World

Xi Jinping visits North Korea. Man jailed for spreading footage of mosque shootings. Freed activist joins HK protests. Charges over MH17. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Freed activist joins Hong Kong protests

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong addresses the crowds outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Monday.
Credit: REUTERS / Jorge Silva

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

North Korea: At the top of a hill in central Pyongyang, a 30-metre-high monument, the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower, commemorates the Chinese troops who fought with North Korea during the Korean War. Their common enemy, as a stone inscription notes, was the United States.

On Thursday and Friday, Xi Jinping was scheduled to make the first trip to North Korea by a Chinese leader since 2005. Notably, the itinerary included a joint visit with Kim Jong-un to the Friendship Tower, demonstrating the two leaders currently share increasingly fraught ties with their former enemy.

China and North Korea are allies, but relations have been strained in recent years due to Pyongyang’s unpredictability and unwavering determination to develop nuclear weapons. Kim has visited China four times in the past 15 months, yet Xi, a regular world traveller, avoided returning the visit until this week.

Analysts believe Xi wants to show he still holds sway over Kim and could encourage a resumption of nuclear negotiations in return for trade concessions from the US.

In the early stages of his presidency, Donald Trump urged Xi to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Xi apparently agreed, and supported tougher international sanctions following North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2017.

But Trump’s subsequent trade war with China has reduced the prospects of co-operation.

Trump is due to hold trade talks with Xi in Japan later next week. Xi’s state visit to Pyongyang was a reminder that he remains pivotal to resolving both the trade and nuclear standoffs.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: When the white supremacist responsible for the Christchurch massacre live-streamed the murder of 51 people at two mosques, his intended audience was primarily, as he put it, the “bunch of cobbers” with whom he “shitpost[ed]” online. “You are all top blokes,” he said on a message board before the shootings.

This week, a court in New Zealand allowed a glimpse of one of these cobbers, Philip Arps, a 44-year-old Christchurch resident who owns a white supremacist-themed insulation company.

Arps was sentenced to 21 months’ jail for spreading footage of the shootings at the Al Noor mosque to 30 associates, as well as trying to create an edited version of the footage to insert crosshairs and a kill count.

In 2016, Arps was charged and fined $NZ800 after footage showed him and several other men delivering bloodied pigs’ heads and offal to the Al Noor mosque. The court heard he had likened himself to Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess and had no empathy for anyone other than himself and his family.

Twelve other New Zealanders are reportedly also facing charges for sharing material from the massacre.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, organised a meeting last month in Paris of world leaders and technology firms to commit to the “Christchurch Call”, a non-binding pledge to eliminate the spread of extremist content online. Ardern said she hoped it would lead to “a more humane internet”.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: After his release from prison on Monday, 22-year-old pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who helped to lead the 2014 “umbrella movement” protests, rushed to join the demonstrations against a controversial bill that, if passed, would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China.

Wearing the same shirt and jeans he wore when imprisoned two months ago for contempt of court, Wong stood before the crowds and called for the resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam.

“[I’ve] come to join our fight … for freedom and democracy,” he told CNN. “And let the emperor Xi, President Xi Jinping, know that Hong Kong people will not keep silent.”

After the initial marches, Lam announced she would suspend the bill. But this did not satisfy the protesters, who fear China is attempting to gradually erode the city’s semi-autonomous status.

Last Sunday, almost two million people from a population of 7.4 million marched through the city to demand Lam’s resignation and a complete withdrawal of the law. On Tuesday, Lam offered her “most sincere apology” but refused to resign.

The protests have been the largest in Hong Kong’s history and mark yet another standoff between the people and the local pro-Beijing leadership.

Despite Lam’s backdown, the people of Hong Kong did not win a concession towards democracy. Their future remains precarious and their insistence on democracy and an open society is increasingly at odds with China’s growing repressiveness and curbing of dissent under Xi Jinping.

When Britain handed over the former colony to China in 1997, Hong Kong accounted for 16 per cent of China’s economy. It now accounts for just 3 per cent. Beijing increasingly views Hong Kong’s special status as an irritant and a potential threat.

The protests signal that Hong Kong’s future, like that of Taiwan, will be a source of heightening tension in the region. Countries such as Australia could be forced to choose between their commitment to democratic rights and their reliance on Chinese trade. On Monday, China’s English-language China Daily newspaper became the first mainland outlet to acknowledge the protests, accusing “foreign entities” of inciting the demonstrators.

SPOTLIGHT: MH17 CHARGES

Netherlands: Moments after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) was shot down above eastern Ukraine by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile, Russian-backed rebels drove to the smouldering wreckage to inspect the damage they had wrought.

Footage filmed by the rebels, obtained by News Corp, showed them inspecting luggage tags and opening backpacks as they confirmed, with surprise but no apparent regret, that they had just destroyed a commercial airliner. It was carrying 298 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, including 193 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians and 38 Australians.

For five years, a Dutch-led team has investigated the shooting down of MH17, despite Russian interference, denials and obfuscation.

On Wednesday, Dutch authorities announced charges against four people. They are Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who in 2014 was defence minister in the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR); Sergei Dubinskiy, who worked for Russian military intelligence and ran DNR’s military intelligence; Oleg Pulatov, a former Russian lieutenant colonel and Dubinsky’s deputy; and Leonid Kharchenko, head of a DNR combat unit.

The Dutch chief prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, said the four were responsible for bringing the Buk missile launcher to a field in eastern Ukraine and, after the plane was shot down, arranged for the weapon to be transported to Russia.

“We now have the information and proof that the Russian Federation is involved in this tragedy, in this crime,” he said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the accusations were “absolutely groundless” and were intended to damage its international reputation.

Of the four, only Kharchenko is Ukrainian and is believed to be in Ukraine. The other three are believed to be in Russia, including Girkin, who regularly appears at events and in the media to spout his nationalist and expansionist views.

The investigation team said it will continue to pursue those who launched the missile and will examine the role of Russian military units.

A trial of the four named suspects will begin on March 9, 2020. None is expected to appear.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Freed activist joins Hong Kong protests". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.