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China Retaliates With Sanctions on U.S. After Trump Signs Hong Kong Bills

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  • New protests broke out in Hong Kong after pro-democracy demonstrators saw two massive wins over the last week.
  • Last Sunday, pro-democracy candidates won a record number of seats in local elections, while pro-government allies went from 300 to 58 seats.
  • On Wednesday, President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, which authorizes the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong for human rights abuses, among other things.
  • China responded to the U.S. legislation by suspending U.S. military ship travel to Hong Kong and imposing sanctions on U.S.-based NGOs.

New Protests

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong in a fresh round of protests Sunday, following a week of significant wins for pro-democracy activists.

The protests, which picked up after a week of relative quiet, started out largely peaceful before ending in clashes between demonstrators and police later in the day.

Police reportedly fired tear gas and pepper spray at protestors, claiming they were responding to demonstrators who threw bricks and smoke bombs.

As the clashes escalated, protestors reportedly built barricades and vandalized shops that they perceive to be Beijing-friendly.

Meanwhile, the police continued to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.

For the pro-democracy activists who have been demonstrating in Hong Kong for nearly six months now, Sunday’s demonstrations were, at least in part, a celebration of recent wins for the movement. 

Elections

The first major victory for the protestors came last Sunday when a record number of Hong Kongers turned out and voted for a record number of pro-democracy candidates in local elections.

According to reports, 71% of eligible voters went to the polls, making it the highest voter turn out since Hong Kong began holding district council elections in 1999.

Source: The New York Times

As a result, in the election where there were 452 seats up for grabs, pro-democracy candidates went from holding only 124 seats to winning 389, giving them way more seats than they have ever won.

Meanwhile, the government’s allies went from holding 300 seats to winning only 58 seats.

The election was widely viewed as a referendum on both the protests and the government’s response to them.

Even though the results seem to show widespread support for the pro-democracy movement, it is unclear how far that support will take the movement.

This is because the district council seats do not have all that much power in Hong Kong’s political system despite the fact that district councils are some of the most democratic bodies in Hong Kong, with nearly all of the council seats being chosen through direct election.

By comparison, only about half of Hong Kong’s powerful Legislative Council is directly elected.

Watch our previous coverage on the situation in Hong Kong

Even Hong Kong’s chief executive is not chosen directly by voters, but instead by a committee that is stacked in favor of Beijing. 

Notably, however, the results of last week’s election will still give the pro-democracy forces more influence on that committee, although it is not scheduled to choose a new chief executive until 2022.

Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam, responded to the election results in a statement the next day.

“Many have pointed out that the results reflect the public’s dissatisfaction with the social situation and deep-seated problems,” Lam said, adding that the government would “listen to the views of the public with an open mind and seriously reflect on them.”

However, according to reports, Lam has not made any efforts to work with the protestors or address their demands since the election.

Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong told the Wall Street Journal that pro-democracy activists restarted their protests again because Lam and the government did not try to communicate with them after the election.

“The people just want to show the government that they will not back down or stay away just because they won,” he said. 

“After the election, the government had a favorable atmosphere to respond because I think the mood had improved on the part of the protesters. It was up to the government to respond and they didn’t.”

U.S. Passes Hong Kong Bill

In addition to huge wins in the recent election, pro-democracy protestors also received a victory from President Donald Trump, who officially signed two bills known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law on Wednesday.

Among other things, the Act requires the State Department to review Hong Kong’s special trade status with the U.S. each year. And perhaps most significantly, it also authorizes the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong for human rights abuses.

Trump had initially been hesitant to sign the bills, saying in an interview with Fox & Friends earlier that week that he supported the protestors, but that Chinese President Xi Jinping was “a friend.”

He also argued that the bill could hurt the ongoing trade deal negotiations between the U.S. and China.

However, a number of Republicans pointed out that the bills had passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers and said they would override his veto. Trump ultimately signed the bills.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” the president said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”

China responded by condemning the bills.

“This is a severe interference in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “It is also in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations.”

“We urge the US to not continue going down the wrong path, or China will take countermeasures, and the US must bear all consequences,” the statement later added.

But Sunday’s protests saw a number of Hong Kongers cheering and celebrating Trump’s decision.

Protesters reportedly gathered at a separate event Sunday called the “Gratitude to USA March” where protestors were seen waving American flags and holding signs that said “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong” and “President Trump, let’s make Hong Kong great again.”

China Retaliates

China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the recent developments, announcing Monday that it was suspending U.S. warship visits to Hong Kong.

“In response to the unreasonable behaviour of the US side, the Chinese government has decided to suspend reviewing the applications for US warships to go to Hong Kong for [rest and] recuperation as of today,” a ministry spokeswoman said in a statement.

The spokeswoman also said that China would be imposing sanctions on several U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, including the National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House, which she accused of supporting “anti-China forces in creating chaos in Hong Kong, and encouraged them to engage in extreme violent criminal acts.”

“They have a large responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong, and deserve to be sanctioned and pay the price,” she added.

Many experts have said that the new sanctions will not have a big effect on the U.S. They argue the sanctions are largely symbolic and show that China wants to move ahead with a trade deal.

However, on Sunday, Axios reported that a source close to Trump’s negotiating team told them that a trade deal between the U.S. and China was now “stalled because of Hong Kong legislation.”

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The New York Times) (NBC News)

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Trump Applauds Modi on Religious Freedom Amid Violent Protests in India

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  • Violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims have broken out in New Delhi over a controversial citizenship law.
  • The protests, which have been described as the worst violence in the city for decades, have been ongoing since Sunday. 
  • According to reports, 13 people have died and 150 have been injured.
  • In another part of New Delhi, President Trump praised Prime Minister Modi— who has long championed the law behind the violence— for his efforts on religious freedom.

Trump Applauds Modi

President Donald Trump applauded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s record on religious freedom as Hindus and Muslims clashed violently just miles away over a controversial law championed by Modi.

The law, called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), grants citizenship to religious minorities who came to India illegally from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Those eligible for citizenship under the law include people from every major religion in South Asia except for Muslims.

Critics of CAA say it is anti-Muslim and accuse Modi and his Hindu nationalist party of openly discriminating against Muslims and trying to make them second-class citizens in India.

But Modi and his supporters have repeatedly argued that the law protects persecuted religious minorities who immigrate to India from those Muslim-majority countries.

Protests have been ongoing since CAA was passed by India’s Parliament in December. However, the most recent demonstrations in New Delhi have been described as the deadliest violence the capital city has seen in decades.

The protests first broke out Sunday and have been ongoing ever since. According to reports, 13 people have died and 150 have been injured in that time.

As the violence over the legislation espoused by Modi raged on nearby, Trump praised the prime minister’s efforts on religious freedom while speaking at a press conference.

“The prime minister was incredible in what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly,” the president said.

“We talked about religious liberty for a long period of time in front of a lot of people. And I had a very, very powerful answer,” he continued.

“And as far as Muslims are concerned, as he told me, I guess they have 200 million Muslims in India. And a fairly short while ago they had 14 million. And he said that they are very— working very closely with the Muslim community.”

When asked about the law behind the violence, Trump said that it was “up to India” to handle it.

Protests

It is not entirely clear how the violence started. Both groups blame each other for initiating the clashes and media reports are inconsistent.

What we do know is that protestors who oppose the bill held a sit-in over the weekend that blocked a major road. 

On Sunday, Kapil Mishra, a local leader from Modi’s party, said that he did not want to cause a scene while Trump was visiting, but threatened to send a mob of his supporters to forcibly remove the demonstrators if the police failed to act once the president left.

From there, the reporting gets hazy. While some outlets said that both Muslims and Hindus both started throwing rocks at each other after Mishra threatened the protestors, others reported that Hindu mobs attacked the Muslim demonstrators first, throwing rocks and beating them.

Regardless of the initial confrontation, it is evident situation escalated rapidly. According to reports, both sides threw rocks at each other and at stores. Some people reportedly threw petrol bombs, while others set shops, cars, and other vehicles on fire.

In one viral video, a Hindu mob was seen climbing on and defacing a burning mosque before reportedly hoisting a flag of a Hindu god.

Another viral picture that circulated on social media showed a group of Hindu men beating a Muslim man with sticks and leaving him on the ground covered in blood.

Several journalists were also reportedly attacked.

Police responded with tear gas, grenades, and Molotov cocktails. However, multiple outlets also reported that the police mostly stood by the Hindus and did not do much to stop the violence.

Several Muslim protestors told reporters that police officers watched as they were attacked and did nothing. Some officers even encouraged the Hindu mobs to burn down Muslims’ property, according to some reports.

On Tuesday, officials banned large gatherings, shut down subway stations, and closed schools in the surrounding areas in an attempt to control the violence.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (BBC) (The Guardian)

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Saudi Arabia Orders Rapper’s Arrest After Song Praising Women in Mecca

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  • Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid bin Faisal has called for the arrest of a rapper and her production crew after she posted a music video praising women in Mecca to YouTube.
  • The song, “Mecca Girls,” features singer Ayasel Slay rapping about how beautiful and strong women in Mecca are in comparison to other cities.
  • Bin Faisal has denounced the video as offensive to “the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca.”
  • The Saudi Arabian government has faced accusations of racism, with many saying that Ayasel’s arrest has only been ordered because she is of African descent and not part of the Arab ethnic group.

Ayasel Slay Posts “Mecca Girl”

The Saudi Arabian government is calling for the arrest of a singer after she posted a song called “Mecca Girl” to YouTube last week.

That music video features singer/rapper Ayasel Slay dancing in a coffee shop. In it, she raps about women in Mecca, praising them as the strongest and most beautiful in all of Saudi Arabia.

“A Mecca girl is all you need. Don’t upset her, she will hurt you,” she raps at one point. 

Notably, Slay, who is reportedly of Eritrean descent, also specifically raps about the beauty of both light- and dark-skinned women, saying: “She’s white, shines like a lightbulb. She’s dark, her beauty stings.”

The end of the music video shows kids dancing and having fun. Like Ayasel, many of the children are black.

While the video has garnered praise from activists, it’s also been hit with heavy religious criticism for featuring Mecca. Though also filmed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s holiest city, “Mecca Girl” was not filmed at any religious site.  Nonetheless, Muslims consider the entire area sacred.

The mention of Mecca was enough to prompt Prince Khalid bin Faisal, governor of the Mecca province, to call for Ayasel’s arrest, as well as the arrest of her production crew. 

In a post to Twitter, he said the music video “offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradicts the elevated identity and traditions of its sons.” He then used the hashtag “You_Are_Not_Mecca’s_Girls.”

Following bin Faisal’s call to arrest Ayasel, she reportedly deleted her YouTube channel, also deleting “Mecca Girl” in the process. Numerous copies of the music video have since been posted to YouTube.

Accusations of Racism by the Saudi Government

Though some have argued that Ayasel’s incorporation of Mecca into her song was the reason behind the Saudi government’s retaliation against her, others have said the government is targeting Ayasel specifically because she is black. 

“The consequences are not equaling the crime, because there is no crime there,” Seattle-based Saudi activist Amani Al-Ahmadi told The Washington Post. “It’s obviously targeted against a woman who they feel doesn’t represent what Saudi and Mecca should be.” 

“It was very modest in nature,” she added. “If anything, it was just talking about how strong women are in the city compared to others… If you changed that city to any other city, you wouldn’t even know the difference. If she wasn’t a woman of color, they wouldn’t have seen her as a minority to target.”

Critics have also pointed to a 2018 music video featuring rapper Leesa, who went viral for singing about the end to a ban that prevented women in Saudi Arabia from driving. 

Like “Mecca Girl,” Leesa’s song featured overt messages of female empowerment.

“I don’t need anyone to take me/ I put the seat belt over my abaya,” she raps at one point. 

Unlike Ayasel’s performance, Leesa’s was more well-received, with critics noting that ethnically, Leesa is Arab. On the other hand, Slay is of African descent—even if Mecca is her hometown.

Online Response

Criticism against Ayasel has also made waves on social media, with many people using the #You_Are_Not_Mecca’s_Girls hashtag to attack Ayasel.

“Immediate deportation is the answer, in addition to holding every foreigner who claims to be from Mecca accountable,” one person said. 

Others, however, doubled down that Ayasel’s arrest warrant wasn’t about race but the fact that she referenced Islam’s most holy city in a song.

By Tuesday, many people had taken the “#You_Are_Not_Mecca’s_Girls” hashtag and flooded it with support for Ayasel, and in turn, criticism of the government. 

“Had it been an affluent, well connected, light skinned Saudi influencer who created the video it would have been used in MBS’s propaganda as a sign of progress and reform. Double standards & hypocrisy at its best,” one user said.

Some people also accused Saudi Arabia of hypocrisy, noting that the country has been trying to change its strict social codes by booking performances from major acts such as Nicki Minaj, BTS, and Liam Payne. 

Notably, all of those acts faced their own criticism for agreeing to perform in the country, especially considering Saudi Arabia’s poor track record with women and LGBTQ+ groups. That backlash then prompted Minaj to drop her performance.

“Shout out to the Saudi government for inviting Nicki Minaj to perform in a bid to appear “modern” but banned and arrested an *actual* Black Saudi female rapper who created a banger about her hometown #AsayelSlay,” one user said. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, it is unclear still unclear whether or not the Saudi Arabian government has taken any action against Ayasel.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (Mashable)

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Seoul to Improve Semi-Basement Apartments After ‘Parasite’ Shines Light on Issues

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  • The Seoul city government said it will financially support 1,500 households living in semi-basement apartments like the one depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”
  • With the help of the Korea Energy Foundation, the local government will offer up to 3.2 million won (about 2,630 USD) per household for enhancements like new floors, air conditioners, fire alarms, ventilators, and more. 
  • While many have noted that this new initiative won’t lift semi-basement dwellers completely out of trouble, they still feel that’s a step in the right direction that could help prevent thousands from sinking into worse conditions. 

Film Draws Attention to Poor Living Conditions 

After making history at the 92nd Academy Awards, the South Korean film “Parasite” has now inspired the Seoul Metropolitan Government to address poor living conditions in the city. 

The dark comedy thriller, directed by Bong Joon-ho, took home four Oscars at this year’s ceremony and became the first non-English language film to earn the Best Picture trophy. 

But aside from the historic win, the film also shined a light on the realities of living in semi-basement apartments also known as “Banjiha,” the Korean word for cramped basement flat. 

In the film, the scheming Kim family lives in a semi-basement apartment that is prominently portrayed as a dark, smell, and small space. But while the movie is a work of fiction, its portrayal of these apartments is apparently not.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there were over 360,000 semi-basement apartments in South Korea as of 2015, with the majority located in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. Many of the units were originally built as emergency bunkers in the 1970s—an era of intense military tension between North and South Korea. 

Some of these spaces were later converted into cheap rental units and though it was initially illegal to rent them out, the government walked back on their restrictions during the housing crisis in the 1980s, when living spaces began running short in the capital. 

Government Plans to Take Action 

As depicted in the film, Banjiha spaces actually are dark, poorly ventilated, damp, and often far too compact to support the number of residents living inside. But for many low-income people, these are some of their best options for affordable housing. 

The Korea Herald cited city statistics that said 78% of Seoul’s semi-basement dwellers are in the bottom 30% income bracket. So to address the housing issues that became highly discussed since the movie’s release and subsequent success, the Seoul Metropolitan Government vowed to support 1,500 families living in these homes.

According to The Korea Herald, the local government is partnering with the Korea Energy Foundation to offer “up to 3.2 million won [about 2,630 USD] per household to enhance heating systems, replace floors, and install air conditioners, dehumidifiers, ventilators, windows, and fire alarms.”

Residents who live in semi-basement apartments and earn less than 60% of the country’s median income will be able to submit applications to the government to be selected for renovation. The government also said it plans to expand the range of recipients each year. 

While many have noted that this new initiative won’t lift semi-basement dwellers completely out of trouble, they still feel that it’s a step in the right direction that could help prevent thousands from sinking into worse conditions. 

See what others are saying: (IndieWire) (BBC) (The Korean Herald) 

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