Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Gabriella Meltzer, Gabriel Walker, and Pei-Yu Wei look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. Corruption and combat thwart counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The first poppy harvest of the year is just beginning in Helmand, Afghanistan—by far the largest source of opium and heroin in the world—and very little can be done about it. Since 2002 the United States has spent over $8 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, including eradicating over six thousand acres of poppy fields in Helmand alone over the past two years, but this year there will be no effort to do so. According to Maj. Rahmatullah Alokozai, the security chief of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counternarcotics, now that the Taliban completely controls more than half of Helmand it is too dangerous to attempt eradication efforts. Some believe that Maj. Alokozai’s unwillingness to try is a sign that he stands to profit from poppy revenues, as many other Afghan government officials have in some way in the past, by canceling this year’s eradication. Maj. Gen. Abdul Jabar Qahraman, Afghani President Ashraf Ghani’s envoy for Helmand, stated that the situation there is so difficult because all the combatants have a vested interest in the success of the drug trade: “The war and the fighting in Helmand is a tool for everybody—they’re making millions off it.”
2. Bangladesh experiences “largest mass poisoning of a population in history”: A new report released by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday reveals that 20 million Bangladeshis have been poisoned by arsenic in their drinking water. According to the organization’s findings, 43,000 people die annually from arsenic-related illnesses, including liver, kidney, bladder, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease, developmental defects, and diabetes. In fact, “between 1 and 5 million of the 90 million children estimated to be born between 2000 and 2030 will eventually die” from arsenic exposure. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical in groundwater, and is found in large quantities in countries throughout the Asian continent. Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh was first discovered in 1995 by researchers who found that millions of tubewells provided by international donors in the 1970s and 1980s as safe substitutes to bacteria-infested surface water were harboring the poison. Today, there are an estimated 10 million shallow tubewells located throughout the country intended to provide clean water to the country’s roughly 66 percent rural population suffering from poor human development outcomes. The Bangladeshi government is facing harsh criticism for its irresponsiveness to the crisis, where “nepotism and neglect by Bangladeshi officials” are to blame and new, non-contaminated wells are only being dug in convenient locations for family, friends, and political supporters, rather than those most impacted by arsenic.
3. Relatives of top Chinese officials identified in Panama Papers. Among the 14,153 individuals connected to Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm known for helping clients establish offshore accounts, relatives of at least eight former or current members of China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee have been identified. These individuals include Chinese President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui; Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s son-in-law, Lee Shing Put; and propaganda head Liu Yunshan’s daughter-in-law, Jia Liqing. Deng’s offshore accounts had been closed or dormant by the time Xi took office. Relatives of officials are far from the only Chinese citizens to hold offshore accounts. Mossack Fonseca’s largest number of offices in any country worldwide were in China and its most active office was in Hong Kong. Approximately 29 percent of the firm’s companies came from the greater China region. While offshore accounts are not illegal in China, the number of political elites who hold such accounts may speak to a mounting sense of domestic political or economic insecurity. Key words linking the Panama Papers to the Chinese leadership were quickly censored, and it seems unlikely that these new revelations will significantly affect Xi’s ongoing anticorruption campaign.
4. Abe government says Article 9 does not prohibit ownership of nuclear weapons. The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that the Japanese constitution does not explicitly prohibit the country from possessing nuclear weapons. The position of the government was made clear in a written response last Friday to inquiries from two members of Diet, the Japanese parliament. The inquiry stems from a statement made by Cabinet member and the director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, Yusuke Yokobatake, on March 18 this year at a House of Councilors’ Budget Committee meeting, in response to a question asked by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Yokobatake noted that the administration does not think that “the use of all kinds of nuclear weapons is prohibited under the Constitution.” The government’s position on nuclear weapons is in line with that of previous prime ministers. Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda said in 1978 that the constitution does not “absolutely prohibit” Japan’s having nuclear weapons. However, he also emphasized that Japan should abide by the three non-nuclear principles raised in the 1960s by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. Similarly, in the written response, the administration highlighted its firm commitment to the same principles.
5. Chinese media take a new approach. The Paper, a trendy online Chinese media outlet, launched a new English-language news site called Sixth Tone this week. Sixth Tone promises to cover stories that other outlets—whether foreign or state-owned—miss, mimicking The Paper, which has gained millions of readers since it launched in 2014, most of them among China’s “post-90s” generation. Both papers are a far cry from traditional state media outlets, whose articles range from boring to pointless to blatantly propagandist. In both its tone and the topics they choose to write about, The Paper has been willing to skirt much closer to lines the Chinese government does not permit news outlets to cross. The website has won accolades for deep investigations into corruption and official malpractice. Most recently, a story The Paper broke last month on tens of millions of dollars’ worth of improperly stored vaccines has spurred public debate in China. However, there are some topics The Paper (and presumably Sixth Tone) won’t touch. Shanghai United Media Group, which owns Sixth Tone and The Paper, is owned by the propaganda department of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee. At the end of the day, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Bonus: Viral ad about China’s “leftover women” tugs at netizens’ heartstrings. This week, a four-minute, documentary-style video entitled the “Marriage Market Takeover” sent emotional ripples throughout the Chinese web. Commissioned by the Japanese skin care company SK-II and part of a “a global campaign to inspire and empower women to shape their destiny,” the video focuses on the plight of so-called leftover women in China, or women over twenty-seven who may face intense social and familial pressure to get married. Leta Hong Fincher, the author of a book on China’s leftover women, stated that single Chinese women are at a “turning point,” and beginning to push back against the social stigma of being single and traditional conceptions of marriage. Though some on the Chinese web poke fun at the family pressure that young women face, for others, like one twenty-seven-year-old woman who attempted suicide last month because of marriage pressure, it is deadly serious.