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Hong Kong has seen an alarming reduction in its population over the last 12 months, as people leave in the wake of the pandemic and the city's political turmoil.
According to data released by the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong's population has declined by 1.2%, equating to 89,200 people. It's the biggest decrease in Hong Kong's population in 60 years, AFP reported.
It comes after Beijing imposed a national security law on the city, cracking down on political dissidents following the anti-government protests in 2019. Supporters of the movement have used other methods too, such as publicly reading Apple Daily's pro-democracy newspaper, before its closure in June.
A government spokesman said the high numbers of those leaving the city are not all necessarily emigrating and the population decline is also due to the lack of new arrivals, a Hong Kong-based newspaper, the South China Morning Post reported. Additionally, Hong Kong has also had the COVID-19 pandemic to contend with, and although the city has recorded only 12,000 cases with 200 people dead, strict quarantine measures remain.
An offer of citizenship made by Britain for millions of Hong Kong residents has contributed to thousands leaving, the data suggests. Following activation of the security law, the British Government announced it would extend the rights of British National Overseas, or BNO, passport holders in Hong Kong, with nearly 3 million residents eligible.
The scheme allows Hong Kong residents born before 1997 a "pathway to citizenship" after five years. An assessment by the British Government estimated that by 2026 up to 300,000 could apply to emigrate, with 34,000 having already applied between January and March.
Dozens of lawmakers and activists are facing jail under the security law in Hong Kong, but several managed to flee overseas. Ted Hui, a former lawmaker in Hong Kong's mini-parliament, the Legislative Council, left for Australia in late 2020. He was facing nine charges and believes he was being investigated under the security law. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: East Asia, Hong Kong, Protest, Security Law, Pandemic
By- Lin Yang
Writers sharing their experiences of the COVID pandemic or expressing views on their cultural heritage are at increased risk in China, which accounts for nearly one-third of all the 273 writers, academics, and intellectuals in jail in 2020.
The number imprisoned increased from 2019, largely because of the pandemic, according to a new index compiled by rights group PEN America. Its Freedom to Write Index, which tracks jailed writers and public intellectuals worldwide, showed China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey accounting for half of all cases.
“Political leaders around the world—in autocracies and fragile democracies alike—have used the pandemic and protest movements as an excuse to further constrain rights rather than expand them,” the report said, adding that some countries have wielded laws about disinformation as a means of silencing the truth.
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Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression At Risk Programs, said during a virtual report released last month that the situation is poor in China.
“China has jailed 81 writers. This is far more than any other country, primarily due to the arrests of writers and commentators who critiqued their government’s response to the COVID pandemic and other policies, as well as new information coming to light about detentions in the Xinjiang region,” she said. COVID is a disease caused by the coronavirus.
The report cited the case of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was the first in China to sound the alarm over the COVID pandemic. He was detained by the police for spreading rumors about public health and later died after succumbing to the virus.
Several citizen journalists, including Zhang Zhan and Chen Qiushi, were also detained by Chinese authorities for reporting and documenting the COVID pandemic. A poet, Zhang Wenfang, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for an online poem that included vignettes of people’s experiences of the pandemic, PEN found.
In addition, Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Tsinghua University Law School, was placed under house arrest for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. He was later detained for seven days on charges that he had solicited a sex worker in 2018 and subsequently expelled by the school.
Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at the U.S. government-funded non-profit Freedom House, told VOA that aside from the risk of detention, writers can find themselves under economic pressure if authorities shut down their web pages or accounts.
“Some writers who were previously able to write and share their writing through unofficial channels like WeChat or Weibo, their accounts get shut down, and that means they have to get another job,” Cook told VOA Mandarin. WeChat and Weibo are major messaging apps and social media platforms in China. Weibo is akin to Twitter.
She said that this pushes people to jump the firewall and publish in more independent or critical outlets outside China. “The fact that they wrote for some of these outlets or published by some of these outlets can be perceived as subversive and get them into trouble,” Cook said.
China has rejected criticism of its rights record by rights groups and accused the United States of being hypocritical, pointing to the arrests during protests in the U.S. last year.
Among the 81 writers and public intellectuals jailed in China, nearly half are from the Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong.
Freedom House’s Cook said the conditions for these people are much more dangerous, and the likelihood of serving time in prison is very high.
“I think the situation, especially in Xinjiang, is that so many of these people when they wrote the content it was OK. And then there’s been this retroactive punishment with things that were previously on the safe side of the red line suddenly aren’t,” Cook said. “That’s one reason you’ve seen so many Uyghur intellectuals including professors, writers, and songwriters being swept up in these latest detention sweeps in 2017.”
“It matters a lot who you are and particularly what religious or ethnic community you are from,” she said.
In 2017, Qurban Mamut, a well-known Uyghur writer, and editor-in-chief of Xinjiang Culture magazine went missing after visiting his son in the United States. Later, his family learned that he was arrested and detained in Xinjiang’s so-called re-education or mass detention camps.
Bahram Sintash, Mamut’s son, said that Beijing is trying to prevent journalists and writers like his father from recording the Uyghur culture.
“Right now the atmosphere of the Uyghur society (is that they are) without their own intellectuals, without their own books, without anything to let the Uyghurs learn about their own culture and language,” he said at the press briefing. “Previous generations like my father and other intellectuals, they no longer can write about Uyghurs, and they are mostly in camps and jail.”
China has denied all accusations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang and said that the mass incarceration camps are “a place for de-radicalization” and “not a prison.”
PEN America’s Karlekar said attempts to remove cultural heritage by jailing writers is a worrying trend globally.
“We see that writers who speak out and preserve linguistic rights, speak out about different cultures are under attack or threat. Their very writing and work is also a way of cultural preservation,” she said. “In countries that are really trying to crack down on ethnic or religious minority groups, these people are really being targeted.”
The PEN report found that overall, the Asia-Pacific region jailed the most writers and intellectuals. In total, 121 – nearly half of the global count including China – were detained in Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. (VOA/KB)
Before she was murdered in 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating two companies named in the Panama Papers – a leak of millions of records that exposed corruption in offshore finance.
Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of the government in her Running Commentary blog, uncovered apparent trails between Malta and overseas companies that she suspected were tied to top Malta politicians.
But she never had the chance to finish her reporting. In October 2017, the journalist was killed by a car bomb. One of three men accused of carrying out her murder has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. His alleged accomplices have pleaded not guilty. A fourth man, businessman Yorgen Fenech, was charged with organizing and financing the murder. He denies the charge.
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Journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) — a global network of investigative reporters — followed the trail Caruana Galizia left behind. In doing so, they uncovered dubious energy deals, a visas-for-sale program, and more.
In an interview with VOA, Julia Wallace, deputy editor-in-chief of OCCRP, says having a global journalism network was key to finishing what Caruana Galizia had started. Following are excerpts; the questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Before Caruana Galizia was killed, she was looking into two companies, Macbridge and 17 Black. What were the first steps you took in this investigation to build off her work?
Wallace: Caruana Galizia was interested in these companies because they were named in a now-infamous email that had been sent in 2015 by a dodgy Maltese accounting firm to Mossack Fonseca, the now infamous Panama law firm implicated in the Panama Papers.
The email named both 17 Black and Macbridge as companies in the United Arab Emirates that were expected to allegedly send millions of euros to shell companies set up in Panama for two Maltese politicians. After she was killed, journalists eventually tracked down 17 Black in Dubai and proved it was owned by Fenech, the tycoon accused of masterminding Caruana Galizia’s murder.
But Macbridge remained a mystery. Months of searching in the United Arab Emirates didn’t yield anything. Then, when Fenech was arrested, he spilled a piece of new information — he said Macbridge stood for “Malta and China bridge.” That’s what got this project going.
The OCCRP report said it was difficult to track down companies in China due to the often unstructured or incomplete nature of the business registry system. How did your reporters manage to get around this?
Wallace: It’s difficult, but not impossible. We’re lucky to work with excellent journalists and investigators who speak Chinese and have extensive experience navigating this system. Doing investigative journalism in China can be risky, and we’re grateful for their bravery and skill.
For this story, analyzing Chinese social media — especially Weibo, which is like China’s version of Twitter — was critical in establishing the personal relationship between the owner of Macbridge and Chen Cheng, a prominent consultant linked to major Maltese politicians and controversial energy deals.
It was also important to understand how company information in Hong Kong and China is structured and how to compensate for the inefficiencies in the databases. In China, company directors’ personal data (such as their dates of birth) is not made public — a big problem in a place where many people have the same name. We just had to be persistent in trying out search queries in different formats, using various third-party company databases.
What impact has OCCRP’s reporting had on the visa trade?
Wallace: To be clear, it’s not always illegal to sell visas. Many European countries, including Malta, have programs that allow wealthy foreigners to buy residency or citizenship in exchange for different forms of investment.
But it’s usually a bad idea. The citizenship-by-investment industry is ripe for abuse because its natural constituents are the wealthy and corrupt — people who need places to stash their cash.
In part because of several major journalistic investigations on the pitfalls of so-called “golden visas,” the EU took measures last year to crack down on these programs. Our new story is part of a large and growing body of evidence that selling citizenship is not a savory business.
The OCCRP says it “takes a network to fight a network.” How does that collaborative approach work?
Wallace: This is the critical insight that OCCRP is built on. Traditional news organizations hire foreign correspondents to fan out around the world and report back. We are more interested in working with local journalists: people who know their countries intimately, spend years or decades developing sources and don’t leave.
We’ve built up a network of what we call “member centers” — investigative reporting outlets such as KRIK in Serbia, Kloop in Kyrgyzstan, and iStories in Russia — that we collaborate with. They’re led by some of the best journalists in their countries.
Having a global journalistic network is key because this is also an era of global criminality. Money now moves around the world very quickly, and it’s rare for a story on financial crime to be confined to a single country. This Malta story is a perfect example of how corruption and criminality across borders in the 21st century.
Were you afraid that continuing Caruana Galizia’s investigation would lead to any reprisal? What risks do journalists in Europe face for taking on powerful interests and businesses?
Wallace: We’re always safety conscious because this type of work can be dangerous. But we’ve had no specific threats that made us fear pursuing this line of inquiry.
Any journalist reporting on powerful actors — especially at the nexus of organized crime and political power — is at risk. When people perceive a threat to their interests, especially when large amounts of money are involved, they will go to great lengths to eliminate the threat.
But journalists have power too, especially when they stick together. In recent years, groups of journalists have joined forces to finish the work of colleagues who have been killed, including Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak of Slovakia. We do the same when a journalist is jailed or threatened with arrest. Our strategy is to get lots of reporters on the scene, figure out what the targeted journalist has been reporting on, finish it if necessary, and disseminate the stories as widely as possible.
When people threaten or harm journalists, they’re trying to send a message: “Don’t report on this; it’s dangerous.”
Our response: “Even if you kill a journalist, you’ll never kill the story.” (VOA/KB)
Researchers have found that Google searches for information about financial difficulties and disaster relief have increased sharply compared to the pre-pandemic times while googling related to suicide decreased.
Because previous research has shown that financial distress is strongly linked to suicide mortality, the researchers fear that the increase may predict a future increase in deaths from suicide.
The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.
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“The scale of the increase in Google searches related to financial distress and disaster relief during the early months of the pandemic was remarkable, so this finding is concerning,” said study author Madelyn Gould from the Columbia University Vagelos in the US.
Researchers in the US and elsewhere have begun studying the effects of the pandemic on mental health, but the impact on suicidal behaviour and deaths is difficult to assess due to lag time in the availability of mortality data.
Previous studies suggest that suicide rates often decrease in the immediate aftermath of national disasters, such as 9/11, but may increase several months later, as seen after the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong.
Studies internationally have linked Google search behaviour with suicidal behaviour, so in the current study, the team evaluated online searches about suicide and suicide risk factors during the early part of the pandemic and potentially long-term impact on suicide.
The researchers used an algorithm to analyse Google trends data from March 3, 2019, to April 18, 2020, and identify proportional changes over time in searches for 18 terms related to suicide and known suicide risk factors.
They found dramatic relative increases (in the thousands of percentages, in some cases) in Googling search terms related to financial distress — e.g., “I lost my job”, “unemployment”, and “furlough” — and for the national Disaster Distress Helpline.
The proportion of queries related to depression was slightly higher than the pre-pandemic period and moderately higher for a panic attack.
“It seems as though individuals are grappling with the immediate stresses of job loss and isolation and are reaching out to crisis services for help, but the impact on suicidal behaviour hasn’t yet manifested,” Gould said.
“Generally, depression can take longer to develop, whereas panic attacks may be a more immediate reaction to job loss and having to deal with emotionally charged events amidst the social isolation of the pandemic,” she noted. (IANS)