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China Orders U.S. to Close Chengdu Consulate in Retaliation for Houston

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  • In a retaliatory move, China has ordered the United States consulate in the city of Chengdu to shut down.
  • On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department ordered China’s consulate in Houston to close by Friday over concerns that it was engaging in intellectual property theft. 
  • Cai Wei, the Chinese Consul General in Houston, told POLITICO that his mission will refuse the U.S. order, though that decision is most likely up to Beijing. 
  • Both moves represent a growing divide between the two nations that encompasses a trade war, disputes over Hong Kong’s reversion of democratic freedoms, and the persecution of Chinese Muslims, among other actions.

China Order U.S. Consulate to Shut Down 

China has ordered the United States to close its consulate office in the city of Chengdu, a retaliatory move spurred by the Trump administration’s previous order to close a Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas.

On Tuesday, employees at China’s Houston-based consulate were spotted burning documents. Hours later, the U.S. State Department officially announced that it had ordered the consulate to close its doors by Friday at 4 p.m. CDT.

Almost immediately after, China vowed to retaliate against the U.S. for the closure, and many media outlets speculated that it would likely close the U.S. consulate in Wuhan—a consulate that drew the ire of China after the U.S. evacuated its employees in January at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, on Friday, it chose Chengdu, and like the consulate in Houston, Chengdu was given three days to shut down.

The Chengdu American Center, along with three other U.S. consulates in China and the embassy in Beijing, has remained open with skeleton crews. Reportedly, the Chengdu mission is staffed by about 15 U.S. diplomats and boasts political, economic, and agricultural departments. It also issues visas.

When China announced the Chengdu consulate’s closure, the office was met with a flurry of police outside its building. In fact, the situation drew so much curiosity that 13 million people watched state broadcaster CCTV’s live stream from outside the consulate. 

In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry called the move “legitimate and necessary,” blaming the Trump administration for widening the scope of the two countries’ dispute to include diplomatic offices. 

“The current situation between China and the United States is something China does not want to see, and the responsibility rests entirely with the United States,” the statement reads. “We once again urge the U.S. to immediately revoke the erroneous decision to create necessary conditions for the return of bilateral relations to normal.”

As to why Chengdu was chosen over the seemingly likely candidate of Wuhan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday that U.S. staff in Chengdu had “interfered in China’s internal affairs and harmed China’s national security interests.” 

Wang’s comments likely refer to U.S. interest in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a region covered by the Chengdu consulate’s area of responsibility. It’s also a region populated by non-ethnic Chinese minorities that are especially vulnerable to Beijing’s rule.

Notably, Beijing has placed tight restrictions on Tibet and currently prohibits access to American diplomats, journalists, and tourists. 

Is China Refusing to Close the Houston Consulate?

In an interview with POLITICO, Cai Wei, the Chinese Consul General in Houston, said that his mission will refuse to close by the Friday deadline. 

“Today, we are still operating normally, so we will see what will happen tomorrow,” he said to the outlet.

Beijing has asked the Trump administration to rescind its order to close the Houston consulate, though that outcome remains unlikely. Still, the Chinese government alleges that the move violates international law. In fact, both sides have now accused the other of acting against the Vienna convention, which governs diplomatic relations between states.

Even though Cai is the head of Houston’s consulate, he is likely unable to make the call on whether or not his mission will remain open and disobey U.S. orders. According to experts, that authority falls to Beijing. 

“I would be very surprised if the consulate itself can decide without listening to Beijing,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told POLITICO. “They must be waiting for orders from Beijing with respect to what to do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Beijing and the U.S. have been [talking] through the backchannels, discussing the situation.”

“Beijing might give instruction to the consulate at the last minute on what to do,” he added. 

Chinese Nationals Accused of U.S. Intellectual Property Theft

The same day the State Department ordered China’s Houston consulate to close, the Justice Department charged two former Chinese students with attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research in Texas. 

In fact, the Justice Department even alleges that those nationals were instructed to steal U.S. intellectual property by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the counterintelligence agency of the People’s Republic of China.

Following the announcement of the charges, China reissued a travel advisory for Chinese students in the U.S., warning them that they could face arbitrary interrogations, the confiscation of personal belongings, and potential detentions.

On Friday, the U.S. released a nearly identical message for Americans in China, warning that Americans are at a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention.”

“U.S. citizens may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security,’” the message said.

Additionally, the Justice Department has charged four other Chinese researchers with visa fraud for concealing government ties. Those charges, filed Thursday, have already resulted in the arrests of three of the researchers. The other is believed to be taking refuge at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, California.

The Justice Department has accused these researchers of being part of a larger plot by the Chinese government to steal American research.

U.S.-China Deteriorating Relationship 

Both moves come amid a deepening divide between the two powerhouses, one that encompasses a trade war, sanctions on lawmakers and journalists, the deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong, forced labor camps and abuse against Chinese Muslims, and even TikTok of all things. 

In fact, analysts claim the relationship between the U.S. and China—the world’s two largest economies—is the worst it has been since before 1979, the year the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China. 

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday at California’s Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “We must not continue it. We must not return to it. Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. . . . If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us.”

In that same speech, Pompeo accused the consulate of being “hub of spying and [intellectual property] theft.” 

Foreign Minister Wang responded on Friday, saying that Pompeo was “filled with ideological bias and a Cold War mentality.”

Also on Friday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tx.) said that the State Department’s decision to close the Houston consulate because of concerns over intellectual theft is a reminder that the Chinese are “not good actors.”

“What we know is that the Chinese have used consulates like this one, and this one might have been their primary hub, to engage in intellectual property [theft], hacking, influence operations, all of the above,” Crenshaw told Fox News.

“…the burning of documents is what occurs after the fact. Once you decide to close an embassy or a consulate like that, they’re going to burn all the evidence and that’s exactly what they did,” he added. 

Cai, however, has rejected such claims, telling POLITICO, “We have never done this. What we have done is very legal and follows the law and normal practice.”

See what others are saying: (POLITICO) (Associated Press) (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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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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