The World Today for September 06, 2016


A Democracy Grows in China

World leaders were in China Monday for a Group of 20 summit that reminded everyone yet again of the expanding geopolitical power of the world’s most populous country.

But Nathan Law and Hong Kong voters had a different message in mind. A 23-year-old pro-democracy activist, Law is slated to become the youngest member of Hong Kong’s legislature after the weekend’s election victory in the semi-autonomous city.

“I think Beijing is worried about what happened today, that we have a new voice of resistance,” Law said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “They are worried about that.”

China moved quickly to warn inhabitants over independence aspirations and “penalties.”

The elections were the first major polls held since the so-called Umbrella Revolution in late 2014, when Law and others staged sit-ins to draw attention to China’s suppression of civil rights in the former British colony. Chinese forces cracked down on the movement, which took its name from the umbrellas that protesters used to shield themselves from pepper spray.

Beijing disqualified a handful of candidates based on their calls for Hong Kong’s independence. But Law made the cut and received the second-largest amount of votes in a field of candidates that included “formidably resourced” pro-Beijing candidates, the Associated Press reported. Another pro-democracy activist garnered the most votes.

“It shows that there is a major change in the mentality of Hong Kong’s people,” Chinese University of Hong Kong Professor Willy Lam told CNN. “People want to thumb their noses at Beijing and send a strong message that the past few years … of suppressing Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations cannot be tolerated.”

Those pro-Beijing candidates, as well as lawmakers picked by the business community, still control Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. But pro-democracy lawmakers retained one-third of the seats in the body. That proportion is enough to veto constitutional changes that might alter the “One country, two systems” arrangement that gives Hong Kong more liberty and independence within communist China than mainland cities and provinces enjoy.

The election results show how China’s crackdown on activists like Law has backfired, Hong Kong-based political analyst Sonny Lo told the Associated Press.

A record 58 percent of voters turned out, suggesting that Hong Kong residents’ interest in democracy is deep, while their inclination to merge more closely with authoritarian China is less than enthusiastic.

Stay tuned. Lo predicted heated debates in the legislative chamber – the kind of democracy that Beijing explicitly set out to squelch.

“Now with the entry of a new generation of young democrats into the legislature, the politics inside the legislature will be very fierce,” he said.


Your Syrian Vacation

Syria’s tourism office wants you to visit.

The war-torn country released a bizarre promotional video featuring golden beaches dotted with colorful umbrellas and packed with sunbathing tourists this week, even as deadly explosions across the country killed at least 40 people and injured dozens more on Monday.

One of a series of slick promotional videos released by the tourism office over the past three weeks, the ad spot was titled, “Syria – Always Beautiful” (watch it here). After some internet mockery, tourism officials stood by the promotion but conceded it’s primarily aimed at domestic travelers.

Meanwhile, Monday’s blasts – for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility – hit government-controlled areas of Damascus, Homs and Tartous, as well as a Kurdish checkpoint in Hassakah.

The attacks came as US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in an effort to hammer out an agreement to cooperate against the terror group – and facilitate a ceasefire. But neither those two nor US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met later in the day, were able to do that, CNN reported.

So for the moment, its travel warnings instead of tour operators would-be visitors should be heeding.

Disinformation Campaign

US officials are investigating the scope and tenor of what they see as a broad covert Russian operation to undermine or even influence the upcoming presidential election.

Putting an end to the idea that Russian hackers infiltrating candidates’ computers might be yet another internet conspiracy theory or a Democratic strategy to mitigate the damage done by Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails, senior intelligence officials confirmed that James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, is coordinating the investigation into Russia’s campaign meddling, according to the Washington Post.

However, officials cautioned that there is no “definitive proof” Russians were behind the hacker attack on the Democratic National Committee – in which Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any involvement. And they said the Kremlin may not be aiming to sway the election in one direction or another, but simply to undermine faith in America’s democratic process and thus hurt US democracy-building efforts in Russia’s sphere of influence.

French Twist

The comeback bid of former French President Nicholas Sarkozy hit a major snag on Monday, as French prosecutors announced they have recommended that he and 13 others stand trial for allegedly breaking campaign finance rules during his failed attempt to win re-election in 2012.

The recommendation follows an investigation into the campaign that concluded it may have exceeded the $25 million ceiling set for campaigns by an individual candidate, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Sarkozy has repeatedly denied any involvement in the alleged scheme to circumvent campaign financing rules, and any trial is unlikely to take place before the presidential primaries in November or even the April-May general election, writes the Washington Post. However, the cloud over the former president is likely to boost the campaign of current front-runner Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux.

Convicted in 2004 of having taken illegal advantage of public funds for the benefit of his party while he was head of France’s conservative party in the 1990s, Juppé on Monday declined to comment on Sarkozy’s case.


London Burning

Flames towered over London this weekend. But no buildings, and certainly no people, were hurt in the making of this particular inferno.

The only things set aflame were art installations and fireworks intended to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London – which started in a bakery on Sept. 2, 1666 and raged for three days before it burnt itself out.

A 400-foot wooden model of 1666 London was floated into the Thames and set afire Sunday night as part of a six-day festival. (Watch it here). Fire sculptures at the Tate Modern museum explored the beauty of flames, and images of flames were projected onto the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the National Theatre.

Thousands of homes were destroyed and some 100,000 people were left homeless by the original blaze, according to NPR.

Such a calamity might seem like an odd event to celebrate. But despite the rapid speed at which the flames raced through the mostly wooden city, the fire was not as deadly as one might expect, and it sparked a broad renovation that permanently transformed Britain’s capital.

Only six official deaths were recorded, as most residents were able to evacuate. Christopher Wren took the opportunity to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral, designing an iconic dome that today forms a quintessential part of London’s skyline, and the property insurance industry was created as a result of the massive financial losses.


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