Judith Collins named New Zealand opposition leader. China imposes bans on two US senators in retaliation for Washington sanctions. Malaysia investigating journalists over Al Jazeera report on migrant workers. Hagia Sophia turned back into a mosque. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ardern to face new rival in NZ election

The newly elected opposition leader of New Zealand, Judith Collins, at the 2019 National Party Conference.
The newly elected opposition leader of New Zealand, Judith Collins, at the 2019 National Party Conference.


United States: On Monday, China imposed sanctions on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two Republican senators, in response to Washington’s move last week to sanction Chinese officials linked to the mass detention of Uygurs in the Xinjiang region. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson gave no detail of what the sanctions involve, saying only that they will match those imposed by Washington. Presumably, this will mean Rubio and Cruz, as well as a Republican congress member and an ambassador, will face business and travel bans.

Neither Rubio nor Cruz seemed perturbed.

“I guess they don’t like me?” said Rubio in a tweet.

Cruz tweeted: “Bummer. I was going to take my family to Beijing for summer vacation, right after visiting Tehran.”

But the tit-for-tat measures mark a further deterioration in US–China relations, which, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, are in their worst state since diplomatic ties between the countries were established in 1979.

The White House has condemned China’s national security laws for Hong Kong, and Donald Trump this week ended the preferential treatment for the territory. On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in a statement that Washington rejects China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as “completely unlawful”.

Tensions between Beijing and Canberra have also been increasing, particularly following Australia’s criticism of China’s conduct in Hong Kong.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs upgraded its travel advice for Australia, warning that visitors to Australia should be “extra careful” and that Australian authorities have been arbitrarily searching Chinese citizens and seizing their possessions. The move appeared to be a retaliation for Australia’s recent travel upgrade, which warned that Australians in China are at risk of arbitrary detention.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade dismissed China’s warning as “disinformation”.

Last year, China was the largest source of tourists and foreign students visiting Australia.


New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern’s prospects of winning the upcoming New Zealand election further improved this week after the surprising resignation of the opposition leader, Todd Muller, who held the position for just 53 days.

Muller said he was resigning as leader of the conservative National Party because the role had taken a heavy toll on him and his family, though he had been floundering after a series of gaffes and a scandal involving a National MP leaking private information of Covid-19 patients to the media.

On Tuesday, hours after Muller’s resignation, the National party room elected Judith Collins as leader. Collins, an MP since 2002, is a prominent, tough-talking politician known for her hardline approach to law and order. She promised to attack the ruling centre-left Labour Party’s economic record, listing her leadership qualities as “experience, toughness, the ability to make decisions”.

But Collins, who is 61 years old, will struggle to compete against Ardern, whose government is safely ahead in the polls, particularly following the country’s successful suppression of its Covid-19 outbreak. As of Thursday, New Zealand had 1548 cases of Covid-19 and 22 deaths, and the country has removed its social distancing restrictions.

A recent Roy Morgan poll, taken before the leadership change, found 54.5 per cent of voters supported Labour, compared with 27 per cent for National. The election will be held on September 19.

On Wednesday, Ardern appeared relatively unconcerned about the new National leader, saying her focus was on the pandemic rather than politics.

“My time, my energy is focused on Covid-19,” she said.


Malaysia: Authorities in Malaysia are investigating six journalists, including five Australians, for alleged sedition and defamation following the broadcast of their documentary about the treatment of migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur.

The 25-minute documentary, which aired on Al Jazeera on July 3, reported on the fate of thousands of workers who were arrested and detained during the Covid-19 lockdowns. After the broadcast, Malaysia’s Defence minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, called for Al Jazeera to apologise to the Malaysian people, saying the broadcaster “maliciously accused us of being racist”. The reporters have received online death threats and had their personal details published on social media.

Malaysia’s attorney-general’s office is considering whether to charge the journalists with sedition and defamation offences, which carry jail sentences.

Al Jazeera rejected the allegations, saying in a statement: “Journalism is not a crime.”

Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has written to Malaysia’s deputy high commissioner in Canberra demanding that it end the police investigation of the reporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists this week also called on Malaysia to abandon its “witch-hunt”.

Human rights groups have warned about Malaysia’s growing intolerance of dissent and attacks on press freedoms, particularly since Muhyiddin Yassin became prime minister in March.
A South China Morning Post journalist was recently investigated after she reported on the arrests of migrant workers. And Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the Malaysiakini news site, is facing contempt of court charges over reader comments that criticised the judiciary.

Peter Greste, a former Al Jazeera reporter who was imprisoned in Egypt for more than a year, said Malaysia’s intimidation of journalists was undermining its democracy and appeared to reflect the country’s “rising sense of Malay nationalism”.

“We need the [Australian] government to be stepping up, to be calling this out, to be emphasising that press freedom is essential across the region,” he told the ABC’s 7.30.

SPOTLIGHT: Hagia Sophia

Turkey: Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, is a domed Byzantine-era building whose changing status has long reflected the country’s shifting politics. Built in the sixth century, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453, when the Turks conquered the city and converted it into a mosque. In 1934, the fiercely secularist founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, ordered that it be converted into a museum. It now attracts 3.7 million visitors a year.

But the building was last week converted back into a mosque by Turkey’s current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has steadily unwound some of the country’s secular rules and policies.

Erdoğan’s call for a quick resumption of prayers at the mosque followed a court decision that ruled that Atatürk’s creation of a museum was illegal.

The move to change the building’s status was condemned by Pope Francis, who said: “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”

The leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said the move was a “threat to the whole of Christian civilisation”. The US and Greece also criticised the decision. UNESCO expressed regret and said it would review the building’s World Heritage status.

Erdoğan has been in power since 2003 but only recently began to back the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Notably, his stance changed as his ruling Justice and Development Party prepared to contest last year’s municipal elections, in which the party performed poorly. Erdoğan appears to be willing to accept the international backlash to win back his domestic base. A poll last month found 73 per cent of Turks support the transformation of the building into a mosque.

Prayers at Hagia Sophia are due to resume from July 24. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2020 as "Ardern to face Collins in September election".

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

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