Asia

Anti-Chinese government protests break out in Hong King

Protest erupted in the streets in reaction to Hong Kong’s city’s legislature postponing debate on an extradition bill, which many people fear will undermine freedoms and confidence in the commercial hub. Hong Kong’s China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam urged a swift restoration of order but vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite the reservations about it, including within the business community.

The protests began on Sunday in what organizers said drew more than a million people for the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule. Authorities shut government offices in the financial district, which is overlooked by the towers of some of Asia’s biggest firms and hotel chains, for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong in decades. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s huge march, said it was planning another demonstration this Sunday.

The 1997 handover included a deal to preserve special autonomy until the city is formally part of China in the year 2047, but many in Hong Kong accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms and interference in local elections. The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, has sparked concern it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Beijing rejected accusations of meddling and Chinese state media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the bill. The English-language China Daily said the “lawlessness” would hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its law.

Ms. Lam and her officials say the law is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards. Opponents of the bill, including lawyers and rights groups, say China’s justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions and arbitrary detention. Democratic city legislators condemned Lam and what they said was heavy-handed police action.

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Wednesday in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the legislature. Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said what began as a peaceful gathering on Wednesday had degenerated into a riot with protesters “acting violently in an organized manner”. Police arrested 11 people and fired about 150 tear gas canisters at the crowd. The city’s hospital authority said a total of 81 people were injured in the protests. 22 police were injured according to Commissioner Lo. Police also later arrested two students at the University of Hong Kong after a raid on a student hall of residence, according to an official at the university.

On Monday, the United States’ State Department said it was gravely concerned about the proposed amendments to the extradition laws, warning they could jeopardize Hong Kong’s special status. Senior congressional lawmakers from both parties responded to the crisis by introducing legislation that would require the US government to provide an annual justification for the continuation of special business and trade privileges afforded to Hong Kong. Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, one of 13 co-sponsors of the proposed legislation, said in a statement, “If the extradition bill moves forward and Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic institutions continue to erode due to interference from the Chinese government, the Congress has no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong can receive preferential economic and trade benefits under U.S. law.”

India’s PM Modi votes in the latest round of the national election

Since April 11, the world’s largest democracy has been voting in rounds for the national election that will end on May 19, with the final results announced on May 23. Nearly 900 million of India's 1.3 billion citizens are eligible to vote for thousands of candidates vying for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament.

In the third round of voting that took place this week, 188 million Indians across 13 states and two federally-controlled territories voted for candidates in 117 parliamentary districts, making it the largest of the six rounds of voting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi accompanied his elderly mother to his voting place in his home state of Gujarat to cast his ballot. All voting is electronic and ballots will be counted on May 23, which is expected to take a couple of hours with the results are announced that day.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by PM Modi, has governed since winning a majority with 282 seats in 2014, making it the first political party in 30 years to win an outright majority in a general election. 272 seats are required for a majority or coalition government, which then chooses the next Prime Minister. The BJP supports Hindu nationalism and PM Modi’s appeal is based largely on support for this Hindu-centric worldview as well as his vows to run a clean, corruption-free government dedicated to economic growth. India is the world’s second-most populous country, after China, and maintains good relations with both Russia and the United States.

The leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC) led by Rahul Gandhi, has a long history of corruption. The secular, center-left INC led India for most of the nation’s post-independence history. Mr. Gandhi’s father, grandmother, and great-grandfather were Prime Ministers. There are also five other national parties, 26 state parties and more than 2,000 smaller political parties registered in this year’s election.

Across the economy, Indians, particularly the highly educated, are struggling to find jobs. Surveys consistently rate this as the primary voter concern, especially among Millennials. India’s population is young, with more than half of people younger than 25, and it is growing quickly making the need for job creation critical. It is estimated that within the next 30 years, more than 200 million Indians will enter the workforce, increasing pressure on an economy that is already facing record unemployment. Forced marriage, forced labor, and gang rape are ongoing problems that many Indian women face.

Caste and religious divisions are factors in India being among the lowest rankings of social mobility in the world. Most Indians, who are of lower castes, are employed in informal sectors, such as farmhands, domestic workers, rickshaw drivers and recyclers. In recent decades, India has made enormous progress lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, improving literacy and life span, and turning its economy into a global powerhouse. However, much of its economic might is based purely on the size of its population and the average Indian makes around $5 a day, on par with developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

High turnout and many Indians voting along caste or religious lines result in major changes from election to election. Rural and urban voters each have their own primary issues of concern. 70 percent of Indians still live in rural areas and gave more than 60 percent of their votes to BJP in 2014. This year, intense economic stress caused by severe droughts and stagnant farm incomes has made the party less popular among the 260 million Indians in farm families. Urban Indians live in increasing pollution and overburdened transport networks, where megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai each have more than 20 million residents. Urban voters struggle to find a job despite the fact that India’s economy is growing quickly Rising oil prices also push up inflation, and many urban Indians say they are worse off than they were five years ago.

India’s Muslims number approximately 200 million or 15 percent of the country’s population. The BJP’s Hindu-centric politics have alienated many Muslims, and Congress is expected to win most of the Muslim vote despite their politicians being wary to side too publicly with Muslims and concerned about being accused of abandoning Hindu beliefs. One of PM Modi ‘s campaign pillars has centered on national security and fighting terrorism, saying “voter ID is much more powerful than an IED,” in reference to improvised explosive devices typically used by terrorists. PM Modi gained support with his response to February's suicide car bomb attack that killed more than 40 Indian security forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Tensions with Pakistan were recently renewed when Indian fighter jets crossed over the border into neighboring Pakistan and conducted airstrikes on an alleged training camp operated by the Pakistan-based outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the Kashmir suicide bombing.

 

 

ISIS kills and wounds hundreds of Christians celebrating Easter in Sri Lanka terrorist attacks

Islamic suicide bombers attacked three churches and three luxury hotels in several Sri Lankan cities on Easter Sunday, killing 359 people and wounding more than 500, including at least 38 foreigners. ISIS claimed responsibility and released a photo of the suicide bomber squad, who all hail from two local Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. The bombings were retaliation for last month’s attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand where 50 Muslims died. A national day of mourning was declared for Tuesday as the United States’ envoy to Sri Lanka warned there were "ongoing terrorist plots" in the country.

Christians and Muslims each comprise about seven percent of Sri Lanka's population of 22 million people, among minority Hindus and a Buddhist majority. The Indian Ocean island country has been peaceful for a decade after a bitter civil war. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to act against those responsible. The government blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as armed security forces patrolled the largely deserted, central streets in the capital of Colombo, and a curfew went into effect.

International intelligence agencies began issuing warnings on April 4 that the attacks were planned, but this apparently didn’t reach the Prime Minister’s office until after the massacre. In October, President Maithripala Sirisena had ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissolved the Cabinet. The Supreme Court later reversed his actions, but the Prime Minister has not been allowed into meetings of the Security Council since October, which meant he and his government were in the dark about the intelligence. It is not clear what action, if any, was taken after the threats. Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses.

There was one woman among the nine terrorists, all of whom were "well educated" and "middle class". At least two of the suicide bombers had law degrees. Two were brothers from a wealthy Colombo family, one of whom attended university in the United Kingdom and earned a postgraduate degree in Australia. Police have now detained around 60 people in connection with the attacks.

An ISIS statement also said that in the city of Dematagoda, Abu Abdullah confronted the police and killed three police officers. The wife of one of the Sri Lankan bombers detonated a bomb when police broke into their flat. She killed herself, her three children and two police. Three unexploded bombs blew up inside a van parked near one of the attacked churches as police tried to defuse them. Dozens of detonators were discovered near Colombo’s main bus depot.

A video released by Amaq news agency, ISIS’s propaganda wing, showed the terrorists swearing their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and watched over by Mohammed Cassim Zaharan, who is an Islamist hate preacher, also known as Zaharan Hashmi, who led a Sri Lankan Islamist supremacist group known as the National Thowheeth Jama’ath.

Defence sources said that a number of female accomplices of incidents in Dematagoda had escaped wearing burqas. Now, Sri Lanka may ban burqa following the Easter Sunday terrorist attack, joining Chad, Cameroon, Gabon, Morocco, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Belgium, and Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority province in northwestern China, that have all done so to prevent terrorists from using the burqa to evade police or hide explosives.

The Sri Lankan government is now planning to implement the burqa ban in consultation with the mosque authorities, pointing out that the burqa and niqab were never part of the traditional attire of Muslim women in Sri Lanka until the Gulf War in the early 1990s, which saw extremist elements introducing the garb to Muslim women.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan frees captured Indian pilot downed in Kashmir as a ‘peace gesture’

Tensions were diffused this week after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to release the Indian pilot who was shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir as a “peace gesture” to defuse an escalating confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

A February 14 suicide bombing, claimed by Pakistan-based militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary officers. India responded to the suicide blast with an air strike on a JeM training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, the first such raid since the two nations’ 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.

The situation escalated Wednesday when Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian aircrafts. One of the aircrafts fell into Indian-controlled territory while the other crashed onto the Pakistani side, where the pilot was captured. Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said Pakistan instigated the clash when its air force attacked Indian military installations. India lost one warplane in the exchange and declared a pilot missing in action, he said.

Credit: South China Morning Post

PM Khan warned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that sending Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman home should not be viewed as a sign of weakness. “We have captured a pilot of India. As a gesture of peace we are going to release him to India tomorrow,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an address to both houses of Parliament, “I did try yesterday to talk to [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi only to de-escalate this situation. But this de-escalation effort should not be considered as weakness. The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.” Mainstream news media managed to twist these words into a declaration that Pakistan was threatening nuclear war with India.

Top Indian military chiefs said the army remained on a “heightened” state of alert despite Pakistan’s promise. The military officials also unveiled fragments from a missile they said matched the Pakistani F-16 fighter jet that crossed into Indian airspace and was shot down. Mr. Varthaman, the pilot of that jet, managed to eject but was apprehended by Pakistani troops on the other side of the border and taken into custody.

Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to “stand as a wall” over Pakistan’s capture of their pilot. In a message to Bharatiya Janata Party members, he accused Pakistan of trying to destabilise India, saying, “The enemy tries to destabilise us, carries out terror attacks. Their motive is to stop our growth.

Sisters fleeing Saudi Arabia granted an extension of stay in Hong Kong

Two sisters stranded in Hong Kong after escaping Saudi Arabia and their family have been allowed to stay in the city beyond Thursday’s deadline. In a statement, human rights lawyer Michael Vidler said Hong Kong’s Immigration Department acknowledged that the pair would be “allowed to continue to stay pending determination of their application to a third country place of safety”.

The Immigration Department approves application for extension but did not indicate a new expiry date, as human rights NGO Amnesty International urged the local government not to return pair to their country of origin as they will be “in grave danger”. Mr. Vidler said, “We are in communication [with the third country], but there hasn’t been any substantive development,” but would not comment on a “backup plan”, should the sisters’ bid fail.

The two sisters, who go by the pseudonyms Reem and Rawan and aged 18 and 20, said they had renounced their Muslim faith and were running from their family because they had been abused by their father and brothers. They arrived from Sri Lanka, where they had been on a family holiday, in Hong Kong in September and claimed to have escaped an alleged kidnap attempt orchestrated by diplomats from the Saudi consulate at Hong Kong International Airport, where they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia, their final destination. In November, their Saudi passports were revoked, forcing them to stay in Hong Kong. The sisters applied for an emergency rescue visa to an unnamed country in late December, but the applications are still being considered.

They had secretly saved around USD $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy. The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

They managed to leave Hong Kong airport, but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, Mr. Vidler said. The sisters have moved 13 times in the past five months to evade capture. “We are in fear every day we are in Hong Kong. We want to leave [for] a third country place of safety as soon as possible,” the two wrote in a statement released by Mr. Vidler and his firm. “We desperately hope that this will happen very soon and that the Hong Kong government will continue to allow us to stay here until then.”

In an earlier interview with Reuters, the sisters said every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose - even the times when they woke and went to sleep, “They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father. “It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” said the elder sister, Reem.

They said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them. “They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings. The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

New documents link Huawei to suspected front companies in Iran and Syria

The United States (U.S.) court case against Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou of China’s Huawei Technologies, who was arrested in Canada last month, centers on the company’s suspected ties to two obscure companies. One is a telecom equipment seller that operated in Tehran, and the other is that firm’s owner, a holding company registered in Mauritius. U.S. authorities allege Ms. Wanzhou deceived international banks into clearing transactions with Iran by claiming the two companies were independent of Huawei, when in fact Huawei controlled them. Huawei has maintained the two are independent: equipment seller Skycom Tech Co Ltd and shell company Canicula Holdings Ltd.

Corporate filings and other documents found by Reuters in Iran and Syria show that Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications network equipment, is more closely linked to both firms than previously known. The documents reveal that a high-level Huawei executive appears to have been appointed Skycom’s Iran manager, and show that at least three Chinese-named individuals had signing rights for both Huawei and Skycom bank accounts in Iran. A Middle Eastern lawyer said Huawei conducted operations in Syria through Canicula.

The previously unreported ties undermines Huawei’s claims that Skycom was merely an arms-length business partner. Huawei, U.S. authorities assert, retained control of Skycom, using it to sell telecom equipment to Iran and move money out via the international banking system. As a result of the deception, U.S. authorities say, banks unwittingly cleared hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions that potentially violated economic sanctions Washington had in place at the time against doing business with Iran.

Meng was released on CAD $10 million bail on December 11, 2018 and remains in Vancouver while Washington tries to extradite her. In the U.S., Meng would face charges in connection with an alleged conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions, with a maximum sentence of 30 years for each charge. The exact charges have not been made public.

Meng’s arrest on a U.S. warrant has caused an uproar in China. It comes at a time of growing trade and military tensions between Washington and Beijing, and amid worries by U.S. intelligence that Huawei’s telecommunications equipment could contain “backdoors” for Chinese espionage. The firm has repeatedly denied such claims. Nevertheless, Australia and New Zealand recently banned Huawei from building their next generation of mobile phone networks, and British authorities have also expressed concerns.

China defends its de-radicalization education camps for Muslims

The Chinese government has faced accusations from activists, scholars, foreign governments, and United Nations (U.N.) rights experts over what they call mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, China. In August 2018, a U.N. human rights panel said it had received credible reports that a million or more Uighurs and other minorities in the far western region are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp.” However, senior officials, including Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s Governor and the region’s most senior Uighur, dismissed what they called “slanderous lies” about the facilities.

In response, Chinese government officials organized a visit for foreign reporters last week to three of these facilities, which it calls vocational education training centers, and a similar visit for diplomats from 12 non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. China believes its de-radicalization program in Xinjiang is highly successful but acknowledged fewer people will be sent through going forward. The reason for this is unclear, and it is unknown if the Muslim population is a stagnant figure, which perhaps explains the decrease in future numbers.

Speaking in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, Mr. Zakir said the centers had been “extremely effective” in reducing extremism by teaching residents about the law and helping them learn Mandarin. “As time goes by, the people in the education training mechanism will be fewer and fewer,” he said, adding, “One million people, this number is rather frightening. One million people in the education mechanism - that’s not realistic. That’s purely a rumor.” He stressed these are temporary educational facilities. Residents can “graduate” when they are judged to have reached a certain level with their Mandarin, de-radicalisation, and legal knowledge.

The government says its goal is for Uighurs to become part of mainstream Chinese society. Mr. Zakir said in parts of southern Xinjiang people couldn’t even say hello in Mandarin, and government officials point to a lack of violence in the past two years as evidence of program’s success. “Only with a deeper understanding of the past can you understand the measures we have taken today,” Shi Lei, Xinjiang’s Communist Party committee deputy propaganda chief, told reporters. One member of the Chinese armed forces, who has served in Kashgar, said the security situation had improved dramatically. “You can’t imagine what it was like there in 2014 and 2015. There were attacks all the time, bombings, stabbings. It was chaos,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Kashgar deputy party chief Zark Zurdun, a Uighur from Ghulja in northern Xinjiang, where many ethnic Kazakhs live, told reporters that “stability is the best human right” and “The West should learn from us” on how to beat extremism, dismissing concerns Uighur culture was under attack. “Did Kazakh vanish in the USSR when they all had to learn Russian? No. So Uighur won’t vanish here,” he added.

Malaysia's King abdicates after two years on throne following his wedding

Malaysia’s 49-year-old King Muhammad V abdicated on Sunday after two years on the throne, the National Palace said in a statement, with the resignation taking effect immediately. This marks the first time in Malaysian history that a monarch has stood down since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, and no reason was given. Following two months of medical leave, the King had resumed his duties for less than a week before his resignation.

Images seemingly show the King getting married in Russia to a former Russian beauty queen, 24-year-old Oksana Voevodina, in photos that appeared on social media in December 2018. The palace did not respond to requests for comment on the photos or reports of a marriage. Photographs show a smiling Ms. Voevodina sitting next to King Muhammad in a white wedding dress, while he is clad in national robes. She is said to have converted to Islam in April of last year and has told friends:  "I think that the man must be the head of the family and of course shall not earn less than a woman."

The New Straits Times reported there had been tensions between the palace and the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led the opposition to an election win in May. PM Mahathir, known for challenging royalty during his past 22-year tenure, said in a blog post last week that everyone “from the Rulers to the Prime Minister and Ministers, to the civil servants and ordinary citizens” are subject to the law but did not elaborate.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the king assumes a largely ceremonial role, including as the custodian of Islam in the Muslim-majority country. However, the king’s assent is needed before the appointment of a prime minister or senior public officials. Malaysia has nine royal households, who typically take turns to sit on the throne, and the selection of the next king is decided by a vote in the Council of Rulers, made up of all nine royal households.

The palace did not indicate when the Islamic rulers would meet to pick the next king; during the King’s leave of absence, the ruler of western Perak state had been carrying out his duties. Portraits of the King and Queen adorn government buildings throughout the country. The King is also the symbolic head of Islam in the nation, as well as chief of the military.

Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of genocide in landmark ruling 40 years after fall of brutal Cambodian regime

The two surviving leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge have been convicted of genocide in a historic ruling, four decades after the fall of the regime which wiped out up to a third of the population. In November, Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by the country's long-running international tribunal, the first genocide conviction handed down by the United Nations (UN) – backed court. "The verdict is essentially the Nuremberg judgement for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia," said David Scheffer, who served as the U.N. Secretary General's special expert on the Khmer Rouge trials from 2012 until the trial.

The two are already serving life sentences over the forced urban exodus and disappearances of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot's regime during its terrifying four-year reign in the late 1970s. Nuon Chea was the Khmer Rouge ideologist and and deputy leader considered Leader Pol Pot's right-hand man, while Khieu Samphan was the head of state who served as the regime's public face. These latest genocide verdicts relate to killings of the Cham and Vietnamese ethnic groups. The two leaders were also convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the Khmer Rouge's brutal work camps, including murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances, forced transfers, forced marriages, and rape.

An estimated 1.7 million people, nearly a third of the country’s population, were executed or died of starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist group which tried to create an agrarian utopia by forcing urban-dwellers into rural labour camps, primarily between 1959 and 1979, immediately following the Cambodian civil war. The more than 20,000 mass grave sites around the country became known as The Killing Fields. Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, ending the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, composed of Cambodian and United Nations-nominated judges, finally began its work in 2006 after decades of political and technical setbacks. The court handed down its first conviction four years later to Kang Kek lew, known as Comrade Duch, who was head of the internal security branch, the Santebal, and director of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, S-21, in Phnom Penh.

Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Kang Kek lew are the only three Khmer Rouge leaders ever to have been prosecuted. Pol Pot died of a heart attack while under house arrest in 1998, while two others indicted by the court have since died. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander turned defector who has been in power since 1985. He had vowed to halt any further prosecutions, saying they will cause political instability.

Malaysia charges Goldman Sachs and ex-bankers in USD $2.7 billion probe

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Malaysia will seek jail terms and billions of dollars in fines from Goldman Sachs and four other individuals who allegedly diverted about USD $2.7 billion from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), the country’s Attorney General Tommy Thomas said in a statement. The 1MDB scandal was a major reason for former Premier Najib Razak’s election defeat in May 2018, who has been charged with corruption over the scandal and pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Thomas said criminal charges under securities laws were filed on Monday against Goldman Sachs, its former bankers Tim Leissner and Roger Ng, former 1MDB employee Jasmine Loo, and financier Jho Low in connection with the bond offerings. “The charges arise from the commission and abetment of false or misleading statements by all the accused in order to dishonestly misappropriate $2.7 billion from the proceeds of three bonds issued by the subsidiaries of 1MDB, which were arranged and underwritten by Goldman Sachs,” Mr. Thomas said in a statement. He said the offering circulars filed with the regulators contained statements that were false, misleading, or with material omissions, and “Having held themselves out as the pre-eminent global adviser/arranger for bonds, the highest standards are expected of Goldman Sachs. They have fallen short of any standard.

Prosecutors would seek fines against the accused “well in excess” of the allegedly misappropriated $2.7 billion bond proceeds plus $600 million in fees received by Goldman Sachs. Malaysia will seek jail terms of up to 10 years for each of the individuals accused, Mr. Thomas said, and that the four individuals are charged of conspiring to “bribe Malaysian public officials in order to procure the selection, involvement and participation of Goldman Sachs in the bond issuances.

This is the first time Goldman Sachs, which has consistently denied wrongdoing, has faced criminal charges in the 1MDB scandal. Goldman Sachs has been under scrutiny for its role in helping raise $6.5 billion through three bond offerings for 1MDB, which is the subject of investigations in at least six countries. The United States (U.S.) Department of Justice has said about $4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB, including some money that Goldman Sachs helped raise, by high-level officials of the fund and their associates from 2009 through 2014.

A Goldman Sachs spokesman said the charges were “misdirected” and the bank would vigorously defend them and continue to cooperate with all authorities in their investigations. U.S. prosecutors filed criminal charges against the former Goldman Sachs bankers, Mr. Leissner and Mr. Ng, last month. Mr. Leissner pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Mr. Ng is detained in Malaysia and facing extradition to the U.S.

EU – Japan free trade deal cleared for early 2019 start

The European Union (E.U.) and Japan will launch the world’s largest free trade zone early next year after their economic partnership cleared a final hurdle on Wednesday. Approximately 70 percent of European Parliament lawmakers backed the agreement which will account for nearly a third of global gross domestic product (GDP). Japan’s parliament approved the deal on Saturday. The trade deal follows widespread anti-globalization protests. Critics say the agreement will give too much power to multinationals and could undermine environmental and labour standards.

The agreement will remove E.U. tariffs of 10 percent on Japanese cars and 3 percent for most car parts. It will scrap Japanese duties of some 30 percent on E.U. cheese and 15 percent on wines, as well as open access to public tenders in Japan. It will also open up services markets, such as financial services, telecoms, e-commerce, and transport.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom claimed the deal would bring clear benefits to EU companies and farmers, saying, “If all goes well, it should be able to enter force on February 1. The agreement is not only sending a signal to the world. It is also extremely advanced when it comes to opening markets.”

Japan had been part of the multi-lateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), comprised of twelve nations, which American President Donald Trump stated he would not participate in when he took office as it did not offer advantageous terms to the United States (U.S.). Without the economic capital of the U.S., there was little advantage to the TPP trade pact, therefore Japan and the other nations involved sought new bi-lateral trade deals with potential partners. A similar scenario played out between the U.S. and the E.U. when negotiations stalled in 2016 regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Both the E.U. and Japan want the new trade deal in place before Britain leaves the E.U. at the end of March 2019. Japan, whose many car makers serve the E.U. market from British bases, had wanted it to then apply to a Brexit transition period until the end of 2020, although that period is uncertain due to political turmoil in Britain.

Hong Kong and Singapore lead the world in economic freedom: report

Hong Kong and Singapore have again been ranked as the most economically free jurisdictions in the world, with the United States (U.S.) back in the top ten, according to the Fraser Institute’s annual Economic Freedom of the World report for 2018. The Fraser Institute produces the annual Economic Freedom of the World report in cooperation with the Economic Freedom Network, a group of independent research and educational institutes in nearly one hundred countries and territories. It’s the world’s premier measurement of economic freedom.

While Hong Kong is still the most economically free, there is a valid concern that interference from mainland China—which ranks 108th in economic freedom—will ultimately lead to deterioration in Hong Kong’s top position, particularly in rule of law, which helps ensure equal freedom for all,” said Fred McMahon, Dr. Michael A. Walker Research Chair in Economic Freedom with the Fraser Institute.

Rounding out the top ten are New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland, the United States, Georgia, Mauritius, the United Kingdom, and Australia and Canada tied at tenth place. The United States is ranked at sixth, entering the top ten most-economically free countries for the first time since 2009.

The report measures the economic freedom—the ability of individuals to make their own economic decisions—by analyzing the policies and institutions of 162 countries and territories. These include regulation, freedom to trade internationally, size of government, sound legal system and property rights, and government spending and taxation. The 2018 report is based on data from 2016, the last year of available comparable statistics.

Where people are free to pursue their own opportunities and make their own choices, they lead more prosperous, happier and healthier lives,” Mr. McMahon said.

Read the full report

China’s President Xi aims to expand China’s influence in Central America and the G20 meeting

Next week, China’s President and Leader of the Communist Party Xi Jinping will visit Panama to expand his regime’s growing influence over the Americas, China’s foreign ministry announced Friday. From November 30 to December 1, President Xi and United States (U.S.) President Donald Trump will meet at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires and are expected to discuss their ongoing trade war as each of the world’s two largest economies assert their dominance for geopolitical influence of the region.

On December 3, President Xi will meet with Panama’s President Juan Carlos to sign over two dozen agreements on sectors including science, technology, commerce, and infrastructure. China’s decision to strengthen diplomatic ties comes after Panama’s government announced last year that it would abandon its allegiance to Taiwan and support the one-China principle, which does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. China recently hosted leaders from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, promising increased investment and generous aid packages after both countries also announced they would cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of supporting the one-China principle.

The number of university students studying Spanish and Portuguese in China has increased dramatically, indicating the nation’s growing strategic interest in the region. Panama, for example, is widely considered an area of strategic importance to U.S. influence the western hemisphere, with the eighty-two kilometer/fifty-one-mile Panama Canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. China’s government has long considered the continent full of opportunities to expand its own influence, mainly by using its economic and financial power to forge predatory relationships with some of the continent’s most impoverished nations and ideologically sympathetic governments.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned smaller countries not to be seduced by China’s promises of economic security, arguing that such packages lead to countries experiencing “serious debt problems from accepting loans that are not transparent.”

Latin America studies expert at Taiwan’s Tamkang University Francisco Luis Perez told the South China Morning Post that Panama may be less willing to bow down to China because of fears of damaging their relationship with the U.S. Perez said, “Following the stern warnings from the United States, Xi’s trip keeps on being a potential bargaining chip to get things from the US, but it also constitutes a serious risk of creating tensions with a geographically close power. “I do not expect Panama to risk and make strategic or political pacts with China during the trip, but instead to focus on economic issues without much military or strategic impact.”

China builds on a new reef in the South China Sea, escalating regional tension and risk of war

China, which has been aggressively claiming strategic waterway, the South China Sea, by building of military and other installations on artificial islands and reefs has raised concerns over the possibility of military conflict or war for areas surrounding the country China. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei have competing claims in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, the United States (U.S.) once again urged China to halt militarization of the South China Sea, but China said it had the right to build “necessary defense facilities” on what it considers its own territory and urged Washington to stop sending warships and military planes close to the islands that Beijing claims. China has frequently lambasted the U.S. and its allies for freedom of navigation naval operations near to Chinese-occupied islands.

The islands China occupies are off-limits to foreigners, with access under the effective control of the People’s Liberation Army though they are technically administratively part of China’s southern Hainan province. China has said some civilian facilities on the islands are intended for use by others in the region, but the government has given few details about how that may work in practice.

Now, China has installed a new platform on a remote part of the Paracel Islands, which could be used for military purposes, according to recent satellite images reviewed by a U.S. think tank. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said the images showed a “modest new structure” on Bombay Reef, topped by a radome and solar panels, saying the purpose of the platform and radome was unclear, but it could be for military use. “The development is interesting given Bombay Reef’s strategic location, and the possibility that the structure’s rapid deployment could be repeated in other parts of the South China Sea,” ASTI said, “The reef is directly adjacent to the major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals intelligence collection over that important sea lane.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands was not in dispute, and there is nothing wrong with China carrying out construction work on its own territory. However, Vietnam also claims the Paracel Islands.

In their paper published by the Central Party School, which trains future and rising officials, China’s Study Times wrote, “Unprecedented outside military interference is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. Without the strong deterrence power of our military in the South China Sea, then protecting regional peace and stability is merely idle theorizing and falls short of what we would wish.” The paper’s authors go on to say there must be a greater role for non-military actors in the South China Sea, and “facilities on the reefs and islands of the South China Sea should be more civilian and less military,” meaning more focus on building lighthouses, civilian airports, maritime search and rescue, scientific research and weather forecasting. “Just as the Chinese government has repeatedly stressed, after the completion of the island facilities, they will actively provide relevant public security products and services to regional countries,” the paper said, to help the international community with counter-terror and anti-piracy operations, to jointly safeguard peace and security in the South China Sea.

An influential Chinese state-run newspaper said China should put more focus on building civilian facilities on islands in the South China Sea and less emphasis on the military to soothe regional fears about China’s intentions.

Critics call Beijing’s new social credit system 'Orwellian'

Chinese state media has reported Beijing’s municipal government will assign citizens and firms “personal trustworthiness points” by 2021, implementing China’s controversial plan for a “social credit” system for the first time to monitor citizens and businesses. The social credit system, which is being built on the principle of “once untrustworthy, always restricted” will encourage government bodies to share more information about individual and business misdeeds in order to coordinate punishments and rewards.

Critics say it could massively heighten the Chinese Communist Party’s already strict control over society and made comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Human rights groups are concerned that as the system is fully implemented it may widen its use of apps and citizens’ social media behaviour to rate them, including using information about political allegiances.

In a roadmap plan released by Beijing’s municipal government in 2014, China said it would create a “social credit system” to reward or punish individuals and corporations using technology to record various measures of financial credit, personal behavior, and corporate misdeeds. Lists of data, actions, and measures would be used to create a trial system of “personal trustworthiness points” for residents and companies in the Chinese capital; the term used can also be translated as “creditworthiness” or “integrity”. People in certain professions will face particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists, medical doctors, veterinarians, and tour guides.

However, in a new plan released on Monday to improve the city’s business environment, there was no mention of using points, nor detail of how the point system would work. Rather, it said information from the system could impact market access, public services, travel, employment, and the ability to start businesses, with trustworthy individuals being provided a “green channel” and those who are blacklisted being “unable to move a step”.

China’s Xinhua news agency said the plan should serve as an example to the rest of the nation for how to improve the behavior of individuals and businesses. According to an unnamed municipal state planner, “This is an important novel approach by Beijing to assess individuals’ credit and tie it to their whole life.” A second system will also be set up to assess the trustworthiness of government officials and departments by measuring whether contracts and promises are honored, the results of which will be included in performance assessments.

Wen Quan, a Chinese blogger who writes about technology and finance, said the following when the plan was first announced: “Many people don't own houses, cars or credit cards in China, so that kind of information isn't available to measure. "The central bank has the financial data from 800 million people, but only 320 million have a traditional credit history. Without a system, a conman can commit a crime in one place and then do the same thing again in another place. But a credit system puts people's past history on the record. It'll build a better and fairer society.

The Chinese government is watching the progress of Sesame Credit, a private credit system run by Ant Financial, which is owned by the world's biggest online shopping platform, Alibaba, with its 400 million users. Its unique database of consumer information compiles individual "social credit" scores, where users are encouraged to flaunt their good credit scores to friends, and even potential mates. China's biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, has teamed up with Sesame to promote clients with good credit scores, giving them prominent spots on the company's website.

Johan Lagerkvist, Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told Wired: "It is very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinising individual behaviour and what books people are reading. It's Amazon's consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist.”

China expands its ban on waste and recycling imports from first-world countries

China is extending its ban on imports of solid waste a year after introducing its first restrictions against first-world countries that send their garbage and recycling there. The regulatory action expands its prohibition to thirty-two categories of solid waste, up from the twenty-four banned last year. The ban will go into effect on December 31, according to official news agency Xinhua, citing four Chinese government agencies.

China says the policy changes are in line with a new push to protect the environment, suggesting Beijing no longer wants to be the world's trash can or recycle bin. Since 1992, 72 percent of global plastic waste has ended up in China and Hong Kong, according to a study in the journal Science Advances. China bought more than half of the scrap materials exported by the United States last year, but that proportion has been falling with Beijing's regulatory moves cutting down the types of waste Chinese companies could buy.

Newly banned product types include hardware, ships, auto parts, stainless steel waste and scrap, titanium and wood. For products such as cardboard and metal, China set a contamination level of 0.5 per cent last year, an extremely low threshold that required the U.S. and other recyclers to change technology and sorting techniques to meet the new standards. Global plastic exports to China were forecast to fall from 7.4 million tonnes in 2016 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2018, while paper exports might tumble nearly a quarter.