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Italy Set to Join China’s Belt & Road Initiative

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 00:14
Italy is expected to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives Thursday in Rome. The United States has been critical of the trillion-dollar global infrastructure project and warned about the risks of "debt-trap diplomacy." Members of the European Union are worried the plan could add to fissures in an already strained coalition. When Xi visits this week, analysts say Italy is expected to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China. That agreement will pave the way for construction projects and financing from the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. “The MoU is mostly perceived as a way to secure more exports to China and more chances to access financing from the AIIB,” said Alessia Amighini, co-head of Asia Center at ISPI, a Rome-based research group. Rome expects to reduce its trade deficit with China and avoid some heavy expenses by attracting Chinese and AIIB investments in big infrastructure projects. The agreement also will give Chinese companies more access to the busy port of Trieste, and in turn, the Mediterranean. Reports emanating from Italy suggest Rome also is looking at the possibility of inviting Chinese companies to expand or manage three other Italian seaports, which are Genoa, Palermo and Ravenna. “Italy is eager to attract investments to improve its competitive position compared to northern European routes and ports,” Amighini said. Clearly, China is exploiting business competition within the Eurozone and trying to wean away an important member by offering a set of attractive terms, analysts note. The MoU signing will represent a major political achievement for China at a time of growing concerns and criticism of the plan. Italy is a founding member of the European Union and could help open up doors for Beijing to the Eurozone. So far, the Belt and Road Initiative's biggest projects and controversies have been tied to countries with serious financial difficulties, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Greece. With Italy's decision to join, China is dealing with a country where there is less fear of slipping into a debt trap under the program. But it is likely to challenge Europe’s connectivity strategy, a plan that was unveiled in September 2018 and aims to improve links within Europe and with Asia while promoting sustainability standards and rules-based practices. Analysts are waiting to find out if Xi will offer a modified version of the program to Italy to meet European standards; but adopting those standards would take away China’s ability to cut costs and reduce its competitive edge. “I don’t expect China to show more flexibility. In any case; I don’t see financing terms as a real issue in Europe,” Amighini said. European disunity Teresa Coratella, program manager at the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, said the Italian move has the potential of creating disunity in the European Union at a time when the coalition is working out a common approach toward Chinese investments. Both the U.S. and France have expressed discomfort about Rome’s move, while German officials reportedly have been lobbying against the MOU signing. Italy, a member of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries, is the only G7 nation to join the BRI. “Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project,” tweeted Garrett Marquis, spokesman for White House’s group of national security advisors. French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed unease about Rome’s decision, and he has called for a “coordinated approach” covering all European Union members toward Chinese plans. “It’s a good thing that China is taking part in the development of many countries, but I believe in the spirit of equality, reciprocity. The spirit of equality means respecting the sovereignty of nations,” Macron said. Lucrezia Poggetti, a research associate with Merics, the Berlin-based research institution, said Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone, and an Italian signature on the BRI has wide implications. “Italy's decision in itself is bad news for the EU and its largest members, who are currently trying to pursue a more unified European China strategy to address challenges with the economic and political weight of the EU bloc,” she said. Rome’s attraction toward the BRI is not new. Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was the only head of government among G-7 countries to attend the first meeting of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. The current government would “go much further by officially endorsing an initiative that has been criticized internationally for, among other things, creating debt traps, political dependencies and promoting exclusively the interests of Chinese companies through unfair practices that don't meet international standards and rules,” said Poggetti. Zhiqun Zhu, who chairs the Department of International Relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the United States is exaggerating the idea of a China threat in all issues, including the BRI plan. “Italy and other countries should make their own decisions instead of being forced to choose sides between the U.S. and China,” Zhu said.  

Vatican Makes New Overtures on Eve of China's Xi Italy Visit

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 23:22
The Vatican is greeting the visit to Italy of Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week with a new round of overtures and says the “door is always open” to dialogue. Italian media have been speculating for days about the possibility of a meeting between Xi and Pope Francis during Xi's March 21-24 visit. But there has been no word from either side. China and the Holy See haven't had diplomatic relations for over half a century. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, when asked Tuesday about Xi's visit, said “Our door is always open.” The Vatican has been working to build on relations stemming from the historic 2018 provisional agreement reached between Beijing and the Holy See over bishop nominations.  

North Korea, US Spar Over Sanctions

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 22:17
North Korea believes there are no legitimate reasons to maintain sanctions against the country since it has not conducted nuclear and missile testing for well over a year, a North Korean diplomat said Tuesday. "The U.S. publicly recognized the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) had discontinued nuclear tests and rocket launches for the past 15 months" However, it does nothing to remove U.S. sanctions as corresponding measures, diplomat Ju Yong Chol said at the U.N.-sponsored Conference of Disarmament in Geneva. Ju said disputes between the two countries should be resolved on a case-by-case basis in an effort to build trust but "Instead, they came up with the preposterous argument that sanctions relief is impossible prior to denuclearization." Ju's remarks came in response to a senior U.S. arms control official who said the only way Pyongyang can achieve stability is to abandon its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. "Our stance is unwavering with regards to North Korea," Yleem Poblete, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, said in Geneva. Poblete also called on countries to stop any weapons or military collaborations with North Korea, saying, "You are violating U.N. Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit such transfers," she said without identifying countries. North Korea is mulling a suspension of negotiations with the U.S. and may reconsider a freeze on missile and nuclear tests unless the U.S. makes concessions, a senior Pyongyang diplomat said last week, according to news accounts from Pyongyang.   South Korea is seeking to end the impasse after last month's summit in Vietnam between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended several hours early. "We agree with the view that no deal is better than a bad deal ... However, in reality, it is difficult to achieve complete denuclearization at one stroke," Seoul's presidential Blue House said in a statement Monday. "I think we need to reconsider the so-called all or nothing strategy." Trump said after the summit that North Korea had wanted "sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn't do that ... we had to walk away from it." But Pyongyang disputed Trump's claim, with Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho maintaining North Korea made "realistic" suggestions in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions."

Rights Activists Denounce China's Xinjiang White Paper

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 21:10
China has released a lengthy white paper that analysts say seeks to justify its anti-terrorism fight and de-radicalization measures in the western region of Xinjiang, where up to 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are estimated to have been forced into detention in what Beijing calls “vocational training centers.” The move, observers say, shows that China has already gone into overdrive to develop a counter-narrative and that it appears to be winning the propaganda war as many countries and Muslim organizations remain silent about the mass detention. Still, while the paper could've been an opportunity to set the record straight China did not say how many are being held in the centers. Estimates overseas are that more than a million have been caught up by the government extremism dragnet. The paper said that since 2014, nearly 13,000 "terrorists" have been arrested in Xinjiang.   Lengthy white paper   Of the 13,000, those who are “assessed to still be socially dangerous” would be relocated to the vocational training centers, or what rights groups called internment camps, after having served their time in jail.   Also, those who were exposed to extreme activism, but have not yet committed any crimes or are believed to be high risk of resorting to violent acts have been kept at the vocational training centers, according to the white paper. The white paper concludes that Xinjiang is China’s key battlefield to counter terrorism and asserts that its policies in the region have made a great contribution to the globe’s fight against terrorism.   Rights groups have voiced concern over China's emboldened stance, calling on international society to use sanctions against Beijing to counter its oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.   The World Uighur Congress swiftly denounced the white paper, calling it a deliberate distortion of the truth, and arguing that China’s forced detention of more than one million Uighurs is unlawful.   “Accusations named in the white paper are hostile in nature and lack transparency. Uighurs suppressed and arrested by the local Chinese government there have never been legally convicted through due process before they are identified as terrorists,” argued Dilxat Raxit, spokesman of the Germany-headquartered exile group.   Unlawful detention of Uighurs   “Never has China provided any evidence to back up what it called a series of terrorist [acts],” he said, adding that the accused have no way to defend or clear their names.     According to the report, extremists had carried out thousands of attacks in China between 1990 and 2016.   Raxit said China’s counter-terrorism in Xinjiang represents its disguised efforts to carry out Sinification among the ethnic group. “We urge the international society not to be deceived by China’s continued attempts, through diplomatic means or [international] propaganda, to cover up its true intention of building re-education concentration camps [in Xinjiang],” he said, calling on international society to impose effective sanctions and stop China’s rights violations.   He added that, if China has nothing to hide, it should immediately allow the United Nations to send an investigation team to Xinjiang – one of the recommendations Beijing flatly rejected during its five-year periodic review at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last week.   On the sidelines of council meetings, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told reporters that Beijing may gradually ease back the scale of re-education facilities if Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism fight shows signs of improving.   But he insisted that those human rights cases reported in the periodic review are not human rights issues, but issues related to China’s judicial sovereignty and fairness.   Propaganda war   “This shows China’s attempt to defend their brutal measures in violating human rights principles. Therefore, those who persist in the truth should debunk Chinese official’s narrative,” Albert Ho, the chairperson of Hong Kong Alliance, responded in a press statement on Monday. James Leibold, an associate professor in Chinese Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University, said that the latest report shows that every part of China’s propaganda machine has kicked in to help disseminate its messages across a range of platforms be it social or state media with an aim to win the propaganda war on Xinjiang policies.   “As far as I view it, it's an attempt to create a kind of credible and palatable counter-narrative that can be consumed and used by China’s trading partners to disarm growing international criticism of the really severe human rights abuses that are occurring in Xinjiang today,” Leibold said.   Leibold added that unfortunately, China at the present has the winning edge as few countries, other than the U.S. and some European countries, have come on strong on China.   In the Muslim world, Turkey is the only country that has been outspoken about China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. In contrast, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Kazakhstan have both sided with China’s anti-terrorism stance.   'Thought crime'   The white paper also sheds light on China's broad definition of what it considers to be extremists. That includes not only those who have been legally convicted but also those who have committed “thought crime,” notes Hong-Kong based Shih Chienyu, secretary-general of the Central Asian Studies Association in Taiwan. It means that any Xinjiang Muslim could be regarded as radicalized “provided their words and deeds do not conform [with] official [the state's] interpretations and practices of Islamic teachings in China,” Shih said in a recent report.   “The manifestation of radicalism is almost all-embracing, including the ways and content of preaching, marriages and funerals, property inheritance, religious appearance and costumes, and the format of education. Everything in daily life could belong to a category that requires regulation,” Shih added.   Shih, however, concluded that China’s strategy in Xinjiang, which involves detention or limiting individual freedom, will turn out to be a counter-productive failure as such a large-scale detention is not only hard to sustain but also invokes resentment that will eventually be difficult to eliminate.       

Taiwan, US Plan New Talks This Year in Rebuke to Beijing

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 16:35
Taiwan and the U.S. will hold talks later this year as part of upgraded efforts to counter Beijing's growing pressure on the island for political unification.  The talks planned for September in Taipei will include a senior official from Washington, de facto U.S. ambassador to Taipei William Brent Christensen said Tuesday. Christensen didn't say whether the consultations are meant to provoke China or push it to make changes. The U.S. has formal diplomatic relations with China but maintains strong ties with Taiwan though the American Institute in Taiwan, its de facto embassy in Taipei, which has recently undergone a major upgrade in facilities. "We believe it's possible to have a good relationship with Taiwan and a good relationship with China at the same time," Christensen said at a news conference. "Things we do with Taiwan should not be regarded as things that we are doing because we are seeking to provoke China or vice versa."   President Donald Trump has elevated 40 years of informal ties with Taiwan through more open contacts and planned arms deals. Meanwhile, China and the U.S. are enmeshed in a dispute over trade, copyrights and tariffs, raising economic and political frictions to their highest level in a decade. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the "Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Consultations" — as the dialogue is termed — would allow the two sides to "grow closer and more direct in their cooperation ...  to protect regional freedom and legal order."  Taiwan has been democratically ruled for about 30 years. It allows freedom of expression and religion in contrast to China's tight restrictions under authoritarian Communist Party rule, and remains a close U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. While China insists that Taiwan is its territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary, more than 70 percent of Taiwanese oppose China's goal of unification, the government's Mainland Affairs Council spokesman said in January. Many fear Beijing would eliminate Taiwan's democratic institutions. While there was no immediate word from Beijing, China will "most definitely" protest the consultations, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. China has used military flybys, aircraft carrier movements and diplomatic pressure as warnings to Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen took office there in 2016. Tsai's party embraces greater Taiwanese independence from China, resulting in a strong backlash from China. Beijing has cut all formal ties with Tsai's government, blockaded the island's participation in international forums and persuaded five countries to cut diplomatic ties with it. Washington switched its official recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979. But Taiwan still counts the United States as its staunchest informal ally, particularly as a source of advanced weapons systems. Last year Trump signed a bill encouraging more high-level exchanges between the two governments, inflaming China. In another sign of stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties, Tsai is expected to stop over in U.S. territory once or twice during a trip starting Thursday to visit diplomatic allies in the South Pacific. China has protested to the United States against her previous stopovers.

Decline of Hakka in Southern China Shows Bigger Problems Ahead

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 15:38
At Damon Huang’s family home in Shakou, a small town in southern China, it’s not uncommon to hear three varieties of Chinese spoken throughout the day.  There’s Hakka, the language of his ancestors; Cantonese, the dominant regional dialect of Guangdong Province; and Mandarin, the national variety that most foreigners recognize as “Chinese.” Each dialect serves a unique purpose in Huang’s life, spoken either at home, in school, or at work “I will use Mandarin in some formal occasions. I will use Cantonese with my friends when we have fun and we go outside. I will use Hakka with some family members,” Huang said over a long holiday weekend at home in Shakou.  Huang, 21, left his agricultural town in middle school to study in the county seat and is now a university student in Guangzhou, one of southern China’s many megacities. While less educated, his parents have also moved onto better opportunities in the nearby industrial city of Foshan – like millions of other families from rural towns – taking his 3-year-old brother with them.  Speaking Hakka is a common activity that still unites Huang with his grandparents in Shakou and his parents in Foshan, but it’s also changing. When his little brother calls the family, everyone switches from Hakka to Mandarin.  “My little brother, even though we live in Foshan we [try] to teach him Hakka,” Huang said, “But he is not learning Hakka, he is learning Mandarin, so until now he cannot speak Hakka.”  The Huang family is just one example of how linguistic diversity is slowly dying in China, according to Arthur Thompson, a linguistics PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong. Thompson is studying Huangalong with his colleagues J. Joseph Perry and Jonathan Havenhill, both assistant professors at HKU’s Department of Linguistics, as part of an ongoing project on Hakka in Shakou.  Hakka is spoken by 34 million people worldwide – including in Hong Kong, Taiwan and among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia – and claims some of China’s most famous leaders including Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China and Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion.  Despite its historic significance, within mainland China, it is being pushed out in favor of Mandarin, the “standard” variety of Chinese originating from Beijing.  Much of this change has been driven by China’s dramatic rural to urban migration, which has seen hundreds of millions of people like the Huang family move from the countryside to cities like Foshan and Guangzhou over the past thirty years. Many of these migrants end up dropping their hometown or county dialect for the local standard.  “That’s why [Huang] has this sense that Hakka is dying because he can already see that it’s not really useful outside of his family. That’s even more triggered by the fact his brother, has never even grown up in Shakou at all and probably won't get any education at all in Shakou," said Thompson. “This is happening quite a lot across China. I think this model can be extrapolated, across many different Chinese languages and not specific to Hakka," he also said.  Southern China has been particularly hard hit as one of the most linguistically diverse areas of the country now turned economic and factory powerhouse. Nationwide, there are around ten major varieties of Han Chinese, according to the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects, in addition to the many languages of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. Almost all of them are on the decline.  While Taiwan recently passed a law protecting minority languages like Hakka, China has not done the same beyond a limited amount of public programming on local television. It also does not recognize varieties of Chinese as official “languages,” although some like Cantonese – also known as Yue – are spoken by 91 million people worldwide. Many of these “varieties” are mutually unintelligible with standard Mandarin and often have a different number of tones and vocabulary. With the loss of Hakka, southern China will slowly lose elements of its history. Hakka was spread through the migration of the Hakka people from the north hundreds of years ago and survived often violent confrontations with other ethnic groups to settle southern China and southeast Asia.  In the contemporary era, as well, Hakka’s declining presence will have important political consequences that can already be seen in Huang’s Mandarin-only speaking younger brother.  “That’s the kind of kid the Chinese government wants: Damien’s little brother, who will grow up from three speaking Mandarin fluently and have no ties to his linguistic diversity at all – and that way he will be wiped from any regional identity. He will just see himself as southern Chinese.” Thompson said.  He said that a binary distinction is easier for the government to manage: northern versus southern Chinese, rather than identify by varying village or linguistic group. This kind of dichotomy seems to broadly line up with a greater ongoing campaign in China to stress Chinese identity as both Han and Mandarin speaking under President Xi Jinping, particularly in regions that are home to large numbers of minorities like Tibet and Xinjiang.  Thompson said while Hakka could still be found in Guangdong, it was “only a matter of time” before younger Chinese stop speaking the languages of their parents if current trends continue.

New Zealand PM Vows to Never Speak the Name of Accused Mosque Gunman

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 15:10
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is urging lawmakers to join her in never uttering the name of the man accused of killing 50 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques last Friday. During an emotional address before Parliament Tuesday, Prime Minister Ardern said the suspected gunman “is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless.” “I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them,” Ardern said.  Authorities have accused 28-year-old Australian Brenton Harris Tarrant of committing the horrific attack. He is the only person in custody linked to the killings and has been charged with murder. Tarrant has not yet entered a plea. Media reports say he has refused a lawyer and will represent himself in court proceedings. His next court appearance is April 5. Prime Minister Ardern said her government will launch an inquiry into whether the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies missed any signs about Tarrant and his intentions.She also expressed her frustrations about U.S.-based social media giant Facebook for allowing Tarrant to livestream the attack, as well as the fact that the footage was still online four days later. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” Ardern said in her speech to parliament.“They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”   Facebook says it removed 1.5 million versions of the video of the massacre in during the first 24 hours after the attack.  Ardern has said she was one of more than 30 recipients of a 74-page white nationalist manifesto emailed by Tarrant nine minutes before his alleged attacks. In the manifesto, Tarrant allegedly denounced Muslims and called immigrants "invaders."  Meanwhile, relatives of the dead are anxiously for awaiting authorities to release their bodies so they can bury their loved ones.The prime minister said Monday the bodies of all 50 victims will be returned to their families by Wednesday for burial as soon as possible in accordance with Muslim tradition. She said that six disaster victim identification experts have flown in from Australia to help in the identification process. About 60 volunteers, some who have traveled from Australia, are helping with the ritual cleansing of the victims before burial.  The names of the victims have not been made public, although a preliminary list has been shared with relatives. Thirty people remain hospitalized in the Christchurch hospital, nine of them in critical condition.A 4-year-old child in critical condition has been transferred to a hospital in Auckland for further treatment. Prime Minister Ardern said Monday she will reveal the decisions her Cabinet members have reached about reforming New Zealand’s gun laws within the following days. Mass shootings and violent crime are rare in New Zealand, a country of nearly five million people. Until Friday, the country's worst mass shooting was in 1990, when a gunman killed 13 people in the small town of Aramoana.

In Thai Election, New 'War Room' Polices Social Media

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:30
In Thailand's election "war room," authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties' campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world. The monitors are on the look-out for posts that "spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language," all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility. When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal. "When we order content to be removed, we'll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient," Sawang said. Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries' elections in recent years. "Other countries don't do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates," he said. A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis. "We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world," the representative said. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning. The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long. Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20. Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating "fake news" and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be. "The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They're so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed," he told Reuters. 'Doesn't Bode Well for Democracy' The monitoring center, with a signboard reading "E-War Room," has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law. Sawang said another intelligence center scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was "off-limits" to media. The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics. But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification. Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship. "They create complications for parties," said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media. She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts. Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble. Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party's website. The commission dismissed the case last week. In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party's secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post. "It's very restrictive and doesn't bode well for democracy," said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). "Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place." Fighting Fake News About 74 percent of Thailand's population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world's top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social. Thailand is Facebook's eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed. Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country. "Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections," said Katie Harbath, Facebook's Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January. Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais. Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from "trusted publishers" on its news feature.

New Zealand Mosque Attacks Send Shock Waves Throughout Muslim World

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:28
Attacks last Friday on Muslims worshipping at their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, have sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world. VOA Turkish and Urdu language service reporters visited Muslims in the Washington, D.C., area and report that their reactions range from fear and sadness to determination to stand up to terror. Mosques in the United States boosted their security during Friday prayers. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.

Muslim and Government Officials Plan Next Steps in Christchurch

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:21
VOA's  Ira Mellman contributed to this report. Residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, have returned to work and school, but the city of nearly 400,000 is still coming to grips with the tragic events that unfolded Friday, when a gunman entered two mosques and killed 50 people. Throughout the city people continued Tuesday to flock to memorials to pay their respects to the members of their community who lost their lives, hoping to heal and ensure such events do not take place again. Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, announced her Cabinet reached a consensus for in-principle agreements on changes to the nation’s gun laws. “Within 10 days of this horrific act of terrorism we will have announced reforms which will, I believe, make our community safer,” Ardern told reporters at a news conference Monday. Ardern didn’t provide details of what changes may be proposed, but altering the country’s gun laws was a topic of conversation Dr. Mohomad Anwar Sahib, chairman of the New Zealand Islamic Information Centre (NZIIC) and Imam of the center’s Masjid at-Taqwa, had with several members of the community during his daylong visit to Christchurch from Auckland. The issue of what to do, if anything, about New Zealand’s firearm regulations “was one of the most important topics” we discussed, Anwar said. While some have called for an outright ban on guns, Anwar notes that New Zealand's legislative process doesn’t enable the prime minister to make instant changes to laws. “This is a democratic country. She (Prime Minister Arden) can't say ‘Stop the guns.’ It goes through so many channels before it can happen,” he said. Anwar likened the debate on gun control to a “catch 22 situation” saying, “If you ban it, there are situations to it. If you allow it, there are issues with it.” Forever changed The alleged perpetrator of the New Zealand mosque attacks distributed a more than 70-page document before the attack. Its content called foreign immigrants “invaders,” a signal to many that the man in police custody is a white supremacist. “I don't think it’s (white supremacy) any longer a fringe movement, it is certainly coming of age. It is being globalized at a very rapid pace,” said Erroll Southers, a professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Southers asserts one reason for increased white supremacist rhetoric hangs on immigration and a “notion that there's a ticking clock down to the eventual what these extremists will call ‘white genocide’ of their respective communities in nations around the world.”  Another factor says Southers is “the issue is one of believing that there's no longer a place for white people [in the world], and unfortunately this is an international threat that knows no borders and they believe that the only way to combat this is now violence.” And that is a concern for the Muslim community in New Zealand.  Anwar explains that violent speech tends to begin in “other places and then gradually it comes down to Australia and by the time it arrives to New Zealand, it's quite far away (been diluted and is not as intense)... that’s why what happened here is unprecedented.”  While the history of New Zealand has changed after the attacks, said Anwar, “That doesn’t mean we, as a people, have changed. We stand united together as one, and we are supportive of each other.” “But,” he said, “the fear will always be there. Once it’s happened, it can happen again.” Widespread government response continues Sarah Stewart-Black, director of New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management, spent the first half of Tuesday visiting several locations throughout Christchurch to understand more about the government’s response thus far. “It was important for me to come down and connect with people on the ground to see how everyone is doing and check on the pressure points, and [how] we government can work with the community to provide the right assistance,” she said. Stewart-Black also met with members of the Muslim community to better understand what their needs are and how they are changing, because, “as time is moving on the needs of the families are changing and we want to be responsive to that.” Beyond addressing the immediate needs of the Muslim community, Katrina Casey from the Ministry of Education, noted that the ministry’s “traumatic incident teams are in constant contact” and visiting priorities schools (a facility that has direct connections either to victims, and/or parents of victims, and/or staff, and/or the Muslim community). The teams, she says are working to make sure “schools and early childhood centers getting the right level of support” throughout the nation. “This is not something where our support will be only this week, as support will remain as long as it's needed, and we think that will be for some time to come,” Casey said. The government’s response has been appreciated says Anwar, which is why his organization is looking to collaborate with various emergency management organizations to effectively distribute the more than $5.6 million that’s been raised online since Friday through various online donation platforms. He says that with the funds collected, and by working with officials, “there won’t be anything missing” in terms of providing assistance, not only to those directly affected by Friday’s shooting, but to the larger community as a whole.

Kyodo: Japan Olympic Committee Chief Takeda to Resign

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:50
Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) chief Tsunekazu Takeda, who is expected to announce plans to step down on Tuesday, is also set to resign as a member of the International Olympics Committee, Kyodo News reported. French prosecutors questioned Takeda in Paris and placed him under formal investigation in December for suspected corruption in Japan's successful bid to host the 2020 Summer Games. French investigators have led a years-long probe into corruption in athletics and in early 2016 extended their inquiry into the bidding and voting processes for the hosting of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Multimillion-dollar payments made by the Tokyo bid committee to a Singapore consulting company are under probe and Takeda is suspected of paying bribes to secure the winning bid. Takeda has denied any wrongdoing, saying that there was nothing improper with the contracts made between the committee and the consultancy and that they were for legitimate work. Although there was no formal announcement of the 71-year-old's resignation, Takeda is expected to announce his decision at the JOC's executive board meeting in Tokyo later on Tuesday. The IOC's ethics commission has opened an ethics file on Takeda, who chairs the IOC's marketing commission. Takeda has been a member of the IOC since 2012 and was president of the Tokyo 2020 bid committee.

Thais Head to Polls for First Vote Since 2014 Military Coup

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:45
Thailand is preparing for a Sunday vote in its first general election since a 2014 military coup. Nearly 52 million Thais are eligible to vote, with some 75 percent expected to go to the polls, according to Aim Sinpeng, an assistant professor in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney, who said, "Turnout is usually high in Thailand." Reflecting widespread interest in the general election despite limits on dissent, of the 2.6 million people who registered for early voting on March 17, 86.98 per cent of them turned up, according to Thai PBS. The military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had repeatedly delayed the general election, first tentatively set for 2015, which means many people have expectations, based on a buildup OF "wants, and aspirations, and hopes for themselves and the society, which aren't being realized … under this kind of authoritarian culture, which the military government has created," said Chris Baker, a historian who co-authored "A History of Thailand" with Pasuk Phongpaichit. Key issues for voters include a sluggish economy —Thailand is Southeast Asia's second-largest economy after Indonesia — and growing inequality caused in part by a plunge in the world prices of commodities. The price of rubber, which supports one of every 10 people has fallen 65 percent since 2011. That happened against a faltering economy; Thailand has dropped 10 places on the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index since 2007. That's the biggest decline among Southeast Asia's top economies, and globally, Thailand ranked 38 out of 140 countries last year, according to Bloomberg. Somprawin Manprasert, the chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya Pcl, told Bloomberg, "Thailand can ill-afford another period of lagging behind from political disorder. I believe we've bottomed out as people realize we need to improve productivity." Voters have choices — thousands of candidates represent dozens of political parties. New to the scene are the young voters, those between 18 and 24 years old, who "have grown up under military rule as they reached adulthood," said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus, at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says these first-time voters, numbering 7 million or more, are looking for change, and in general, dislike military rule. But the youth bloc's preference may matter little, as the military, acting as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) appointed drafters of a new constitution — the 20th in Thailand since 1932 — and curbed debates on the legislation after taking power in a 2014 coup, the 12th since 1932 — that paved the way for Sunday's vote. Aside from the generational divide, there's a regional one among Thai voters. The north and northeast support parties affiliated with ousted populist Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who each served as prime minister until deposed in military coups. There's widespread support for the Democrat Party in the south. Sinpeng believes that the latest constitution ratified in 2017 structured elections to prevent a level playing field. "A number of key features of the constitution are quite non-democratic, and in fact reflect how the military can continue its political dominance going forward regardless of who's elected." Under the new constitution, the 250-member Senate will be chosen by the NCPO. The 500-member House will be elected by voters. Of those seats, 350 members (MPs) will be directly chosen by the voters in their constituencies. The remaining 150 will be allotted to political parties using a formula based on total election turnout divided by 500. To win with full control, one party would need to gain at least 376 seats, which will be, according to experts, impossible. The process, designed by the military to retain power, is expected to lessen the influence of larger parties while giving seats to many smaller parties, and forming a government will require the creation of a multi-party coalition. The many parties running in the general election break-out into distinct groups. Here are some of the ones to watch. The Palang Pracharat Party is pro-military. It named the current prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, as its candidate. He began his military career in the prestigious Queen's Guard, and became army chief in 2010. After the 2014 coup, he emerged as the acting premier, and the regime began cracking down on dissent. The anti-military faction is led by the Pheu Thai Party which is the largest of three major Thaksin-leaning populist parties. Also in this cohort is the Future Forward Party, founded in 2018 by auto parts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit who has been described by local media as a "billionaire peasant" after he said that while he may be a member of the 1 percent, he represents everyone else. At 40, he's something of a millennial darling. The Democrat Party, one of Thailand's oldest, led by former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva has been perceived as pro-business and pro-establishment. Although the party has been Thaksin's archrival, voters' growing frustration with the military has forced to Abhisit to vow not to support Prayut as prime minister. "Once the election results come out, [these parties will] have leverage to bargain, to be part of either side of the political divide," said Sinpeng, predicting that the smaller parties will "make or break who's going to be in the government." According to Thayer, that means "Thailand is likely to be governed by a coalition government of weak, medium-to-small political parties led by a prime minister who is not popularly elected." "The new government will be constrained in what it can do" he added as senior or retired bureaucrats, high-ranking military officers, and well-connected wealthy businessmen appointed by the military junta that seized power will continue to exert power behind the scenes," Thayer said. And, while the election will give legitimacy to Phalang Pracharat, which is backed by the military, Thayer suggested the upside will be that "for the first time in five years, political parties that oppose military rule will have legal status to register, to contest the elections, campaign, and have their representatives serve in the Lower House of Parliament."

China's Xi Urges Teachers of Political Courses to Tackle 'False Ideas'

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:30
Chinese educators must respond to "false ideas and thoughts" when teaching political and ideological classes, President Xi Jinping said, in a sensitive year that marks the 30th anniversary of student-led protests around Tiananmen Square. Beijing has campaigned against the spread of "Western values" in education, especially at universities, and the ruling Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog has sent inspectors to monitor teachers for "improper" remarks in class. Addressing a symposium for teachers of ideological and political theory in Beijing, Xi said the party must nurture generations of talent to support its leadership and China's socialist system, state media said late on Monday. "It is essential to gradually open and upgrade ideological and political theory courses in primary, secondary and tertiary schools, which is an important guarantee for training future generations who are well-prepared to join the socialist cause," media paraphrased Xi as saying. "Ideological and political courses should deliver the country's mainstream ideology and directly respond to false ideas and thoughts," Xi added. The report did not elaborate. The government has previously admitted that political education for university students was outdated and unfashionable, though the education minister said last year this problem had been fixed. Xi alluded to that in his comments. "We are fully confident of and capable of running ideological and political theory courses better," he said. "Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era should be used to educate people and guide students to strengthen their confidence in the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics and to boost patriotism," Xi added. Crackdowns on what academics and students can say and should think are nothing new in China. Courses and speech at universities, in particular, are tightly controlled by the government, fearful of a repeat of pro-democracy protests in 1989 led by students and eventually bloodily crushed by the military. In 2013, a liberal Chinese economist who had been an outspoken critic of the party was expelled from the elite Peking University. A year later, the university, once a bastion of free speech in China, established a 24-hour system to monitor public opinion on the internet and take early measures to rein in negative speech, a party journal said at the time. China aims to build world-class universities and some of its top schools fare well in global rankings, but critics argue curbs on academic freedom could inhibit those ambitions.

S. Korea Alert System Warns 'Smartphone Zombies' of Traffic

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 10:41
A city in South Korea, which has the world's highest smartphone penetration rate, has installed flickering lights and laser beams at a road crossing to warn "smartphone zombies" to look up and drivers to slow down, in the hope of preventing accidents. The designers of the system were prompted by growing worry that more pedestrians glued to their phones will become casualties in a country that already has some of the highest road fatality and injury rates among developed countries. State-run Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) believes its system of flickering lights at zebra crossings can warn both pedestrians and drivers. In addition to red, yellow and blue LED lights on the pavement, "smombies" - smartphone zombies - will be warned by laser beam projected from power poles and an alert sent to the phones by an app that they are about to step into traffic. "Increasing number of smombie accidents have occurred in pedestrian crossings, so these zombie lights are essential to prevent these pedestrian accidents," said KICT senior researcher Kim Jong-hoon. The multi-dimensional warning system is operated by radar sensors and thermal cameras and comes with a price tag of 15 million won ($13,250) per crossing. Drivers are alerted by the flashing lights, which have shown to be effective 83.4 percent of the time in the institute's tests involving about 1,000 vehicles. In 2017, more than 1,600 pedestrians were killed in auto related accidents, which is about 40 percent of total traffic fatalities, according to data from the Traffic Accident Analysis System. South Korea has the world's highest smartphone penetration rate, according to Pew Research Center, with about 94 percent of adults owning the devices in 2017, compared with 77 percent in the United States and 59 percent in Japan. For now, the smombie warning system is installed only in Ilsan, a suburban city about 30 km northwest of the capital, Seoul, but is expected to go nationwide, according to the institute. Kim Dan-hee, a 23-year-old resident of Ilsan, welcomed the system, saying she was often too engrossed in her phone to remember to look at traffic. "This flickering light makes me feel safe as it makes me look around again, and I hope that we can have more of these in town," she said.

Tighten N. Korea Sanctions by Targeting Banks, Experts Say

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 09:15
The United States needs to target banks that facilitate illicit transactions for Pyongyang to increase sanction pressure on North Korea to the maximum, said experts.    The U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea has released a report detailing how the country evades sanctions with tactics such as illegal ship-to-ship transfers of embargoed goods and the operation of front companies abroad by North Korean government agencies.      The report indicated foreign banks facilitate North Korea's financial transactions for "illegal ship-to-ship transfer of petroleum products and an increasing number of ship-to-ship coal transfers." The report said "financial sanctions remain some of the most poorly implemented and actively evaded measures."    The report was released last week, in the wake of the February breakdown of the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two leaders failed to agree on a denuclearization deal, with Washington refusing to accept Pyongyang's demand for comprehensive sanctions relief and Pyongyang rejecting Washington's request for full denuclearization.  Greater effectiveness   And while experts told VOA Korean that sanctions are working on North Korea, they suggested that tougher, more targeted sanctions, properly enforced, could be more effective in pressuring North Korea to denuclearize.    Joshua Stanton, a Washington attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act in 2016, thinks sanctions are "not enough" and "not property targeted." He suggests the U.S. should specifically target Chinese banks that facilitate illicit transactions for North Korea.   "Where we're really falling short is on pressuring the banks that hold the slush fund for North Korea's various government agencies," said Stanton. "Until we get serious about that, we will not be at maximum pressure. I will know that we have reached maximum pressure when I see the Treasury Department begin to issue really significant civil penalties against Chinese and other third-country banks."    George Lopez, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, said "[Kim] does feel the pressure, even as his evasions succeed for the moment. … This is why he insisted on removal of these U.N. sanctions at the Hanoi summit."    Lopez continued, "This is maximum pronouncement of sanctions with minimal action to implement and enforce sanctions."     The report noted detailed sightings in North Korea of a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Mercedes-Benz limousines and Lexus LX 570 all-wheel-drive luxury SUVs, all in violation of sanctions on luxury items, according to the U.N. report.    Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said, "The North Korean demand for comprehensive sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit suggests that Pyongyang believes the sanctions are indeed biting pretty hard." He continued, "Whether this will be enough [to induce denuclearization] is hard to say."   ​U.N. measure   A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in 2016 bans foreign financial institutions from having correspondent relationships with North Korean banks and North Korean bank representatives from operating on the territory of U.N. member states.   Stanton said Trump stopped the Treasury Department from issuing a package of designations just prior to his first summit with Kim in June 2018.     William Newcomb, a former U.S. Treasury official who was on the U.N. Security Council's Panel of Experts on North Korea, said, "U.S. maximum pressure is crucially important because secondary sanctions can be used to hold violators, evaders and enablers financially and criminally accountable."    According to Stanton, North Korean government agencies operate "very significant multimillion dollars' " worth of money-laundering networks, such as Glocom, using Chinese banks.     The U.N. report indicates Glocom, a front company for North Korea selling sanctioned military equipment, is run by the country's Reconnaissance General Bureau agents who use "an extensive network of individuals, companies and offshore bank accounts" to conduct illicit financial activities. The report stated that a previous panel recommended that member states of the U.N. freeze bank accounts associated with Glocom.    Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, said although sanctioning Chinese banks might not be sufficient because North Korea also uses cryptocurrency digital assets to secure financial transactions, "if the United States began targeting Chinese banks that have facilitated North Korea's transactions, it would begin to close off their ability to move money."    Stanton said, "The front companies and the ship-to-ship transfers are enabled by the fact that the banks aren't doing their job, and they're not doing their job because they're not afraid of enforcement."   Stiff penalties   Civil penalties that can be imposed on banks that conduct illicit transactions for North Korea, according to Stanton, can be substantial, depending on whether they neglected to exercise due diligence as required by U.S. law or willfully laundered money — in which case, any assets involved in transactions can be seized and forfeited.    Financial penalties can go as high as $9 billion, which was the case in 2014 for BNP Paribas, France's largest bank. It was fined for transferring billions of dollars for countries such as Sudan that were blacklisted by the U.S. Earlier this month, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, and Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, reintroduced the bipartisan Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act, named after the American college student who died shortly after he arrived in the U.S. after being detained in North Korea.      The legislation calls for the U.S. to impose mandatory sanctions on foreign banks that conduct illicit financial transactions for North Korea.    Lopez also emphasized that effective enforcement on illicit North Korean businesses operating abroad would prevent any banking transactions.    "Banks could not facilitate the illicit monies these partnerships produce if these ventures were shut down via more effective enforcement," said Lopez.  "It is the economic activities that need bank transfers that the sanctions must halt." 

Indonesian Vice Presidential Debate Shines Overdue Light on Education

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 23:16
In the first vice presidential debate in Indonesia leading up to the April 17 elections, both candidates — businessman Sandiaga Uno and renowned Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin — agreed on one problem:  Indonesia's education system needs repairs. The debate on Sunday involved four main themes: culture, public health, employment and education, with the goal of Indonesia becoming internationally competitive by 2025 and achieving the "industrial revolution 4.0" — delineating the increasingly competitive market for the country's workforce. As raised in the debate or outlined by the Lowy Institute think tank's 2018 research titled "Beyond Access: Making Indonesia's Education System Work," the problems surrounding education in Indonesia include employment opportunities for vocational school graduates and the ineffectiveness of funds allocated for research. Employment opportunities According to data released by Statistics Indonesia (BPS), the country's main survey body, graduates of vocational schools number highest among the country's unemployed. With the goal of reducing unemployment among young people by 2 million, Sandiaga, a former military commander and Prabowo Subianto presidential running mate, proposed creating a training hub for fresh graduates, providing incentives and co-working spaces. "We see that the main issue is the absence of link and match between what an educational institution provides and what the workforce demands," he said. Similarly, Ma'ruf, incumbent President Joko Widodo's running mate, identified two ways to remedy the problem. "We'll revitalize vocational schools, polytechnics and academies, and we will adjust them to what the market will bear," he said. If elected, Ma'ruf said, the team will release "a pre-work card" and provide incentives between six months and a year upon graduation from vocational schools. Ma'ruf also reiterated his camp's program of "perpetual funds" for research purposes, initially announced earlier this year. Sandiaga proposed restructuring research institutions, noting that "collaboration" and "synergy" between the government and research bodies are key.  Education Child psychologist and education expert Najeela Shihab told VOA that the debate felt "incomplete." She said that topics surrounding education could have been given more attention. "I've always understood that education isn't a priority yet," she said. "Education isn't just a political issue or fodder for political contestation. Whoever's elected needs to have a road map 20 to 30 years ahead.  In Indonesia, our main problem with regards to policy surrounding education is that it changes. That's why there's a saying, 'With a new minister, there's a new curriculum.'" Sunday's debate was the third of five leading up to the elections. Recent polls suggest that the ticket of Joko-Ma'ruf edges Prabowo-Sandiaga 57.6 percent to 31.8 percent, according to research center Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting. According to the Lowy Institute, the primary problem with Indonesia's education system is not access but effectiveness. Problems such as a convoluted bureaucracy and a lack of teacher training continued to impair the troubled system. "The country's education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country's ambitions for an 'internationally competitive' system," Lowy Institute contributor Andrew Rosser wrote on the organization's website.  Shihab said that although Indonesia managed to get 56 million kids into schools, there are still outstanding problems with regards to access. "There's a problem with the quality of education, too, like there are still teachers who don't show up to classes," she said. "And there are also kids who are not in school, especially those who are already working or those who don't have a birth certificate." Solutions for other essential problems do not stop at this debate, Shihab added. "There are still essential issues like the potential growth among students, basic rights and democratic values. I hope attention for education goes on."

Trump Assails News Accounts Linking Him to New Zealand Massacre

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 22:33
President Donald Trump complained Monday that the U.S. national news media "is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand." He said on Twitter, "They will have to work very hard to prove that one. So Ridiculous!"   Trump apparently was incensed that major U.S. news outlets reported that Brent Harris Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist accused in the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, said in a manifesto he released Friday shortly before the attacks that he viewed Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose," even though he did not support his policies. Asked Friday after the attacks whether he sees an increase in white nationalism, Trump said, "I don't really. I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess." Trump said he had not seen the manifesto. The president has condemned the attack and voiced support for New Zealand.  But he has not commented on Tarrant's apparent motive for allegedly carrying out the attacks — his avowed racism and hatred for immigrants and Muslims. The White House on Sunday rejected any attempt to link Trump to Tarrant. "The president is not a white supremacist," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday." "I'm not sure how many times we have to say that. Let's take what happened in New Zealand for what it is: a terrible evil tragic act." Trump's dismissal that white nationalism is on the rise renewed criticism that he has not voiced strong enough condemnation of white nationalists. Trump was widely attacked in the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 when he equated white supremacists with counter-protesters, saying "both sides" were to blame and that there were "fine people" on both sides of the protest. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of numerous Democrats seeking the party's presidential nomination to oppose Trump in the 2020 election, said on Twitter after the New Zealand attack, "Time and time again, this president has embraced and emboldened white supremacists and instead of condemning racist terrorists, he covers for them. This isn't normal or acceptable." Mulvaney, in the Fox News interview, said, "I don't think it's fair to cast this person (Tarrant) as a supporter of Donald Trump any more than it is to look at his eco-terrorist passages in that manifesto and align him with (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi or Ms. Ocasio-Cortez." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic congresswoman from New York. "This was a disturbed individual, an evil person," Mulvaney said. Scott Brown, U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, told CNN that he gave no credence to Tarrant's comments about Trump in the manifesto, saying the accused gunman "is rotten to the core." Brown said he hopes Tarrant is convicted "as quickly as he can be," and "lock him up and throw away the key."

US Wages Wide-Ranging Campaign to Block Huawei

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 21:57
Over the past several weeks, the U.S. government has launched a seemingly unprecedented campaign to block the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies from competing in the global rollout of next-generation 5G mobile networking technology, claiming that the company is effectively an arm of the Chinese intelligence services. In an effort that has included top-level officials from the departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce, as well as the president himself, the Trump administration has taken steps to curtail Huawei’s ability to operate within the U.S. It has also mounted an extraordinary effort to convince U.S. allies to bar the firm from operating on their soil. Huawei has long been viewed with suspicion and distrust in many corners of the global economy. The company has a documented history of industrial espionage, and its competitiveness on the global stage has been boosted by massive subsidies from the government in Beijing. Still, the scope of the U.S. government’s current offensive against the company is remarkable. “Huawei has been accused of many things for a very long time. This is nothing new. What is unique is the extent of the pressure campaign,” said Michael Murphree, assistant professor of International Business at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “In the grand scheme of international technology competition, this is certainly a very strong effort against a specific firm.” The push to keep Huawei from playing a major role in the rollout of 5G comes at a time when the U.S. and China are in talks to end a costly trade war that the U.S. launched last year with the imposition of tariffs against hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese exports. In another unprecedented move, President Donald Trump has even tied at least one of the government’s actions against Huawei — a federal indictment in which the company’s chief financial officer has been named — as a potential bargaining chip in trade discussions. A corporate spokesman for Huawei declined to comment on the Trump Administration's aggressive tactics. The case against Huawei U.S. officials cite a number of reasons to treat Huawei with extreme suspicion, some of them well-documented, others less so. Top of the list is a National Intelligence law passed in China in 2017 that gives government intelligence services broad and open-ended powers to demand the cooperation of businesses operating in China in intelligence gathering efforts. U.S. policymakers argue that this presents an unambiguous threat to national security. “In America we can’t even get Apple to crack open an iPhone for the FBI,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a March 13 appearance on Fox Business Network. “In China, Huawei has to give the Chinese anything they ask for.” He added, “They should not be in business in America.” And while Huawei has strongly denied that it operates as an arm of the Chinese intelligence services, at least two recent international espionage cases have come uncomfortably close to the firm.  In January, the Polish government arrested a Huawei executive on charges of spying for China. The company itself has not been charged in the case, and Huawei announced that the employee, a sales manager, had been fired. Early last year, the French newspaper Le Monde Afrique reported that over the course of several years, the computer systems in the Chinese-financed headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa were secretly transmitting data toservers in Shanghai every night, and that listening devices had been discovered implanted in the building. It was later revealed that the primary supplier of information and communications technology to the project had been Huawei. No proof has ever been put forward that Huawei was involved in the data theft, and African Union officials have declined to go on the record confirming that the information transfers ever occurred. One of the most frequent concerns expressed by U.S. officials about Huawei is the least substantiated: the idea that the company could install secret “backdoor” access to communications equipment that would give the Chinese government ready access to sensitive communications, or even enable Beijing to shut down communications in another country at will. It’s a claim that Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s 74-year-old founder and president, has personally ridiculed. The government would never make that request, and Huawei would never comply, he told the BBC recently. “Our sales revenues are now hundreds of billions of dollars. We are not going to risk the disgust of our country and our customers all over the world because of something like that. We will lose all our business. I’m not going to take that risk.” The public battle over Huawei's image The sheer number of fronts on which the U.S. federal government is currently engaging with Huawei, sometimes very aggressively, is notable. The most high-profile of these is a federal indictment of the company naming its Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, in an alleged scheme to deceive U.S. officials in order to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. prosecutors, and the Justice Department is seeking her extradition in order to have her face trial in New York. At the same time, a second federal indictment accusing the company of stealing trade secrets, was unsealed in the state of Washington. It is the Meng case that President Trump has suggested he might use as leverage in ongoing trade talks. Speaking to reporters at the White House last month, he said, “We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks. We’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys. We’ll be talking to the attorney general. We’ll be making that decision. Right now, it’s not something we’ve discussed." There have also been active efforts to dissuade other countries from doing business with Huawei. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned U.S. allies that if they use Huawei telecommunications equipment in their critical infrastructure, they will lose access to some intelligence collected by the United States “If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox Business Network. On March 8, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany sent a letter to the German minister for economic affairs, reiterating the U.S. government’s concern about the potential for backdoors in Huawei systems and the threat of tampering during complex software updates. He said that U.S. intelligence sharing would be significantly scaled back if Germany uses Huawei products in its new telecommunications systems. In February, the U.S. government sent a large delegation to MWC Barcelona, the telecommunications industry’s biggest trade show, where they publicly excoriated the company as “duplicitous and deceitful.” The U.S. delegation included officials from the departments of State, Commerce, and Defense, as well as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Also there were officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, who made it clear that foreign aid dollars from the U.S. will not be available to help fund purchases from Chinese telecom firms. In addition, a law signed by President Trump last year bars the federal government from buying equipment from Huawei and smaller Chinese telecom company ZTE. Trump has additionally floated the possibility of an executive order that would block Huawei from any participation at all in U.S 5G networks. Huawei is fighting back, filing a lawsuit this month that claims it was unfairly banned from U.S. government computer networks. Deng Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the lawsuit may be aimed at determining what information the U.S. government is using to make its case.  "There is information that the intelligence community may have that isn't necessarily going to be made public,” he said. “What is admissible in court is not always the same as the information that is actually available. So I'm not really sure how this court case will even be adjudicated.” Huawei's lawsuit is likely also partly aimed at improving the firm's reputation at a time when it is under siege by American officials. The risk of pushback from China At a time when the United States relations with even its closest traditional allies is under strain, Washington’s seemingly unilateral demand that a major global supplier be effectively shut out of an enormous marketplace is an audacious request. For one thing, it is complicated by the fact that for countries and companies anxious to take advantage of 5G wireless technology, there may not be a ready substitute for the Chinese firm. This seems to be reflected in recent reports that U.S. allies, in Europe, India, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, are showing real resistance to U.S, demands. A report in the New York Times late Sunday said that in Europe, the general sense is that any risk posed by Huawei is manageable through monitoring and selective use of the company's products. The story noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's response to the U.S. was a terse message that Germans would be "defining our standards for ourselves." And of course, there is always the possibility — even the likelihood — of Chinese retaliation against countries that accede to the United States’ requests. And in China, where the media is largely controlled by the Communist Party, and access to international news services is sharply limited, that retaliation would likely have widespread public support. “The very strong perception is that Huawei is a great Chinese company that has done extraordinary things to move to the global frontier, in some respects to the head of the pack, and it is being unfairly treated and held back by the United States for specious reasons,” said Lester Ross, the partner-in-charge of the Beijing office of U.S. law firm Wilmer Hale.  

US Navy Won't Alter Sail-Bys at Sea Despite China Maneuver

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 19:53
The U.S. Navy won't alter its so-called "freedom of navigation" sail-bys in the disputed South China Sea and has pressed ahead with such operations despite a dangerous maneuver by a Chinese ship against an American destroyer. Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told reporters Monday in Manila that Washington protested that "unprofessional behavior" by the Chinese ship, which maneuvered very close to the USS Decatur as the latter sailed closely by a Chinese-occupied island in the Spratlys in September. Sawyer said the U.S. Navy will continue such sail-bys and patrols in the South China Sea and elsewhere "until there are no excessive maritime claims throughout the world." Sawyer spoke onboard the USS Blue Ridge, which arrived in Manila after sailing through the South China Sea.

China Says 13,000 Xinjiang 'Terrorists' Arrested Since 2014

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 19:48
China has arrested nearly 13,000 people it describes as terrorists and has broken up hundreds of “terrorist gangs” in Xinjiang since 2014, the government said in a report Monday issued to counter criticism of internment camps and other oppressive security in the traditionally Islamic region.   The lengthy report said the government’s efforts have curbed religious extremism but gave little evidence of what crimes had occurred. The far northwestern region is closed to outsiders, but former residents and activists abroad say mere expressions of Muslim identity are punished. Criticism has grown over China’s internment of an estimated 1 million Uighurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. China describes the camps as vocational training centers and says participation is voluntary. Former detainees say they were held in abusive conditions, forced to renounce Islam and swear allegiance to China’s ruling Communist Party. The camps sprang up over the past two years at extraordinary speed and on a massive scale, as monitored by satellite imagery. China maintains a massive security presence in Xinjiang and efforts to independently verify claims by Uighur activists are routinely blocked. The new report said “law-based de-radicalization” in Xinjiang has curbed the rise and spread of religious extremism. It said 1,588 terrorist gangs have been crushed and 12,995 terrorists seized since 2014. Over that time, 2,052 explosive devices were seized and more than 30,000 people were punished for taking part in almost 5,000 “illegal religious activities,” the report said. It said 345,229 copies of “illegal religious publicity materials” were also seized. China’s government has spent decades trying to suppress pro-independence sentiment in the region fueled in part by frustration over an influx of migrants from China’s Han majority. Beijing authorities say extremists there have ties to foreign terror groups but have given little evidence to support that. Despite the region’s religious, linguistic and cultural differences with the rest of country, China says Xinjiang has been Chinese territory since ancient times. Experts and Uighur activists believe the camps are part of an aggressive government campaign to erode the identities of the Central Asian groups who called the region home long before waves of Han migrants arrived in recent decades. Monday’s report sought to underplay Islam’s role in the region’s historical makeup, saying that while it “cannot be denied that Xinjiang received the influence of Islamic culture,” that did not change the “objective fact” that Xinjiang’s culture is a facet of Chinese culture. “Islam is not the natural faith of the Uighurs and other ethnicities, nor is it their only faith,” the report said. China has sought to defend itself against charges of cultural genocide, painting its critics as biased and seeking to smear China’s reputation and contain its rise as a global power. The report shows the “vague and broad definition of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ by the Chinese government,” said Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International. “It’s exactly because of the Chinese government’s arbitrary and vague definition of these terms that leads to mass arbitrary detention of many ordinary people in Xinjiang,” Poon said. Poon cited the many families that have lost contact with relatives who are suspected of having been detained. “It’s simply not normal at all for people losing contact with their relatives if they are merely receiving ‘vocational training’ as the Chinese government claims,” Poon said. China’s reputation for taking a hard line against religious minorities, and Muslims in particular, continues to draw global attention. The man arrested in last week’s New Zealand mosque attacks said in his online manifesto that China is the nation that most aligns with his political and social values. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas Uighur advocacy group, said China was using the specter of terrorism in an attempt to undermine sympathy for the Uighur cause. “The purpose of issuing this report is to seek support for their extreme policies and the trampling of human rights,” Raxit said. In November, China rejected criticism of its treatment of ethnic Muslims, telling the United Nations that accusations of rights abuses from some countries were “politically driven.” At a U.N. review of the country’s human rights record, China characterized Xinjiang as a former hotbed of extremism that has been stabilized through “training centers” which help people gain employable skills. Last week, a U.S. envoy on religion called for an independent investigation of the detentions and for the release of those being held, describing the situation in Xinjiang “horrific.” Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said China has done nothing to assuage concerns from the U.S. and others over the detention of Uighurs, Kazakhs and members of other Muslim minority groups. Brownback described China’s explanation of the reasons behind the camps as “completely unsatisfactory answers.” China is already listed by the U.S. among the worst violators of religious freedom, and Brownback held open the possibility of sanctions and other punitive measures “if corrective actions aren’t taken.” The report is “part of the Chinese government’s efforts to diffuse the international community’s growing criticisms of its abusive policies in Xinjiang,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. The government’s counter-offensive on Xinjiang “appears to reflect its nervousness about its international image,” Wang said, citing in particular Muslim-majority countries where China is promoting its massive “belt and road” infrastructure initiative. “If the Chinese government is so certain that it has nothing to hide in Xinjiang, then it should allow independent international observers such as the U.N. into the region,” Wang said.