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Hong Kong police widen purge to eliminate pro-democracy camp



Emilia Wong and Ventus Lau were bleary eyed and still in their pyjamas when they heard the thumping at the door.

At first, the pair mistook the dawn intrusion for an annoying neighbour complaining about their cat, before they finally registered the gravity of the situation.

“I asked for some time to put on some clothes,” Ms Wong, 25, said. “But the police kept banging on the door and threatened to storm in.”

Mr Lau, 27, was one of 53 pro-democracy activists, politicians and lawyers arrested in Hong Kong early on Wednesday in the largest purge of opposition figures since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city.

Among the detainees, many of whom were taken away in unmarked vans, was John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer, in a crackdown that risks inflaming tensions between Beijing and Washington as president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.

Since the law’s introduction in June, police have arrested high-profile opposition figures such as activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow as well as Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy media tycoon.

But with this week’s detentions, Hong Kong’s authorities have undertaken a deeper, root-and-branch operation to eliminate the pro-democracy movement, including civil society groups and the city’s version of municipal councils, analysts said.

Critics said the crackdown again undermined Beijing’s promises to maintain the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed to the Asian financial hub on its 1997 handover from the UK to China. Thousands of foreign companies and banks in the city are worried about the law’s implications for their operations and staff.

“What they want to do is to . . . squeeze out the pro-democracy camp,” Albert Ho, a veteran Hong Kong lawyer and the head of Mr Clancey’s firm, said. “The storm is coming, it will become bigger.”

The government has accused those arrested on Wednesday of attempting to “subvert” Chinese state power by organising a primary runoff to choose pro-democracy candidates to contest an election scheduled for last year for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. Subversion is punishable with up to life in prison under the new security law.

Agnes Chow was one of the high-profile activists arrested in an earlier crackdown © AP

The activists were seeking to win control of the chamber and force Carrie Lam, the territory’s pro-Beijing chief executive, to resign, security secretary John Lee said. Police have vowed to make more arrests.

To spearhead the campaign against the opposition, which follows the arrests of more than 10,000 people in connection with anti-government protests that erupted in the city in 2019, the police have set up a division known as the “NS” department.

But Alan Leong, chairman of the pro-democracy Civic party, said the accusation of subversion was “an affront to the constitutionally protected rights to vote of Hong Kong people”.

According to organisers, voters in the primary numbered 600,000 out of Hong Kong’s total population of 7m — an indication of the depth of support for the pro-democracy movement. The government carried out the arrests even after the Legco election had been postponed because of coronavirus.

Scores of pro-democracy figures and protesters have fled overseas to escape the purge. Others, such as Mr Lau, live in fear of an early morning visit from officers.

Born to working class parents and raised in public housing, Mr Lau is a “localist”, part of a political movement committed to protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and culture from mainland influence.

“I am as frightened as everyone,” said Li Chi-wang, a friend of Mr Lau and a pro-democracy district councillor. Another person who was involved in the primary spoke of receiving panicked messages from others who took part in the vote, and said his wife was in tears fearing their arrest.

The legal community was also shaken by the arrest of Mr Clancey, who was detained for his part in organising the poll. Officers escorted the elderly lawyer to his firm’s office, which is known for representing anti-government activists, to gather files.

“This is the first time that a law firm that has been helping political activists has been subject to search in this way,” Mr Ho said.

Hong Kong’s internationally respected legal system, seen as essential to the city’s role as an international financial centre, is dotted with foreign lawyers thanks to its colonial origins and common law system. “We are really concerned. What happened [on Wednesday] only strengthened those concerns,” a senior expatriate lawyer said.

Mr Clancey was released a day later. But lawyers fear police could target colleagues who represent opposition figures, as they do in mainland China.

“Hong Kong hasn’t started arresting lawyers for their legal activity per se but that day seems ever closer,” said Jonathan Man, another lawyer at Mr Clancey’s firm, who has represented protesters.

The crackdown may have quietened many in the opposition. But at Ms Wong and Mr Lau’s flat, the arresting officers did not have it all their way. A policeman who took a break from rifling through the pair’s belongings reached down to pet their cat. The cat apparently responded with a vicious bite.

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Israel conflict rattles rapprochement with Arab countries




When the United Arab Emirates shocked the Arab world by normalising relations with Israel it said the move would help ease the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. But nine months later, the wealthy Gulf state finds itself in a difficult position as its newest ally bombards the impoverished Palestinian territory of Gaza.

Israeli war planes and artillery have been pounding Gaza while Hamas, the group that controls the territory, has fired rockets into Israel. On Sunday morning, death toll in Gaza stood at 181, including 83 women and children, local health officials said.

Ten people have died inside Israel, including two children, local medics have said.

While almost a third of Arab countries now have relations with Israel, this week’s bloodshed shows that diplomatic ties ushered in by last year’s so-called Abraham Accords have given them little leverage and done nothing to ease the root cause of the protracted crisis — the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians.

“They [the UAE] are clearly in a very difficult position. On one hand, the UAE’s interests with Israel are long term and strategic, so ideally their relations should be resilient to shocks,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “At the same time, the UAE obviously claimed that the Abraham Accords would give them leverage to also support the Palestinians and rein in Israel’s aggressions against them.”

So far, Israel has rejected all international efforts pushing for a ceasefire. But Bianco said Abu Dhabi could still deploy diplomatic leverage to pressure the Jewish state to limit the scale of its retaliation. Such intervention, however, could jeopardise progress on joint projects of strategic value to the UAE, she added. 

Recent collaborations include plans for Emirati and Israeli defence manufacturers to develop a system to counter drones.

The normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE under the Abraham Accords was quickly followed by similar moves from Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, that marked a radical departure from the established Arab stance towards the Jewish state.

The Arab position before the accords was that they would recognise Israel only if there was a just settlement with the Palestinians that led to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The transactional deals brokered by the Trump administration, which pursued an overtly pro-Israel stance, left the Palestinians feeling isolated and betrayed. Critics said Arab states had given up a bargaining tool and gained little in return, warning the moves would be exploited by more militant Palestinian factions.

Like other members of the Arab League, the UAE endorsed an appeal on Tuesday to the International Criminal Court to “investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed by Israel against the Palestinians.

“The UAE stands with the rights of Palestinians, for the end of the Israeli occupation and with a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” said Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, this week. “This is a historic and principled position that does not budge.”

The UAE foreign ministry was last month quick to condemn Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from their homes on land claimed by Israeli settlers. And when clashes broke out between armed Israeli police and rock-throwing Palestinian youths, the UAE urged Israeli authorities to reduce tensions.

The UAE’s clear public stance has given cover for Emiratis and residents in the autocratic state to condemn Israeli actions and express support for the Palestinians, after any local anger at the earlier decision to normalise relations was suppressed at the time. Apart from a fringe of Emirati online activists who have sided with Israel, most social media reaction — even from some ministers — has been pro-Palestinian.

“Normalisation [of relations] is irreversible but it is very difficult to defend and even talk about in these circumstances,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political science professor.

After the UAE signed its accord, there was speculation about whether Saudi Arabia, Israel’s main prize, would follow suit. Like Abu Dhabi, Riyadh has been covertly co-operating with Israel on intelligence and security matters as they share the goal of countering Iran.

But this week’s Israeli assault on Gaza makes that appear ever more remote. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on Sunday said the kingdom “categorically rejects the Israeli violations against Palestinians”, while calling for an immediate ceasefire. 

In Morocco, which established relations with the Jewish state in October in return for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, the foreign ministry said it was watching events “with deep concern”.

In 2014, during the last major war between Israel and Hamas, thousands of protesters, including government ministers, took to the streets across Rabat, the capital. This time Moroccan police dispersed a small pro-Palestinian protest in the city this week. The newly formed Morocco-Israel Business Council was also reported to have postponed a virtual meeting aimed at encouraging Moroccan investment in Israel.

Public sentiment in the Arab world remained strongly pro-Palestinian, said HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The absence of protests isn’t an absence of the desire to protest but an absence of permission to protest.”

Restrictions on freedom of speech across the region made it harder to gauge the extent of public anger, Hellyer said, but social media and the extensive coverage on mainstream television showed the “Palestinian question” was still close to Arabs’ hearts.

“Almost half of the messages I received on Thursday for the religious festival marking the end of Ramadan, show pictures of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem,” he added.

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Chilean voters prepare to elect country’s constitutional legislators




Chile will this weekend vote in the legislators who will draw up its new constitution, with the country’s centre-right government facing a battle to maintain its grip on power ahead of a presidential election in November.

Gubernatorial, mayoral and municipal polls that were postponed because of the pandemic will also take place on Saturday and Sunday, alongside the election to populate the constitutional assembly.

Chile has not been spared the coronavirus second wave that has hit Latin America despite it having the highest vaccination rates in the region. Confirmed infections reached their highest ever level last month, although numbers have since declined.

“Chile is doing several historic and unprecedented things at the same time . . . in the middle of the economic and health crisis brought on by Covid-19,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist.

The most important vote will select members of the constituent assembly charged with rewriting the constitution drawn up during the 1973-90 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet — which most Chileans regard as illegitimate.

Nearly four-fifths of voters opted in favour of reforming the constitution in a referendum in November.

“These elections will probably define Chile’s institutional course over the coming decades,” said Gloria de la Fuente of Chile’s transparency council. “The vote will have a profound effect on Chile’s political system and civil society . . . electing the authorities to bring the country’s agenda forward.”

Yet turnover is predicted to be lower than the referendum. Some 58 per cent of Chileans who took part in a recent Ipsos poll said they were less likely to vote due to the pandemic, while less than half knew they would be voting for four different positions.

Chile has in recent decades become one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, even if the deep inequality that sparked widespread social unrest in 2019 is far from resolved.

The low approval ratings for President Sebastián Piñera since those demonstrations have been exacerbated by defeats for his government in Congress, notably over pensions reform.

While the leftwing coalition that dominated Chile for most of the past 30 years has disintegrated since Piñera returned to power in 2018, his unpopularity could allow the left and centre-left to secure the two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly required to pass each article of the new document.

“If the right gets more than 30 per cent [in the assembly], it will be a tremendous victory,” said Lucia Dammert, a sociologist at the University of Santiago.

Despite the relative success of its vaccine rollout, Chile has been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. Last summer’s peak of a weekly average of 352 daily cases per million was surpassed last month, reaching 383. Cases have since fallen back to about 280 cases per million.

However, Piñera’s government has been able to offer more generous Covid-related subsidies than most other countries in the region.

A feature of this weekend’s polls has been the emergence of independent candidates, Dammert said. Yet although the traditional parties had been badly wounded by the political turmoil, it would be “an uphill battle” for the independents to gain recognition, she said.

There are also wild cards such as Pablo Maltes — husband of Pamela Jiles, a populist presidential hopeful — who is running for governor of the metropolitan region of the capital Santiago.

“If Maltes wins, then there’s definitely something going on with Jiles,” said Funk, as it would suggest she was a strong contender for the presidency.

Jiles, who has championed measures to withdraw funds from Chile’s vaunted private pension system, is one of a number of presidential hopefuls, with no single candidate on the right or left enjoying a clear lead.

Electoral reform under the previous leftwing government of Michelle Bachelet that increased proportional representation means Chileans will for the first time also elect regional governors in a country where power has traditionally resided firmly in Santiago. The elections will also renew nearly a third of local authorities.

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China lands spacecraft on Mars




China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.

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