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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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Protests Erupt in India Over Proposed Citizenship Bill

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  • Protests broke out all over India after the lower house of Parliament passed a bill that would give citizenship to religious minorities who illegally immigrated to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
  • Muslims are not included on that list, prompting many to worry that the bill would make it easier to jail and deport Muslims residents in India—including those whose families have lived in India for generations.
  • Critics say the bill violates India’s secular constitution, which protects all religions, and that it is a targeted attack on Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party.

Protests in India

Protests erupted in India on Monday as the country’s lower house of Parliament debated and passed a controversial piece of legislation called the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

If implemented, the bill would grant citizenship to religious minorities who illegally immigrated to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. In order to become a citizen, those individuals would have to live in India for six years and take a test to prove that they belong to one of six religions. 

The religions that would be eligible for citizenship in India are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Parsis. Notably, not included on that list are Muslims.

The bill would represent a huge shift for India, which is a secular country and has a constitution that mandates that all religions be treated equally.

As a result, many have described the bill as the most significant move to change the secular nature of the country since it gained independence in 1947.

The bill would also make it easier to jail and deport Muslims residents in India, including those whose families have lived there for generations, but who do not have proof of citizenship. That could leave millions of Muslims in India stateless.

The bill was first introduced back in 2016 and passed the lower house, but it was dropped by the upper chamber after massive protests against the bill.

Following the re-introduction of the bill, protestors have come out to oppose it, with reports of demonstrations and marches in multiple cities all over India.

In the state of Assam—where people strongly opposed the bill the first time it was proposed—protesters have reportedly blocked roads, burnt tires, and painted walls with slogans against the bill. Shops, businesses, and schools to close as a result.

Opponents of the Bill 

The protesters are not alone in their opposition to the citizenship bill.

Opponents and many legal experts say the legislation would violate India’s secular constitution. Opposition parties have also argued that it discriminates against Muslims, which make up nearly 15% of India’s population.

Many Muslims in India say this discrimination is a very intentional plan on the part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to make Muslims second-class citizens in India.

Modi is a staunch Hindu nationalist, meaning that he believes India is and should be a Hindu nation.

Ever since he and the BJP were re-elected earlier this year, he has significantly ramped up his efforts to advance his Hindu-nationalist agenda.

One of the most prominent examples of this is the situation in Kashmir. Back in August, Modi stripped Kashmir of its statehood and autonomy.

The move very significantly gave India’s central government much more power over Kashmir, which had been one of the only Muslim-majority territories in India. Modi also sent tens of thousands of troops to the region, basically putting the territory on total lockdown.

That lockdown has largely remained in place since August, with widespread internet and phone restrictions remain in place to clamp down on protests. Shops, businesses, and schools in Kashmir have largely stayed closed.

Additionally, over the summer, Modi’s government started a program in Assam that was very similar to the one proposed in the Citizenship Amendment Bill. 

Under that program, all 33 million residents of the state had to provide documents to the government that proved their ancestors were Indian citizens.

The program ultimately resulted in nearly two million people—many of whom Muslims and lifelong residents of India—being left off the state’s citizenship rolls.

As a result, critics say the citizenship bill is just part of Modi’s efforts to identify and deport or even intern Muslims who have lived in India for years or generations.

Critics and opposition leaders have also tried to paint the bill as endangering democracy in India.

“We are heading toward totalitarianism, a fascist state,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim Member of Parliament. “We are making India a theocratic country.”

Supporters of the Bill

Modi and his party have defended the citizenship bill, arguing that it is simply an attempt to protect persecuted religious minorities who migrate from predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan or Afghanistan.

The bill’s supporters also argue that Muslims are not persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan.

While that is true, critics argue that it is a justification that ignores Muslim prosecution in other countries that neighbor India.

“If [the] Indian government, through this bill, wants to give citizenship to persecuted minorities in the neighbouring countries, how can it exclude the Rohingya of Myanmar who are far more persecuted than any other group in the neighbourhood,” Faizan Mustafa, an expert on constitutional law told Al Jazeera.

Now, the legislation will head to Parliament’s upper chamber where, according to reports, Modi seems to have enough allies that most analysts and experts say the citizenship bill will soon become law.

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

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New Zealand Volcano Eruption Leaves At Least Five Dead

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  • At least five people were killed and eight more are reported missing after a volcano erupted in New Zealand on Monday. 
  • It is believed 47 people were on White Island at the time of the eruption, including New Zealand natives and foreign tourists. Thirty-four people were rescued.
  • Further rescue operations are on hold because the physical environment has been deemed unsafe, but police have reported that there are “no signs of life” on the island. 
  • Alerts that detailed increased activity of the volcano were issued in the weeks prior to the eruption.

Deadly Eruption

Authorities have confirmed at least five people are dead and eight more are reported missing after a volcano erupted in New Zealand on Monday.

New Zealand police believe that 47 people were on White Island, also known as Whakaari, when it erupted just after 2 p.m. local time. Thirty-four people were rescued and taken to hospitals to have their injuries treated, including both tourists and New Zealand natives. 

Videos posted to social media show enormous plumes of smoke.

John Tims, the deputy police commissioner, announced that rescue operations are currently on hold because of the unsafe physical environment of the island and the risk of another eruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that official aircraft have flown over the island since the eruption and that “no signs of life have been seen at any point.” 

“Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island,” New Zealand police said in a statement.

Cruise Ship Identified

Royal Caribbean cruise line confirmed that some of the people on the island at the time the volcano erupted were passengers from one of their ships. 

A spokesperson from Royal Caribbean told the New York Times that the company is “working together with local authorities and providing all the help and care we can to our guests and their families, including offering medical resources and counseling.”

Previous Volcanic Activity Warning

GeoNet, an agency that monitors geological hazard information for New Zealand, has been reporting noticeable levels of volcanic activity on White Island since late September. They issued an alert as recently as Dec. 3. 

“Observations and data to date suggest that the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal,” they said in the bulletin last week. “These eruptions can occur with little or no warning.”

GeoNet also wrote in last week’s alert that “the current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors.”

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked if people shouldn’t have been allowed on the island because of the heightened volcanic activity, she declined to give a concrete answer. 

“In this moment in time, the absolute focus needs to be the search and rescue operation…” she said. “…There will be a time and a place to undertake further assessments. Now we have to focus on allowing the police to do their job and focus on those who were in the vicinity of the island at the time.” 

New Zealand police have set up both local and international phone numbers that concerned friends and families can call. Red Cross has also set up a Family Links website to update loved ones of those affected by the eruption.  

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Telegraph) (Guardian)


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Thousands Paralyze France in Pension Reform Protests

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  • Massive worker strikes and protests have shut down schools, transportation services, and museums in France.
  • Though largely peaceful, there have been reports of protesters throwing projectiles at police, smashing windows, and setting fires.
  • The strike, which is expected to last into the weekend, is in protest of planned pension reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron. 
  • Under Macron’s policy, many workers fear they would need to work longer before accessing a pension that would ultimately give them less money.

Strikes Shut Down Trains, Flights, and Schools

Hundreds of thousands of French workers went on strike across the country on Thursday in protest of a proposed new pension reform system.

Under the new system, many unions worry people will need to work longer to see less money than they would under the current system. 

As of midday, French officials are reporting that more than 280,000 people have joined protests across the country; however, that figure doesn’t include counts from major cities like Paris and Lyon.

The protests, which are expected to continue Friday and likely to extend into the weekend, have shut down train lines and canceled flights.  

According to reports, 90% of high-speed and inter-city trains have been canceled. In Paris, only five of 16 of the city’s metro lines ran Thursday. Further, the international train company Eurostar said it will be operating with a reduced timetable until Tuesday.

Air France has also canceled 30% of domestic flights and 10% of short-haul international flights, that coming amid mass walkouts by air traffic controllers.

If all of that wasn’t enough to cripple transportation, one group is reportedly drawing over the QR codes on e-scooters like Bird so that people can’t use them. 

Additionally, according to the education ministry, half of primary school teachers and 42% of secondary school teachers are on strike today. The end result led to some school closing for the day. 

Tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower and museums were also closed, but more notably, many feared hospital staffing shortages as many medical workers walked out to demonstrate. 

For their part, several trade union leaders have promised to continue to strike until Macron abandons his planned pension overhaul.

Reports of Violence

In Paris alone, 6,000 police have been deployed. Reports indicate that 71 people have been arrested in Paris by 3:30 p.m. local time.

With those arrests, there have also been several reports of clashing between police and protesters, with protesters hurling projectiles at police. Police in several cities have since responded with tear gas. 

Videos of protesters setting fires to object in the streets have also surfaced. 

Because the protest in Paris is so huge, the city’s police chief told all businesses and restaurants along the major march routes to close. Later within the day, new reports surfaced that some protesters had smashed in the windows of some businesses.

French President Emmanuel Macron, however, was described by one senior official as “calm and determined” in the face of the strikes —

Macron is “watchful that public order be respected, watchful as to the difficulties for French people, and watchful also that the right to strike is respected,” the aide said.

Why is France Considering Pension Reform?

Currently, France has 42 different pension systems across both the private and public sectors. That means that people retire at different times and will see different benefits. 

Under different forms of the system, for example, aircrews and rail workers get to retire earlier, but people like lawyers and doctors pay a lower tax.

The official age of retirement in France is 62, which is one of the earliest retirement ages in wealthy countries, but that hurdle has already been raised from 60 within the last decade. 

Macron, who campaigned on the promise of pension reform, now says he wants to introduce a universal, points-based pension system. While Macron says such a pension system would help the country compete globally in the 21st century, such a system would mean that some of the most advantageous pension plans would be scrapped. 

Secondly, if a person were to retire before 64, they would end up seeing a lower pension. For example, if they retire at 63, they would see about 5% less.

French people, however, have generally supported pension reform, with one poll showing 75% of people saying they believed pension reform was necessary. Of those polled, only one-third of people said they thought the government could pull off reform.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (NPR)

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