World

Five nuclear powers in pledge to prevent their use. Indonesia bans coal exports for January. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is convicted of fraud. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Hong Kong’s Citizen News closes to protect staff

Citizen News editor-in-chief Daisy Li Yuet-wah and founder Chris Yeung Kin-hing announced the site’s closure this week.
Credit: Alex Chan / SOPA Images/ Sipa USA

Great power rivalry

United States: The five recognised global nuclear powers released a rare joint statement this week declaring that a nuclear war “cannot be won” and pledging to prevent the use and further spread of nuclear weapons.

The statement was issued by the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the five states recognised as nuclear powers by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Three other nuclear states – India, Pakistan and Israel – are not parties to the treaty and a fourth, North Korea, announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003.

The joint statement, according to the version released by the White House, said that “a nuclear war … must never be fought”.

“Nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war,” it said.

Despite this welcome display of goodwill by the nuclear powers, the risk of war between them – in Ukraine or Taiwan – has been steadily increasing.

The statement was released just hours after US President Joe Biden promised to “respond decisively” if Ukraine is invaded by Russia, which has deployed about 100,000 soldiers to Ukraine’s borders. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has accused the US of increasing its military footprint across eastern Europe and has demanded that Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states be barred from joining NATO. Officials from Russia and the US are due to hold talks on Monday in Geneva to try to defuse the crisis.

Tensions are also growing in Taiwan, which China has vowed to “reclaim”, by force if necessary. Last year, China sent a record number of jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone. Washington has increasingly signalled a willingness to militarily defend the island.

According to the Doomsday Clock, which is set each year by scientists and assesses the threat of human-caused global destruction, the world is currently closer than ever to catastrophe. Last year, the 75-year-old clock was declared to be at 100 seconds before midnight. The clock’s latest reading is set to be announced later this month.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: The world’s largest coal exporter, Indonesia, has blocked all coal exports until February to protect its domestic supply and prevent mass blackouts.

As the global economic recovery causes surging demand for electricity, Indonesia’s government said last weekend that coalminers had failed to fulfil their obligation to sell 25 per cent of their annual production to domestic generators at below-market prices. As a result, all exports were suspended. A planned meeting between the Indonesian Coal Miners Association and the trade minister before a review of the suspension on Wednesday was cancelled.

The export ban has prompted desperate efforts by major customers, such as China, India, Japan and South Korea, to secure supplies. More than 60 per cent of China’s imported coal comes from Indonesia.

At the recent United Nations COP26 climate summit, Indonesia, the world’s ninth-largest source of carbon emissions, pledged to phase out the use of domestic coal by 2040 and to stop building new coal-fired power plants by 2023. But the pledges have not slowed the country’s steady output of coal, or its plan to expand a massive mining complex in the coastal town of Suralaya.

Indonesia and Australia, which is the world’s second-largest coal exporter, together account for more than half of global coal exports.

Democracy in retreat

Hong Kong: Citizen News, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Hong Kong, closed on Tuesday to protect its staff from a worsening crackdown by authorities on the press.

The decision to close the site followed a police raid last week on Stand News, a prominent pro-democracy outlet. Seven staff members, including senior editors, were arrested for publishing “seditious” content.

Citizen News said in a statement released on Monday that it was closing because of the deteriorating media environment and the need to “make sure everyone on the boat is safe”.

The media crackdown in Hong Kong is part of a broad assault on political freedoms and on the pro-democracy movement since China imposed a national security law on the territory in 2020. The law was introduced following mass pro-democracy protests that led to violent unrest and clashes between authorities and activists.

In June last year, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, closed after being raided and targeted by authorities. The tabloid’s founder, Jimmy Lai, has been imprisoned and charged with multiple offences including supporting pro-democracy protests.

Last week Hong Kong’s pro-China leader, Carrie Lam, defended the raid on Stand News, accusing the outlet of “inciting other people … under the guise of news reporting”.

Following the raid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged China and Hong Kong to stop targeting the media. “Journalism is not sedition,” he said.

Spotlight: Elizabeth Holmes guilty

United States: In 2015, Forbes magazine published a list of America’s 50 richest self-made women. The No. 1 ranking went to the list’s youngest person, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a biotech start-up that famously – and falsely – claimed it could conduct clinical blood tests from a finger-prick.

Holmes, who dressed like Steve Jobs and cultivated her image as a Silicon Valley visionary, raised more than $US700 million in funds, received backing from high-profile investors including Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison, recruited former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger to join the board, and claimed at a TED Talk that her firm’s technology would “begin to change our healthcare system and our world”. Forbes estimated her net worth was $US4.5 billion.

A year later, after an investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that Theranos’s testing device was unreliable, Forbes announced it was “lowering our estimate of her net worth to nothing”. Holmes initially insisted she was being unfairly attacked – “first they think you’re crazy … then, all of a sudden, you change the world” she said – but was eventually charged with civil and criminal offences over the firm’s deceptions. Theranos was dissolved in 2018.

On Monday, a jury found Holmes guilty on four charges of fraud involving lying to investors. She was found not guilty of defrauding patients who used the blood tests. Holmes, who is 37 years old, faces decades in prison. She is expected to appeal.

The case has shone the spotlight on the “fake it until you make it” culture of Silicon Valley, where investments often pour into firms based on apocryphal promises from self-styled titans rather than on proved technologies or reliable revenue streams. Executives at firms such as Uber have run into trouble but Holmes is the first high-profile Silicon Valley founder to face criminal charges.

On Monday, it emerged that Adam Neumann, who co-founded shared office giant WeWork and departed with the business on the verge of collapse, is heading a new property rental business that has quietly bought 4000 apartments across the United States worth $US1 billion. According to The Wall Street Journal, Neumann has been telling associates he is building a company aims to “shake up the rental-housing industry”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Hong Kong’s Citizen News closes to protect staff".

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