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Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Lincoln Davidson, Bochen Han, Theresa Lou, and Gabriella Meltzer look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. China and Russia to hold “routine” naval exercises in the South China Sea. China’s Ministry of National Defense announced on Thursday that China and Russia have scheduled cooperative naval exercises in the South China Sea for September. While China also stated that the naval exercises will be aimed at strengthening Russian-Chinese cooperation and are not directed at any other country, the announcement comes at a time of intensified strain between China and other Asian nations due to rival claims in the South China Sea. Following an international arbitration ruling rejecting Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has encouraged bilateral talks between Beijing and Manila over the territorial dispute. Reportedly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has recently indicated to Mr. Kerry that Beijing seeks to “move away from the public tensions and to turn the page” and resolve tensions through direct dialogue with the parties concerned. Despite this indication of Beijing’s interest in defusing regional tensions and Chinese statements that the drills are targeted at furthering Russian-Chinese strategic partnerships, it is likely that just like previously conducted joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan, many will construe this as an effort to restrict the influence of the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
2. Top Hong Kong anticorruption investigator removed. Following the resignation of Rebecca Li, the acting head of the Operations Department at Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), speculation has swirled as to the future of the ICAC’s neutrality. Li’s removal surprised many as she had spent thirty-two years at the commission, earning praise for her work and even becoming the first person from the agency to be sent to an FBI training program. While the nominal reason for her departure was non-political and related to her performance, some suspected that the change was due either to a lack of trust in her by Chinese officials or to her role in investigating a corruption case involving Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Li had been leading the case investigating whether Leung had improperly taken funds from the Australian company UGL. The commissioner of the ICAC claims that the chief executive had no involvement in the decision to remove Li, but the fact that Leung selects the ICAC commissioner and the Chinese government approves the choice has fueled further suspicion. Li is expected to be replaced by Ricky Chu Man-kin. Her removal met much internal opposition and even caused the cancellation of the ICAC’s annual dinner since so many employees planned to boycott. While the ICAC is respected globally for its effectiveness and independence in addressing issues of graft, this turmoil could indicate weakening autonomy at a time when concern in Hong Kong is already mounting over the freedom from mainland Chinese interference in other media and educational institutions.
3. China’s strict condom policies make sex workers vulnerable to HIV. Asia Catalyst, a New York–based nonprofit that promotes civil society and health of marginalized groups in Asia, released a report this week that sheds light on China’s ineffective HIV prevention policies. China’s HIV prevalence is relatively low, with roughly 500,000 people reportedly living with HIV or AIDS at the end of 2014 out of a total population of 1.4 billion. The country’s epidemic is primarily concentrated among high-risk groups such as gay men and sex workers, with 92 percent of cases resulting from sexual intercourse. Sex work is illegal in China, and the Ministry of Public Security categorizes condoms as a “tool of offense” for prostitutes. Among suspected prostitutes, police authorities view condom possession as evidence of illegal activity and precedent for arrest or penalty. As a result, only 48 percent of surveyed prostitutes previously interrogated by police carry condoms, compared to 68 percent of those with no prior encounters with law enforcement. Asia Catalyst is encouraging the ministry to desist condom search and seizure and to decriminalize prostitution, instead working alongside the sex worker community to prevent HIV transmission.
4. Beijing tightens information control. The Chinese government took major steps forward in restricting news outlets that are not state-owned this week, enforcing regulations that ban original reporting by private media. The government shut down Sina, Sohu, and NetEase this past weekend for violating the rules. While the crackdown may have been a direct response to reporting of flooding in northern China that has killed dozens, it also fits into a general trend towards greater state control of the information space. Over the last two weeks, the Chinese government has increased scrutiny of online live-streaming platforms, accusing them of hosting “vulgar” content that “challenges the baseline morality of society.” This week, the Chinese Communist Party released an “informationization” strategy that aims to make the country a cyber superpower by mid-century. While its primary goals is to make China technologically self-reliant, it also has implications for China’s domestic media controls and international propaganda. Responding to reporters’ questions at a press conference announcing the policy document, Cyberspace Administration of China Vice Director Zhuang Rongwen said that the strategy encourages Chinese online media companies to expand their presence in Hong Kong, a move that seems aligned with or inspired by Chinese tech mogul Jack Ma’s purchase of Hong Kong’s leading English-language paper last year.
5. Chinese demolition work on Buddhist monastery sparks controversy. Larung Gar, a Buddhist monastery home to ten thousand monks, nuns, and laypeople located in the Tibetan county of Sertar in Sichuan province, is currently undergoing government-mandated demolition efforts that aim to eradicate quarters for all but five thousand residents by 2017. Two competing narratives are at play. The official purpose—“to build a Buddhism-practicing place that is more orderly, beautiful, safe and peaceful” and to “[accelerate] the urbanization… of Larung Town”—is in line with China’s overall urbanization campaign, which seeks to set the country on a more “human-centered and environmentally friendly path.” Government officials say that the current site posed serious health and safety concerns for its residents, citing nine fires at the institute that had apparently resulted in a loss of $340,000. Advocacy groups, on the other hand, claim that the move is just an attempt to tighten control over Tibetan culture and religious life. United States–based think tank Human Rights Watch points to a recent order that called for greater legal and ideological guidance in the community. While nothing suggests that the authorities consulted the Larung Gar leadership about the demolition, senior monastics are urging calm and discouraging residents from participating in protests.
Bonus: New Zealand cracks down on predators. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced an ambitious conservation plan that calls for the extermination of non-native predators in the country by 2050. The government estimates that introduced pests cost New Zealand’s agricultural industry 3.3 billion New Zealand dollars (NZD) ($2.4 billion) and kill 25 million native birds annually—including the country’s iconic Kiwi—as well as prey on other local species. Key’s government is setting aside 28 million NZD ($20 million) to support a new joint venture that will develop pest control technologies, and has outlined four interim goals to be met by 2025. A potential sticking point in the plan, however, is New Zealanders’ love for cats, which kill billions of birds and small mammals yearly around the world. An avid cat-lover himself, Key (who owns a cat named “Moonbeam Smokey Fluffy Key”) said that while stray cats are on the government’s hit list, pet cats would be spared.