VOA Asia

Hong Kong Economy Caught in US-China Trade Crossfire

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 17:52
The storm winds of the recent trade war between the United States and China have settled in a truce for now, but the weeks of agitation — of rising tariffs and counter duties — battered one economy close to Beijing: Hong Kong’s. In December, Hong Kong government economist Andrew Au said he anticipated near-term troubles for the territory’s economic forecast. GDP growth — a year after a record high of 341.5 billion — slowed significantly, from 4.6 percent growth in the first quarter to 2.9 percent in the third. The government says the impact of the trade war can be seen in consumer prices, slower spending and lighter trade. Consumer price inflation ticked up 2.8 percent in the third quarter. The government warned that inflation could head upward as local costs rise along with residential rental rates. Kelvin Ho-Por Lam, a former economist with HSBC based in Hong Kong, predicted another problem for Hong Kong from overseas. Double whammy “It’s not just the trade war, it’s facing a double whammy at the moment,” Lam said. “The trade war impacts on this economy, which is showing up in this Hong Kong GDP over the last two quarters. The second impact is from rising interest rates in the U.S.” The Federal Reserve raised rates four times in 12 months. A slower U.S. economy means less buying from China. Adding to the impact is great unease.  “It poses uncertainty on the economic agents in society. Businesses are more concerned going ahead with their investment plans,” Lam said. “They’re shelving their investments and therefore they are not investing in capacity in Hong Kong or in China.” Trade and logistics — the apparatus to move the shoes and dresses and smartphones from Chinese factories to markets worldwide — are central to Hong Kong’s economy. The sector accounts for nearly one-fifth of the city’s GDP, higher than the substantial financial and banking industry here. When tariffs hit, goods cost more to sell in the United States, which means companies decrease stock and consumers buy less. China’s economic growth weakened in the third quarter from a year earlier, its lowest expansion since the global financial crisis in 2008. Consumers wary Clearly consumers are wary. Retail sales in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, grew in September at their slowest pace in 15 months. Also hurting the city was substantial damage from typhoon Mangkhut. Favorite shops of mainland tourists — Sa Sa International, Chow Tai Food Jewelry, and Luk Fook Holdings, all posted slowed sales in the third quarter. Hong Kong also saw its economy lag for local reasons. Home prices in what is often called the world’s least affordable market chilled this year as interest rates rose. The number of residential property transactions fell by 24 percent from 18,900 in the second quarter to 14,400 in the third quarter, according to the government. Property sellers saw the slowdown in sales set in this summer, after the residential property market had churned hard for 28 consecutive months. Median home prices dropped by as much as 5 percent from June, agents told the South China Morning Post in October. The city’s rating and valuation Index, which tracks prices of older homes, in August marked the first monthly decline in more than two years. Even the government offered discounts. A 97,300-square-foot plot of the former Kai Tak airport in the city’s Kowloon district sold for $1.03 billion to a unit of China Overseas Land & Investment, nearly 13 percent lower than another Kai Tak sale in November. The market chill began in August after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, introduced a tax to compel developers to create more housing. Meanwhile, banks raised mortgage rates for the first time in 12 years. That means mortgage holders have less extra money to spend, Kelvin Lam said. He forecast that there will be fewer tourists visiting Hong Kong, perhaps because of the volatility in China. “The Hong Kong economy is very sensitive to these things,” he said. “It will reduce people spending for their own personal consumption.” ​Folded into China's economy Hong Kong produces very little domestically, Kelvin Lam pointed out. Lam said because the territory’s economy is so entwined with China’s, and because the range of products and services are so narrow, the impact of the extra tariffs will be felt on whatever the city acquires from China and re-exports. Hong Kong is likely to suffer more during China’s downturns as the former British colony is folded into China’s economy and as the government plans for a massive technology hub to be rooted in nearby Shenzhen. Andrew Sheng, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in an email that he didn’t think the city would encounter much inflation, despite the downward pressure coming from lower property prices and a slowing global economy. “The Hong Kong economy will suffer from the trade conflict,” said the former central banker and financial regulator in Asia. “Although it is very resilient to overseas shocks.”

Indonesian Volcano is a Quarter of its Former Size

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 16:26
Indonesian researchers say the volcano that erupted and collapsed a week ago has lost both volume and height since the eruption and the resulting deadly tsunami. Scientists at Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation say Anak Krakatoa is about a quarter of its former size. The researchers have been unable to get close to the mountain because it is still erupting. Instead they have used radar satellite information to make their estimates. The center says Anak Krakatoa has a current volume of 40-70 million cubic meters, after losing 150-180 million cubic meters of volume since the eruption Dec. 22. The crater’s peak was 338 meters high in September, but is now 110 meters high, according to the center. Anak Krakatoa, which means Child of Krakatoa, is a remnant of Krakatoa, the volcano that erupted in 1883 and triggered a period of global cooling.

Earthquake Reported off Philippines; No Tsunami

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 11:51
A strong undersea earthquake struck off the southern Philippines on Saturday, and the head of the country’s quake-monitoring agency advised people in a southeastern province to avoid beaches in case of a tsunami.  No casualties or damage have been reported, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted its warning for a potential tsunami that could hit coastal areas of the southern Philippine and Indonesia. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said that the quake was detected at a depth of 49 kilometers (30 miles) and a magnitude of 7.1 about 162 kilometers (100 miles) off Davao Oriental province. It said that it could generate aftershocks but the agency did not expect any damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at a depth of 60 kilometers (37 miles) and measured 6.9.  Renato Solidum, who heads the quake-monitoring institute, said that a major tsunami was unlikely given the depth of the quake and other factors but advised villagers to avoid the beach in Davao Oriental province and outlying regions for about two hours after the quake struck around noon as a precaution. The quake was felt in some coastal areas, he said. Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said the quake doesn’t have a potential to cause a tsunami affecting Indonesia.

China Releases Detained Canadian Teacher

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 09:43
Canada's government says a Canadian teacher detained in China over a problem with her work permit has been released.       Albertan Sarah McIver was arrested this month, but Global Affairs Canada spokesman Richard Walker said Friday that she had returned home.      McIver's detention followed the arrests of two other Canadians on allegations they were harming China's national security. China detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor separately after Canada arrested a top executive for the Chinese technology company Huawei for possible extradition to the U.S.    Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is sought by the U.S. for allegedly lying to banks as part of an effort to evade sanctions on Iran.    Both China and Canada had said McIver's case differed from those of Kovrig and Spavor.  

Australia Strips Citizenship From Suspected Terrorist

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 08:52
The Australian government has stripped citizenship from a man it believes is a top recruiter for Islamic State, Australia’s home affairs minister said Saturday. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said in an emailed statement to Reuters that Melbourne-born Neil Prakash has been stripped of his citizenship. Prakash has been in Turkey on trial for terrorism-related activities since being caught there in October 2016 after leaving Islamic State-controlled territory. He is wanted in Australia on terrorism-related activities, including an alleged plot to behead a Melbourne police officer on Anzac Day. Australian citizenship “My first priority is and always will be the safety and security of all Australians,” Dutton said in his statement. “This government is determined to deal with foreign terrorist fighters as far from our shores as possible.” Prakash, whose mother was Cambodian and father was Fijian Indian, held both Australian and Fijian citizenship through his father. Under Australia’s citizenship laws, a dual national can lose their Australian citizenship if they act contrary to their allegiance to Australia by choosing to be involved in terrorism. Prakash is the 12th person to be stripped of citizenship. Islamic State was declared a terrorist organization in May 2016 for this purpose, the Home Affairs Office said in its statement. “To be in the service of such a terrorist organization, as Mr Prakash was, is to act inconsistently with your allegiance to Australia, and we will do everything we can to ensure he is brought to account for his crimes,” Dutton said. Notified by letter The decision came into effect Dec. 21 when Prakash was notified by letter, and the Fijian government has also been notified according to a source close to the Australian government. Prakash has been linked to several Australia-based attack plans and has appeared in Islamic State videos and magazines. Australia has alleged that he actively recruited Australian men, women and children and encouraged acts of militancy. Australia has been pressing Turkey to extradite Prakash since he was first detained, but the request was rejected in July. It will remain in place until the conclusion of his case and any custodial sentence, The Australian newspaper reported. Canberra canceled Prakash’s passport in 2014 and announced financial sanctions in 2015, including anyone giving him financial assistance, with punishment of up to 10 years in jail.

Rights Activists Fear China's Human Rights Record Will Deteriorate

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 02:00
In China, 2018 has been a year that rights defenders worldwide say was extremely repressive, particularly when it comes to religious persecution. China's communist party leadership has strongly defended its actions amid growing calls that its actions may constitute crimes against humanity. Those actions include the internment of hundreds of thousands - perhaps more than a million - Muslims in Xinjiang, the demolition and shuttering of Christian churches nationwide and the systemic crackdown on dissidents. "2018 has been a year of human rights disasters in China, where all walks of people have paid a dear price over rights abuses. In the past year, China has systemically enforced the most audacious ever persecution policies," said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile Germany-headquartered World Uighur Congress. After months of denying their existence, China admitted that the camps do exist and launched a global propaganda campaign defending its interment of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. Beijing has yet to confirm how many have been detained and calls the "vocational centers" a necessary part of their fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The reality, rights advocates argue, is that Muslim minorities are being detained and made to work overtime and without pay in factories for so-called job training. China is also reportedly planning Xinjiang-style "re-education" camps in Ningxia  home to the Hui minority Muslims. Such moves highlight the communist party's drastic efforts to wipe out ethnic Muslims and extend control over religious groups, Raxit said. Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, agrees. His group, based in the U.S. state of Texas, is committed to promoting religious freedom in China. "This is a 21st century concentration camp, like Nazi Germany in 1930s and 1940s, so, the international community should unequivocally condemn and urge the Chinese regime to immediately stop this crime," he said. Call for sanctions Rights advocates have called on governments worldwide to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses. U.S. senators including Marco Rubio have denounced Xinjiang's internment camps and other alleged abuses as possible crimes against humanity.  In November, Rubio and a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation to address the situation and urged American policymakers to be clear-eyed about the global implications of China's domestic repression. The bipartisan bills urge President Donald Trump's administration to use measures including economic sanctions to defend Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. If that happens, China has said it will retaliate in proportion. Intensified persecution It is not just Muslims who have found themselves caught in the communist party's crosshairs. China Aid's Fu said China has also escalated its crackdown on Christian communities. Authorities have torn down houses of worship and in some places, there is a push to ensure that anyone under the age of 18 cannot attend church or be under the influence of religion. China is officially atheist, but says it allows religious freedom. In early December, Chinese police arrested Pastor Wang Yi, along with more than 100 members of his Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan. The arrests may have been triggered by his manifesto, titled "Meditation on the Religious War," in which he condemns the communist party and urges Christians to perform acts of civil disobedience. "It's just really the tip of the iceberg of overall religious persecution in China since the president, Xi Jinping, took power," Fu told CNN recently about the case. Political dissidents If convicted, Wang could face a jail term of up to 15 years and he has vowed not to plead guilty or confess unless physically tortured, said Jonathan Liu, a priest with the San Francisco-based Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness. Liu said the pastor's detention serves the dual purpose of suppressing Christians and silencing political dissidents in China as Wang is a follower of Calvinism  a branch of Protestantism that emphasizes social justice. "Deeply affected by Calvinism, he cares for those who are socially disadvantaged or rights defenders. So, his church has formed many fellowships to provide care for those people," Liu said, "In the eyes of the Chinese government, his church has become a hub for [political] dissidents." No prospects for improvement During the United Nations' periodic review of its rights record, China defended itself, arguing that criticism was "politically motivated" with UN members deliberately disregarding China's "remarkable achievements." For critics, the outlook for 2019 isn't promising. "I can see no prospect that there would be any improvement in the coming year. And in fact, the last year, the most horrible thing is to see that the government is openly and fragrantly acting against the law, in total contempt of the [judicial] system they've set up," Albert Ho, chairman of China Human Rights Concern Group in Hong Kong. The fact that rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is still being held incommunicado proves that China has little respect for its own laws, Ho said. Among more than 300 rights lawyers and activists ensnared in China’s 2015 crackdown, lawyer Wang is the last awaiting trial. After almost three and a half years of arbitrary detention, Wang was finally put on trial in a closed-door hearing in Tianjin on December 26. He reportedly fired his state-appointed lawyer “in the first minute” of his trial,signs of his refusal to cooperate with the authorities. His wife, Li Wenze, and supporters, as well as western diplomats and journalists, were all barred from attending the hearing, which the court said involved “state secrets,” but rights activists denounced as a blatant violation of China’s own judicial principles. The court said on its website that a verdict will be announced on a later date. Rights activists argued that Wang would be a blatant case of political persecution shall he be convicted with a maximum 15-year sentence. Li and three other wives of lawyer victims who have been carrying out a long and loud campaign to secure Wang’s release as well as others, recently shaved their hair to protest his detention for more than three years. “They (the authorities) keep on shamelessly breaking the law. So today we are using this act of shaving our heads in protest, to show they are persistently and shamelessly breaking the law,” Li said.

Trade Obstacles in China Make Vietnam Look Rosy

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 22:30
It is sometimes said Vietnam hates when people say it is like China, like a smaller brother. But what if, instead, China could be a bit more like Vietnam? With all of the trade and political strife that is currently plaguing Beijing’s relations with other countries, foreign officials would hardly be blamed for wishing it could be a little easier to work with their Chinese counterparts -- as easy, say, as it is in nearby Hanoi. China and Vietnam invite obvious comparisons because they each are ruled by a single, communist party; they both put curbs on the internet and internet companies; and they have high, export-led economic growth after beginning privatization in the 1980s, to name a few of the myriad similarities. But in Vietnam it is more common to see foreign partners make progress in their effort to solve bilateral disagreements, and that is the critical difference. And the comparisons between China and Vietnam are not just a theoretical or academic exercise. They affect the real-world decisions that companies are making every day, decisions on where to do business that could mean millions of dollars in trade. What makes Vietnam unique is its willingness to work toward international standards, even when the choice is difficult, said trade consultant Barbara Weisel. “Those policies are what we need to advance, to move to that higher stage of development,” she said at an economic forum this month in Ho Chi Minh City. “And that’s a very important shift that Vietnam made that is very different, and it distinguishes Vietnam from most of the other countries in the region.” She is among many who say Vietnam is benefiting as China loses investors. Firms are switching from China to Vietnam because Washington’s trade dispute with Beijing makes Vietnamese goods cheaper.   And the “country’s close proximity to China makes it a worthy option for manufacturers looking at alternative locations in the Southeast Asia region because the operating cost in China has been continuously increasing in recent years,” real estate firm JLL said in a market analysis. Besides the trade friction, China has been butting heads with foreign nations on multiple fronts this year. It detained two Canadians after Ottawa arrested a Huawei executive in December. It forced Sri Lanka to fork over a port after the island country failed to repay debt as part of China’s One Belt, One Road global infrastructure initiative. And to the dismay of Washington, it continues to be North Korea’s biggest trade partner despite U.S. sanctions. When viewed through that lens, next-door-neighbor Vietnam gives the impression of a country that is more open and amenable to bilateral talks. That ranges from Hanoi’s support for the U.S. push to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, to its entry into one international trade deal after another.  There is less frustration, less banging of heads against walls in order to strike a compromise in Vietnam. While Beijing blocks Facebook and Google, Hanoi has largely given up on doing so. While China requires foreign companies to share technology with locals, Vietnam is removing the 49 percent cap on foreign investment in listed companies. The comparison matters because the two countries diverge today, in spite of sharing so much in common for centuries. China ruled Vietnam for nearly a millennium, a history underlying their similar languages, food, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucian families, holidays, and folk tales. Their communist economies took a turn for capitalism around the same time, in the 1980s, and then folded into the World Trade Organization, in 2001 for China and 2007 for Vietnam. With their modern paths diverging, Vietnam as a smaller country has had less leverage on the world stage than China and relies more on global cooperation. It could be the reason Hanoi officials are willing to go to the bargaining table, even though it sometimes means they give up a little control, as in the choice to allow more labor unions beyond the union run by the government, or to open state-owned enterprises to more competition. In the most controversial policy of recent months, Vietnam plans to enact a cyber law that forces companies to store data domestically and take down online content ordered by the state.  “We are working with the business community here,” Vietnam Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh said at the economic forum. “Even [though] there is a law, but there is an ongoing process of consultations between the government of Vietnam and the business community over here.” In other words, Vietnam has its plans, but it is also listening to opponents.

Thailand Legalizes Medical Marijuana

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 21:49
Thailand - known for its tough anti-drug trafficking efforts - made history this month as Southeast Asia’s first country to legalize medical marijuana. Steve Sandford report on traditions and new developments in the kingdom.

Weather Hampers Efforts to Inspect Indonesia Tsunami Volcano

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 21:28
Bad weather and a massive ash column hampered efforts to assess whether Indonesia's Anak Krakatau volcano island could trigger another deadly tsunami as authorities said Friday the search for victims in the worst-affected province will continue into January. Indonesia's disaster agency said that 426 people died in the Sunda Strait tsunami that struck Sumatra and Java without warning on Saturday. That was slightly lower than previously announced due to some victims being recorded twice. It said 23 are missing and more than 40,000 displaced. High seas, clouds and constant eruptions have hindered attempts to visually inspect Anak Krakatau, the offspring of the infamous Krakatau volcano whose eruption in 1883 caused a period of global cooling. A large part of the volcano collapsed following an eruption Saturday, triggering the tsunami. Authorities have warned Sunda Strait residents to stay a kilometer away from the coastline, citing the potential for another tsunami. Gegar Prasetya, co-founder of the Tsunami Research Center Indonesia, said the severity of another potential tsunami could be less since satellite radar shows the volcano is now much smaller. Saturday's tsunami hit more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) of coastline with waves of 2 meters (about 6 1/2 feet) or higher. “According to the theory and my past research, the severity of the potential tsunami is reduced significantly. This morning we tried to take an aerial photo from the plane to confirm the satellite image but failed due to cloud cover,” Prasetya said. The disaster agency said the emergency period for Banten province in Java ends Jan. 9 and on Friday for Lampung province in Sumatra. About 1,600 people have been evacuated from Sebesi island nearest Anak Krakatau and the remaining residents from its population of more than 2,800 will be transported Friday, the agency said. Sulphur and thick ash from the continually erupting volcano has blanketed the island. Indonesia on Thursday raised the danger level for the island volcano and more than doubled its no-go zone to 5 kilometers (3 miles). Janine Krippner, a New Zealand-born volcanologist at Concord University in West Virginia, said it's hard to assess the risk of another Anak Krakatau collapse and tsunami because authorities don't know how stable its remaining edifice is. “Ideally there would be an assessment of the volcano but it has been constantly erupting, preventing anyone getting close,” she said.  

Mystery Hacker Steals Data on 1,000 North Korean Defectors in South

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 18:25
The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers got access to a resettlement agency's database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday. The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi. "The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address," a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, referring to a Hana center email account. The Hana center is among 25 institutes the ministry runs around the country to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the richer, democratic South by providing jobs, medical and legal support. Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as "human scum" and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them. The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hack, or what the motive might have been, saying a police investigation was under way to determine who did it. North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyberattacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses. North Korea stole classified documents from the South's defense ministry and a shipbuilder last year, while a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy following a cyberattack linked to the North. North Korean state media has denied those cyberattacks. The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation. The Unification Ministry said it was notifying the affected defectors and there were no reports of any negative impact of the data breach. "We're sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring," the ministry official said. Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years only to turn up later in North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of defectors.

Cybersecurity Law: Vietnam Will Censor Internet, Not Close Websites

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 13:52
Expect to get caught if you post anti-government material on the internet in Vietnam or take a phishing trip. From 2019 authorities can build evidence against you from material provided by email services and social media networks including Facebook. Yet the country, mindful of its role in the emerging digital economy, won’t close down websites the way China does. Vietnam has long walked a thin line between a free internet as part of its economic growth and resistance against what market research firm IDC’s country manager Lam Nguyen calls “digital disasters.” The country is getting testier toward online dissent at the same time. A draft Cybersecurity Law decree to take effect Jan. 1 after 18 months in the making will help the communist government reach these goals by ordering service providers to do some of its surveillance work. Despite objections from Google and Facebook, global social media as well as email and e-commerce providers may be asked to store data in Vietnam, according to the Cybersecurity Law. Alternately, they can self-censor, turn over customer profiles and delete certain content, Nguyen said. “It’s like saying OK, as an online service provider with Vietnam users, you do collect data about such users and their online activities, but you are letting users use your platform or services for unlawful activities, so please come to the front of the line (so) that we can keep an eye out for you,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the Baker McKenzie law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. Catching up in cybersecurity According to a United Nations index, Vietnam ranked 101 out of 165 countries in exposure to cyberattacks.  “Vietnam has been historically weak when in it comes to cybersecurity,” cyber intelligence analyst Emilio Iasiello wrote in a commentary for the Cyber Research Databank. Domestic websites were hit by more than 6,500 malware or phishing attacks in the first eight months of 2018, Viet Nam News reports. Vietnam does not block the websites of foreign internet services that could spread objectionable content. Vietnam, like much of Asia, is trying to develop a digital economy, but unlike China it lacks easy-to-control homegrown alternates to the major Silicon Valley internet firms. “Obviously, the business and user communities are more likely hoping to avoid censorship of the internet outright, due to the growing digital commerce economy and also wanting a platform where freedom of expressions and opinions are allowed,” Nguyen said. A digital economy gives Vietnam an opportunity to resolve “big issues in its economic development,” the deputy minister of industry and trade was quoted saying in June. The manufacturing-reliant economy has grown 6 to 7 percent per year since 2012. About 70 percent of Vietnam’s 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites. Protest from multinational internet content providers After Vietnam’s National Assembly approved the Cybersecurity Law in June, 17 U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Google and Facebook. They urged both to avoid storing data in Vietnam, to establish “transparent guidelines” on content removal and to publish the number of requests for removal. Facebook, Google and other foreign internet companies said earlier this month via a lobbying group that requirements to localize data would hobble investment and economic growth in Vietnam. The law also requires firms with more than 10,000 local users to set up local representative offices. Facebook said for this report it “remains committed to its community in Vietnam and in helping Vietnamese businesses grow at home and abroad.” Internet providers also worry the cybersecurity law gives “too much power” to Vietnam’s police ministry and lacks “due process,” Nguyen said. Authorities, they fear, could “seize customer data” and expose a provider’s users, partners or employees to arrest, which goes against privacy protection policies, he said. ​Fear among online activists Vietnam is looking to the cybersecurity law as well to control public criticism of government activity, activist bloggers believe. A string of Vietnamese bloggers was arrested in 2016 and 2017. Authorities will be able to collect user names, profiles and data on their friends, media reports and analysts say. “This law threatens and further curbs freedom to information, infringes (on) personal privacy, and will be certainly used as a tool to give more power to police force, which violates rights, even on behalf of the court on judging on the use of internet,” Hanoi-based internet blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Lan Thang said. Vietnamese activists leaned heavily on internet media to spread information about what they considered slow government reaction to a mass fish die-off in 2016. They use it now to decry corruption. “The Cybersecurity Law will have a huge impact on Vietnam’s dissidents and online activists. It will be a tool to silence dissidents, social commentators, and activists in general,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, a writer in Hanoi and director of the non-profit Defend the Defender. Vu Pham, Michelle Quinn of VOA contributed to this report.

Weakened Bangladesh Opposition Hopes for Change in Sunday's Election

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 13:12
Campaigning for Bangladesh's general election at the weekend ended on Friday after weeks of violence, mainly against workers and officials from an opposition alliance, that has been criticized by the United States and others. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League is seeking its third straight term in Sunday's election against the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the last vote in 2014. The Awami League is promoting its economic record over the past decade but the BNP-led opposition alliance, many of whose leaders have been jailed, has vowed to remove curbs on the media, raise wages and freeze energy prices. "The government has lost moral support," BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a news conference late on Thursday, urging voters to "restore democracy." "But the people are with us. They want change," he said. The BNP's preparations have been hamstrung by the February jailing of their chairwoman, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, on what they call trumped-up corruption charges. Awami League leaders deny any misuse of power and say they will return to government with an overwhelming majority. Hasina told supporters on Thursday they must "ensure victory of pro-liberation forces", a reference to Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971 led by her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Economist Intelligence Unit expects her party to win a third term. The BNP said on Thursday more than 8,200 opposition leaders and activists from a coalition of about 20 parties have been arrested since the election schedule was announced early last month. Four workers were killed and more than 12,300 injured, it said. The Awami League has in turn said the BNP and its partners were behind attacks that killed at least five of its workers over the past three weeks. Police declined to confirm the figures. Mahbub Talukdar, one of Bangladesh's five election commissioners, has said there has not been a level playing field, although other commissioners have said they expected the election would be free and fair. Earl Miller, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, said all parties had been victims of violence, including women and minority candidates. "However, it appears opposition party candidates have borne the brunt of most violence," he said in a statement after meeting Election Commission officials on Thursday. Miller said all candidates and voters must be able to take part without "harassment, intimidation, or violence" and that an independent media must be allowed to cover the election. The United Nations has made a similar call for a "peaceful, credible and inclusive poll."

Australia Swelters as Heat Records Tumble

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:41
Australia looks set to sweat through one of its hottest Decembers ever, the national weather bureau said Friday, prompting fire bans, health warnings and big crowds trying to cool off at beaches. As the country’s hottest town, Marble Bar in the remote northwest, endured its warmest day ever, forecasters said the heat would spread southeast where the big cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide would endure monthly average temperatures up to 16 degrees Celsius higher than usual. The capital, Canberra, was bracing for its hottest December day on record — 39C (102F) — Saturday. “We’re going to see December records tumbling,” said Diana Eadie, a meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology. “We’re definitely not out of it yet, in fact I would say it’s going to be peaking over more populated areas this weekend.” December is the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere summer. January and February can be even hotter. For the four-fifths of Australia’s 25 million people who live on the coast, the summer typically means lazing on the beach, watching cricket or both. ​Hard-hit farmers But the unusually high temperatures add to a sense of exhaustion for a farm economy already reeling from a year of drought. “It adds insult to injury,” said Laureta Wallace, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Federation. “Most farmers would have got some rain prior to Christmas but the benefit of that will have been eroded with this heat wave. Water’s an issue.” The Bureau of Meteorology put the hot spell down to a combination of hot air being blown from the northwest toward the densely populated southeast, where a “blocking” high off the coast was stopping cooler winds from moving it on. The bureau’s “extreme heat wave” warning, its highest category, includes Sydney for the next three days. Sydney’s inland suburbs were forecast to swelter in 40C (104F) heat. Almost the entire state of New South Wales had a “high” or “very high” fire danger, according to the rural fire service. A “low-intensity heat wave” in neighboring Victoria state was expected to spread south almost as far as the second city Melbourne. Health authorities have issued warnings for pregnant women, babies, people older than 65 and people with lung conditions since the heat eroded air quality. Be like a kangaroo The town recognized by Australians as their hottest, Marble Bar, with a population 174, had a reprieve on Friday from its 49.1C (120.4F) record a day earlier, enjoying a relatively comfortable 41.1C (106F) by midday. “You really don’t want to be out digging holes in the middle of the ground, or chasing gold,” Lang Coppin, a former cattle rancher and gold prospector, told Reuters from Marble Bar. “What we’ve always done is do the physical work in the morning and then knock off. Be like the kangaroos and get under the tree.”

Thomas to Lead Rusal as Part of Deal With US 

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 09:55
Russian aluminium company Rusal said Friday that its board of directors had elected Jean-Pierre Thomas as its new chairman as part of an agreed-upon restructuring in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. The previous chairman, Matthias Warnig, stepped down this week after six years at the world's largest aluminium producer outside China. His resignation was a condition of the deal. Thomas, an independent non-executive director, has been appointed as chairman effective Jan. 1, Rusal said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock market.    The U.S. Treasury said last week it would remove sanctions against Rusal, its parent En+ and power firm EuroSibEnergo if they restructured to reduce the controlling stakes of businessman Oleg Deripaska, who is on Washington's sanctions list. The deal is subject to a 30-day review in the U.S. Congress. After the restructuring is completed, En+ will retain the right to nominate the producer's chief executive, the U.S. Treasury said earlier.  

US Fossil Fuel Exports Spur Growth, Climate Worries

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 08:10
In South Korea's largest shipyard, thousands of workers in yellow hard hats move ceaselessly between towering cranes lifting hulks of steel. They look like a hive of bees scurrying over a massive circuit board as they weld together the latest additions to the rapidly growing fleet of tankers carrying super-chilled liquefied natural gas across the world's oceans.    The boom in fossil-fuel production in the United States has been matched by a rush on the other side of the Pacific to build the infrastructure needed to respond to the seemingly unquenchable thirst for energy among Asia's top economies. When Congress lifted restrictions on shipping crude oil overseas in 2015, soon after the Obama administration opened the doors for international sales of natural gas, even the most boosterish of Texas oil men wouldn't have predicted the U.S. could become one of the world's biggest fossil-fuel exporters so quickly.      Climate experts say there is little doubt increased American production and exports are contributing to the recent rise in planet-warming carbon emissions by helping keep crude prices low, increasing consumption in developing economies.   Better than dirtier fuel, some say    Backers of U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, argue that the boom will produce environmental benefits because it will help China and other industrial nations wean themselves from coal and other dirtier fossil fuels.    Environmentalists counter that the massive new supplies unleashed by American advances in extracting natural gas from shale doesn't just make coal-fired power plants less competitive. LNG also competes with such zero-carbon sources of electricity as nuclear, solar and wind — potentially delaying the full adoption of greener sources. That's time climate scientists and researchers say the world doesn't have if humans hope to mitigate the worst-case consequences of our carbon emissions, including catastrophic sea-level rise, stronger storms and more wildfires.      "Typically, infrastructure has multi-decadal lifespans," said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. "So, if we build a natural-gas plant today, that will impact carbon emissions over decades to come. So those are the critical and crucial decisions that are being made today. Do we increase access to and use of fossil fuels, or do we make decisions that limit and eventually reduce access to fossil fuels?"   Boon to shipyards While it is difficult to estimate how much America's rise as major exporter of fossil fuels is contributing to a hotter climate, some of the economic benefits are plain to see in South Korea's shipyards.    At the sprawling Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering facility on the island of Geoje, more than half of the 35 vessels scheduled for delivery in 2018 were LNG carriers. A similar number of vessels are lined up for completion next year.    It's the same story at the two other major Korean yards. The construction of the big gas tankers has been credited with lifting the nation's shipbuilding sector out of the doldrums from a decade ago, when the Great Recession caused a downturn in transoceanic trade.   South Korea's big three shipbuilders — Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Samsung Heavy Industries — won orders for 53 new LNG carriers in 2018 at about $200 million each, soaking up the lion's share of the 62 vessels ordered globally, according to numbers compiled by the London-based shipping group Clarkson Research. South Korea is expected to finish 2018 at the top spot in overall orders for new commercial ships, surpassing China for the first time in seven years.    "We are getting out of a long tunnel," Song Ha-dong, a senior Daewoo executive, said as he surveyed the company's 1,200-acre yard from above the British Contributor, a gargantuan LNG carrier with a freshly painted deck covered in a maze of pipes. "The U.S.-led shale gas boom is getting fully under way, and China, Japan and South Korea are increasing their consumption of natural gas."   During a recent visit by The Associated Press, three of the LNG carriers were being assembled inside a massive dry dock. Another 13, including the British Contributor, had been floated out to nearby berths where workers were putting on finishing touches.      The Korean shipyards have developed a niche in building ships with the complex systems needed to transport natural gas. The gas is compressed and liquefied for storage by keeping it really cold, about -260 Fahrenheit. In this liquid state, natural gas is about 600 times smaller than at room temperature.  Top three importers   The British Contributor is as long as three football fields and can carry enough liquefied gas to fill about 70 Olympic-sized swimming pools — nearly two days' national supply for South Korea. The country used about 1.9 trillion cubic feet of LNG in 2017, finishing third behind China and Japan as the world's biggest importers, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.    With no domestic oil and gas resources and an unfriendly neighbor blocking overland shipments from the north, South Korea relies exclusively on oceangoing tankers. Nearly half of South Korea's gas imports come from Qatar and Australia, but the share shipped from the U.S. is growing fast as additional export terminals along the Gulf coast are coming online to handle the glut of gas unleashed by hydraulic fracturing in the Permian Basin of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.    U.S. LNG exports quadrupled in 2017, with this year on track to see similarly exponential growth. Nearly a fifth of all that gas goes to South Korea.   The British Contributor is the third of six LNG carriers being built by Daewoo for British energy giant BP, which will mainly use them to transport U.S. gas to Asia under a 20-year contract with the Freeport LNG facility south of Houston. Daewoo delivered four similar ships this year to the government-owned Korea Gas Corporation, which has a 20-year deal to buy gas exported from Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass LNG terminal in Louisiana.    South Korea has been vying with Mexico for the title of the largest importer of U.S. LNG, and its reliance on gas could further increase under the government of President Moon Jae-in, who has pledged to transition his country away from nuclear power following the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.      Park Moo-hyun, a senior analyst at Hana Financial Investment, predicts shipping companies will need to place orders for around 480 new LNG carriers over the next decade to match the U.S.-driven increase in global LNG trade — roughly doubling the current worldwide fleet.    "The impact brought by the emergence of shale is not just about an increase in U.S. energy exports — there has been tremendous growth in the production of energy sources that hadn't been used much, such as LNG," Park said. "Once the groundwork is established for the stable use of these new energy sources, industries are pushed to adapt."    Natural gas has the added appeal of producing about half the carbon dioxide of coal when it's burned. Its increased adoption for generating electricity has been pitched by the U.S. and others as a way for nations to make progress toward meeting their emissions reductions goals under the 2015 Paris climate accord. Burning gas also creates less particulate pollution.    In China, the Communist government has declared a "Blue Sky Defense War" to reduce the choking smog in Beijing and two dozen surrounding cities with a program to convert hundreds of thousands of homes and industrial facilities from burning coal to gas.  In February, Texas-based Cheniere signed a 25-year deal with the state-controlled China National Petroleum Corporation to export LNG from its export terminal in Corpus Christi.  Carbon emissions increase   But the increased gas exports from the U.S. and other sources hasn't really put much of dent in Chinese coal consumption, which has remained largely flat in 2018. Overall carbon emissions for China, the globe's biggest emitter, increased nearly 5 percent in 2018.   Daniel Raimi, a researcher at the Washington-based think tank Resources for the Future, said determining whether U.S. gas exports are a net good or bad for the climate is difficult. When considering China, researchers can't just look at whether coal use or carbon emissions are falling. They must also try to calculate how much more coal would have been burned had ample supplies of gas not been available.    Another challenge is that the primary component of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps far more heat in the atmosphere than a comparable amount of carbon dioxide. Studies have shown that a significant amount of natural gas leaks into the air at almost every stage of its production and transport — from wells to pipelines, processing facilities to ships. Raimi said the impact of all that leaking methane on the climate is roughly 84 times more powerful than the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.    As part of its broad rollback of environmental rules, the Trump administration moved in September to weaken Obama-era regulations designed to prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere during oil and gas operations. The regulatory rollbacks are part of President Donald Trump's pro-industry "Energy Dominance" strategy to ramp up U.S. fossil fuel production without concern for the corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has falsely claimed climate change is a "hoax," and he moved in 2017 to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris accord.    "With or without increased U.S. oil and gas exports, ambitious policy measures are the essential ingredient to achieving long-term climate goals such as those laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement," Raimi said. "For U.S. LNG exports to reduce global emissions, they must primarily displace coal, and methane emissions must be limited both domestically and abroad." 

Canadian to Face Charges of Drug Smuggling in China

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 21:54
A Canadian national will be tried in China on drug charges later this week. A news portal run by the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning announced Wednesday that a man identified as Robert Lloyd Schellenberg will face charges of drug smuggling in a courtroom in Dalian on Saturday. The statement said Schellenberg was appealing an earlier ruling in which he was found to have smuggled "an enormous amount of drugs" into China. The hearing comes as Beijing and Ottawa are engaged in a diplomatic dispute over China's detention of two Canadian nationals, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and business consultant Michael Spavor. The two men were detained earlier this month after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, was arrested in Vancouver on December 1. U.S. officials say Meng — the daughter of Huawei's founder — lied to banks about Huawei's control of a Hong Kong-based company that allegedly sold U.S. goods to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions against Tehran. Meng is free on bail while she awaits a hearing on extradition to the United States. Beijing has angrily demanded that Canada free Meng from all charges or face "grave consequences." The Chinese Foreign Ministry says Kovrig and Spavor are being investigated on suspicion of endangering China's national security.

Thai Anti-Graft Agency Drops Probe into 'Rolex General'

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 21:13
A graft probe into the luxury watch collection of Thailand's junta number two was dropped Thursday, sparking the ire of the public and political opponents of the military. The country's anti-corruption agency cited "no grounds" for an investigation into the scandal surrounding Prawit Wongsuwan's penchant for pricey timepieces, which captivated the kingdom earlier this year and drew criticisms in a rare lightning rod of dissent as the Thai public grew weary after four years of military rule. The 73-year-old was caught last December wearing a luxury watch in a photo, inspiring online sleuths to dig up old photos of at least 22 watches collectively worth $1.2 million on his wrist, including 11 Rolexes, eight Patek Philippes and three Richard Milles. Questions arose over how a general on a relatively humble public servant's salary could afford items undeclared on his $2.7 million list of assets on taking office, leading the kingdom's anti-graft agency to open a probe into his wrist bling. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) announced Thursday in a press conference its eight-person committee voted 5-3 to dismiss the case. "This case has no grounds that General Prawit Wongsuwan had intended... to hide the truth or had intended to hide the origins of such assets," said NACC deputy secretary-general Worawit Sukboon. The investigation found that all the watches adorning Prawit's wrists belonged to his now-deceased friend, wealthy businessman Pattawat Suksriwong. "He had also lent his luxury watches to his other friends." Worawit added the NACC is still investigating if the general had breached the commission's rules for accepting assets worth 3,000 baht ($92). Prawit, who is defense minister, was one of the architects of the 2014 coup toppling the government of then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta's political name, has long wielded its anti-corruption credentials while junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha has voiced an interest in returning to politics as the country looks toward elections slated for February 24. Thailand's biggest party Pheu Thai — which was headed by deposed premier Yingluck and her brother Thaksin — blasted the anti-graft commission's decision. "We believe it is a double standard. The fact is that [Prawit's] actions violated laws and his reasons are groundless," said party spokeswoman Ladawan Wongsriwong. Upstart Future Forward Party called the anti-graft agency a "tool" for the NCPO. "It emphasises the need to get rid of the NCPO and Prayut," spokeswoman Panika Wanich said. But political analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich told AFP the public's dissatisfaction with the verdict is unlikely to carry in the polls. "No matter what the public say or how angry the people are, it wouldn't change anything," said Titipol, dean of Ubon Rachathani University's Faculty of Political Science. "The military still controls everything, every channel of information." The scandal inspired a round of creative protests. In February, Thai students in a pre-football match ceremony in Bangkok wheeled a series of parade floats that including a puppet with a glittering ring and watch beaming from a massive papier mache hand. "All 22 watches, all borrowed from a friend — his friend must have a shop selling watches," said a commenter on an online website after Thursday's verdict.    

Top Chinese Officials Forced to Carry Out Self-Criticisms

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 21:12
Top Chinese leaders have been forced to undergo a self-criticism session, state media said Thursday, in a further sign of President Xi Jinping's efforts to enforce party loyalty amid signs of internal dissent over his handling of a trade war with the United States. A tool highly favored by Mao Zedong and taken to extremes during the Cultural Revolution, self-criticism sessions are back in favor under Xi's presidency as he seeks to consolidate power and tighten discipline in the upper party echelons. Members of the Politburo "were asked to conduct criticism and self-criticism in light of work experience," at a meeting held on Tuesday and Wednesday, state news agency Xinhua reported. They were also questioned on "how they have taken the lead to implement Xi's instructions and key Party regulations and policies," it added. The center of power in China lies with the 25-member Politburo, though its role has lessened since Xi got the top job in 2012 and started concentrating powers in his own hands. Analysts however say the president's authority has been contested over the last few months due to an economic slowdown triggered by an ongoing trade war with the US. Xinhua's report of the meeting does not say what self-criticisms the members of the Politburo were expected to make. Self-criticisms were regularly carried out during the Cultural Revolution -- a period of intense social and political upheaval launched by Mao from 1966-76 -- and have returned under Xi. Experts said top officials appear to have wavered from the political line imposed by the strongman president. Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the meeting as "extraordinary" because the leadership is "admitting there is tension within its ranks". "It means some of the Politburo members have done or said things contrary to Xi Jinping's interests," he added. According to Xinhua, the leaders "were also urged to study the latest speeches given by Xi" as quickly as possible, and will have to "discipline themselves, their families and close aides at work". Xi reportedly made a speech at the meeting, during which he lauded "democratic centralism" -- one of the founding principles of Leninism in which the top leadership is all-powerful -- and called for unity within the party. Since he came to power, Xi has waged a campaign against corruption, punishing more than 1.5 million officials. Some observers however say the crackdown has targeted his internal opponents in particular.

Vietnam Finds New Ways to Spend, and Pile up Debt

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 19:58
At a new Vietnamese restaurant last week, a diner asked to pay by credit card, so the waitress brought out a card reader she’d never used before. After a minute, she wondered why the machine didn’t ask for a PIN, only to learn that it was not required for credit cards, only debit cards. Small businesses like the eatery are still learning the ropes, because paying by credit remains a new trend in Vietnam. But it is telling that even an enterprise of that small size is adopting point-of-sales machines, a sign that credit and digital transactions are on the rise at all levels of commerce big and small in the country. This may present a "dao hai luoi," or a double edge sword. Advancing technology like e-payments can contribute to what is already one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But at the same time, growing reliance on credit to drive consumption -- as in the U.S. consumption-led economy -- increases the risk that Vietnamese will take on more loans than they can bear, or live beyond their means. Credit trends are good and bad It’s not just Vietnam. This comes at a time of increasing fears around the world that too much debt might trigger the next global recession -- from the government bonds held by Italy’s banks, to the borrowing spree of China’s local governments, to the increased U.S. interest rates that make it harder for developing countries to pay back loans denominated in dollars. In Vietnam, data from payments company Visa in September showed that digital transactions jumped 45 percent from June 2017 to June 2018. The numbers were not broken down into credit versus debit payments, but they are an indication that Vietnamese are using more credit cards. The overall change is good for Vietnam because it makes it easier to track legitimate business activity, according to Truong Minh Ha, who is head of client relationship management at Visa Vietnam and Laos. “Not all of the shadow economy is illegal but a lot of it is. Smuggling, money laundering,” she said. “It’s not traced or regulated, so government loses in terms of tax revenue, and businesses can’t compete.” Vietnamese now favor buying on credit Credit cards are part of a broader shift across the Southeast Asian country, where it used to be more common to pay cash for large purchases, like houses or motorbikes, and for small ones, like e-commerce products. But now Vietnamese increasingly take out loans to buy those goods. Lending spiked 39 percent in 2017 at FE Credit, according to credit ratings company Moody’s. It said FE Credit enjoys market share of about half of Vietnam's consumer finance sector. “These strengths are partly offset by the company's exposure to the high credit risk inherent in Vietnam's rapidly growing unsecured consumer finance market,” Moody’s said in September. But it added that FE Credit’s loan growth came with weaker asset quality and looser underwriting standards. That means borrowers’ financial situations aren’t as strong, raising their chances of default. Change is afoot in the micro-loan space, too. Instead of waiting until they can afford a cell phone or washing machine, factory workers now have the option of financing the products against their monthly salaries. As with the payday lenders in the U.S., Vietnamese repay the loans by allowing the lender to lay early claim to a piece of their next paycheck. Too much credit card use can be risky They take out these micro-loans using a smartphone app, just one of the many ways financial technology is evolving in Vietnam. But the changes could create a mismatch between FinTech – financial technology – and state oversight. “A lot of things the government do is right, [like] how to protect the consumer,” said Nguyen Manh Tuong, executive vice chair and president of MoMo e-wallet. “The technology changes so fast that all the regulations [have] a big challenge to catch up. I think we can learn the way China [has a] more modern, advanced FinTech sector, more sandboxes.” He was referring to regulatory sandboxes, which allow startups to experiment with new ideas with limited legal liability. Countries must communicate The challenges go beyond Vietnam, according to Nguyen Huynh Phuong Thao, a certified accountant with the Ho Chi Minh City bar association. She said it’s time for global cooperation to regulate all the new ways people are handling and using money. “When it comes to transactions involving technology, they have a cross-border nature, and so dialogue among countries is needed,” she said. “Countries need to figure out a way to work hand in hand to come up with consistent regulations.”

Transmongolian: The Beauty Queen Breaking Barriers

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 18:54
Make-up artist Solongo Batsukh braves Mongolia's below-freezing temperatures in just a skimpy black dress and light pastel pink coat -- the country's trailblazing transgender beauty queen wants to look good in any weather. "I don't like to look puffy," the 25-year-old said as she drove to a beauty salon that hired her to promote its products and services via Facebook live videos. It's with this typical bluntness, confidence and attitude that taboo-breaking Batsukh strutted into the country's first ever Miss Universe Mongolia competition in October. Though she fell short of representing her country at the Miss Universe contest in Thailand on December 17, her participation shed another light onto a group living on the edges of a deeply patriarchal country with conservative views about sexual orientation. Had she won, she would have joined Miss Spain's Angela Ponce as the first transgender contestants in Miss Universe's 66-year history. "I wanted to inspire as many women as possible," Batsukh told AFP. "But I'm still proud that I got the chance to compete in this contest, and the 'Solongo' I created was a true winner in my heart," she said. Her participation didn't please everyone, dredging up negative reactions on social media. "The world would have a negative image of our country if a man represents us while there are thousands of beautiful and real women in our country," one person wrote on the Facebook page of Miss Universe Mongolia. ​'Correct misunderstandings' But Batsukh isn't deterred by such abuse. Born Bilguun Batsukh, she grew up as a boy in the semi-arid central province of Dundgovi. She couldn't pinpoint her gender identity until she learned about different gender orientations as a university student in her early 20s. It was when she started working as a program officer at Youth for Health, a non-governmental organization that provides safe-sex education for LGBT people, that she realized she was a woman born in a man's body. She started wearing wigs, putting on dresses and taking hormone therapy. Batsukh is among the few LGBT people who have dared to come out in Mongolia, where some 80 percent of the community remain in the closet, according to a UN survey. "It is extremely difficult for transgender people to be employed," said Baldangombo Altangerel, legal program manager at the LGBT Centre. A video of a young transgender woman who had repeatedly been beaten in the streets went viral in Mongolia last year, highlighting the prejudices LGBT people face. Batsukh wants to dispel the image that transgender women can only be sex workers or strippers living on the fringes of society. She flaunts her wealth, regularly travels abroad and is a celebrity in her country of three million people. Batsukh found fame in 2014, when she represented Mongolia in Miss International Queen, finishing in the top 10 of the international transgender beauty pageant organized in Thailand. She pursued a modelling career and became a make-up artist. "I had to reveal myself (as transgender) so I could correct the misunderstandings in society. If we keep hidden, society will keep on hating us. They don't know us," she said. Batsukh has used her public image to speak up on television and social media, fighting against perceptions that transgender people are suffering from mental illness. But she has tough words for Mongolia's transgender community, too, complaining that they should focus on working rather than talking about human rights. "Instead of saying 'we're human like everyone else', we need to prove ourselves through our actions. Just show others that we're making a living like ordinary people," she said. 'Her goals inspire me' Batsukh is seizing on the popularity of her Facebook page, which has more than 120,000 "likes", to create a reality show featuring women seeking a makeover. The beauty queen will help the women lose weight, change hairstyles and apply make-up. Sarangoo Sukhbaatar, 25, who works in a cashmere company and was among 25 women competing to be among the five participants, said she trusted in Batsukh's ability and skills to transform her looks. "Solongo truly understands what women feel," said Sukhbaatar, who started following Batsukh on social media two years ago. "Her goals and patience inspire me," she said. "If a man can be beautiful like her, women can be much more beautiful than we are today."

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