from Asia Unbound

Friday Asia Update: Five Stories From the Week of November 4, 2016

November 04, 2016

Choi Soon-sil (C), who is involved a political scandal, reacts as she is surrounded by media and protesters upon her arrival a...a, October 31, 2016. The banner (top L) reads "Arrest Choi Soon-sil, Call for Park Geun-hye to step down". REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.

1. South Korean president makes second public apology. On Friday, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea made a second public apology amidst rising domestic turmoil surrounding allegations that her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, acted as a kind of “shadow president” and improperly profited from her relationship with the president. In addition to apologizing, Park recently replaced her closest aides, including the prime minister, in a bid to pacify criticism. Large protests against Park, which roiled Seoul last weekend, are expected to be surpassed by turnout at protests scheduled for this weekend. Park’s approval rating has fallen to just 5 percent, according to a Gallup Korea poll, which is the lowest since Park took office in 2013, and the lowest for any Korean president at any moment since 1948. Another poll found that 70 percent of respondents wanted her to resign or be impeached. In her apology, Park stated she would cut ties with Choi, flatly denied any involvement in the cult started by Choi’s father, and pledged to cooperate with any investigations. Choi, who fled to Germany in September when news of the scandal first broke but later returned home, was taken into custody recently under a South Korean law allowing "emergency detention" of suspects if authorities have reasonable grounds to believe the crime may warrant the death penalty or a life sentence, and believe the suspect is a flight risk who may also attempt to destroy evidence.

2. Malaysia to buy four Chinese naval ships. During a visit to Beijing this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak signed fourteen agreements worth approximately $34.4 billion. The deals included the purchase of four Chinese littoral mission ships, which are used mainly for coastal patrol and surveillance. Half of these ships will be built in Malaysia and half in China. During the trip, leaders from the two nations also discussed the South China Sea. Prior to his visit, Najib praised China "as a true friend and a strategic partner”. Following on the heels of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s warm reception in Beijing last month, Najib’s trip provoked concern in some circles about closer ties between China and Southeast Asia.  However, others argue that the course of Sino-Malaysian relations has not shifted dramatically and the new agreements relate more to Malaysia’s domestic economic needs than changing geopolitics.

3. Abe promises $7.7 billion for Myanmar’s development. This Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would provide 800 billion yen over five years in development aid to Southeast Asia’s fledgling democracy. The funds will come as a combination of official development assistance and private-sector capital, and go primarily toward building industrial capacity and infrastructure. 40 billion yen has been earmarked for supporting development in regions home to ethnic minority groups. Abe’s aid commitment coincides with a visit to Japan by Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been traveling widely in recent months to strengthen bilateral ties with a number of countries, including China, India, and the United States. However, Japan’s investment promise this week is nothing new: over the past few years, Japanese business operations, language courses, and investment dollars in Myanmar have all increased. So Abe’s generosity signals more of a continued pledge rather than a new chapter in the two countries’ relations.

4. Afghan returnee children make bricks in bondage.  According to the United Nations, roughly 7,400 Afghans are crossing the border each day to return from Pakistan, whose government has imposed a deadline of March 15, 2017, for “voluntary return and repatriation.” The Pakistani government has placed greater emphasis on the return process in response to the spread of terrorism, the presence of ISIS, and deepening ties between Afghanistan and India. The nearly half a million impoverished Afghan returnees from both Pakistan and Iraq are straining the finances of the cash-strapped government and aid organizations, who are attempting to provide humanitarian assistance as winter approaches. Each returning family receives just fifty dollars per household member in assistance, assuming they have proper registration. Many families with young children have settled into brick factories, where they work by day and sleep in the factories at night since their villages of origin have been destroyed amidst the ongoing violence. These bonded laborers, many of whom do not receive the aid promised to them in returnee “incentive packages” by the government, are working for unlivable wages as their kiln bosses profit tremendously. Although Afghan law officially prohibits child labor, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least one quarter of the country’s children ages five through fourteen participate in the labor force.

5. An assertive China hung GSK out to dry. A New York Times report published this week, based on confidential documents and reports, rehashes the sordid bribery and corruption scandal that rocked the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in China a few years ago, which resulted in a $500 million fine and prosecuted foreign management. Since the case, Chinese prosecutors have targeted a range of foreign businesses in anti-monopoly and anti-corruption cases, including Qualcomm (a record $975 million fine), shipping companies, and automobile manufacturers. And many American business leaders operating in China have simultaneously expressed concerns over rising distrust toward foreign businesses in the country. But the Times report also exposes how a foreign multinational can misstep under China’s increased regulatory assertiveness: in combating initial bribery accusations, GSK followed “the old playbook” and tried to downplay wrongdoing, discredit a whistleblower, and bribe regulators. The tactics backfired, and ended up implicating more executives and private investigators employed by the company. Whether or not Chinese regulators are in fact targeting foreign firms is an open question, but they are certainly not pulling any punches.

Bonus: When pigs fly... Alibaba’s decision to rename its travel site Alitrip to Flying Pig, or Fliggy, provoked an unexpected controversy. In response to the change, Uighur snack entrepreneur Adil Memettur posted on Weibo criticizing the name as offensive to Muslims and said he would no longer use the service. Netizens responded with their own critiques of Memettur and Uighurs in general. Memettur later apologized on Weibo. Alibaba also clarified the rationale behind their rebranding, which was an effort to appeal to younger customers, who comprise over 80 percent of their users. But after the recent dust-up it remains to be seen whether the name Fliggy will fly.

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