Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Larry Hong, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. India’s space program shoots for the stars. This Wednesday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched a record-breaking 104 satellites into orbit from a single rocket. The feat, which shattered the previous Russian record of thirty-seven satellites in one launch, cemented India as a “serious player” in the private-sector space market. ISRO’s missions are notoriously economical—its 2014 Mars mission cost only one-tenth that of an American Mars orbiter program—in part because salaries for highly skilled aerospace engineers are only a fraction of those in Europe or the United States. Additionally, according to ISRO’s chairman, foreign entities covered about half of the costs of this week’s launch. Eighty-eight of the satellites, which are only twelve inches long and nicknamed “Doves,” belonged to Planet, an American imaging and data company. Despite ISRO’s achievement, Chinese media was quick to call it “limited” in significance and point out India’s “weak foundation for national development.” While it is still early days in the Asian space race, competition for national pride and profit will likely only escalate in the coming years.
2. Kim Jong-nam murdered in Malaysia. Kim Jong-nam, the exiled half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated on Monday at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. Scheduled to board a flight back to Macau, where it is believed he lived, Kim was waiting in a check-in line when, according to South Korean intelligence reports, he was poisoned by two women. Two women, with Vietnamese and Indonesian passports, and a Malaysian man have been arrested by the Malaysian police in conjunction with the assassination. Kim lived much of his life abroad; his mother was exiled to Russia, he studied in Switzerland, and he was eventually exiled to China, where he supposedly enjoyed Chinese protection. Kim lived for over a decade in Beijing and Macau after his 2001 arrest for attempting to enter Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport, allegedly to visit Tokyo Disneyland. His assassination comes at a sensitive time for China, just days after a North Korean nuclear missile test and increased domestic and international scrutiny of China’s relationship with North Korea. After the 2013 execution of Kim Jong-un’s pro-Chinese uncle, Jang Sung-taek, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have steadily declined, with President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un still yet to meet in person. While the official Chinese response to Kim’s assassination has been muted, analysts note that China is bound to be displeased by the murder of someone nominally under their protection and who could have been used as possible leverage with North Korea.
3. Jakarta election likely to enter runoff. The Indonesian capital’s gubernatorial election is expected to head into a runoff election in April, as no candidate appears to have garnered a majority in the first round of voting. Current Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known by his nickname Ahok) is predicted to finish first in the polls with 43 percent of votes estimated from “quick counts” of ballots. However, former Indonesian Education Minister Anis Baswedan trails close behind with 40 percent of votes. Based on current projections, another candidate, Agus Yudhoyono, who previously served in the military, will drop out in the next stage. A runoff election could exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions by pitting Ahok, who is Christian and ethnic Chinese, against the Muslim Anis; blasphemy charges surrounding comments made by Ahok on a Koranic passage have also plagued his campaign. Some analysts suggest that voters deciding on a religious basis, as well as those coming over from the Agus camp, could push Anis to victory in the spring. Anis was also endorsed by Prabowo Subianto, who will likely challenge sitting President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) for the presidency. Even if Ahok, a Jokowi ally, comes out ahead, the election could bruise Indonesia’s image of pluralism and tolerance and foreshadow a bitter presidential race in 2019.
4. Japan lodges protest over Russian naming of Kuril Islands. A formal protest has been lodged by Japan against the Russian naming of five islands in the disputed Kuril island chain. The contentious renaming of the uninhabited islands occurs just two months after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Abe’s hometown of Nagato to discuss the Russo-Japanese dispute over the Kuril chain. The 56-island Kuril chain has been a point of contention in Russo-Japanese relations for the past seventy-two years. The islands have changed hands between Russia and Japan multiple times since the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda, which confirmed Japanese sovereignty over the four southernmost islands—Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai—and Russian sovereignty over the rest of the islands. To further complicate the issue, Russia ostensibly inherited the island chain at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; however, Japan still retains a claim to the four islands it refers to as the Northern Territories. The negotiations over the Kuril chain have continued to act as a bellwether for relations between two fiercely nationalist states at a time when the countries appear eager to gain a friendlier economic relationship. While official responses to the naming of the islands have been temperate, domestic concerns may lead to more bellicose reactions later. Abe may be obliged to issue a response capable of assuaging the right-wing nationalists within his party and opinion polls show that the Russian public is fervently against surrendering any Kuril island ownership. Pointedly, the islands were named after Russians like Kuzma Derevyanko, who signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender with the Allied forces in 1945, and General Alexei Gnechko, who led the occupation of the Kuril Islands in the same year.
5. Eight killed in Xinjiang attack. According to local officials, paramilitary police in China’s western province of Xinjiang shot dead three assailants, who had killed five people and wounded ten others in a knife attack. At this point, the assailants’ identities and motives have not yet been disclosed. The local government website called the assailants “thugs” and stated that “at present, social order is normal at the site, society is stable, and investigation work is under way.” Xinjiang has been plagued by unrest in recent years. The Chinese government and members of Xinjiang’s Uighur population, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, attribute the violence to different causes. The Chinese government cites terrorism and separatist efforts as sources of unrest, and has often blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in the province and beyond the region’s borders. On the other hand, many Uighurs contend that the unrest is a direct response to government restrictions on their religious expression and way of life. The Chinese media usually keep a tight lid on the coverage of attacks in Xinjiang, and authorities typically respond to unrest with lock downs, raids on homes, and restrictions on phone and internet communications.
Bonus: A lonely Valentine’s Day for Chinese men. As the world celebrated Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, the holiday was a sobering reminder of loneliness for millions of unwed Chinese, the majority of whom are men. 2010 national census data show that 24.7 percent of men and 18.5 percent of women above the age of fifteen are unmarried. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, only 48.8 percent of China’s population is female, compared to a global average of 49.6 percent. This gender gap, which makes it difficult for males of lower socioeconomic status to find spouses, results from sex-selective abortions undertaken in response to a traditional preference for boys and the more than three-decade long one-child policy. Although the one-child policy was rescinded in 2016 amidst concerns over low fertility rates, care for the elderly, and potential social unrest, its long-term effects were certainly felt on a day surrounding love and marriage. Li Xuan of New York University Shanghai commented that although the problem is not serious, “people are anxious about deviance from the traditional family ideal” and that “Chinese culture believes that everything rests on the family.”