World

Trump’s response to George Floyd’s killing fuels racial tensions. Hong Kong bans vigil for Tiananmen Square massacre. New Zealand lifts coronavirus restrictions. Concerns raised about impact of Covid-19 on girls’ education and child marriages. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trump threats add fuel to US turmoil

A man holds up his fist while hundreds of demonstrators in Washington, DC, march this week to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd.
Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Hong Kong: For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong’s residents were barred this week from holding a vigil to remember the Tiananmen Square massacre. These candlelit gatherings are held in Hong Kong every year, in contrast with the Chinese mainland, where authorities have been trying to erase the events of 1989 from public memory.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s police announced the vigil could not proceed due to social distancing restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Critics questioned the motivation behind the ban, which came just days after China voted to impose national security laws on the territory.

Joshua Rosenzweig, of Amnesty International, warned on Twitter that future generations of Hong Kong residents may be left with an understanding of history “as distorted and full of blank spaces as those who’ve grown up [in] China since #JuneFourth”.

China’s increasing assertion of control over Hong Kong has been exacerbating tensions with the United States, which last week threatened to revoke the territory’s special trade privileges.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, accused Beijing of denying a voice to the people of Hong Kong and “making them the same as mainlanders”.

On Monday, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Beijing would “counterattack” any sanctions by Washington. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” he said.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: New Zealand is preparing to move from one of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns to the removal of virtually all restrictions, except for border closures.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, said this week that a decision on whether to move to the country’s lowest-level restrictions would be made this Monday, two weeks earlier than planned.

“Our strategy of going hard and early has paid off, in some cases beyond expectations and what modelling and data had predicted,” she said.

But the government has allowed some notable exceptions to its border closures. These included the director of the film Avatar 2, James Cameron, and more than 50 members of the crew, who are currently in supervised isolation in a hotel in Wellington for 14 days. They travelled on a charter flight from Los Angeles, one of the worst-affected cities in the US, to New Zealand, which, as of Wednesday, had not recorded a new case in 12 days.

New Zealand’s government recently revealed that its border closures included an exemption for projects deemed to be of “significant economic value”. Opposition MPs criticised the secrecy surrounding the exemptions and urged the government to explain its decision to give preferential treatment to the Avatar crew.

Avatar 2 is due to be followed by three further sequels, all scheduled to be filmed in New Zealand.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Sierra Leone: In 2014, schools in Sierra Leone were shut for most of the academic year to control an outbreak of the Ebola virus. Afterwards, researchers found school enrolments for girls fell by 16 percentage points. Many had taken on extra domestic or paid work, often due to the poverty and deaths caused by the outbreak.

The experience in Sierra Leone is raising concerns about the effects that the Covid-19 pandemic will have on the lives of schoolgirls around the world. Analysis of Sierra Leone’s school closures by the Malala Fund found an additional 10 million high school-age girls around the world may no longer attend school after the pandemic. And the United Nations estimated the pandemic will lead to an additional 13 million child marriages during the next decade.

Aid groups have urged governments to provide online, radio and phone-based schooling during closures and say the international community should assist countries that may struggle to fund education after the pandemic.

Faith Mwangi-Powell, the head of the London-based organisation Girls Not Brides, said she had been receiving reports of girls facing an increased threat of child marriage in India, Africa and Latin America.

“Schools protect girls,” she told Reuters. “… Even post-Covid it’s likely many girls will not go back to school, which is very scary. We need to make sure they do.”

SPOTLIGHT: America’s revolt

On Monday, a night-time curfew to prevent civil unrest was imposed on New York for the first time since 1943, when the then mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, tried to quell protests following the shooting of a black man by a white police officer.

This week, curfews were imposed in more than 40 cities across the country after protests broke out – some violent, most peaceful – following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, who repeatedly cried that he could not breathe as a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck. A private autopsy this week concluded that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen. The officer has been charged, along with three other officers who assisted him.

The nationwide outcry against racism and police brutality has prompted violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators and led to the deployment of 18,000 National Guard troops in 29 states. On Monday, Donald Trump threatened to deploy the military. Soon after, police used tear gas to clear protesters to allow him to pose at a church with a Bible. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found 64 per cent of Americans sympathised with the protesters.

The scenes of marches and rioting came as the country endures the world’s worst outbreak of Covid-19, and added to the sense that the world’s greatest power, which aspires to be a global champion of human rights and democracy, is in a state of collapse. The European Union said it hoped the US swiftly resolved the issues related to the protests and called for “respect for the rule of law and human rights”. In London and Berlin, protesters denounced American racism.

Elsewhere, authoritarian governments seized on the unrest to accuse Washington of hypocrisy. Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, responded to US calls to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy by tweeting: “I can’t breathe.” Abbas Mousavi, from Iran’s Foreign Ministry, called on US officials to “stop violence against your people and let them breathe”.

America bases its exercise of power abroad on its moral promise, rather than on its unmatched military capability. Its ability to address its historic racial tensions will not only determine whether it can resolve the current violence, but also the extent to which its global authority and reputation remain intact.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2020 as "Trump threats add fuel to US turmoil".

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

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