail, the Court of Appeals said any suggestion that he had been excessively punished because of his notoriety was "entirely baseless and misconceived." However, the court reduced his sentence to two months. Wong, Law and Chow were sentenced in 2016 in a different case related to the protests. They initially received non-custodial sentences, but prosecutors later successfully persuaded the court to impose jail sentences between six to eight months on the trio. They were later released on bail so they could appeal their convictions, which were later overturned. 'One government, two systems' The Umbrella Movement protests, named after the yellow umbrellas the demonstrators carried as a sign of solidarity, were launched to demand the direct election of the city's top leader after China reneged on promises of universal suffrage by 2017. The protests ended without winning any concessions from the Hong Kong government on their demands.   Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the "one government, two systems" arrangement established when China regained control of the financial hub from Britain in 1997. But political activists and observers say Beijing is slowly tightening its grip on the territory and eroding its basic freedoms. Before entering the courtroom to hear the verdict, Wong criticized a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite people to other jurisdictions where it lacks a permanent extradition agreement, including China and Taiwan.

Huawei Seeks to Win Over 5G Security Concern Skeptics

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 17:20
Joyce Huang contributed to this report. SHENZHEN, CHINA — U.S. officials have effectively banned Chinese telecom titan Huawei from building next-generation 5G mobile networks in the United States and are warning other countries about the company's national security risks. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that bars American companies from using telecommunications equipment that is made by companies that pose a national security risk. The order, which declares a national emergency, is the first step toward formalizing a ban on doing business with Huawei. For its part, however, Huawei has shown no signs of backing down and has been making extraordinary pledges to win over its critics and dispel allegations that it is a security threat. The company says it will quit its business if forced to spy on its customers and now its company chairman Liang Hua has offered to sign "no spy" agreements as well. Speaking through an interpreter during a visit to London, Liang said Huawei is willing "to commit ourselves to making our equipment meet the no-spy, no-backdoors standard." What does Huawei hand over? It is unclear what Liang means by "no-spy, no-backdoors" since Huawei, like all technology companies, requires users to sign agreements acknowledging that the company may share their personal information if required by local authorities. Most technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, disclose these government information requests in regular public reports. The companies explain when they comply with the government requests and when they challenge them in court. There is no information about what data Huawei hands over to Beijing authorities. If Chinese officials determine a matter involves "state secrets" or a criminal investigation, officials can legally justify intercepting any communication. Critics say Beijing defines "state secrets" so loosely that it can cover virtually anything. In his comments to reporters, Liang says Huawei does not act on behalf of China's government in any international market. According to Reuters, he also denies that China's laws require companies to "collect foreign intelligence for the government or plant back doors for the government." Adding that Huawei is also committed to following the laws and regulations of every country where it does business. ​Independent business or state organ? Despite the criticism, Huawei is doing lots of business. The company says it has signed 40 contracts to build 5G networks, more than 20 of which are in Europe. It has shipped 70,000 base stations for installation, all to locations outside of China. Base stations are a key component of the infrastructure that is needed to build up the new network. Huawei spokesperson Joe Kelly says that maintaining the trust of its customers is key to the company's continued success. "Today, with 4 billion people around the world (using our products), at the scale at which we operate, if we were installing back doors and taking data, our carriers would be aware, they would see it for themselves and then they would stop doing business with us," he said. In the 5G debate, Huawei has voiced its willingness to stake the company's continued success on its commitment to security. Company founder Ren Zhengfei has said that Huawei has never been asked to spy by any country and that the business would be shut down if it was forced to engage in spying. Joe Kelly repeated that pledge when VOA paid a recent visit to company headquarters. "He would close the business down rather than compromise the security and safety of any customers' data," Kelly said. In President Xi Jinping's China, however, critics find such promises hard to believe. Since coming to power, Xi has stressed the party's dominance over all aspects of society. Since coming to power there have been numerous examples of how Xi has no qualms in using the authoritarian country's internal security apparatus and technology to silence any who would criticize or challenge him, including influential businessmen just for taking issue with his policies. U.S. officials have suggested that if countries choose to trust Huawei for their 5G network, Washington may reassess sharing information with them. The executive order that was signed by Trump on Wednesday not only paves the way for a formal ban on Huawei from building networks in the United States. According to the Commerce Department, Huawei and 70 other affiliates will be added to what is called an "Entity List," which will make it more difficult for the company and other entities to buy parts and components from U.S. businesses. ​From Chinese tech start-up to global power Ren Zhengfei, a former military engineer, founded Huawei in 1987 with five other investors in Shenzhen, with a little more than $5,000. Over the past five years, it has invested $60 billion in research and development, and that number is expected to continue to grow. The company's massive research and development campus in Dongguan, an industrial city north of Shenzhen, is a stunning visual example of the company's rags to riches story. The campus is modeled on a dozen European cities and even has its own train. Last year, Huawei made more than $100 billion in revenues, and says it continued to grow in the first quarter of this year even as Washington tried to block it from markets globally. For as much success as the company has had, the future looks even brighter with the promise of 5G technology. Downside of 5G 5G will link people, homes, industry, cars and cities, offering connectivity that will create new jobs and business opportunities. With that will also come more ways that networks, data and security can be compromised. The rollout of 3G and 4G mobile networks powered a generation of technology companies, and 5G is expected to be an even greater leap. "Right now all types of human activities are moving online and after 5G comes what is even more worrisome than the commercial applications and sharing of personal information that will come with it, is that ubiquitously everything will be online," said Karl Li, an electric engineering professor at Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University. Li was also the former head of cybersecurity at the National Center of High-Performance Computing. Li said that while it may seem that the debate over Huawei is just about economic benefits and information security, it is much more than that. "It is also an issue of national competition, it's also an issue of national security," he said. "A national security issue that has an implication on international relations as well." He adds that if all of the infrastructure and services for 5G networks were controlled by Huawei, the company would not only have complete access to any personal data, but also could instantly paralyze all kinds of systems and operations in a country.

Shanghai Building Collapses, at Least 9 Trapped in Rubble

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 15:45
A building that was being refurbished collapsed Thursday in downtown Shanghai, and at least nine people are trapped while 11 have been pulled from the rubble. The building being converted into an auto showroom fell around 11:30 a.m., and the city’s rescue service said 24 emergency vehicles and more than 150 personnel responded to the emergency. By early afternoon, 11 out of about 20 people buried in the collapse had been pulled from the rubble. Their conditions were not immediately known. The building is in the Changning district of China’s financial hub. China has suffered some industrial accidents in recent months largely blamed on skirting of safety requirements amid a slowing economy. In March, 78 people were killed in a blast at a chemical plant in the eastern city of Yancheng that had numerous safety violations, making it one of China’s worst industrial accidents in recent years. Earlier, in November, at least 22 people were killed in an explosion outside a chemical plant in the northeastern city of Zhangjiakou, which will host competitions in the 2022 Winter Olympics. A major fire in Shanghai in 2010 destroyed a 28-story apartment building that was under repair, killing at least 58 people. Authorities blamed sparks from a welder’s torch.

Consumers Start to Feel Pinch From US, China Trade Standoff

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:56
As the U.S. and China escalate their trade standoff, consumers in both countries are starting to see the impact. VOA's Mykhailo Komadovsky reports from Washington.

Russia to Release Killer Whales in New Habitat, Despite Expert Advice

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 02:49
Russia is to free captured killer whales over the next month, but will not return them to their original habitat despite expert advice, a scientist said Wednesday. The animals will instead be released from their pens in Russia's Far East and may "disrupt vacationers" at resorts nearby, said Vladislav Rozhnov, who was involved in talks over their fate. Nearly 100 belugas and orcas were captured last summer and kept in small pens by commercial firms who had planned to deliver them to aquariums, including in China where the industry is booming. Ten killer whales, or orcas, will be released "in late May to early June," Rozhnov said during a briefing at the Russian environment ministry. He said it would be more ideal to transport them to where they had initially been captured, as Russian and foreign scientists have advised, but this was deemed too costly. Instead they will be freed in the bay where they have been held near the town of Nakhodka — more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) south from where they were actually caught in the Sea of Okhotsk. There is a risk that the whales will "stay near the pens where they were fed" and bother humans, he said. "Science gives recommendations, but the decision is taken by government authorities," said Rozhnov, who heads the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Environment and — with other agencies — is part of a council on the fate of the whales. "We hope that the released animals will go north and return to their native waters," he said. Time constraints The environment ministry said in a statement that transporting the animals to the Sea of Okhotsk could injure the animals and cause stress. Constructing rehabilitation enclosures at a faraway release site would be too complicated, it added. "Due to constraints of time, the realization of this is difficult," the ministry said. Russian officials last month met with U.S.-based conservationists Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick, who visited the facility with the killer whales and 87 beluga whales, also captured last year. Rozhnov said there was no precise decision on the beluga whales, but that scientists now were looking into genetic evidence of family ties between the captured juveniles and known beluga groups in the wild. 'Aggressive' orcas In a statement Wednesday, Cousteau's team warned that releasing the killer whales near the facility where they were being held carried a "high number of significant risks." They included potential conflict with people and boats in the area due to "aggressive behaviours observed in some of the orcas." Such a release "leads to likely long-term costs and diminished potential for survival," the team said. They said the whales should be taken to where they were captured following an "acclimatization period" in remote enclosures. Russia is the only country still catching wild orcas and belugas. The controversial trade of marine mammals has boomed in recent years together with the aquarium industry in China, which uses Russian animals in its new marine parks. Although some fisheries officials have defended the capture as a legitimate industry, scientists argue it threatens the species' populations.

Costs Mounting in US From Trump's Tariff Fight With China   

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 02:31
The costs seem to be mounting in the U.S. from President Donald Trump's tit-for-tat trade tariff war with China, both for farmers whose sales of crops to China have been cut and U.S. consumers paying higher prices for imported Chinese products. The government said Wednesday that to date it has paid out more than $8.5 billion to American farmers to offset their loss of sales to China and other trading partners because of foreign tariffs imposed by Beijing and other governments. Trump last year pledged up to $12 billion in aid to farmers — chiefly soybean, wheat and corn growers, and those who raise pigs. Trump says he could ask Congress for another $15 billion if U.S. farmers continue to be hurt by China's tariffs of as much as 25%  on U.S. agricultural imports. The U.S. had been shipping $12 billion worth of soybeans a year to China, but Beijing's imposition of the tariff severely cut down on the U.S. exports as China bought the beans from other countries. Trump said Tuesday on Twitter, "Our great Patriot Farmers will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now. Hopefully China will do us the honor of continuing to buy our great farm product, the best, but if not your Country will be making up the difference based on a very high China buy. This money will come from the massive Tariffs being paid to the United States for allowing China, and others, to do business with us. The Farmers have been 'forgotten' for many years. Their time is now!" White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow acknowledged to a television interviewer last weekend that "to some extent" U.S. consumers will bear the brunt of higher costs on Chinese goods after Trump's tariffs have been levied on the imported goods. Trade Partnership Worldwide, a Washington economic consulting firm, estimates in a new study the typical American family of four people would pay $2,300 more annually for goods and services if Trump imposes a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports, as he says he is considering. Such higher tariffs would hit an array of Chinese-produced consumer goods — clothing, children's toys, sports equipment, shoes and consumer electronics — that are widely bought by Americans. If that does not happen, but the existing U.S. tariffs remain in place, the research group says the average U.S. family would pay $770 in higher costs each year. The U.S. imported almost $540 billion in Chinese goods in 2018, while the U.S. exported $120 billion, a trade imbalance that Trump is seeking to even out with imposition of the tariffs. The U.S. exported almost $59 billion in services to China, while importing only $18 billion, but services are not directly affected by tariffs.

White House  Not Signing 'Christchurch Call' Against Online Extremism

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 01:41
The United States will not join an international bid to stamp out violent extremism online, the White House said Wednesday, while stressing that Washington backs the initiative's aims. "While the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement, we continue to support the overall goals reflected" in the so-called "Christchurch Call," the White House said. The initiative is named after the New Zealand city where a far-right gunman massacred 51 people at two mosques in March while broadcasting his rampage live on Facebook. It has been spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and France's President Emmanuel Macron. The White House said in a statement that the private sector should regulate its content, but also stressed the need to protect free speech. "We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press," it said. "We encourage technology companies to enforce their terms of service and community standards that forbid the use of their platforms for terrorist purposes," it said. "Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging."      

China Fully Blocks All Versions of Wikipedia

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 00:27
Beijing has broadened its block of online encyclopedia Wikipedia to include all language editions, an internet censorship research group reported just weeks ahead of China's most politically explosive anniversary. According to a report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), China started blocking all language editions of Wikipedia last month. Previously, most editions of Wikipedia -- besides the Chinese language version, which was reportedly blocked in 2015 -- were available, OONI said in their report. AFP could not open any of Wikipedia's versions in China on Wednesday. "At the end of the day, the content that really matters is Chinese-language content," said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of one of the co-founders of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China. "Blocking access to all language versions of Wikipedia for internet users in China is just symbolic," he told AFP. "It symbolises the fear that the Chinese authorities have of the truth." Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, said it had not received any notices explaining the latest block. According to the organisation, Wikipedia has been blocked intermittently in China since 2004. "With the expansion of this block, millions of readers and volunteer editors, writers, academics, and researchers within China cannot access this resource or share their knowledge and achievements with the world," Samantha Lien, communications manager at Wikimedia Foundation, told AFP over email. "When one country, region, or culture cannot join the global conversation on Wikipedia, the entire world is poorer," she said. China's online censorship apparatus -- dubbed the "Great Firewall" -- blocks a large number of foreign sites in the country, such as Google, Facebook, VOA, and The New York Times. Topics that are deemed too "sensitive" are also scrubbed, such as the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters which will mark its 30th anniversary on June 4. The expanded block of Wikipedia comes as Chinese authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping ramp up online controls and crack down on Great Firewall circumvention tools, such as virtual private network (VPN) software. In November, China's cyberspace authority said it had "cleaned up" 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms like messaging app WeChat and the Twitter-like Weibo that it accused of spreading "politically harmful" information and rumours. Chinese Twitter users have also told AFP that they have experienced intimidation from local authorities -- and even detention -- for their tweets. The latest move to block all versions of Wikipedia could be linked to online translation tools, which make it easy for Chinese users to read anything on Wikipedia, Smith said. Images can also be considered taboo, he said. "A picture is worth a thousand words, and there is no dearth of Tiananmen-related imagery on the Wikipedia website," Smith added.

US Lawmakers Want to Tighten Visas for Chinese Students, Researchers

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 23:31
A group of President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans in Congress introduced legislation on Tuesday intended to prohibit anyone employed or sponsored by the Chinese military from receiving student or research visas to the United States. The bill would require the U.S. government to create a list of scientific and engineering institutions affiliated with the Chinese People's Liberation Army, and prohibit anyone employed or sponsored by those institutions from receiving the visas. The bill was introduced as the United States and China have escalated a trade war following difficult negotiations last week. It also comes as some U.S. officials have expressed concern about the possibility of the theft of intellectual property or even espionage by Chinese nationals at U.S. universities and other institutions. Many U.S. and university officials also warn about overreacting, however, arguing it is important to acknowledge the important role Chinese scholars and students play at U.S. institutions while being aware of security risks. The bill was sponsored by Republicans Senators Chuck Grassley, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn and Josh Hawley. A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Mike Gallagher.

Relative Stability Brings Progress to Myanmar Region

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 23:06
Loud explosions and billowing smoke filled the air above the national stadium in the highly militarized capital of Panghsang in Myanmar's Shan state — but it wasn't what one might expect in a region known for its heavily armed troops. The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) was celebrating 30 years of autonomy last month, with heavy security posted around the city stadium and big guns on parade inside. The celebration was held to commemorate the ousting of leaders of the Communist Party of Burma during a coup in April 1989, followed by the formation of the United Wa State Army and a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the Burmese army, signed on May 9, 1989. About 18 ethnic groups from the region were included in the military-controlled performance and senior officials from other ethnic armed groups attended the three-day event. For Kachin dancer and former Communist Party of Burma soldier Bauk Doi, it was a time to reflect on the big changes in the rugged mountain region. "In the past when I lived in Wa state area, the children and adults were very far behind and kids didn't know how to put their clothes on so I had to teach them. The condition of the houses was not strong and they only had bamboo to build their homes. But now, 30 years later, they are developing very fast and I'm happy for them," said the 60-year-old. Chinese leverage Much of the development has come from Chinese investment, a fact punctuated by China's special Envoy for Asian Affairs, Sun Guoxiang, who sat next to Wa leader Bao Youxiang during the parade and fireworks display. While the China-backed UWSA aren't directly involved in the current peace talks, they have a strong influence in the narrative, serving as the chair of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). Seven ethnic organizations are part of the committee, including the United League of Arakan whose army is active in Rakhine state — and aware of China's leverage. "China is a major power. Our neighboring country. It has a lot of influence in terms of investment — politically, economically — in many arenas, so yes, they can help," said Maj. Gen. Tun Myat Naing of the Arakan Army. Tun Myat Naing also says the Arakan people are suffering, much like the Rohingya crisis. "It is the Arakan people. We are also suffering from the war crimes being committed by the Myanmar army. So I would like to request to the international communities, please don't turn a blind eye on the suffering of our people too," Tun Myat Naing added. Unity vs. autonomy Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese military chief Min Aung Hlaing did not take up the invitation to attend the ceremony, although Union Minister U Thein Swe did and read a statement on behalf of ASSK and the National Reconciliation and Peace Center. While the statement acknowledged the successful peace and stability within Wa No. 2 Special Region, it also signaled the government's desire to have all ethnic groups sign the National Ceasefire Agreement, which focuses on unity rather than autonomy.  The content of the agreement has remained a contentious issue that has caused several of the strongest ethnic armed groups to walk away from the bargaining table in recent years. "Only after signing the NCA — Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement — would we be able to convene the political dialogues which would result in reduced armed conflicts for maintaining durable peace, efforts for monitoring and conflict resolution, ethnic rights, equal rights and achieving unity," the statement read. Upcoming projects Upcoming peace talks in Chinese border towns further exhibit the strong influence of Chinese investors and the growing desire for stability as planned infrastructure projects are pushed ahead of genuine peace and trust-building. Myanmar and China have agreed to build an Economic Corridor from Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, but the the current instability is preventing the construction from being completed. The economic corridor route is set to be built through Shan and Rakhine state, also areas of instability. "We have a long time relationship with China, because we are the ethnic group in China border and the Chinese are our brothers. ... In the future, we are going to be united in China," said Zhao Guo An, vice-chairman of the UWSA, on the sidelines of the ceremony. Despite three decades of peace, Guo An and the UWSA senior officials are still wary of the government forces' intentions. "We have to trust each other, but there is still a long time to go. It's been 30 years without the war flame, but we are still negotiating to keep the peace," he added.

Ford: More Lincolns to Be Built for Chinese Market Locally

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 22:27
Ford Motor Co plans to start production of new luxury Lincoln models in China for that market as they are launched, starting with the new Corsair later this year, to benefit from lower costs and avoid the risk of tariffs, a top executive said Monday. "It's a huge, huge opportunity for Lincoln because we see China as ground zero for Lincoln given the size of the market and how well the brand has been received," Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said at a Goldman Sachs conference in New York. Ford has lower levels of localized production than rivals General Motors Co or Volkswagen AG, who make more vehicles in China for Chinese consumers, benefiting from lower labor and material costs, and avoiding tariffs in the burgeoning trade war between the United States and China. Shanks said all new Lincoln models, with the exception of the Navigator assembled in Louisville, Kentucky, will also be produced in China. He declined to say how much Ford will save through localized production. Ford has been struggling to revive sales in China, the automaker's second-biggest market. Ford sales slumped 37 percent in 2018, after a 6 percent decline in 2017. Shanks said that all of the problems the automaker experienced in China last year were related to the Ford brand, not Lincoln, which is popular with Chinese customers.

Japanese Space Startup Aims to Compete With US Rivals

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 21:31
A Japanese startup that launched a rocket into space earlier this month plans to provide low-cost rocket services and compete with American rivals such as SpaceX, its founder said Wednesday. Interstellar Technology Inc. founder Takafumi Horie said a low-cost rocket business in Japan is well-positioned to accommodate scientific and commercial needs in Asia. While Japan's government-led space programs have demonstrated top-level technology, he said the country has fallen behind commercially due to high costs. "In Japan, space programs have been largely government-funded and they solely focused on developing rockets using the best and newest technologies, which means they are expensive," Horie told reporters in Tokyo. "As a private company, we can focus on the minimum level of technology needed to go to space, which is our advantage. We can transport more goods and people to space by slashing costs." Horie said his company's low-cost MOMO-3 rocket is the way to create a competitive space business in Japan. During its May 4 flight, the unmanned MOMO-3 rocket reached 113.4 kilometers (70 miles) in altitude before falling into the Pacific Ocean. The cost to launch the MOMO-3 was about one-tenth of the launch cost of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the country's space agency, according to Interstellar CEO Takahiro Inagawa. Horie said his company plans to launch its first orbital rocket — the ZERO — within the next few years and then it would technologically be on par with competitors such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and New Zealand engineer Peter Beck's Rocket Lab. The two-stage ZERO would be twice as long and much heavier than the compact MOMO-3, which is about 10 meters (32 feet) long and 50 centimeters (1.5 feet) in diameter and weighs about 1 ton. It would be able to send satellites into orbit or carry payloads for scientific purposes. Development of a low-cost commercial rocket is part of a growing international trend in the space business led by the U.S. and aggressively followed by China and others. At home, Horie could face competition from space subsidiaries of major companies such as Canon and IHI, which have expertise from working with the government's space agency.

World Leaders, Tech Bosses Work on Stemming Online Violence

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 20:00
Livestreaming terrorist attacks. Using social media to spread deadly ideas. Manipulating banned videos to keep sharing them online. World leaders and tech bosses are meeting Wednesday in Paris to find ways to stop all this. They're working all day on the "Christchurch Appeal," named after the New Zealand city where 51 people were killed in a March attack on mosques.   The attacker streamed the killing live on Facebook, which announced tougher livestreaming policies on the eve of the meetings "to limit our services from being used to cause harm or spread hate."   New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed Facebook's pledge to restrict some users from Facebook Live and invest in research to stay ahead of users' attempts to avoid detection.   She said she herself inadvertently saw the Christchurch attacker's video when it played automatically in her Facebook feed.   "There is a lot more work to do, but I am pleased Facebook has taken additional steps today... and look forward to a long-term collaboration to make social media safer," she said in a statement.   Facebook said it's tightening up the rules for its livestreaming service with a ``one strike'' policy applied to a broader range of offenses. Any activity on Facebook that violates the social network's most serious policies, such as sharing a terrorist group's statement without providing context, will result in the user immediately being blocked from Facebook Live for as long as 30 days.   Previously, the company took down posts that breached its community standards but only blocked users after repeated offenses.   The tougher restrictions will be gradually extended to other areas of the platform, starting with preventing users from creating Facebook ads.   Facebook said it's also investing $7.5 million in new research partnerships to improve image and video analysis technology aimed at finding content manipulated through editing to avoid detection by its automated systems — a problem the company encountered following the Christchurch shooting.   "Tackling these threats also requires technical innovation to stay ahead of the type of adversarial media manipulation we saw after Christchurch," Facebook's vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, said in a blog post.   Ardern is playing a central role in the Paris meetings, which she called a significant "starting point" for changes in government and tech industry policy.   Twitter, Google, Microsoft and several other companies are also taking part, along with the leaders of Britain, France, Canada, Ireland, Senegal, Indonesia, Jordan and the European Union.   Officials at Facebook said they support the idea of the Christchurch appeal, but that details need to be worked out that are acceptable for all parties. Free speech advocates and some in the tech industry bristle at new restrictions and argue that violent extremism is a societal problem that the tech world can't solve.   Ardern and the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, insist that it must involve joint efforts between governments and tech giants. France has been hit by repeated Islamic extremist attacks by groups who recruited and shared violent images on social networks.   Speaking to reporters ahead of the meetings, Ardern said, "There will be of course those who will be pushing to make sure that they maintain the commercial sensitivity. We don't need to know their trade secrets, but we do need to know what the impacts might be on our societies around algorithm use."   She stressed the importance of tackling "coded language" that extremists use to avoid detection.   Before the Christchurch attack, she said, governments took a "traditional approach to terrorism that would not necessarily have picked up the form of terrorism that New Zealand experienced on the 15th of March, and that was white supremacy."