from Asia Unbound

Chinese Activists, THAAD Halt, SoftBank’s Robots, and More

June 09, 2017

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gestures at a regular news conference in Beijing, China, January 6, 2016. Jason Lee/Reuters
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Friday Asia Update

Rachel Brown, Ashley Feng, Douglas Mo, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia this week.

1. China brushes off U.S. pressure over detained activists. On May 31, New York-based NGO China Labor Watch released a statement revealing that three individuals—Hua Haifeng, Li Zhao, and Su Heng—investigating poor labor conditions at factories that supply Ivanka Trump-brand products were either detained or missing. Since then, all three investigators have been reported criminally detained and have been charged with “supplying relevant overseas organizations with industrial secrets.” In the same statement, China Labor Watch also noted that in the past seventeen years of investigating labor conditions in China, this was the first time that any investigator had been criminally detained. Hua’s lawyer has also since been denied access to his client due to “an accident” Hua suffered in his cell. On Tuesday, Chinese officials ignored a request from the United States to release the activists, and a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the issue was an “internal Chinese matter.” Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, there has been an ongoing crackdown on civil society in the country.

2. Moon halts THAAD. On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered the temporary suspension of the deployment of four Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers in South Korea. The system, which the United States began to deploy in March after North Korea’s repeated missile tests, is designed to deflect short- or medium-range ballistic missiles. Though Moon halted the deployment by calling for a thorough environmental impact assessment of the system—which could take over a year—the move is much more a political one. Moon has complained that former President Park Geun-Hye’s decision to approve THAAD was rushed in order to leave him with no choice but to keep the system deployed. One expert also suggested that Moon’s decision was a diplomatic means to placate his political base and appease the business community, which has been smarting after a recent economic pushback against South Korean businesses in China, which has vociferously opposed THAAD deployment. When Moon visits the White House later this month, he may first have to address damaged bilateral ties with the United States before working on a cooperative strategy to deal with North Korea.

3. Japan’s SoftBank to acquire robotics firm Boston Dynamics. At a time when many are apprehensive at the increasing prospects of robots replacing human workers in the coming decades, others are doubling down. This week, the Japanese technology multinational SoftBank Group announced that it would be acquiring the pioneering robotics firm Boston Dynamics (along with Schaft, a Japanese robotics company) from Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The announcement comes only weeks after SoftBank closed its VisionFund, a $93-billion investment venture that aims to “build and grow businesses creating… the next stage of the Information Revolution.” Boston Dynamics is known for its humanoid and animal-like robots, such as Atlas and Spot, which often draw comparisons to creations more likely found in science fiction films than in reality. Because the company’s projects are often funded by or developed in partnership with the U.S. military, however, the deal will likely have to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States before completion. Masayoshi Son, the chairman and CEO of SoftBank, has suggested that in thirty years robots could surpass humans in both number and intelligence.

4. Chinese mobile phone sales soar globally. Chinese brands dramatically expanded their international market share in the first quarter of 2017 with products from Oppo, Vivo, and Huawei, making up 24 percent of global smartphone sales. While Huawei has traditionally been China’s leading smartphone firm, companies such as Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo (the latter two are both owned by BBK Electronics) are rapidly catching up. In addition to brisk sales at home, Chinese firms are also surpassing foreign competitors in Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. Transsion Holdings, which includes the brands Infinix, itel, and Tenco, is now the leading seller of African smartphones with a 38 percent market share in 2016. Chinese brands are displacing domestic ones in India too: In the first quarter of 2017, Chinese smartphones achieved a 51.4 percent market share there, while Indian brands had just 13.5 percent of the market (down from 40.5 percent just one year earlier). In both Africa and India, companies have made local adaptations to bolster sales. Transission phones in Africa, for example, have tailored their camera features for different skin tones and also incorporated slots for two SIM cards. Meanwhile in India, Chinese brands have racked up endorsements from local celebrities and emphasized high-quality cameras designed for selfies. These innovations may have Apple and Samsung on edge, but customers around the world appear enthusiastic.

5. Debris from military flight found off Burmese coast. Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, a military flight carrying 122 crewmembers and passengers bound for Yangon took off from Myanmar’s Myeik airport. Less than thirty minutes later, the plane lost contact—presumably from a crash—in what may be one of the country’s worst aviation disasters. The following morning, the Burmese navy began pulling bodies and wreckage from the flight from the Andaman Sea. While one local source suggested that the plane had suffered a technical failure, a meteorologist stated that a monsoon season-related storm also could have been responsible. In the past year, Myanmar’s military fleet has had at least two other crashes, including an air force plane and an army helicopter. More generally, Myanmar’s domestic aviation industry has surged in recent years as both local and international carriers rush to keep up with growing passenger demand, but safety records remain spotty. Across Asia, while a few recent high-profile incidents involving Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia flights could lead some to believe that flight safety is lacking throughout the region, the director of the Aviation Safety Network stated that “there is no reason to be afraid” because aviation safety statistics are actually at an all-time high.

Bonus: Robots yet to fully conquer the gaokao. A Chinese-developed robot, AI-MATHS, joined 9.4 million high school students in taking the annual Chinese college entrance exam this week. While the students underwent a grueling two days of testing, AI-MATHS took only the test’s math section. The robot, which was built by cloud computing firm Zhunxingyunxue and Tsinghua University, finished two sections each in a fraction of the time used by students. But it didn’t score particularly high either time, earning 105 and 100 out of 150 points on its two attempts. This was an improvement from results in previous practice exams, but a student would still likely need to score 140 points or higher for admission to one of China’s elite universities. The robot has been trained in answering thousands of test problems since 2015, but still struggled to parse the language of certain questions. Plans are underway to continue to improve the robot’s functionality and expand its capabilities to other sections, a potentially even more difficult task. For now, the famed gaokao appears to be one area where humans will not be automated away—perhaps to students’ chagrin.

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