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Archive for the ‘Land of the Hans’ Category

UK: Hong Kong law a ‘clear violation’ of China’s obligations

June 02, 2020

LONDON (AP) — China’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong is a “clear violation” of Beijing’s international obligations, Britain’s foreign secretary said Tuesday. In a statement to the House of Commons, Dominic Raab said “we strongly oppose such an authoritarian law being imposed by China in breach of international law.”

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, under a “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that guarantees the city a high degree of autonomy. China’s largely ceremonial parliament voted last week to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and develop and enact national security legislation on its own for the semi-autonomous territory. Critics, including governments in Britain, the U.S. and Canada, are worried that the laws would erode liberties such as free speech and opposition political activities.

“It would up-end China’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ paradigm,” Raab said. “And it would be a clear violation of China’s international obligations, including those made specifically to the United Kingdom under the Joint Declaration.”

“We are not seeking to intervene in China’s internal affairs,” he added. “Only to hold China to its international commitments, just as China expects of the United Kingdom.” Raab also pledged to “stand by” Hong Kong and uphold Britain’s historic responsibilities to the territory.

“Even at this stage I sincerely hope China will reconsider its approach,” he said. “But if not, the U.K. will not just look the other way when it comes to the people of Hong Kong.” Britain’s government announced last week that if China follows through with the proposed security law, British officials would open pathways to British citizenship for those Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) passports. The current six-month visa limit would be extended to 12 months for those passport holders, Raab said.

Beijing’s resolve to push through the laws against secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong appears to have been hardened by the months of often-violent anti-government protests in the city last year, and a determination to prevent them from reigniting this summer.

China delayed releasing coronavirus info, frustrating WHO

June 02, 2020

(AP) Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus. It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately,” and said its work and commitment to transparency were “very impressive, and beyond words.”

But behind the scenes, it was a much different story, one of significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, The Associated Press has found.

Despite the plaudits, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.

Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11. Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.

WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government, the recordings obtained by the AP suggest. Privately, they complained in meetings the week of Jan. 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.

“We’re going on very minimal information,” said American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, now WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, in one internal meeting. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”

“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” said WHO’s top official in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, referring to the state-owned China Central Television, in another meeting.

The story behind the early response to the virus comes at a time when the U.N. health agency is under siege, and has agreed to an independent probe of how the pandemic was handled globally. After repeatedly praising the Chinese response early on, U.S. President Donald Trump has blasted WHO in recent weeks for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the coronavirus crisis. He cut ties with the organization on Friday, jeopardizing the approximately $450 million the U.S. gives every year as WHO’s biggest single donor.

In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to pitch in $2 billion over the next two years to fight the coronavirus, saying China has always provided information to WHO and the world “in a most timely fashion.”

The new information does not support the narrative of either the U.S. or China, but instead portrays an agency now stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limits to its own authority. Although international law obliges countries to report information to WHO that could have an impact on public health, the U.N. agency has no enforcement powers and cannot independently investigate epidemics within countries. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member states.

The recordings suggest that rather than colluding with China, as Trump declared, WHO was kept in the dark as China gave it the minimal information required by law. However, the agency did try to portray China in the best light, likely as a means to secure more information. And WHO experts genuinely thought Chinese scientists had done “a very good job” in detecting and decoding the virus, despite the lack of transparency from Chinese officials.

WHO staffers debated how to press China for gene sequences and detailed patient data without angering authorities, worried about losing access and getting Chinese scientists into trouble. Under international law, WHO is required to quickly share information and alerts with member countries about an evolving crisis. Galea noted WHO could not indulge China’s wish to sign off on information before telling other countries because “that is not respectful of our responsibilities.”

In the second week of January, WHO’s chief of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, told colleagues it was time to “shift gears” and apply more pressure on China, fearing a repeat of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that started in China in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

“This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on,” he said. “WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China.”

Ryan said the best way to “protect China” was for WHO to do its own independent analysis with data from the Chinese government, because otherwise the spread of the virus between people would be in question and “other countries will take action accordingly.” Ryan also noted that China was not cooperating in the same way some other countries had in the past.

“This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places,” he said, probably referring to the Ebola outbreak that began there in 2018. “We need to see the data…..It’s absolutely important at this point.”

The delay in the release of the genome stalled the recognition of its spread to other countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines. The lack of detailed patient data also made it harder to determine how quickly the virus was spreading — a critical question in stopping it.

Between the day the full genome was first decoded by a government lab on Jan. 2 and the day WHO declared a global emergency on Jan. 30, the outbreak spread by a factor of 100 to 200 times, according to retrospective infection data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus has now infected over 6 million people worldwide and killed more than 375,000.

“It’s obvious that we could have saved more lives and avoided many, many deaths if China and the WHO had acted faster,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

However, Mokdad and other experts also noted that if WHO had been more confrontational with China, it could have triggered a far worse situation of not getting any information at all. If WHO had pushed too hard, it could even have been kicked out of China, said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health professor at the University of Sydney. But he added that a delay of just a few days in releasing genetic sequences can be critical in an outbreak. And he noted that as Beijing’s lack of transparency becomes even clearer, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s continued defense of China is problematic.

“It’s definitely damaged WHO’s credibility,” said Kamradt-Scott. “Did he go too far? I think the evidence on that is clear….it has led to so many questions about the relationship between China and WHO. It is perhaps a cautionary tale.”

WHO and its officials named in this story declined to answer questions asked by The Associated Press without audio or written transcripts of the recorded meetings, which the AP was unable to supply to protect its sources.

“Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organization’s rules and regulations to support and share information with all Member States equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels,” a WHO statement said.

China’s National Health Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no comment. But in the past few months, China has repeatedly defended its actions, and many other countries — including the U.S. — have responded to the virus with even longer delays of weeks and even months.

“Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been continuously sharing information on the epidemic with the WHO and the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” said Liu Mingzhu, an official with the National Health Commission’s International Department, at a press conference on May 15.

The race to find the genetic map of the virus started in late December, according to the story that unfolds in interviews, documents and the WHO recordings. That’s when doctors in Wuhan noticed mysterious clusters of patients with fevers and breathing problems who weren’t improving with standard flu treatment. Seeking answers, they sent test samples from patients to commercial labs.

By Dec. 27, one lab, Vision Medicals, had pieced together most of the genome of a new coronavirus with striking similarities to SARS. Vision Medicals shared its data with Wuhan officials and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, as reported first by Chinese finance publication Caixin and independently confirmed by the AP.

On Dec. 30, Wuhan health officials issued internal notices warning of the unusual pneumonia, which leaked on social media. That evening, Shi Zhengli, a coronavirus expert at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who is famous for having traced the SARS virus to a bat cave, was alerted to the new disease, according to an interview with Scientific American. Shi took the first train from a conference in Shanghai back to Wuhan.

The next day, Chinese CDC director Gao Fu dispatched a team of experts to Wuhan. Also on Dec. 31, WHO first learned about the cases from an open-source platform that scouts for intelligence on outbreaks, emergencies chief Ryan has said.

WHO officially requested more information on Jan. 1. Under international law, members have 24 to 48 hours to respond, and China reported two days later that there were 44 cases and no deaths.

By Jan. 2, Shi had decoded the entire genome of the virus, according to a notice later posted on her institute’s website.

Scientists agree that Chinese scientists detected and sequenced the then-unknown pathogen with astonishing speed, in a testimony to China’s vastly improved technical capabilities since SARS, during which a WHO-led group of scientists took months to identify the virus. This time, Chinese virologists proved within days that it was a never-before-seen coronavirus. Tedros would later say Beijing set “a new standard for outbreak response.”

But when it came to sharing the information with the world, things began to go awry.

On Jan. 3, the National Health Commission issued a confidential notice ordering labs with the virus to either destroy their samples or send them to designated institutes for safekeeping. The notice, first reported by Caixin and seen by the AP, forbade labs from publishing about the virus without government authorization. The order barred Shi’s lab from publishing the genetic sequence or warning of the potential danger.

Chinese law states that research institutes cannot conduct experiments on potentially dangerous new viruses without approval from top health authorities. Although the law is intended to keep experiments safe, it gives top health officials wide-ranging powers over what lower-level labs can or cannot do.

“If the virologist community had operated with more autonomy….the public would have been informed of the lethal risk of the new virus much earlier,” said Edward Gu, a professor at Zhejiang University, and Li Lantian, a PhD student at Northwestern University, in a paper published in March analyzing the outbreak.

Commission officials later repeated that they were trying to ensure lab safety, and had tasked four separate government labs with identifying the genome at the same time to get accurate, consistent results.

By Jan. 3, the Chinese CDC had independently sequenced the virus, according to internal data seen by the Associated Press. And by just after midnight on Jan. 5, a third designated government lab, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, had decoded the sequence and submitted a report — pulling all-nighters to get results in record time, according to a state media interview. Yet even with full sequences decoded by three state labs independently, Chinese health officials remained silent. The WHO reported on Twitter that investigations were under way into an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases with no deaths in Wuhan, and said it would share “more details as we have them.”

Meanwhile, at the Chinese CDC, gaps in coronavirus expertise proved a problem.

For nearly two weeks, Wuhan reported no new infections, as officials censored doctors who warned of suspicious cases. Meanwhile, researchers found the new coronavirus used a distinct spike protein to bind itself to human cells. The unusual protein and the lack of new cases lulled some Chinese CDC researchers into thinking the virus didn’t easily spread between humans — like the coronavirus that casues Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to an employee who declined to be identified out of fear of retribution.

Li, the coronavirus expert, said he immediately suspected the pathogen was infectious when he spotted a leaked copy of a sequencing report in a group chat on a SARS-like coronavirus. But the Chinese CDC team that sequenced the virus lacked specialists in the molecular structure of coronaviruses and failed to consult with outside scientists, Li said. Chinese health authorities rebuffed offers of assistance from foreign experts, including Hong Kong scientists barred from a fact-finding mission to Wuhan and an American professor at a university in China.

On Jan. 5, the Shanghai Public Clinical Health Center, led by famed virologist Zhang Yongzhen, was the latest to sequence the virus. He submitted it to the GenBank database, where it sat awaiting review, and notified the National Health Commission. He warned them that the new virus was similar to SARS and likely infectious.

“It should be contagious through respiratory passages,” the center said in an internal notice seen by the AP. “We recommend taking preventative measures in public areas.”

On the same day, WHO said that based on preliminary information from China, there was no evidence of significant transmission between humans, and did not recommend any specific measures for travelers.

The next day, the Chinese CDC raised its emergency level to the second highest. Staffers proceeded to isolate the virus, draft lab testing guidelines, and design test kits. But the agency did not have the authority to issue public warnings, and the heightened emergency level was kept secret even from many of its own staff.

By Jan. 7, another team at Wuhan University had sequenced the pathogen and found it matched Shi’s, making Shi certain they had identified a novel coronavirus. But Chinese CDC experts said they didn’t trust Shi’s findings and needed to verify her data before she could publish, according to three people familiar with the matter. Both the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology, which oversees Shi’s lab, declined to make Shi available for an interview.

A major factor behind the gag order, some say, was that Chinese CDC researchers wanted to publish their papers first. “They wanted to take all the credit,” said Li Yize, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

Internally, the leadership of the Chinese CDC is plagued with fierce competition, six people familiar with the system explained. They said the agency has long promoted staff based on how many papers they can publish in prestigious journals, making scientists reluctant to share data.

As the days went by, even some of the Chinese CDC’s own staff began to wonder why it was taking so long for authorities to identify the pathogen.

“We were getting suspicious, since within one or two days you would get a sequencing result,” a lab technician said, declining to be identified for fear of retribution.

On Jan. 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that scientists had identified a new coronavirus in samples from pneumonia patients in Wuhan, pre-empting and embarrassing Chinese officials. The lab technician told the AP they first learned about the discovery of the virus from the Journal.

The article also embarrassed WHO officials. Dr. Tom Grein, chief of WHO’s acute events management team, said the agency looked “doubly, incredibly stupid.” Van Kerkhove, the American expert, acknowledged WHO was “already late” in announcing the new virus and told colleagues that it was critical to push China.

Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, was also upset at the dearth of information.

“The fact is, we’re two to three weeks into an event, we don’t have a laboratory diagnosis, we don’t have an age, sex or geographic distribution, we don’t have an epi curve,” he complained, referring to the standard graphic of outbreaks scientists use to show how an epidemic is progressing.

After the article, state media officially announced the discovery of the new coronavirus. But even then, Chinese health authorities did not release the genome, diagnostic tests, or detailed patient data that could hint at how infectious the disease was.

By that time, suspicious cases were already appearing across the region.

On Jan. 8, Thai airport officers pulled aside a woman from Wuhan with a runny nose, sore throat, and high temperature. Chulalongkorn University professor Supaporn Wacharapluesadee’s team found the woman was infected with a new coronavirus, much like what Chinese officials had described. Supaporn partially figured out the genetic sequence by Jan. 9, reported it to the Thai government and spent the next day searching for matching sequences.

But because Chinese authorities hadn’t published any sequences, she found nothing. She could not prove the Thai virus was the same pathogen sickening people in Wuhan.

“It was kind of wait and see, when China will release the data, then we can compare,” said Supaporn.

On Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man with the virus passed away in Wuhan — the first known death. The death wasn’t made public until Jan. 11.

WHO officials complained in internal meetings that they were making repeated requests for more data, especially to find out if the virus could spread efficiently between humans, but to no avail.

“We have informally and formally been requesting more epidemiological information,” WHO’s China representative Galea said. “But when asked for specifics, we could get nothing.”

Emergencies chief Ryan grumbled that since China was providing the minimal information required by international law, there was little WHO could do. But he also noted that last September, WHO had issued an unusual public rebuke of Tanzania for not providing enough details about a worrisome Ebola outbreak.

“We have to be consistent,” Ryan said. “The danger now is that despite our good intent…especially if something does happen, there will be a lot of finger-pointing at WHO.”

Ryan noted that China could make a “huge contribution” to the world by sharing the genetic material immediately, because otherwise “other countries will have to reinvent the wheel over the coming days.”

On Jan. 11, a team led by Zhang, from the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, finally published a sequence on virological.org, used by researchers to swap tips on pathogens. The move angered Chinese CDC officials, three people familiar with the matter said, and the next day, his laboratory was temporarily shuttered by health authorities.

Zhang referred a request for comment to the Chinese CDC. The National Health Commission, which oversees the Chinese CDC, declined multiple times to make its officials available for interviews and did not answer questions about Zhang.

Supaporn compared her sequence with Zhang’s and found it was a 100% match, confirming that the Thai patient was ill with the same virus detected in Wuhan. Another Thai lab got the same results. That day, Thailand informed the WHO, said Tanarak Plipat, deputy director-general of the Department of Disease Control at Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health.

After Zhang released the genome, the Chinese CDC, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences raced to publish their sequences, working overnight to review them, gather patient data, and send them to the National Health Commission for approval, according to documentation obtained by the AP. On Jan. 12, the three labs together finally published the sequences on GISAID, a platform for scientists to share genomic data.

By then, more than two weeks had passed since Vision Medicals decoded a partial sequence, and more than a week since the three government labs had all obtained full sequences. Around 600 people were infected in that week, a roughly three-fold increase.

Some scientists say the wait was not unreasonable considering the difficulties in sequencing unknown pathogens, given accuracy is as important as speed. They point to the SARS outbreak in 2003 when some Chinese scientists initially — and wrongly — believed the source of the epidemic was chlamydia.

“The pressure is intense in an outbreak to make sure you’re right,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealthAlliance in New York. “It’s actually worse to go out to go to the public with a story that’s wrong because the public completely lose confidence in the public health response.”

Still, others quietly question what happened behind the scenes.

Infectious diseases expert John Mackenzie, who served on a WHO emergency committee during the outbreak, praised the speed of Chinese researchers in sequencing the virus. But he said once central authorities got involved, detailed data trickled to a crawl.

“There certainly was a kind of blank period,” Mackenzie said. “There had to be human to human transmission. You know, it’s staring at you in the face… I would have thought they would have been much more open at that stage.”

On Jan. 13, WHO announced that Thailand had a confirmed case of the virus, jolting Chinese officials.

The next day, in a confidential teleconference, China’s top health official ordered the country to prepare for a pandemic, calling the outbreak the “most severe challenge since SARS in 2003”, as the AP previously reported. Chinese CDC staff across the country began screening, isolating, and testing for cases, turning up hundreds across the country.

Yet even as the Chinese CDC internally declared a level one emergency, the highest level possible, Chinese officials still said the chance of sustained transmission between humans was low.

WHO went back and forth. Van Kerkhove said in a press briefing that “it is certainly possible there is limited human-to-human transmission.” But hours later, WHO seemed to backtrack, and tweeted that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” – a statement that later became fodder for critics.

A high-ranking official in WHO’s Asia office, Dr. Liu Yunguo, who attended medical school in Wuhan, flew to Beijing to make direct, informal contacts with Chinese officials, recordings show. Liu’s former classmate, a Wuhan doctor, had alerted him that pneumonia patients were flooding the city’s hospitals, and Liu pushed for more experts to visit Wuhan, according to a public health expert familiar with the matter.

On Jan. 20, the leader of an expert team returning from Wuhan, renowned government infectious diseases doctor Zhong Nanshan, declared publicly for the first time that the new virus was spreading between people. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the “timely publication of epidemic information and deepening of international cooperation.”

Despite that directive, WHO staff still struggled to obtain enough detailed patient data from China about the rapidly evolving outbreak. That same day, the U.N. health agency dispatched a small team to Wuhan for two days, including Galea, the WHO representative in China.

They were told about a worrying cluster of cases among more than a dozen doctors and nurses. But they did not have “transmission trees” detailing how the cases were connected, nor a full understanding of how widely the virus was spreading and who was at risk.

In an internal meeting, Galea said their Chinese counterparts were “talking openly and consistently” about human-to-human transmission, and that there was a debate about whether or not this was sustained. Galea reported to colleagues in Geneva and Manila that China’s key request to WHO was for help “in communicating this to the public, without causing panic.”

On Jan. 22, WHO convened an independent committee to determine whether to declare a global health emergency. After two inconclusive meetings where experts were split, they decided against it — even as Chinese officials ordered Wuhan sealed in the biggest quarantine in history. The next day, WHO chief Tedros publicly described the spread of the new coronavirus in China as “limited.”

For days, China didn’t release much detailed data, even as its case count exploded. Beijing city officials were alarmed enough to consider locking down the capital, according to a medical expert with direct knowledge of the matter.

On Jan. 28, Tedros and top experts, including Ryan, made an extraordinary trip to Beijing to meet President Xi and other senior Chinese officials. It is highly unusual for WHO’s director-general to directly intervene in the practicalities of outbreak investigations. Tedros’ staffers had prepared a list of requests for information.

“It could all happen and the floodgates open, or there’s no communication,” Grein said in an internal meeting while his boss was in Beijing. “We’ll see.”

At the end of Tedros’ trip, WHO announced China had agreed to accept an international team of experts. In a press briefing on Jan. 29, Tedros heaped praise on China, calling its level of commitment “incredible.”

The next day, WHO finally declared an international health emergency. Once again, Tedros thanked China, saying nothing about the earlier lack of cooperation.

“We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing,” Tedros said. “It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries.”

Protesters mass in Hong Kong before anthem law is debated

May 27, 2020

HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of protesters shouted pro-democracy slogans and insults at police in Hong Kong before lawmakers later Wednesday debate a bill criminalizing abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city.

Police massed outside the legislative building ahead of the meeting and warned protesters that if they did not disperse, they could be prosecuted. In the Central business district, police raised flags warning protesters to disperse, before they shot pepper balls at protesters and searched several people. More than 50 people in the Causeway Bay shopping district were rounded up and made to sit outside a shopping mall, while riot police patrolled and warned journalists to stop filming while brandishing pepper spray.

At least 16 people, most of them teenagers, were arrested on charges of possessing items fit for unlawful purposes, such as petrol bombs and screwdrivers. Three of the people arrested were charged for dangerous driving.

Lawmakers were to debate a bill that would make it illegal to insult or abuse the “March of the Volunteers” in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Those found guilty could face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,450).

The bill was proposed in January 2019 after Hong Kong spectators jeered at the anthem during high-profile, international soccer matches in 2015. Last year, FIFA fined the Hong Kong Football Association after fans booed the Chinese national anthem at a World Cup qualifying game.

Hong Kong was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised freedoms not found on the mainland. Anti-China sentiment has risen as residents see Beijing moving to erode those rights.

Mass protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Revolution, followed the Chinese government’s decision to allow direct election of the city leader only after it screened candidates. In the end, the plan for direct elections was dropped.

Legislation proposed in Hong Kong last year that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China for trials set off months of demonstrations that at times involved clashes between protesters and police. The legislation was withdrawn.

China’s ceremonial parliament now meeting in Beijing has moved to enact a national security law for Hong Kong, aimed at forbidding secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism. Hong Kong’s own government has been unable to pass such legislation due to the opposition in the city, but Beijing advanced the law itself after the protests last year.

Opponents of the anthem bill say it is a blow to freedom of expression in the city, while Beijing officials previously said that the law would foster a patriotic spirit and the country’s socialist core values.

Last British governor says Hong Kong ‘betrayed’ by China

May 24, 2020

HONG KONG (AP) — The last British governor of Hong Kong said China has betrayed the semi-autonomous territory by tightening control over the city it had promised could keep freedoms not found on the mainland.

“What we are seeing is a new Chinese dictatorship,” Chris Patten told an interview with The Times of London. “I think the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China, which has proved once again that you can’t trust it further than you can throw it.”

He said the British government “should make it clear that what we are seeing is a complete destruction of the Joint Declaration,” a legal document under which the former British colony was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework.

It gives Hong Kong its own legal system and Western-style freedoms until 2047. But many fear those are being chipped away after authorities clamped down on massive pro-democracy protests that rocked the city last year.

Last week, Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers sharply criticized China’s move to enact national security legislation in the territory, which was submitted on the opening day of China’s national legislative session. It would forbid secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the move “a death knell for the high degree of autonomy” that Beijing had promised Hong Kong. Patten told Times he believed that “one country, two systems,” the treaty logged at the United Nations, would be enough to protect Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and its way of life.

“China cheats, it tries to screw things in its own favor, and if you ever point this out their ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats try to bully and hector you into submission,” he said. “It’s got to stop otherwise the world is going to be a much less safe place and liberal democracy around the world is going to be destabilized.”

He called on Britain to do more to stand up to China and protect Hong Kong under its legal obligations. “Britain has a moral, economic and legal duty to stand up for Hong Kong,” he said. “The real danger is that we are entirely limp on this. We have obligations because we signed the agreement … If we don’t have any responsibilities for the people of Hong Kong and their way of life, who do we have responsibility for?”

China has criticized Patten’s comments before. China’s foreign ministry said last week Hong Kong is China’s internal affair and “no foreign country has the right to intervene.”

Virus cases drop to zero in China but surge in Latin America

May 23, 2020

TOKYO (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic continued to drop in much of Asia on Saturday even as the outbreak surged in Latin America, as the world grappled with balancing the urge to restart economies with fears about health risks.

China, where the outbreak began late last year, reported no new confirmed cases for the first time. In South Korea, there were 23 fresh infections, mostly from the densely populated Seoul area where authorities shut down thousands of nightclubs, bars and karaoke rooms to stem transmissions.

The encouraging signs are likely to set off a much awaited thrust to get back to business as governments have been readying social-distancing measures to reopen economies. In Japan, a group representing bar hostesses and other nightlife workers issued guidelines to protect employees as outfits reopen, telling them to wear masks, gargle every 30 minutes and disinfect karaoke microphones after each use.

The Bank of Japan, which recently announced measures to ensure easy lending in the world’s third largest economy, said in a joint statement with the government that both sides “will work together to bring the Japanese economy back again on the post-pandemic solid growth track.”

Japan’s new cases have dwindled lately to double-digit figures each day. Deaths related to the coronavirus are below 800 people. South Korea had been reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March before using aggressive tracing and testing to stabilize its outbreak. More than 200 of the recent infections have been linked to clubgoers in Seoul as the country began easing restrictions.

In the U.S., some regions were opening more quickly than others. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order by slightly more than two additional weeks, through June 12, while keeping theaters, gyms and other places of public accommodation closed until at least then.

The Democratic governor also kept her coronavirus emergency declaration through June 19. Both the stay-at-home measure and state of emergency had been set to expire late next Thursday, though Whitmer said extensions were likely.

“While the data shows that we are making progress, we are not out of the woods yet. If we’re going to lower the chance of a second wave and continue to protect our neighbors and loved ones from the spread of this virus, we must continue to do our part by staying safer at home,” said Whitmer, whom President Donald Trump has pushed to reopen the state.

Michigan on Friday reported 5,158 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 complications, the fourth largest tally of any state. The daily death toll rose by 29 and the number of new confirmed cases in the state increased by 403, to nearly 54,000 since the pandemic started.

Nevada is preparing to reopen its shuttered casinos, including glitzy ones in Las Vegas. Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, has set a tentative June 4 date, as Nevada continues to see decreasing cases of the coronavirus and hospitalizations of COVID-19. Some restrictions began to be lifted nearly two weeks ago.

Nevada’s gambling regulators plan to meet Tuesday and will consider reopening plans submitted from casinos, which need to be approved at least seven days before restarting. By country, the U.S. has been the hardest hit, with more than 96,000 deaths among 1.6 million confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said there have been 75 cases of COVID-19 in the U.N.’s 13 far-flung peacekeeping missions, which have a total of 110,000 troops, police and personnel. U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix told reporters that preventive measures taken early on in the crisis appear to have prevented the spread of the virus, with the exception of conflict-torn Mali where 58 cases were reported. He said there have been no deaths and none of the cases was serious.

Latin America’s two largest nations — Mexico and Brazil — reported record numbers of infections and deaths almost daily this week, fueling criticism of their presidents, who have slow-walked shutdowns in an attempt to limit economic damage.

Brazil has reported more than 330,000 confirmed cases, surpassing Russia to become the nation with the second-highest number of infections, behind only the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Brazil also has recorded more than 21,000 deaths, though experts believe the numbers are higher.

The virus “does not forgive,” Uber driver Bruno Almeida de Mello said at the burial of his grandmother Vandelma Rosa, 66, in Rio de Janeiro. “It does not choose race or if you are rich or poor, black or white. It’s a cruel disease.”

De Mello said his grandmother’s death certificate reads “suspected of COVID-19,” but the hospital didn’t have the tests necessary to confirm it. That means her death was not counted in the official toll.

Experts said the surging deaths across Latin America showed the limits of government action in a region where millions have informal jobs and many police forces are weak or corrupt and unable to enforce restrictions. Infections also rose and intensive-care units were swamped in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, countries lauded for imposing early and aggressive business shutdowns and quarantines.

Colombia’s Ministry of Health also reported its biggest daily increases Friday, with 801 new confirmed infections and 30 deaths. Nearly 20,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in a country that has been locked down for nearly two months.

Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

Taiwan President Tsai calls for stability in China relations

May 20, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called for stability in relations with China in her inaugural address Wednesday but said she would not accept Beijing’s political terms that would “downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.”

Reelected by a landslide late last year, Tsai said relations with Beijing had reached a “historical turning point” and that “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue” should form the basis for contacts between the sides as a means to prevent intensifying antagonisms and differences.

Tsai said Taiwan would also work to increase its participation in international society, even as Beijing seeks to shut it out and poach allies away from the self-governing island democracy it claims as its own territory.

“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo,” Tsai told an audience at the baroque Taipei Guest House in the center of the capital.

Tsai represents the ruling Democratic Progressive Party which advocates Taiwan’s formal independence, something Beijing says it will use force to prevent. Her election to a second, four-year term came after the repression of pro-democracy protests in the nearby Chinese semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong solidified public opinion in Taiwan against moves toward accepting rule by Beijing.

The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has cut off ties with Tsai’s government over her refusal to accept its demand that she recognize the island as a part of China to be unified with eventually under the “one country, two systems” policy enacted in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s diplomats have prevented Taiwan from joining international gatherings such as the World Health Organization and reduced its number of diplomatic allies to a handful, while its military has boosted patrols and exercises aimed at intimidating the island’s population.

In her speech, Tsai emphasized the need to boost national security, including against non-traditional threats such as cyber and “cognitive” warfare, defined partly by the use of disinformation on social media.

Tsai, 63, is a former law professor and unique in being the only modern woman leader in Asia to rise to the top without being part of a political dynasty. Attending Wednesday’s speech were diplomats from Taiwan’s remaining 15 formal diplomatic allies and representatives of the U.S. and other major nations that maintain strong but informal ties with Taiwan. The U.S. is the island’s main source of military support against China’s military threats and a key advocate for its participation in international gatherings.

Prior to her address, congratulatory remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were read out praising Tsai’s “courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to the region and the world.”

“The United States has long considered Taiwan a force for good in the world and a reliable partner,” Pompeo said in the statement. “We have a shared vision for the region — one that includes rule of law, transparency, prosperity, and security for all.”

The U.S. support comes amid rising frictions between Washington and Beijing over trade, technology and allegations of Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic that began last year. At the same time, Washington has increased military sales to the island of 23.6 million and Congress has passed legislation promoting closer political and economic ties.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing expressed its “strong indignation and condemnation,” over Pompeo’s remarks, adding that the U.S. must “stop official exchange with Taiwan or improving real relations with Taiwan.”

“China will take necessary measures against the above-mentioned wrong actions of the U.S. side, and the resulting consequences shall be borne by the U.S. side,” Zhao said. Despite Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and vastly reduce numbers of Chinese tourists visiting the island, Tsai has overseen steady growth in Taiwan’s high-tech economy and enacted social reforms, including making the island the only democracy in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage.

Reforms, including reductions in civil service pensions had sparked a backlash and Tsai had appeared vulnerable to a challenge from the pro-China Nationalist Party candidate. However, her support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in the face of an often-violent police response helped lift her poll figures.

Many see China’s autocratic Communist Party as eroding Hong Kong’s civil liberties and Taiwanese voters have strongly rejected any moves toward political accommodation with Beijing. Poll results released by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center last week found that 66% of island residents view themselves as Taiwanese, 28% as both Taiwanese and Chinese and 4% as just Chinese. The telephone poll of 1,562 people, conducted last fall, has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Among respondents under 30, fully 83% said they don’t consider themselves Chinese. Another 2.3% of Taiwan’s people are members of indigenous groups who are not ethnically Chinese. A former Japanese colony, Taiwan was handed to China in 1945 but split again from the mainland when Mao Zedong’s Communists swept to power on the mainland in 1949. The rival Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan, 160 kilometers (100 miles) across the Taiwan Strait from China’s east coast.

China says boy picked by Dalai Lama now a college graduate

May 20, 2020

BEIJING (AP) — China said Tuesday that a boy who disappeared 25 years ago after being picked by the Dalai Lama as Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest figure is now a college graduate with a stable job.

Very little information has been given about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima or his family since he went missing at age 6 shortly after being named the 11th Panchen Lama. China, which claims that Tibet is part of its territory, named another boy to the position, Gyaltsen Norbu, who is rarely seen and is believed to spend most of his time in Beijing. He is generally viewed as a political figure under Beijing’s control and shares none of the Dalai Lama’s global fame.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “received free compulsory education when he was a child, passed the college entrance examination and now has a job.” Zhao said neither the now-31-year-old man or his family wishes to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.” No other details were given.

The tussle between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959, concerns who will determine the future of Tibetan Buddhism, which still commands heavy sway over the people of the Himalayan region that China says has been its territory for centuries but which many Tibetans believe was largely independent.

Tibet’s self-declared government-in-exile in India marked the 25th anniversary of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s disappearance by calling on Beijing on Sunday to account for his whereabouts. “China’s abduction of the Panchen Lama and forcible denial of his religious identity and right to practice in his monastery is not only a violation of religious freedom but also a gross violation of human rights,” the Tibetan parliament in northern India, known as the Kashag, said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also issued a statement on Monday calling on China to “immediately make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and to uphold its own constitution and international commitments to promote religious freedom for all persons.”

The Dalai Lama named the original Panchen Lama with the help of Tibetan lamas trained in reading portents and signs. China claims the reincarnate can only be chosen by pulling lots from a golden urn, a method it used to pick its own candidate under the control of the officially atheistic ruling Communist Party.

Traditionally, the Panchen Lama has served as teacher and aide to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s highest leader who is now 84 and is accused by Beijing of seeking independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama denies that and says he advocates greater autonomy for the region.

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