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U.S. Sanctions 14 High-Level Chinese Officials for Ousting Pro-Democracy Hong Kong Lawmakers

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  • On Monday, the U.S. State Department sanctioned 14 high-level Chinese officials who were instrumental in crafting a measure that allowed the Chinese government to oust four pro-democracy lawmakers last month.
  • In addition to those four ousted lawmakers, all 15 remaining pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature then resigned because of the measure.
  • The new sanctions bar the 14 officials from traveling to the U.S. and freeze any of their U.S. assets.
  • The sanctions are seen as part of an effort by President Donald Trump to solidify his hardline stance against China, but they’re not expected to change Chinese policy regarding Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kong police have continued to arrest protesters since the sanctions were announced. 

U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Chinese Officials

The U.S. State Department on Monday issued sanctions against 14 top Chinese officials for “developing, adopting, or implementing” a measure last month that allowed the Chinese government to remove four sitting pro-democracy lawmakers from their posts in Hong Kong’s legislature.

After those four lawmakers were removed, the legislature’s remaining 15 pro-democracy lawmakers resigned, leaving the Hong Kong government completely stacked with lawmakers loyal to Beijing.

“Beijing’s unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes has gutted its Legislative Council, rendering the body a rubber stamp devoid of meaningful opposition,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday when announcing the sanctions. 

The 14 officials cited in the sanction, as well as their immediate families, are now barred from traveling to the U.S. If they have assets in the U.S., those are now frozen. People in the U.S. are also now generally prohibited from doing business with them.

On Tuesday, China’s vice foreign minister, Zheng Zeguang, called the sanctions “arrogant, unreasonable and vile” and argued that the U.S. is interfering with Chinese domestic policy. 

Will These Sanctions Be Effective?

The sanctions are not expected to be effective in pressuring China to reverse course with Hong Kong.

While the State Department did go after all 14 vice-chairs of the committee that passed the measure, it did so while stopping short of sanctioning the committee’s chair, Li Zhanshu. That’s because Li holds the country’s third-highest office. 

As Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong-based political analyst, told The New York Times, such a move would have sent too strong of a message to Beijing.

“The Americans opted for a kind of watered-down version of sanctions without seriously undermining official interactions between China and America,” he said. 

On top of that, this is just the latest in a series of sanctions against Chinese officials by the U.S. government. Previously, the U.S. has sanctioned lawmakers in Beijing over prison camps that target minority Muslims in China; while Beijing officially labels the internment camps as “re-education camps,” they have been condemned for multiple human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing. 

In August, the U.S. also sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is frequently described as a puppet of the Chinese government. Luo Huining, the head of the Hong Kong Central Liaison Office, has likewise been sanctioned by the U.S. 

“Perhaps I should send $100 to Mr. Trump for him to freeze,” Luo joked at the time of his sanction, noting that he doesn’t have assets outside of China.

While Luo appears personally unaffected, these sanctions do seem to be at least somewhat of an inconvenience to Lam.

“Sitting in front of you is a Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR who has no banking services made available to her,” she told Hong Kong media at the end of last month. “I’m using cash every day for all the things. I have piles of cash at home because the government is paying me cash for my salary because I don’t have a bank account.” 

U.S. Sanctions Haven’t Stopped Arrests

While the mental image of Lam crying into a pile of money on her living room floor simply because she’s unable to use a credit card is about as cartoonish as one could imagine, at the end of the day, that’s all it is. 

Later in that same interview, Lam herself admits that she believes the sanctions against her are a “unjustiable honor.”

In fact, neither the sanctions against her, nor this latest wave against those 14 officials, has stopped everyday people from being arrested for voicing anti-Beijing sentiment. 

On Monday, Hong Kong police arrested eight people for protesting outside of a university during a graduation ceremony last month. According to the government, they violated Hong Kong’s new national security law, which bars people from advocating for Hong Kong independence from China.

Tuesday, another eight people, including two former pro-democracy lawmakers, were arrested for a protest that happened back in July.

As Reuters noted, these latest sanctions have been widely seen as an effort by President Donald Trump “to cement his tough-on-China legacy and also box president-elect Joe Biden, before he takes office on Jan. 20, into hardline positions on Beijing at a time of bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Congress.”

That’s also why the State Department on Monday approved a $280 million sale of advanced military communications equipment to Taiwan, which operates as a self-governing democracy even though China officially claims it as part of its own territory. 

Nonetheless, China has threatened to potentially take back the island by force, and it’s even ramped up military flights near Taiwan.

While China has demanded that the U.S. cancel this sale and threatened to punish U.S. companies involved in these deals, in total, the Trump administration has made 11 arms sales to Taiwan. This year’s sales alone total $5 billion. 

The Biden administration is currently expected to keep issuing these kinds of sales.

On Monday, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would allow Hong Kongers fleeing to the U.S. to be able to work in the country for up to five years without fear of deportation.

Tom Malinowski (D-NJ.), who sponsored the measure, said that it would allow the country to “self-confidently open our doors.” He also argued that such a move was more substantial than “slap[ping] a few sanctions” on Chinese officials.

That measure now moves to the Senate. It has received bipartisan support from lawmakers.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Associated Press) (Aljazeera)

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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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