from Asia Unbound

Samsung Scandal, Islamic State and China, Philippine HIV, and More

March 3, 2017

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Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Larry Hong, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.

1. Samsung heir indicted on corruption charges. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung Group, was formally indicted on Tuesday on bribery and embezzlement charges. Lee’s indictment was the culmination of a ninety-day special prosecutor investigation of an intensifying corruption scandal that has already brought about President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Lee was arrested on February 17 but was not formally indicted until February 28 on charges that include allegedly paying roughly $38 million (43 billion won) to Choi Soon-sil, Park’s close confidante and corruption scandal linchpin, and two nonprofit foundations Choi controlled. Samsung is one of eight Korean conglomerates that has admitted to making payments to Choi and her nonprofit foundations, but claims that the payments were made under coercion. The alleged bribes were purportedly made in exchange for the South Korean government’s backing of a contentious merger in 2015 of two Samsung affiliates that helped Lee inherit corporate control from his father. The merger allegedly enlarged the stock value of the Lee family by at least $758 million at the cost of at least $123 million in losses for the national pension fund, which held large stakes in the two affiliates. Lee’s father, Lee Kun-hee, has been twice convicted of bribery and tax evasion but was presidentially pardoned both times by then-presidents Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak. At least six of South Korea’s top ten chaebol conglomerates—which generate a revenue equivalent to more than 80 percent of South Korean gross domestic product—are led by men once convicted of white-collar crimes. Four other Samsung senior executives were also indicted on February 28, but not arrested, on the same corruption charges as Mr. Lee; three of the four have resigned.

2. Self-proclaimed Islamic State targets China in new video. A video released by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) showed a Uighur fighter in Iraq conducting an execution and proclaiming to China, “We will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenging the oppressed.” It also features shots of Chinese police conducting surveillance, most likely in Xinjiang, and a burning Chinese flag. The video follows other China-focused media released by IS, including an online chant issued in Mandarin in December 2015, which encouraged Chinese Muslims to “take up weapons to fight.” Some Chinese nationals have heeded the call, and an estimated one hundred to three hundred Uighurs, including children and the elderly, have traveled to Iraq and Syria. The video comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Chinese officials already on edge about violence in Xinjiang. Security tightened dramatically following a knife attack in the autonomous region in mid-February, and over ten thousand troops rallied in the provincial capital this week. In the long run, however, it is unclear whether this crackdown will improve public safety or simply drive further radicalization.

3. Philippine fight against HIV falters as rates climb. Since 1984, when HIV was first reported in the Philippines, the prevalence and spread of the virus were described as “low and slow.” Between 2010 and 2015, the rate of new infections climbed by more than 50 percent—the highest in all of Asia. Though the population-wide prevalence is still relatively low today, the epidemic is widespread among young people. According to the Philippine Department of Health, 57 percent of young gay men in high school or college are at risk for contracting HIV, and 67 percent of those who are HIV positive are between fifteen and twenty-four years old. To combat the epidemic, this past Valentine’s Day the National Youth Commission launched an anti-HIV campaign called “Virus Ends With Us,” which aims to teach parents and educators how to approach taboo subjects and help eliminate stigma surrounding the condition. Unfortunately, stakeholders are of different minds as to how to fight the skyrocketing infection rates: last month, a coalition of conservative politicians, parents, and the Roman Catholic Church pressured the Departments of Health and Education to halt a proposed program that would have provided sexual education and distributed condoms in schools.

4. More Chinese students study abroad, and more return home. According to China’s Ministry of Education, around 80 percent of Chinese students studying abroad, or “sea turtles” as they are called in China (because the word is a homophone for “returning from overseas”), have returned home, in contrast to about one-third in 2006. While Beijing claims that the record number of returnees is due to the fact that the Chinese job market has become increasingly appealing, the reality could be more complex. In the United States, which is the most popular destination for Chinese students, the demand for foreign skilled-workers visas, known as H-1Bs, often far outstrips the supply of such visas, forcing the U.S. government to employ a lottery system. A seasoned immigration lawyer suggested that the chance of being selected in the lottery in 2014 is about 50 percent. Those who are not chosen will be forced to return home or apply to another degree program. H-1B visa sponsors also generally favor technology experts and those with more advanced degrees, and most Chinese students are enrolled in master programs in business and marketing. Beijing is at least partly correct on one count: many “sea turtles” are returning to China to join the frenzied startup boom in China, thanks in large part to the Chinese government’s generous financial support for startups.

5. Xiaomi debuts smartphone chip. Lei Jun, the founder and CEO of China’s Xiaomi mobile phone company, showed off the firm’s first internally developed chip, the Pengpai S1, on Tuesday. The chip was produced by Xiaomi subsidiary Beijing Pinecone Electronics, and the entire endeavor cost more than one billion RMB ($145 million). The company received government support in developing the chip, although the exact value of that assistance remains unknown. Xiaomi now ranks among just two phone companies in China (the other is Huawei) and four international companies to create its own chip. The new smartphone processor is a major coup in China’s ongoing effort to strengthen its domestic semiconductor sector and reduce reliance on foreign manufacturers, particularly Qualcomm. Chinese firms have also sought to purchase semiconductor manufacturers abroad and acquire their technology, although foreign investment reviews have at times hampered such acquisitions. Chinese authorities and private companies are spending big on the semiconductor push, and now these efforts appear to be paying off.

Bonus: India to publish first official sign language dictionary. This month, the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Center (ISLRTC) in Delhi, a group established by India’s ministry of social justice, will publish the first installment of its Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary. Though a university released another ISL dictionary early last year, ISLRTC’s promises to be the country’s first official and most comprehensive version, containing six thousand words in English and Hindi and forty-four different hand shapes under which each sign is categorized. India is estimated to have as many as 7 million deaf individuals (and only 300 certified ISL interpreters), with significant linguistic variation between sign languages of different regions. The ISLRTC dictionary promises not only to take into account regional variations in ISL, but also to improve ISL practitioners’ awareness of syntax and grammar necessary for communicating through written language. According to one ministry official, among all persons living with disabilities in India, deaf individuals have the lowest literacy rate. ISLRTC undertook its project as a part of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016, which requires the government “to ensure that persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.”