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Hong Kong Protesters Delete Social Media and Businesses Withdraw Protest Support After China Passes National Security Law

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  • 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)

International

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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International

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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