Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Gabriella Meltzer, Gabriel Walker, and Pei-Yu Wei look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. Nearly a quarter of India’s population affected by drought. After two years of weak monsoons, over 330 million Indians are suffering from the debilitating effects of an intense drought. In some locales, forecasts predicted temperatures climbing to over 113 degrees—their highest seasonal levels in over a hundred years—and across the country reservoirs are at 29 percent of their storage capacity. India has faced extreme droughts throughout history, but water shortages have been especially acute in recent years because of rapid population growth, urbanization, and deforestation. The poor and agricultural workers are especially effected by the drought, forcing many farmers to sell their livestock and migrate to cities to work as construction laborers. The extreme conditions may also cause a spike in farmer suicides as well because of increased crop losses and economic hardship. Local and central authorities have taken a variety of methods to combat water shortages, including sending water-laden trains to parched regions and banning borewells deeper than 200 feet.
2. Chinese vaccine scandal heightens public’s distrust of health system. Late last month, police in east China’s Shandong Province arrested thirty-seven people involved an illegal vaccine ring that had been in operation since 2011. The mother and daughter–led black market ring had sold $88 million worth of expired vaccines produced by forty-five licensed pharmaceutical companies for diseases such as a polio, rabies, chickenpox, and Japanese encephalitis to health institutions across twenty-four provinces. Since then, 357 government officials will either lose their jobs or be demoted for their involvement in the scandal, and an additional 202 individuals have been detained for further investigation. Over 1,000 protesting parents, seventy of whom have filed lawsuits, gathered this week at Beijing’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, where they complained of “intimidation and arbitrary arrest by security officials.” Their fears have been not been assuaged by China’s World Health Organization branch, which simply stated that “improperly stored or expired vaccines rarely cause a toxic reaction and the most common risk is that they are ineffective.” This latest episode has fanned the flame for widespread distrust of the Chinese food and medicine regulatory system, and many view it as further evidence of Xi Jinping’s governance style that fails to prioritize people’s health amidst a crumbling health infrastructure.
3. Indonesia holds conference to reflect on anti-Communist purges. The two-day symposium, examining mass killings perpetrated and encouraged by the Indonesian government in 1965 and 1966, was the first such meeting with the government’s official sanction. At the conference, coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Luhut B. Pandjaitan declined to pursue a criminal investigation of the atrocities, but left open the possibility that the government could release a statement expressing “remorse for past events” at some point. The “past events” referred to are the well-documented murder by the military and government-supported groups of an estimated 500,000 people suspected of being Communists following an incident the government claimed was an attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party, known as the PKI. Hundreds of thousands of others were imprisoned for up to ten years. Some human rights groups suspect that the U.S. government, concerned with fighting communism in Southeast Asia and the ongoing war in Vietnam, was complicit in the atrocities. The purges led to the removal from office of Indonesia’s first postcolonial leader, Sukarno, and ushered in three decades of rule by a dictatorship.
4. United Nations wary of Thai junta’s tightening grip. On Friday, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed growing concern about the increasing authority of Thailand’s military government. Rather than strengthening the military’s powers, as would be the case under a new draft constitution, Zeid exhorted the government to “strengthen the rule of law… not undermine it.” The statement coincides with a recent spate of increasingly authoritarian measures, such as one that grants Thai officers broad, police-like powers of arrest, and a new law that imposes a ten-year jail sentence on anyone who campaigns ahead of an August referendum on the new constitution. Just a few days ago, a former minister of social development and human security, also a prominent critic of the draft, was detained for speaking out against it. Since the beginning of the year, at least eighty-five people have been summoned or detained in Thailand for “attitude adjustment.”
5. First AIIB Projects in Central Asia and Pakistan. The first investments of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will go toward building a ring road in the Kazakh city of Almaty, a new road connecting the Tajik capital to the Uzbek border, and a Pakistani highway. The recipients of the AIIB’s initial investments are all nations that enjoy warm relations with China and are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and are also included in China’s massive “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang announced the AIIB in October 2013 during trips to Southeast Asia, and the bank became operational in January 2016 with fifty-seven founding members. The AIIB provoked controversy and initial opposition from the United States and some American allies; particular concerns were raised as to whether it would adhere to the lending standards used by other development banks such as the World Bank. However, the president of the AIIB, Jin Liqun, has recently emphasized that the bank will adhere to strong governance standards. Indeed, all of the initial projects will be financed in conjunction with other international development banks including the Asian Development Bank, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Bonus: Beijing jianbing come to NYC. Jianbing, or Chinese pancakes, have become the latest Chinese food trend in New York City. Made from eggs, cilantro, chili, scallions, shards of fried dough, and sauce spread on a crepe of mung bean and wheat flour, jianbing is a street food from northern China and is a ubiquitous breakfast food found throughout the streets of Beijing. Jianbing is said to have originated from Shandong province as early as the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), when famed military strategist Zhuge Liang told his soldiers to cook pancakes made from rice and flour on their shields over fires after all woks the army brought were lost. Now the jianbing is making waves in New York, with several food trucks selling the snack appearing around Manhattan. Most of the founders of the trucks learned the art of jianbing-making in China, though some have added variations to the typical jianbing one would find in Beijing. For example, Flying Pig Jianbing adds lettuce to its concoctions, while Mr. Bing touts a menu with sweet options, which is a break from the traditional savory jianbing in China. Authentic or not, jianbing is undoubtedly one of the best new soft power tools China has.