The World Today for May 15, 2024

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Silencing the Music


The chairwoman of Hong Kong’s weightlifting and powerlifting association mistakenly referred to “13 countries” in her sport’s Asian conference recently. That conference includes Hong Kong, a former British colony where Chinese officials have been expanding their control, and Taiwan, an independent island that Chinese leaders view as a breakaway territory. Chinese officials called for an investigation into the lapse, reported the South China Morning Post.

That’s just the latest example of some Hong Kong institutions bristling at Chinese rule in their city since Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong’s legislature enacted a new national security law that gives officials more power to suppress political dissent, the Associated Press explained.

Levying life sentences for convictions for treason and insurrection that judges would likely interpret broadly, and several years in jail for “possession of seditious publications,” the law was viewed as a crackdown against pro-democracy protesters who in 2019 took to the streets – unsuccessfully – to preserve their civil rights and independence from Beijing.

A month after the law took effect, for instance, Jimmy Lai, the 76-year-old tycoon who formerly published the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested, added the Globe and Mail. He’s now on trial and faces life in prison for allegedly colluding with external forces, sedition and other crimes.

And last week, a judge ruled that Hong Kong could ban “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song popular among protesters, noted Time magazine. The ban appeared designed not only to silence critics but also to set a legal precedent forcing big American tech companies to comply with orders that compromise free speech, contended MIT Technology Review. Until now, firms like Facebook and Google have resisted these efforts by China, but they haven’t been ordered to do so in a court of law before.

These moves, meanwhile, have eroded Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub. Many large international companies have left the city since the 2019 law was passed, reported Al Jazeera. The country has had trouble luring expats back, too, instead experiencing a brain-drain, wrote the South China Morning Post. Earlier this year, the city’s major stock index fell to depths not last seen since 1997, when the British quit the city. The Wall Street Journal even recently moved staff out of its Hong Kong bureau to Singapore, which editors described as the new “center of gravity in the region.”

Chinese regulators have made changes to help the stock market rebound. Some Hong Kong dealmakers are looking to replace lost Western capital with that from the Middle East. Still others, wrote Bloomberg, were setting up new shops with the goal of growing the city’s domestic business market. Entrepreneurs in cryptocurrency ventures have also been signaling their interest in the city, reported TechCrunch.

Hong Kong is adapting, and not all of the outlook is negative, according to Alicia Garcia-Herrero of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel and a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Gary Ng of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, in the East Asia Forum. “Hong Kong’s unique structural advantages will continue to be the cornerstone for growth,” they wrote. “Its location, free capital flows, low and simple taxes, abundant liquidity and internationally aligned compliance and legal frameworks all matter.”

The main point, the Economist noted, is that the city is becoming more like mainland China, especially as locals – and expats – leave. Chinese are increasingly moving to the island, there are more Chinese restaurants to serve them, and Mandarin is not only heard more on the streets, it’s required for jobs now. There are even plans for a mainland curriculum in schools. Still, the freedoms that Hong Kong once had were a main lure.

“Some of these changes cut at the heart of what makes Hong Kong attractive not just to foreigners, but to mainland Chinese,” the magazine wrote. “The territory’s appeal is that it is not just another Chinese city … But as the government in Beijing draws it closer, that image is fading.”


Kitchen-Table Fury


Four people died and at least 100 were injured after days of violent protests in the Pakistani-administered province of Kashmir, officials said Tuesday, demonstrations that were ignited over the rising price of flour and electricity, the BBC reported.

Over the weekend, thousands of people, led by a local group called the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), demonstrated across the semi-autonomous Himalayan region demanding subsidies for flour and electricity.

As tensions grew, the regional government cut off mobile services, suspended schools and public transportation, and sent in police and paramilitary troops.

On Saturday, protesters clashed with authorities, resulting in the four fatalities, including one police officer.

The JAAC called off the demonstrations Tuesday after Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved $82 million in subsidies for wheat and flour.

Still, the group – made up of local labor leaders, traders and other civil society – blamed paramilitary troops for the casualties. They called for more protests and financial compensation for the families of those killed in the violence.

JAAC representatives told Al Jazeera that protests were rooted in demands dating back to last year after “a massive wheat crisis” that saw an increase in the prices of electricity and flour.

The group had issued 10 demands to the government that included subsidized flour and improved financial integration with the rest of Pakistan. The government agreed to nine of the demands in February, but the JAAC alleged that it failed to deliver them in the following months.

Regional authorities countered that they already reduced the prices of electricity and flour, but protesters claimed that the reductions did not go far enough.

Meanwhile, the incident also prompted suspicions among officials that India played a role in the weekend clashes.

India and Pakistan have fought a series of wars over the region since 1947, with both sides claiming it as their own. However, each nation controls only parts of it.

Pakistani officials blamed “enemy propaganda” for sparking the tensions, but stopped short of accusing India.

The JAAC rejected accusations that it was supported by India.

A Problem of Geography


Authorities in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia imposed a curfew on Tuesday after a series of protests wreaked havoc in the archipelago over a bill to change election rules, an initiative from President Emmanuel Macron’s government that opponents say is intended to weaken the territory’s independence movement, the New York Times reported.

Unrest broke out on Monday, as pro-independence activists demonstrated against the bill that would allow more French citizens living in New Caledonia to vote for the territory’s federal parliament. The draft law, which the French lower chamber in Paris was set to discuss on Tuesday, would minimize pro-independence claims, activists said.

Violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement continued into Tuesday before New Caledonia’s High Commissioner Louis Le Franc imposed a 12-hour nightly curfew in the capital, Noumea. He also announced bans on public gatherings, the sale of alcohol, and the carrying of weapons.

On Tuesday, peaceful marches protesting the controversial bill were held across the territory, local public broadcaster Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1re reported.

Voter rolls in New Caledonia were frozen in 2007. This means that only people registered before 1998 and their descendants can vote in local elections today.

The new legislation aims at “unfreezing” the rolls, which may increase them by up to 25,000, in a territory with a population of about 270,000.

On Tuesday, New Caledonia’s parliament passed a motion demanding that Paris scrap the bill in a symbolic, non-binding vote.

In Paris, the proposed law enjoys a consensus, France’s L’Express wrote. However, left-wing politicians accused Macron’s administration of dropping a “bomb on civil peace.”

Following riots in the 1980s, the two sides came to an agreement with France granting New Caledonia significant autonomy compared with other overseas territories, a relic of France’s colonial empire.

Under the agreement, three referenda on independence were held from 2018 to 2021. All failed, as some Indigenous Kanaks – 40 percent of the population – boycotted the last vote over coronavirus concerns.

Now, the pro-independence movement says France is becoming increasingly aggressive at retaining control over the territory.

That’s because the French government sees New Caledonia and France’s other Pacific territories as a bulwark against China, which has been aggressively expanding its presence in the Pacific, analysts said. New Caledonia also has some of the world’s largest nickel reserves, which has been another point of friction between local populations, corporations and the French government, the New York Times wrote.

Do Not Pass Go


A Kazakh court sentenced a former economy minister to 24 years in prison this week for murdering his wife, in a case that rocked the Central Asian nation over the issues of domestic violence and the impunity of high-ranking officials, Reuters reported.

Kuandyk Bishimbayev, 44, was found guilty of the torture and murder of his wife, 31-year-old Saltanat Nukenova, last year.

Security camera footage showed that Bishimbayev severely beat his wife in a family restaurant in the capital last year. The former official admitted to the beating, but denied torturing or planning to kill her.

The court also sentenced his cousin, Bakhytzhan Bayzhanov, to four years in prison for helping Bishimbayev cover up the murder, according to the Voice of America.

The televised trial captivated Kazakhs, sparking outrage and prompting calls for stronger laws against domestic violence in the patriarchal nation.

Government data showed that the country records around 300 domestic violence complaints daily and more than 80 women die from domestic abuse every year.

Last month, parliament passed a new bill on domestic violence that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev quickly signed into law. The new rules offer better protections to victims of domestic violence, such as tasking police to register and investigate such cases, even when not reported by the victim but by the media or social media.

Tokayev, who replaced his long-time predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019, has vowed to create a fairer society, including better rights for women.

Observers said the trial also helped authorities send a message to high-ranking officials and the elite that they were no longer above the law.

Bishimbayev, who comes from an influential family, previously served as economy minister under Nazarbayev from May to December 2016. A court sentenced him to 10 years in prison on bribery and embezzlement charges in 2018, but he was released just over a year later following a mass amnesty issued by the government, Radio Free Europe noted.


Celebrating Disputes

In many countries, conflict resolution usually involves sitting in an office and talking.

In the Bolivian town of San Pedro de Macha, however, it means dancing and fisticuffs.

Here, the Indigenous Quechua take to the streets annually for a ritual dance and hand-to-hand combat known as “Tinku,” Reuters reported.

The event – which translates to “encounter” in Quechua, or “physical attack” in the local Aymara dialect – is celebrated in a number of towns in May. Locals say the purpose of the festival is to resolve disputes rather than letting them fester.

The festival ranges from joyful dances and music to combat between two opponents. The fighting includes colorful traditional clothing and leather “montera” helmets with vibrant feathers that resemble those of the Spanish conquistadors.

The skirmishes are intended to demonstrate people’s dedication to Mother Earth, occasionally culminating in the presentation of a blood offering from the combat.

“This custom is very old. It was passed down to my father and my father left it to me,” said Jose Luis Paco Cruz, a Tinku “dancer” who traveled hundreds of miles to the town with his two sons.

Sometimes the fights can get quite violent and the police have to act as referees of a sort and stop them. Tinku onlookers and participants also help fighters who are bleeding or injured.

Fatalities are not uncommon but the presence of authorities helps ensure that the fighting isn’t fatal.

“Due to bad luck, sometimes one or two people fall to the ground and, with worse luck, they even die,” said Esteban Paco Taquichiri, Jose Luis’ grandfather. “But all this is part of our custom.”

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