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Xinjiang campaigner says China pressure led him to flee Kazakhstan



Serikzhan Bilash boarded a plane to Istanbul in September and bid goodbye to Kazakhstan, his home of almost 20 years, bracing himself for an uncertain life in Turkey.

Mr Bilash, a China-born activist, said he was forced to flee the Central Asian country after a campaign of intimidation and harassment stemming from his work on the plight of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang province.

“I believe my activities will save many people in China,” Mr Bilash, 46, told the Financial Times in an interview in Istanbul. “But I can’t stay in my nation. It’s a tragedy.”

The leadership of oil-rich Kazakhstan has forged increasingly close ties with Beijing over the past 15 years, with billions of dollars of Chinese investments in oil and gas, mining and other sectors. Mr Bilash believes that China exerts huge influence on Kazakh politics and sees Chinese pressure as the reason why he faced repeated warnings from the security services and multiple arrests in recent years. “The Kazakh government is so closely tied to Beijing,” he said. 

The former businessman, an ethnic Kazakh, was born in Xinjiang but moved to Kazakhstan in 2000 in response to growing pressure on minorities in the country.

He began working as an activist — a role that grew in importance from 2014 as he collated reports about a crackdown on Uighur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang. 

A 2018 file photo of people lining up at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in China’s Xinjiang region © Ng Han Guan/AP

He gathered information from the large numbers of people from the region who travelled to Kazakhstan to visit friends and relatives. They would talk of unexplained arrests and the “re-education” camps used to incarcerate and indoctrinate more than 1m Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim people.

He and his colleagues at his campaign group Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) published their testimonies online and worked with international media and human rights groups to draw attention to abuses by Beijing.

“What they did in the early stages in particular was quite unprecedented,” said Gene Bunin, founder of Xinjiang Victims Database, a campaign group that has worked alongside Atajurt. “Their work has led to thousands of people — many of them ex-detainees — being allowed to leave Xinjiang and come to Kazakhstan. This has not happened anywhere else.”

Mr Bilash said the pushback began in 2017 when he was visited by Kazakh national security agents who told him to stop using the words “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the crackdown in Xinjiang. “They said it would damage the friendship between the countries,” he said.

He was arrested multiple times and was fined for running an unregistered organisation, despite multiple unsuccessful attempts to register Atajurt. Last year he was placed under house arrest and charged with “incitement of social, national, clan, race, class or religious hatred” — an accusation that human rights group Amnesty International described as “bogus”.

He signed a plea bargain that spared him a seven-year jail sentence in return for a promise to put an end to his activism — a decision he said he made after pressure from a senior adviser to Kazakhstan’s president.

The Kazakh government did not respond to a request for comment.

Petitioners with relatives missing or detained in Xinjiang hold up photos of their loved ones in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2019 © Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP

Yet Mr Bilash said the intimidation continued. He made the decision to leave with his family and bought one-way tickets to Istanbul. Although he steeled himself for problems at the airport, he was able to exit the country without problems. “It was very surprising,” he said. “Maybe they were very happy that the troublemaking problem-maker was leaving Kazakhstan.”

Sean Roberts, a George Washington University anthropologist who has conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, said China’s crackdown has put Almaty in a difficult position, caught between the wishes of a big trading partner and a blend of Kazakh nationalist and anti-China sentiment at home.

“As far as the government in Kazakhstan is concerned, they would prefer if this problem just went away,” he said.

Becoming an exile has been painful for Mr Bilash. He was unable to attend the funeral of his father who died last month.

His choice of Istanbul adds to the challenges facing Turkey in its relationship with China. Ankara has toned down its once strong criticism of the treatment of Uighurs as it has courted investment from Beijing. But those overtures are complicated by the fact that the country is home to tens of thousands of exiles from Xinjiang, with their ranks now swelled by a high-profile campaigner.

Mr Bilash said he does not feel safe in Turkey, pointing to the shooting of a Uighur man in Istanbul last month. “Turkey is now very tied to Beijing so I’m afraid.”

But he has vowed to continue his work. “If I stop, nobody can save the 3m Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, he said. “Our team is the last hope.”

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Emerging Markets

Ebay to sell South Korea unit for $3.1bn as local rivals target Coupang




Ebay is set to sell its South Korea business to a local consortium for $3.1bn, according to people with knowledge of the matter, as rivals seek to turn up the heat on SoftBank-backed Coupang in the world’s fourth-largest ecommerce market.

The consortium, which consists of South Korea’s biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer E-Mart and internet group Naver, plans to buy an 80 per cent stake in eBay Korea for Won3.5tn ($3.1bn) with the US company retaining the remainder, said the people.

The purchase could help the consortium to overtake fast-growing Coupang, which raised $4.6bn in an initial public offering in New York in March to become the biggest player in South Korea’s highly competitive ecommerce market. Japanese technology group SoftBank is a large investor in Coupang.

Ebay Korea was the country’s third-largest ecommerce company with a 13 per cent market share last year, according to research group Euromonitor. Its three platforms — Gmarket, Auction and G9 — recorded Won20tn in transactions last year, data from Meritz Securities showed.

Euromonitor has forecast that South Korea’s ecommerce market will grow by 11 per cent this year to $116bn. But it is a fragmented market of more than a dozen players, with Coupang and Naver controlling 19 per cent and 14 per cent shares in terms of transaction volume, respectively.

South Korea is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing ecommerce markets, driven by its tech-savvy population, high-speed internet infrastructure and densely populated environment. Ecommerce accounted for 35.8 per cent of the retail market last year, compared with 28.6 per cent in 2019, Euromonitor data showed.

E-Mart plans to fund the deal with Won3tn of asset-backed loans with the remainder paid by its cash holdings, while Naver will contribute Won100bn, according to an industry official close to the situation.

“Despite the funding structure, E-Mart needs Naver to make up for its weak online networks,” said the official.

Conglomerate Lotte Group and E-Mart were the final bidders for eBay Korea. Both have struggled to catch up with Coupang, which is investing heavily in logistics to boost its delivery times. Coupang almost doubled its revenues last year to $12bn as more consumers shifted to online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Both Lotte and E-Mart were eager to take over eBay’s operations but E-Mart offered about Won500bn more,” added the industry official.

Naver is one of Korea’s most popular internet portals and more than 40 per cent of eBay Korea’s customers access it via the former’s search engine.

Shinsegae, E-Mart’s parent company, and Naver partnered in March by swapping stakes in each other worth Won250bn.

Ebay Korea declined to comment. E-Mart said in a regulatory filing that it was in talks with eBay but a sale had not been finalised. Naver said in a separate filing that the deal had not been concluded.

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ByteDance revenues more than doubled in 2020 to $34.3bn




ByteDance increased its revenues 111 per cent last year to $34bn and had 1.9bn monthly users across its apps at the end of the year, said its incoming chief executive Liang Rubo on Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter.

The owner of the short-video apps TikTok and Douyin recorded a surge in users as coronavirus lockdowns across the world left people searching for more entertainment online. Douyin, the Chinese sister app to TikTok, was ByteDance’s largest driver of revenue and has become a destination for shoppers looking to buy products from livestreaming presenters.

Facebook, the world’s biggest social media group, reported 2.85bn monthly users as of March 31.

ByteDance recorded an annual gross profit of $19bn but a net loss of $45bn for the year because of non-cash items including share-based compensation and fair-value changes of its shares, and heavy investment in new businesses, the people said. The company had 110,000 employees at the end of they year.

The financials were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and Chinese media.

Its chief rival in China, Kuaishou, reported a net loss of $15.4bn on $8.5bn in revenue last year — four times less than ByteDance — and 481m monthly users during the period. Kuaishou is trading in Hong Kong at a market capitalisation of HK$801bn ($103bn), while ByteDance has yet to reveal its plans for an initial public offering.

ByteDance raised about $5bn in December at a $180bn valuation, according to people familiar with the matter. The Beijing-based company is the world’s most valuable start-up, according to CB Insights. 

Liang made his first all-hands staff meeting speech on Thursday after he began the transition to chief executive last month, following founder Zhang Yiming’s announcement that he would step down at the end of the year. Zhang said he wanted to focus on innovation and “longer-term initiatives”.

Liang, a ByteDance co-founder who staff regard as Zhang’s loyal right-hand man, was previously head of human resources. Even after a six-month handover period, staff said they expected him to not make big changes and to continue taking direction from Zhang.

As Beijing increases its scrutiny of tech giants, several high-profile founders and chiefs have stepped back this year. Colin Huang stepped down as chair of ecommerce platform Pinduoduo in March, days after Eric Jing resigned as chief of Ant Group.

Liang told employees he was disclosing the financial figures as part of a drive for greater transparency at the company.

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Coronavirus latest: Royal Caribbean delays inaugural sailing of ship due to Covid cases




Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’
Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’, which is published in paperback this month by Vintage © Monique Roffey

In April 2020, as coronavirus spread around the world, Monique Roffey published her seventh book.

She went with UK-based Peepal Tree Press, a small Caribbean-focused independent company, to publish The Mermaid of Black Conch after the majors rejected her fantastical tale of a mermaid from another era.

“Indie published me in the eye of the storm,” Roffey says. “I did everything I could to get it noticed.”

The Trinidadian-born author crowdfunded £4,500 for a publicist for her novel but as the healthcare crisis took hold she feared her mermaid tale would slide by unnoticed.

She was struggling to pay the rent while the Covid-19 crisis cancelled book tours and festivals.

“Covid was potentially disastrous for my book,” she says. “It was in danger of falling into the Covid chasm.”

But then the lyrical tale of loneliness, love and otherness caught the attention of the literary world and judges applauded it. In January, the novel won the prestigious £30,000 Costa book award, with judges calling it “extraordinary”, “captivating” and “full of mythic energy and unforgettable characters”.

And, bingo, suddenly everyone wanted to read about the mermaid Aycayia, says Roffey, who (full disclosure) attended the same school in the outskirts of Port-of-Spain as I did. 

The story has sold about 60,000 copies in print and online and this month it is published in paperback format by Vintage. For two consecutive weeks this year the novel topped The Times bestseller list. Film rights could well be next.

“Against all the odds, I have done well during Covid,” Roffey says from her home in London. “In 20 years of writing, with many ups and downs, I have seen nothing quite like this.”

Her novel of fantasy and folklore tapped into a desire for reading and imagination during the dark days of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Roffey joined many authors pivoting online with book launches and literary festivals, which meant she gained global readers.

“In 2020, the nation turned to books for comfort, escapism and relaxation,” says the Publishers Association, the UK’s trade organisation that serves book and journal publishers. “Reading triumphed, with adults and children alike reading more during lockdown than before.”

Income from fiction rose 16 per cent last year to £688m, while the total for consumer publications rose 7 per cent in the UK to £2.1bn, the UK trade body says. 

“Basically a book, which was roundly ignored, rejected, published in the first Covid wave and that nobody registered,” was relaunched, Roffey says.

From nobody wanting the book, suddenly billboards of its cover are cropping up around town, she adds.

This is the sixth article in a series for the blog that explores the effects of the pandemic on people and businesses around the world

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