GREAT POWER RIVALRY
United States: Lawmakers in Washington expressed shock and anger this week following media reports claiming Russia secretly paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and allied troops in Afghanistan. But Donald Trump seemed relatively nonplussed.
According to reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the operation was conducted by a Russian military intelligence (GRU) unit and aimed to destabilise Afghanistan last year as the US prepared to reach a peace deal with the Taliban. The US apparently learnt of the plot from captured Taliban militants who were from separate tribes and were detained in different parts of the country.
Russia and the Taliban denied the allegations. Trump, too, suggested on Twitter that the report may be “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax”.
The White House claimed Trump had not been briefed on the Russian plot. But officials told several media outlets the intelligence was included in a report provided to Trump in February.
Since becoming president, Trump has been particularly obliging towards Russian president Vladimir Putin. He accepted Putin’s claim that Moscow did not meddle in the 2016 presidential election and recently invited Putin to attend an upcoming G7 conference in Washington even though Russia was expelled from the group in 2014 following its invasion of Crimea.
But Republican and Democratic members of congress were less forgiving. Ben Sasse, a Republican senator, called for congress to examine whether Trump was briefed on the Russian plot, saying a proportionate US military response would involve “GRU and Taliban body bags”.
“Did the commander-in-chief know?” Sasse asked. “And if not, how the hell not?”
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, said: “His [Trump’s] entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale”.
Veteran journalist Carl Bernstein this week reported leaked details of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders, including Putin. “The President talked mostly about himself, frequently in over-the-top, self-aggrandizing terms … obsequiously courting Putin’s admiration and approval,” Bernstein wrote on CNN’s website. “Putin ‘just outplays’ him, said a high-level administration official.”
Fiji: The prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, has proposed a “Bula bubble” to allow for the return of international visitors, as the country’s tourist-dependent economy suffers a heavy toll due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Bainimarama has invited foreigners to visit as long as they submit to tests and quarantines. He has particularly targeted billionaires. “So, say you’re a billionaire looking to fly your own jet, rent your own island, and invest millions of dollars in Fiji in the process … you may have a new home to escape the pandemic in paradise,” he said on Twitter.
Fiji’s attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said last week that about 30 wealthy individuals “from a very well-known company” were due to arrive on a private jet and then travel by seaplane to a Fijian island for three months.
An estimated 100,000 people in Fiji – which has just 935,000 residents – have lost their jobs since March. Due to a lack of money, Fijians have started bartering, with some families reportedly reducing their daily number of meals from three to two. Tourism accounts for almost 40 per cent of Fiji’s gross domestic product, and about two-thirds of its visitors come from Australia and New Zealand.
Bainimarama said two weeks ago that visitors entering Fiji would be kept separate from the public and would not be allowed to move freely around the country. But he said a restoration of the tourism sector “will in fact be saving lives”.
“The long-term cost of complete closures and unemployment would risk doing immense harm to Fijians’ mental and physical health,” he said.
Fiji has had 18 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and no deaths.
DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT
Hong Kong: On Tuesday, Beijing passed a national security law for Hong Kong, without input from the city’s legislature, which will impose life sentences for crimes such as secession and sedition.
The new law took effect at 11pm on Tuesday, just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China. Within 24 hours, more than 370 protesters had been arrested, including 10 who were accused of violating the new law. Among these was a 15-year-old girl who waved a pro-independence flag.
The law has raised tensions in the city, which faces an uncertain future. On Thursday, Scott Morrison said Australia will consider offering safe haven to Hong Kong citizens. The proposal will be similar to that made by Britain, which will offer work and residency rights to up to three million Hong Kong nationals.
The law had an immediate chilling effect on the city’s pro-democracy campaigners. Joshua Wong, a prominent activist, stepped down from his party, Demosisto, as did its other leaders, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law. Demosisto subsequently disbanded entirely.
Wong said the new law would endanger those linked to the party but insisted he would continue to fight “in a personal capacity” for democracy.
“It [the law] marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” he said on Twitter. “… However, even under the ill wind of #China’s direct authoritarian rule, #Hongkongers will continue to fight for our freedoms and democracy for the city’s next generations.”
Two other pro-independence groups, Hong Kong National Front and Studentlocalism, whose activities are banned by the law, also disbanded but said they would operate from overseas.
China is supposed to apply the “one country, two systems” principle to Hong Kong until the 50th anniversary of the handover in 2047, when it will assume full control of the city.
SPOTLIGHT: Facebook boycott
United States: A boycott of Facebook has been launched by some of the world’s biggest advertisers – including Coca-Cola, adidas and Unilever – over concerns about the social media platform’s failure to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation.
Most of the companies have suspended advertising for either a month or six months, saying they will then consider whether the site has acted to block promotion of incendiary content. Some firms, such as Starbucks, have suspended advertising across all social media.
A spokesperson for Ford, which announced a one-month suspension of all social media advertising, said: “The existence of content that includes hate speech, violence and racial injustice on social platforms needs to be eradicated.”
The World Federation of Advertisers, whose members cover 90 per cent of global advertising spending, said firms wanted tools to give them greater control over the placement of advertising on social media sites.
Stephan Loerke, the federation’s chief executive, told the Financial Times: “It feels like a turning point … Across the industry, it’s moved from being a reactive media-driven conversation to a proactive boardroom concern.”
Facebook was quick to respond to the boycott, particularly after its share price plunged, announcing plans to ban advertisements that include hate speech towards racial, religious and other minorities. It will also remove content that incites violence, even if it was published by a politician.
On Tuesday, the company removed accounts on Facebook and Instagram linked to boogaloo, an anti-government network that promotes violence against civilians, police and government officials.
While the pushback from large advertisers has damaged Facebook’s brand, it will likely have limited effect on its profits. Advertising accounts for 98 per cent of Facebook revenue. But more than 70 per cent of its advertising is from small businesses, and just 6 per cent comes from its top 100 advertisers.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2020 as "New law marks end of ‘old Hong Kong ’".
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