Xi Jinping warns on meddling in internal affairs. PNG governor backing local Chinese fishery plant. Thousands flee rebel violence in Central African Republic. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Australian hearings begin for former principal

Accused paedophile Malka Leifer in a Jerusalem court in 2018.
Accused paedophile Malka Leifer in a Jerusalem court in 2018.
Credit: AP Photo / Mahmoud Illean

Great power rivalry

China: Xi Jinping delivered a speech to government and business leaders at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda conference this week, calling for greater co-operation to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and rising inequality. Echoing his previous address to the forum in 2017, Xi presented himself as a committed liberal multilateralist and warned of the risks of an ideological Cold War.

“It serves no one’s interest to use the pandemic as an excuse to reverse globalisation and go for seclusion and decoupling,” he said.

But Xi also made a pointed appeal to world leaders to “avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs”. He did not mention Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang, where Chinese intervention and repression have been roundly condemned by the United States, Australia and others. Instead, he suggested that any international tensions over these territories were due to stronger nations trying to “force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others”.

Xi made his speech on Monday, immediately after sending fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s defence zone as part of a show of force that appeared to be directed at the new Biden administration. The warplanes entered Taiwan’s zone on Saturday, and again on Sunday.

In response, Washington said its commitment to defending Taiwan was “rock-solid”. Joe Biden has indicated he will largely follow Donald Trump’s staunch support of Taiwan. Significantly, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington was invited to – and attended – Biden’s inauguration, the first time such an invitation was extended since the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: Late last year, a Chinese firm signed a deal to explore construction of a $200 million fishery plant on the small island of Daru in Papua New Guinea, close to the border with Australia.

The proposal raised concerns that the project could lead to large-scale commercial fishing in the region, which could affect the livelihoods of coastal villagers who depend on fishing and would face depleted stocks.

But the deal also raised security concerns in Canberra. The Chinese-built facility would be about 200 kilometres from the north-east tip of Australia and could potentially allow Chinese ships to operate in the Torres Strait. And the project could further strengthen ties between China and Papua New Guinea, which has been courted by Beijing in recent years.

According to ABC News, Australia’s high commissioner and a team of Australian diplomats travelled to Daru recently to discuss the proposal and to meet the provincial governor, Toboi Awi Yoto.

Following the meeting, Yoto criticised Canberra’s conduct, accusing the delegation of trying to undermine the Chinese project without offering an alternative.

“All they want is for us to be subsistence farmers and fishermen and maintain our current status quo,” he wrote on Facebook. “I will not let go off an opportunity to advance the aspirations of my people in my own land.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was asked to comment but did not respond by time of press.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister, Marise Payne, told the senate last month that treaty arrangements between Australia and PNG allow traditional fishing only and would bar commercial operations in the region.

Democracy in retreat

Central African Republic: François Bozizé, the 74-year-old former president of the Central African Republic, has been plotting a return to power since fleeing the country after being ousted in 2013.

In 2019, he returned to the landlocked nation, even though it had issued an international warrant accusing him of “crimes against humanity and incitement of genocide”. He is also on a United Nations sanctions list for his role in encouraging militia violence, including an attack in 2013 that left more than 700 people dead.

In the lead-up to the presidential election on December 27, a court barred Bozizé from running due to his alleged crimes. He then met with various rebel leaders who united behind him and have been trying to oust the government by force.

For weeks, the former French colony, which is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but is one of Africa’s poorest and least stable countries, has experienced escalating violence.

The rebel groups, which already controlled vast areas before the recent violence, have captured some towns and have been trying to seize Bangui, the capital. They have cut off supply routes, causing food shortages and steep price rises. A force of 13,000 UN peacekeepers has been helping to resist the rebel attacks.

The conflict is also drawing in distant powers. Russia has been backing the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who was re-elected in December. France has accused Russia of interfering in the elections.

On Monday, the UN said more than 84,000 people – from a population of 5.4 million – have fled to neighbouring countries and urgently need water, shelter and health support.

Spotlight: Malka Leifer extradited

Late at night on March 5, 2008, Malka Leifer boarded a plane in Melbourne with several of her children and flew to Israel, just hours after she was stood down as principal of a girls’ school following allegations she had sexually abused students.

Police investigated the allegations and ultimately charged Leifer with 74 child sex offences involving students at Adass Israel School, which serves the tight-knit Adass religious Jewish community. Leifer, who was recruited to the school from Israel in 2000, says she is innocent.

Australian authorities submitted an extradition request to Israel in 2014, but efforts to bring her back were blocked and delayed as Leifer’s lawyers claimed she was mentally ill and unfit to stand trial. Last year, a psychiatric panel in Israel concluded Leifer was lying about her mental illness. This led to a ruling last month by Israel’s Supreme Court that Leifer was “extraditable” and should be tried in Australia.

On Monday, hours before Israel planned to shut its international airport due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a handcuffed Leifer boarded a flight to Australia via Germany.

Dassi Erlich, who is one of three sisters allegedly abused by Leifer and has campaigned for years to extradite her, posted a simple note on Facebook: “Leifer is on the way back to Australia.”

Erlich told The Age: “We want to make sure that Malka Leifer receives a fair trial here in Australia, that’s all we want … It’s incredible to reach this point after so many years. We’ve always dreamed of it happening, we never gave up hope.”

Israel’s justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, said on Twitter, alongside a picture of Leifer boarding the flight: “Malka Leifer’s victims will finally have justice done.”

Leifer is under police guard in Melbourne while she undergoes quarantine. She appeared via video link at a court hearing on Thursday but remained silent. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 30, 2021 as "Australian hearings finally begin for former principal".

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

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