Talking Points

Pride comes before, during, and after the fall. PHOTO: Bloomberg
  1. America's coronavirus outbreak accelerated dangerously
  2. The globally pandemic crossed 10m cases and 500,000 deaths
  3. Brussels revealed which nations are on the door list this summer
  4. The White House failed to explain Trump's 'Russian bounty' inaction
  5. 200m Indian TikTok users found themselves with more spare time
  6. Vladimir Putin cemented his power with a sweeping victory
  7. Poland's much-criticised presidential election went to a run-off
  8. Tesla overtook Toyota to become the world's most-valuable carmaker
  9. Investors caught their breath as Q2 closed with a staggering rally
  10. The murder of an Oromo singer revealed Ethiopia's ethnic divisions

Deep Dive

Protesting is now a much more dangerous proposition. PHOTO: Reuters

The first day of this month marked the handover anniversary in Hong Kong and the proposed date for Israel's annexation of much of the West Bank. This week we'll dive into the two slowest land grabs of the century.

Handover day

On July 1, 1997, the chiming of midnight clocks was drowned out by the fireworks over Victoria Harbour: Hong Kong was once again part of China. The 50-year guarantee of 'One Country, Two Systems' was a concession that allowed Britain to cede control of its colony without a complete loss of face. But it must have been known even then, that this was little more than a fig-leaf. And it speaks volumes of the inversely correlated fortunes of Britain and China since 1997 that now, not even halfway through the agreement, Beijing has moved to enforce total control over the financial hub.

And so, on Wednesday, Hong Kong'ers did the only thing they could: they marched by the thousands. Teargas and homemade projectiles were exchanged, and security forces arrested some 370 people, mostly for the minor offence of illegal assembly. In a portentous shift, 10 protesters were charged under the newly-enacted security law which punishes "secessionist" and "subversive" activity with extreme sentences. The threat of spending decades behind bars undoubtedly reduced the turnout (hundreds of thousands attended the same handover protest in 2019). The movement has also been stripped of its rallying cry – this week Beijing announced that "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times" connotes secessionism and is now unlawful.

The flight has already begun: those who wished to see a freer Hong Kong have resigned in protest from political parties that will now no longer be able to operate without drawing the ire of security services. Some notable figures, including Nathan Law, have fled overseas . Simon Cheng, the former staffer at the British embassy in Hong Kong (who fled after being tortured by China's secret police), has announced that pro-democrats will form a government-in-exile to keep the dream alive. We wish them a more successful fate than the slide into irrelevance that most governments-in-exile suffer. But even in the safety of a foreign country these individuals will not be immune to Chinese influence. The nebulous wording of the new security law encompasses any and all behaviour, no matter how petty or intellectual, that undermines China. This means that advocacy by pro-democrats, even overseas, may well lead to the imprisonment of their families back in Hong Kong. This kind of collective punishment is already used on China's Uighur Muslims.

Annexation day

On the other side of the world, in another former British possession, another land grab is underway. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unhindered by his multiple indictments, is keen to push forward his pet project of annexing a good third of Palestine. Bibi had set July 1 as the date to send the Israeli Defence Force into the West Bank, basing this flagrant violation of international law on Donald Trump and Jared Kushner's very lopsided plan for peace in the Middle East. The annexation, under the guise of peace, would kill off any chance of a two-state solution (for those credulous few who still believe in one). So why didn't the annexation begin on Wednesday? It turns out that opposition to the plan has grown in recent weeks, thanks largely to Bibi's coalition partner Benny Gantz. Gantz has suggested that Israel should focus on coronavirus first, and annexation second.

The split set wheels spinning across the government. Israel's security cabinet did not discuss the policy in depth, and the ministry of justice is yet to even begin work on a legal document to underpin the prospective appropriation. Beyond Israel too, opposition has been growing. Jordan and some Gulf Arab states had expressed outrage at the plan , a development that perplexed Netanyahu. As it happens, Kushner had made promises to him about Arab support for the plan. Promises that may not have been reflected in reality. Furthermore, Kushner himself also pushed his father-in-law to hit the brakes for fear that Bibi's accelerated annexation plans endangered the broader deal. And, lastly, there were still those within the IDF who have cautioned against the annexation on the grounds that it will almost undoubtedly provoke an armed insurrection in both Gaza and the West Bank . So, no tanks this week.

Regardless of whether it happens next year or next decade, it seems likely that Israel will eventually lay claim to all of Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of settlers push further and further into prime West Bank land, creeping forward every year to claim streams and valleys, orchards and fields. On paper, Palestine has already been reduced to a series of non-contiguous bantustans. Tel Aviv's military dominance and ruthlessly effective permit system, an effective policy of apartheid, have left Palestine isolated , impoverished, and reliant on Israeli largesse. Led by feeble politicians in the West Bank, and militants in Gaza, Palestinians are adrift.

A chance to aim for full-rights within a single state now seems a much more realistic goal than one of full statehood. But as has been forewarned for decades, the total annexation of Palestine and its 5 million inhabitants would pose an existential challenge to the state of Israel: it will have to choose between being an explicitly Jewish theocracy, and a democracy. The evidence to date does not redound to an inclusive democracy.


Worldlywise

The businessman, the model, their billionaire paedophile friend and his confidante. PHOTO: Getty

Ghislaine Maxwell in custody

Today is Independence Day in the United States ( and a very happy 4th of July to our American readers! ). But one person most certainly won't be enjoying the fireworks - Ghislaine Maxwell. The British socialite and alleged madame of Jeffrey Epstein's child-sex operation is enjoying the hospitality of the New Hampshire police as she awaits transportation to federal custody in New York.

Maxwell ( the daughter of British publishing billionaire and moonlighting Israeli spy Robert Maxwell) has been charged with a number of offences relating to child sex crimes, conspiracy, and perjury. You may recall that she had raised eyebrows all over the world when she promptly disappeared in the aftermath of Epstein's untimely death in custody last year.

It's no great mystery why Maxwell flew the coop: extensive testimony from victims has placed her in the role of child procurement for the billionaire paedophile and his famous friends. Thankfully, the FBI had been discreetly keeping tabs on her as she moved between safe-houses (safe-mansions, really). Her prolonged absence had led to speculation about whether she had already been squirrelled away by powerful backers, or simply executed. Speculation that became even more frenzied in March, when her lawyers sued for a sizeable portion of Epstein's riches on her behalf. Fortunately, the judges ruled recently that the pair's victims could file claims on the $600m estate.

But closure and recourse to damages for Epstein's victims is not where this story ends. Perhaps Maxwell will also have a stab at answering the other questions that dog this case. For instance, the US attorney for Southern Florida Alex Acosta, had explained his rationale for giving Epstein a sweetheart deal in 2008, by saying "I was told 'Epstein belong to intelligence' and to leave it alone". More details about Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Prince Andrew's regular trips on Epstein's plane would also be useful. As would clarity on what compromising information Epstein might have gathered to avoid prosecution for so long.

Let's just hope that Maxwell survives longer than Epstein himself did, and we get a chance to hear her testimony.

Exploitative mineral extraction continues apace in the DRC. PHOTO: AFP

An apology, decades late

On Tuesday the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated 60 years of independence from the monstrous rule of imperial Belgium. King Philippe of Belgium marked the occasion with a letter to DRC President Félix Tshisekedi expressing "deepest regret" for the historic crimes against humanity . That King Leopold II is only now being properly interrogated is a blight on Belgian society given he was responsible for somewhere north of 10 million deaths. Still, an apology is better than what Belgian bitter-enders could manage in 1961 when they had the first leader of an emancipated Congo assassinated.

However, for the biracial children stolen from their families and raised in Catholic institutions, regret is not enough. This group of Congolese women , now in their 70s and living in Europe, is seeking reparations for the state-sanctioned crime that separated them from their people. And if life-altering decisions of colonial bureaucrats still gnaws at the hearts of their victims, the extractive greed of foreign powers still haunts the DRC. Just this week the Israeli minerals billionaire Dan Gertler was found to be dodging sanctions and funnelling millions in mineral wealth out of the country.

And in a shockingly underreported crisis, one million Congolese have been displaced by fighting in Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu provinces this year. Here, a number comparable to the mass exodus of Myanmar's Rohingya, that has received scant attention. Why?

When media organisations decline to air such stories, they essentially communicate that such dire circumstances are not newsworthy simply because they occur in a country like the DRC. So rather than glazing over "ethnic violence" (and other well-worn journalistic catch-alls for conflict in Africa) please take a moment out of your day to read about the overlapping determinants that have prolonged the violence in the DRC for decades.


The Best of Times

A fitting commemoration. PHOTO: Nasa

How to be unselfish with shellfish

Over eight million tonnes of shellfish are lifted from Asian waters each year and promptly turned into Lobster Yee Mein, Lajiao Pangxie, or Jay Fai's Michelin-starred-Bangkok-street-stall crab omelette. Managing the millions of tonnes of discarded shells is a significantly less aromatic proposition, though this has not deterred businessman Ning Yan from making a business out of it. Yan has discovered a sustainable method to derive the chitin from the cracked carapaces and process it. The end product is chitosan, a valuable anti-fungal and antibacterial sugar that can be used in everything from food supplements to eye surgery.

The opposite of streamlining

Eurasian beavers have returned to County Essex waterways for the first time in 400 years or so. These professionals in aquatic engineering were reintroduced to obstruct streams and rivers. The environmental benefits of such natural damming projects are manifold: lessened flooding damage, cleaner water, and a proliferation of other animal species in the habitat. Blessed are the weirmakers.


The Worst of Times

Is it revenge for the factory farms? PHOTO: Bloomberg

Guess what?!

Another virus with 'pandemic potential' has been discovered in China! A flu virus in pigs named G4 EA H1N1 (yes, it's related to that swine flu) has made the leap from swine to humans. Beijing has downplayed the seriousness of the findings but given the ubiquity and scale of China's piggeries this is rather alarming. The year from hell is just not missing a shot, is it?

Crushed jade

Local media in Myanmar is reporting that the death toll from this week's jade mine collapse has risen to 163 . Heavy rainfall caused part of a hillside to collapse into the open cut pits. It is one of the worst mining disaster in the country's history and authorities are still pulling bodies from the mud and debris at the site. Jade mining is one of Myanmar's least regulated industries and draws all manner of operators.


Weekend Reading

The image

An unexplained mass die-off event in northern Botswana has claimed more than 350 elephants. Outside of droughts, such drastic losses are only ever the result of unknown pathogens passing through herds. Photograph supplied by the Guardian.

The quote

"The GRU was always seen as a little more thuggish. They are tasked to do all of these things but their tradecraft is not great."

– A former CIA agent in Europe explains why the Russian intelligence Unit 29155 keeps getting caught red-handed .

The numbers

530

- The number of companies – many of them major corporates – that have paused their Facebook advertising spend as part of the 'Stop Hate for Profit' campaign . The social media giant's hesitation to commit significant resources to content moderation stems from an institutional ethos that sees itself as a neutral and blameless platform; a blank canvas upon which human nature is painted. The boycott is taking aim at Facebook's raison d'être: it's $70b a year advertising business.

$1

- The amount by which Facebook's $237 share price is expected to fall if the boycott lasts a month. Perception and reality.

The headline

"Fauci doubts effectiveness of coronavirus vaccine in US due to anti-vaxxers" The Guardian

The special mention

Our mention this week is awarded to an abstract: the rhyme of human history. A global superpower is limping towards retreat after a long and bitterly unsuccessful war in Afghanistan. A steely and brutal insurgency has bled the occupying force for years and now stands ready to reclaim its homeland. It's become known that the insurgents were abetted by spies from the superpower's nemesis. There is outrage in some quarters, quiet applause in others. The year is 1987 .

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting