Saturday, 16 January 2021


Protesters Who Fled Hong Kong Arrive in U.S., Seeking Asylum

The five men fled by boat to Taiwan in July, soon after China imposed Hong Kong’s harsh national security law. This week, they landed in New York.

The national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year by the Chinese government has snuffed out many forms of dissent.
The national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year by the Chinese government has snuffed out many forms of dissent. Credit... Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Michael Forsythe

Last July, five young men boarded a recreational boat in a remote harbor in Hong Kong. They passed through waters patrolled by the Chinese authorities and headed east, across the South China Sea.

When they neared Taiwan, they cut off their motor, hoping to be rescued by the Taiwanese Coast Guard. They were in luck.

Now, after months in Taiwan, they intend to seek asylum in the United States, where they arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York on Wednesday.

They are part of a trickle of political activists who have fled Hong Kong since China’s central government imposed a harsh national security law on the city in June, snuffing out many forms of political dissent, including the pro-democracy protests in which the five men had participated.


The account of their escape from Hong Kong, their stay in Taiwan and their arrival in the United States was provided by Samuel Chu, founder of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington-based advocacy group that arranged for the men’s travel and lodging and is helping them apply for asylum. None of the five men wanted to be identified out of concern that it could endanger their relatives in Hong Kong. One of them spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Samuel Chu, founder of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.
Samuel Chu, founder of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council. Credit... Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

While in Taiwan, they were held on a military base and not allowed to communicate with their family and friends, though the man who agreed to be interviewed said they had been treated well. They believed that the United States offered the best chance for them to restart their lives, he said.

Dealbook: An examination of the major business and policy headlines and the power brokers who shape them.

After weeks of negotiations, the men were allowed entry into the United States on humanitarian grounds, Mr. Chu said.


Their arrival in the United States could create further tensions between China and the United States, posing an early challenge for the incoming Biden administration just as relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in decades.

China has cast Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters as criminals, while the United States and other democracies have challenged China over its crackdown on the city’s liberties. The involvement of Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that is claimed by China, only adds to the sensitivity.

Spokeswomen for the State Department and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns. A press officer for the American Institute in Taiwan, which serves as the de facto American embassy there, also would not comment, nor would a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.

All five protesters, who range in age from 18 to 26, fled Hong Kong fearing that they would soon face imprisonment, and at least one had previously been arrested in connection with his role in the protests, Mr. Chu said.


The Trump administration’s move, in its final days, to grant entry to the men on humanitarian grounds stands in contrast to its dramatic curtailing of refugee quotas over the past four years. In December, legislation in Congress that would have made it easier for Hong Kong residents to gain refugee status was blocked by Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.

A few years ago, the idea of political dissidents fleeing Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, would have seemed unimaginable. Hong Kong’s more than 7 million people have one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and enjoy political liberties that are unknown in mainland China.

A December 2019 protest in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong.
A December 2019 protest in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong. Credit... Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

But after Xi Jinping became China’s top leader in late 2012, Beijing began to rule over Hong Kong with an increasingly heavy hand. The national security law, imposed after massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests swept the city in 2019, has prompted some activists to leave. Most departed in much less dramatic fashion, boarding a plane for Europe or North America; others, fearing arrest at the airport, took to the sea.

Friday, 15 January 2021


U.S. Steps Up Claims Covid-19 May Have Escaped From Chinese Lab

  • State Department offers no data to back latest assertions
  • China has limited or delayed efforts to study virus’s origin

The State Department on Friday said it had new information suggesting the Covid-19 pandemic could have emerged from a Chinese laboratory and not through contact with infected animals, the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Beijing over the virus’s origins.

Specifically, the U.S. said it had obtained new evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak in the surrounding city, with symptoms it said were consistent with either Covid-19 or common seasonal illnesses.

The department said China’s lack of transparency about the pandemic’s origin more than a year ago, as well as efforts to mask early shortcomings in the country’s response to the outbreak, make it difficult to draw clear conclusions. But the brief, unsigned statement issued by the U.S. -- less than a week before the end of the Trump administration -- provided no data to back up its claims.

“The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic,” according to the State Department. “Alternatively, a laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by asymptomatic infection.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to elaborate when asked for further comment.

China has repeatedly rejected charges that the virus might have emerged from a laboratory. The U.S. didn’t say how it obtained the new information about illnesses at the lab.

The comments, in a State Department fact sheet, come as China faces criticism for initially preventing some members of a World Health Organization mission from entering China as part of an effort to trace the origin of Covid-19, saying they hadn’t passed health screenings. While the experts were eventually granted clearance, China had already been criticized by the WHO for delaying the mission’s plans to visit the country.

China has been under scrutiny since the outbreak exploded in and around Wuhan, but the Trump administration also sought to pin more blame on authorities in Beijing after the pandemic took off in the U.S. and deaths soared. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo frequently refer to the illness as the “China virus”, “China plague” and “Wuhan virus.”

For its part, China is mounting a campaign to cast doubt the virus originated within its borders. State media have played up research suggesting that there were cases in Italy and the U.S. that pre-date those in Wuhan, and hinted that the pathogen could have entered the country via frozen food or packaging.

On Friday it was announced that 2 million people had died worldwide from the outbreak, with almost 400,000 deaths in the U.S.


Fiji Will Lead U.N. Rights Body, Over Russian and Chinese Opposition

The vote ended a proxy battle waged by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which sought to strengthen their influence by installing a more compliant candidate.

The opening of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s main annual session in Geneva, Switzerland, last year.
The opening of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s main annual session in Geneva, Switzerland, last year. Credit... Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

GENEVA — The Pacific island nation of Fiji won election on Friday as president of the United Nations’ top human rights body, ending a shadowy proxy battle waged by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia seeking to strengthen their influence by installing a more compliant candidate.

Fiji won decisively, with support from 29 countries in a secret ballot of the Human Rights Council’s 47 members, fending off a challenge from Bahrain, which garnered 14 votes, and Uzbekistan, which received four votes.

The result puts the small, remote island nation, which has a record of support for human rights initiatives, into a leadership position at a time of intensifying competition between states over holding rights abusers to account.

China and Russia will return as members of the council in 2021, giving voice to two powerful nations that have faced widespread criticism over human rights abuses. Human rights groups say the council has been effective at highlighting many of the worst crises, and hope the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will bolster that role by re-engaging with the body, which President Trump quit in 2018.


“Fiji’s victory is a victory for those who believe the Human Rights Council should be used to defend human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “That Fiji’s candidacy was opposed by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia reflects the determination of these and other autocratic governments to stymie the work of the Human Rights Council.”

The council’s president has significant influence over its priorities and the selection of independent experts to report on human rights abusers and their misdeeds. The president is also responsible for pushing back against states that seek to thwart the council’s work by cracking down on people who cooperate with its investigations.

On Politics with Lisa Lerer: A guiding hand through the political news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.

Fiji announced its candidacy in July 2020, and, initially running unopposed, seemed a shoo-in for the job. Its ambassador, Nazhat Shameem Khan, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who went on to become Fiji’s first female High Court Judge, is well respected in Geneva’s diplomatic community and has been a vice-president of the council. In the Council, Fiji had backed investigations into reported abuses in Venezuela, the Philippines, Belarus, Syria and Yemen.

Those positions, fiercely opposed by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, appear to have prompted Bahrain to make a late bid for the post, setting off weeks of maneuvering within the Asia-Pacific group of countries to try to pressure Fiji to step aside.


Human rights activists have assailed Bahrain for repressing critics at home and for its refusal to cooperate with United Nations human rights bodies, which critics said was disqualifying for its bid.

“It was quite ham-fisted, there was no pretense even of support for human rights,” Mr. Roth said, describing Bahrain’s bid as a brazen attempt to install a candidate that was “going to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work.”

As the contest moved toward a vote in the council, where Fiji enjoyed strong support, China publicly played down its opposition, issuing statements saying it would be content to see any of the candidates elected, including Fiji.

But diplomats and human rights groups say the outcome gives Beijing grounds for concern. China faces intensifying scrutiny in the United Nations over its incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and its harsh crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.


US sanctions Chinese officials over Hong Kong crackdown

Hong Kong arrested more than 50 people last week in what the US has described as an ‘appalling crackdown on pro-democracy politicians and activists’ © Reuters

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials in response to the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which continued last week with the arrest of politicians and activists.

The state department sanctions target two Chinese Communist party officials involved in setting Hong Kong policy, in addition to a pro-Beijing legislator in the territory and three Hong Kong security officials in the police force.

The sanctions are the latest in a string of actions that President Donald Trump has taken against China in his final weeks in office, over everything from security threats to concerns about targeting democracy activists in Hong Kong following the move by China to impose a draconian national security law in the territory last year. It comes just five days before Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the US.

The state department said the sanctions — which bar Americans from dealing with the targeted individuals — were in response to Hong Kong’s arrest of more than 50 people on January 6 in “an appalling crackdown on pro-democracy politicians and activists who were trying to advance fair and open primary elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council”.

The arrests marked the latest escalation in the effort by China — enabled by the pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong — to snuff out the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony following the imposition of a national security law last year, part of Beijing’s effort to erode its semi-autonomous status.

Several of the arrested activists were former lawmakers who had resigned after four colleagues were disqualified in connection with the security law.

The state department called on the Hong Kong authorities to “immediately release or drop charges” against people who had been targeted under the national security law, including John Clancey, 79, a US lawyer and former priest, who became the first expatriate to be arrested in Hong Kong under the law.

The administration has been rushing to implement several tough measures against China before Wednesday’s inauguration of Mr Biden. Some officials want to install measures that the incoming US president would find difficult to overturn in the face of bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill for an assertive stance towards China.

This week the US put several Chinese companies, including China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Xiaomi, on separate blacklists. Xiaomi, the biggest Chinese smartphone maker, was placed on a Pentagon list of companies with alleged ties to the Chinese military, a move that prohibits Americans from investing in any of its securities.


China’s pressure and propaganda - the reality of reporting Xinjiang

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Beijing

15 hours ago
John Sudworth in Xinjiang
image caption The BBC team were followed and had their footage deleted

In addition to the heavy restrictions it places on foreign journalists trying to report the truth about its far western region of Xinjiang, China has a new tactic: labelling independent coverage as "fake news".

At night, while travelling for hours along Xinjiang's desert highways, the unmarked cars that had been following us from the moment we arrived would tailgate us at speed, driving dangerously close with their headlights on full beam.

Their occupants - who never identified themselves - forced us to leave one city by chasing us out of restaurants and shops, ordering the owners not to serve us.

The report we produced, despite these difficulties, contained new evidence - much of it based on China's own policy documents - that thousands of Uighurs and other minorities are being forced to pick cotton in a region responsible for a fifth of the world's crop.

But now China's Communist Party-run media have produced their own report about our reporting, accusing the BBC of exaggerating these efforts by the authorities to obstruct our team and calling it "fake news".

The video, made by the China Daily - an English-language newspaper - has been posted on both Chinese social media sites, as well as international platforms banned in China.

Cotton workers in Xinjiang
image caption Cotton picking in Xinjiang provides a fifth of the world's crop

Hannah Bailey, who specialises in China's use of state-sponsored digital disinformation at the Oxford Internet Institute, suggests that such a fiercely critical attack in English, but with Chinese subtitles, makes it unusual.

"It has clearly been produced with both international and domestic users in mind," she told me, "which is somewhat of a departure from previous strategies.

"Previous content produced for mainland audiences has been more critical of Western countries, and more vocally nationalistic, whereas content produced for international audiences has struck a more conciliatory tone."

The China Daily report focuses on an altercation outside the front gate of a textile factory in the city of Kuqa, where the BBC team was surrounded by a group of managers and local officials.

Kuqa textile factory
image caption The BBC went to film outside the vast Kuqa textile factory

The allegations it contains, based on body camera recordings provided by the police who arrived at the scene, are easily dismissed. A polite exchange between our team and a police officer is used to suggest that the BBC exaggerated the role of the authorities in preventing us from reporting.

But the China Daily chooses not to mention that some of our footage was forcibly deleted and we were made to accompany the same police officer to another location so she could review the remaining pictures. And it provides no explanation of the wider context, nor gives the BBC any right of reply.

Over a period of less than 72 hours in Xinjiang we were followed constantly and, on five separate occasions, approached by people who attempted to stop us from filming in public, sometimes violently.

Chinese officials with BBC producer Kathy Long in Xinjiang

In at least two instances, we were accused of breaching the privacy of these individuals on the basis that their attempts to stop us had led them to walk in front of our camera.

The uniformed police officers attending these "incidents" twice deleted our footage and, on another occasion, we were briefly held by local officials who claimed we'd infringed a farmer's rights by filming a field.

China's propaganda efforts may be a sign of just how damaging it believes the coverage of Xinjiang has been to its international reputation.

But attempting to attack the - usually censored - Western media at home carries some risk, in that it can reveal glimpses of stories that would otherwise remain out of the public domain.

A satellite photo, dated May 2019, shows a large group of people being moved between the Kuqa textile factory and a re-education camp located next door, complete with a watchtower and internal security walls.

Open-source satellite image of Kuqa facility

The China Daily, which refers to the camp by the official terminology as a "Vocational Training Centre" suggests our attempt to film was pointless because, they say, it closed in October 2019.

If true, this simply proves that the camp was operational when the image was taken - and confirms it to be compelling grounds for further investigation.

Now Chinese and Western audiences alike can ponder who the people in the photograph were, why they were being moved between the camp and the factory and whether any work they did there was likely to be fully voluntary.

Presentational grey line

In an interview with one of the uniformed police officers who provided the body camera recordings, the China Daily video inadvertently provides corroboration of just how well-planned and multi-layered the control of journalists in Xinjiang really is.

The officer confirms that, shortly after our arrival in Kuqa, she summoned us to a meeting in our hotel lobby to issue a warning about "our rights and restrictions".

In fact, hotel staff told us we were forbidden to leave the hotel until after this meeting had taken place.

It was also attended by two propaganda officials who were assigned to accompany us for the rest of our time in Kuqa - adding one more car to the long line that followed us wherever we went.

Far from being fake news, our evidence, along with the post-publication propaganda designed to undermine it, is proof of a co-ordinated effort to control the narrative, extending from the shadowy minders in unmarked cars, all the way up to the national government.

A vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang, September 2018
image caption Up to a million Muslims are thought to have been detained in camps across Xinjiang

Upon our return to Beijing we were summoned to a meeting with officials who insisted that we should have sought permission from the owners of the factory before filming it.

We pointed out that China's own media regulations do not prohibit the filming of a building from a public road.

China is increasingly using the accreditation process for foreign journalists as a tool of control, issuing shortened visas and threats of non-renewal for those whose coverage it disapproves of.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.

Following publication, I was given another shortened visa with the authorities making clear that it was as a result of my reporting on Xinjiang.


Ideology strangles courses at unis

The Institute of Public Affairs audit found that 572 subjects, or 44 per cent of the 1181 university humanities subjects analysed, were concerned with identity politics.
The Institute of Public Affairs audit found that 572 subjects, or 44 per cent of the 1181 university humanities subjects analysed, were concerned with identity politics.

The study of humanities at top-ranked universities has been overrun by identity politics, sparking accusations that academics pushing ideological projects are fuelling division within the community.

Themes of class, race and gender dominate history, literature, politics and social studies courses at the expense of traditional disciplinary content, according to an audit of Bachelor of Arts subjects that 10 universities offered last year.

Conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs, the audit found that 572 subjects, or 44 per cent of the 1181 subjects analysed, were concerned with identity politics, while a further 380 subjects featured critical race theory — a US-born framework for studying race and power responsible for coining the concepts “white privilege” and “structural racism”.

About 25 per cent of subjects were focused specifically on gender issues.

In contrast, a mere quarter of English literature subjects involved the study of great works comprising the Western canon, while just 23 per cent of history subjects dealt with the history of Western civilisation ranging from Ancient Greece to the modern world.

In the political sciences, 10 per cent of subjects offered taught students about the history of ideas and political thought. Freedom, a key tenet of the study of social sciences, was also in just 10 per cent of the 524 possible subjects.

IPA director Bella d’Abrera, who carried out the review, said the findings could have devastating consequences, pointing to the impact of critical race theory on interracial tensions in the US, which has spilled over into violent rioting.

Dr d’Abrera said divisive ideologies were already having an impact on Australian society, evidenced by the perennial controversy around Australia Day and campaigns for the removal of public statues associated with European settlement.

An obsession with identity politics had divided Australians according to characteristics such as class, race and gender, she said, “preventing us from living together harmoniously as a cohesive society”.

“Academics have turned the humanities into a political project which seeks to replace the values and institutions of Western civilisation with a fatal combination of nihilism and anarchy,” Dr d’Abrera said.

“The concept of a shared humanity has been removed and replaced with a divisive ideology which pits us against each other on the basis of our immutable characteristics.”

The audit, on the back of Dr d’Abrera’s previous analysis of the study of history at the nation’s tertiary institutions, follows a recent move by the federal government to raise fees for humanities courses in a bid to steer young people to study nursing, mathematics, science and engineering where there are greater employment opportunities.


Dr d’Abrera said the humanities had become “homogenised” to the extent that it was “almost impossible to differentiate between them”.

“There is no discernible difference, for example, between sociology and English literature or philosophy and sociology,” she said.

“No matter the subject, the same worldview, which is that of identity politics and critical race theory, is repeated throughout all disciplines.”

Subjects captured in the audit included Macquarie University’s history subject “Global History of Sport”, where students examine the meaning of sport across “class, racial, gender, and ethnic groups”, including “the rise of female, LGBT, and transgender athletes”.

At the University of Melbourne, philosophy students taking “Race and Gender: Philosophical Issues” are asked to consider if race and gender are “biological” or “socially constructed” categories.

Even the study of children’s literature is framed through an ideological lens, with one course examining the canonical works only to veer into looking at “the ideological implications of the adult interests vested in the production of children’s literature, and how the genre works to socialise children into dominant views about gender, race and class”.

Simon Haines, chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which is sponsoring great books-style courses at several universities, said it was concerning if students were being offered little choice but to study history, literature and other humanities disciplines “exclusively or primarily through a limited number of prisms, such as race, class and sexuality”.

“This is not because great works are not affected by such issues, but because they, like human life itself, are about so much more … Academics can do their students’ understanding of life and our past a tremendous disservice if they appear to evaluate the huge range of human experience using relatively crude ideological and conceptual templates, which can often seem to be as activist as they are scholarly,” Professor Haines said

Campion College president Paul Morrissey, whose private university offers liberal arts degrees, said infiltration of identity politics into the humanities was a worrying trend.

“Disciplines like literature and history should be studied for their own sake, using a wide range of interpretative lenses,” Dr Morrissey said.

“If everything about our past, especially our history and art, is reduced to a contemporary ­ideology of identity this will have a broader negative impact on our society. One of the problems with identity politics is that it has an ­innate suspicion and disdain of western history and culture writ large.”

Australian Catholic University senior research fellow Kevin Donnelly said academic freedom, rational debate and the search for wisdom and truth had disappeared from the university sector only to be replaced by “cultural-left ideology”.

“One of the greatest threats to liberty and freedom is the fact that neo-Marxist-inspired mind control and group think dominate our universities,” Dr Donnelly said.

“It‘s time universities were brought to account given the millions of dollars spent every year on subjects riven with destructive and nihilistic identity politics and cancel culture.”


Ratland China begins building massive quarantine site as COVID cases surge

Play Video. Duration: 43 seconds
Chinese authorities are building a 33-hectare isolation centre for close contacts and secondary close contacts of people infected with COVID-19. (Photo: Xinhua via AP/Yang Shiyao)

China has started construction on a medical isolation centre in Hebei province to help contain a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

Key points:

    Covering an area of about 33 hectares according to state media, the site will mainly be used to isolate close contacts and secondary close contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients.

    A total of 3,000 makeshift wards are expected to be built in the centre, which will have room for several thousand people.

    More than 28 million people are already under lockdown in both Heilongjiang and Hebei provinces due to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases there.

    China reported the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in more than 10 months on Friday, with total of 144 new cases recorded on January 14, up from 138 cases a day earlier.

    Though the number of infections remains relatively low, especially as a proportion of the population, Feng Zijian, deputy director of the China Centre for Disease Control (CDC), warned that the Hebei outbreak had been spreading faster than previous ones.

    Medical experts are also worried that the incubation period for the new strain is longer than previous outbreaks, with infections detected even after the recommended 14 days of isolation.

    Ninety of these cases were in Hebei province, with another 43 in Heilongjiang.

    China also recorded a death in Hebei province yesterday, marking the first death from COVID-19 since mid-May.

    North-east outbreak traced to Russia

    Dozens of tractors and cement trucks on a flat dusty ground.
    Hebei province is the epicentre of China's biggest surge in coronavirus cases in months.(Xinhua Via AP: Yang Shiyao)

    The outbreak in China's north-east is said to have originated in the coastal city of Dalian, where a series of local transmissions at the start of the year were traced back to infected cargo from Russia.

    The strain circulating in the region has been found to resemble the one that hit Russia last year.

    Hebei, which is due to host events at next year's Winter Olympics, recorded its first case of this latest outbreak on January 2.

    However, medical experts said it may actually have begun as early as November and spread through the province over subsequent months.

    There is also no indication that Hebei's cases are linked to any recent imported cases, though officials have suggested the initial case may have come from a traveller from overseas.

    Local authorities have sealed off entire cities throughout the province, paying particular attention to the roads connecting Hebei to its neighbour, the Chinese capital Beijing.

    They have also tracked people who have travelled out of the province since December.

    Outbreak places question mark over Lunar New Year holidays

    A young girl opens her mouth while sitting on a masked woman's lap, as a figure in PPE points a cotton swab at her.
    China is stepping up containment measures as a wave of new infections hits the country's north-east.(Xinhua Via AP: Liang Zidong)

    Since January, Hebei's capital city Shijiazhuang has been put into lockdown, with public transportation suspended and vehicles blocked from leaving.

    People are restricted to their residential compounds or villages.

    All of Shijiazhuang's roughly 10 million residents have been ordered to undergo a second round of testing as authorities try to find the sources of infection, which might be linked to wedding gatherings.

    Hebei province surrounds Beijing, adding to authorities' concerns ahead of next month's Lunar New Year holidays.

    They are encouraging the public to refrain from non-essential travel during the celebration, when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel during the break to go home or travel.