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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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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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