- On Tuesday, mainland China officially passed a sweeping national security law that is set to erode many of the special freedoms granted to the semi-autonomous region, Hong Kong.
- While protests against the mainland have raged for over a year in Hong Kong, the law’s passage prompted a wave of fear, with many pro-democracy protesters deleting their social media accounts and businesses rolling back their support for those protests.
- The law has been condemned internationally, and hours before it passed, United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross suspended some special trade exemptions for Hong Kong.
China Officially Passes National Security Law
Pro-democracy Hong Kongers scrambled on Tuesday to erase public displays of dissent against the Chinese government after Beijing officially passed a sweeping national security law.
That law, which was first announced on May 21, will bypass special protections granted to Hong Kong. Those protections were established under the “one country, two systems” framework when the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, after more than 150 years of colonial rule.
Following the passage of the national security law, many in Hong Kong began deleting social media accounts, such as those for Twitter. Businesses began distancing themselves for protesters, many taking down posters and signs showing their support for the movement.
At least one pro-democracy political party has disbanded altogether following the departure of its leaders. A number of other groups supporting Hong Kong independence have now said they’ll cease operation in the city and move abroad.
The moves are a dramatic departure from the last 15 months of protests that have rocked the city and consistently made headlines around the world. Even one of the first major protests following the city’s coronavirus shutdown was in response to this law’s proposal.
“A comment was made today [by the speakers] that the law basically already has had its deterrent effect,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien said. “In the past, Hong Kong has been too free.”
Wu Chi Wai, chair of the pro-democracy Democratic Party, said he held out hope until the last minute that the mainland government might honor its promise to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy.
But now, “we are not only denied the hope of a democratic political system, we also will no longer have our freedoms of press, speech, expression, protests — all of that will be over,” he said.
Some pro-democracy protesters are expected to hold demonstrations on Wednesday, though they’re expected to be much smaller in number.
“We all understand the price we have to pay is heavier than before, but we have to do it,” one protest leader said.
What Does the Law Actually Do?
The law, which went into effect on Wednesday in Hong Kong (Tuesday for Western countries), is now part of Hong Kong’s de-facto constitution, the Basic Law. Upon its passage and implementation, the full law had still yet to be publicly released.
Even Hong Kong’s top leaders have admitted that they don’t know any more details about the law besides what Chinese state media has aired. Nonetheless, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has promised to support the law.
Despite many still-vague details, several consequences of the law are known. Among them are criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism, and any activies by foreign forces that interfere in Hong Kong. Essentially, the goal is to stamp out dissent, as well as the pro-democracy protests.
Notably, the law will also allow China to implement its own law enforcement offices in Hong Kong to “fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security.” Those offices will reportedly also have the power to oversee education about national security in Hong Kong schools.
The state-run newspaper Xinhua also reported that Lam will be able to appoint specific judges to hear national security cases.
One of the other major sticking points of this bill is that in some cases, Beijing will be able to extradite people from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is extremely notable because extradition was the starting point for Hong Kong’s protests in the first place.
Further details of the law were released on Wednesday in Hong Kong. Ironically, that came on the 23rd anniversary of the United Kingdom returning Hong Kong to China.
In the text of that law, crimes such as terrorism and sedition are very broadly defined; however, the punishments for those crimes bring with them harsh sentences, including life imprisonment in many cases.
U.S. Cracks Down on China Over Law
In a promise to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday, Lam said the law won’t affect Hong Kong’s judicial independence or the “legitimate rights and freedoms of individuals.” She also promised that it wouldn’t be retroactive.
Lam said mainland China will only extradite people in Hong Kong in “rare, specified situations.” Additionally, the death penalty will be off the table for anyone extradited by China from Hong Kong, with life in prison being the maximum punishment.
But if that’s what Lam is saying, that is not what’s being heard internationally. Prior to this law’s passage, Taiwan’s president pledged support for Hong Kong, and some Hong Kongers have already fled to Taiwan in refuge. Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also promised refuge when he announced that the United Kingdom will accept millions of Hong Kong refugees.
In the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously announced that the U.S. now longer views Hong Kong as autonomous, meaning Hong Kong could be subject to the same tariffs that China currently faces.
On Friday, the U.S. restricted visas for Chinese officials deemed responsible for “eviscerating” Hong Kong freedoms. Notably, Beijing then retaliated by announcing visa restrictions for U.S. officials who had “behaved extremely badly” over Hong Kong.
On Monday, just ahead of the news that Hong Kong had passed this law, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross suspended some trade benefits over the new law.
“Commerce Department regulations affording preferential treatment to Hong Kong over China, including the availability of export license exceptions, are suspended,” Ross said in a statement. “Further actions to eliminate differential treatment are also being evaluated. We urge Beijing to immediately reverse course and fulfill the promises it has made to the people of Hong Kong and the world.”
That same day, Pompeo announced that the U.S. was ending defense equipment exports to Hong Kong. That includes dual-use technologies, or items that has both commercial and military uses.
“We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the [Communist Party of China] by any means necessary,” Pompeo said.
See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (The Washington Post) (BBC)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”