Saturday, the 30th of May

Talking Points

Tweet through it! PHOTO: Input
  1. Trump signed a retaliatory order after Twitter fact-checked his tweets
  2. Mark Zuckerberg stuck his head in the fray, to ill-effect
  3. WHO suspended hydroxychloroquine trials pending new safety data
  4. Coronavirus spread further into Brazil's under-resourced regions
  5. Fears surged over Indonesia's soaring coronavirus toll
  6. The Dominic Cummings affair became the Dominic Cummings fiasco
  7. US renewables outstripped coal for the first time in 200 years
  8. Bad weather thwarted the planned and manned SpaceX launch
  9. The pilot's voice recorder was recovered from the PIA crash
  10. The English Premier League announced its return on June 17

Deep Dive

Familiar scenes in Hong Kong. PHOTO: Billy H C Kwok / Getty

Tear gas choked Hong Kong's streets on Wednesday as thousands of protesters brought the Asian financial hub to a standstill. Police made several hundred arrests , but there was a new urgency in the crowd: Beijing's new security laws hung like a blade over their necks.

The bill of Damocles

The 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were the most public (and sustained) challenges to Beijing's authority this century. Month after month, the mass demonstrations continued. And they were truly enormous affairs – the largest comprising two million of the territory's seven million residents. A widely-reviled extradition bill in Hong Kong's legislature had galvanised the pro-democracy movement. The bill threatened to ratify a program of extraordinary rendition that China's intelligence apparatus had used in the past to snatch displeasing Hongkongers (see: Causeway Bay Books). General discontent over civic life spread, and protesters became organisers. As the violence on the streets ebbed late in the year, pro-democracy groups won power in 17 of Hong Kong's 18 local councils. A democratic retort to the fait accompli of incoming authoritarian rule. By 2022, the hour glass of the "one country, two systems" arrangement stipulated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration will be half empty.

Some commentators opined that Chinese authorities exhibited surprising restraint in their handling of the 2019 protests. Whether you believe that or not, Beijing has clearly had enough of it. The quiet months of the northern winter were not spent idle: this week the National People's Congress passed a sweeping draft of national security legislation aimed at muzzling the pro-democracy movement. At its heart is the criminalisation of "any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion" that undermines Beijing's interests. The final vote was 2,878 in favour, one against, and six abstentions. It should be noted here, that the CCP has a famously broad understanding of what constitutes its interests. Now the apparatchiks have until September to quibble over just how those interests line up against those of Hong Kong's democrats. The legislation offers evidence of a curious phenomenon of Xi Jinping Thought: follow first, question later.

So what does this mean for the people of Hong Kong? The draft law includes a provision for China's spies to set up shop, in clear contravention of the Handover agreement. But Britain's influence in the region (or indeed anywhere) isn't exactly what it once was. So, Hongkongers must now contend with the fact that they share the pejoratives "terrorists" and "separatists" with the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the increasingly isolated Taiwanese across the Formosa Strait. The nomenclature matters; t he War on Terror taught autocrats the world over that a terrorist is anyone who opposes them.

A suite of options, none good

The reaction from global leaders have been uniform disappointment (to varying degrees of usefulness). The erstwhile colonial masters in London have offered citizenship to Hongkongers with a British Overseas passport (if the security laws are enacted). A beneficent gesture for the 300,000 who hold such documents. Similarly, Tsai Ing-wen's government in Taiwan (which owes its reelection in no small part to the protests in Hong Kong) has offered assistance and refuge to democrats trying to leave. But whether the people go or stay, one thing is already fleeing – capital . And for the millions of people who remain, there will be the sympathies of foreign governments, and little else. Indeed, the paltry international support for Hong Kong's protesters last year communicated to Beijing that (despite flowery paeans about the human right to self-determination), the world's leaders are out of cards to play. Perhaps this is because many of them aren't playing with a full deck.

Nonetheless, the world's remaining superpower, despite worrying signs of decline, showed that it can still throw the kitchen sink about. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, "no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given the facts on the ground". The effect of this statement is that Washington can now place tariffs on imports from the beleaguered city state, freeze the assets of its leaders, and impose travel restrictions. But even these measures will not go far enough for Hong Kong's democrats, who have called on President Trump to rescind their Special Trading Status . This extreme act of economic self-harm would sever China's link to the global financial system , stock markets, and banking infrastructure. The billions upon billions poured into making Shanghai and Shenzhen financial and tech hubs have only done so much to ease the mainland's addiction to Hong Kong's cash. But, the economic hit would land hard on America, too – specifically, on the $31b trade surplus that Washington enjoys with this Asian tiger. And that's not all – the several hundred major US businesses that are regionally headquartered in Hong Kong would also be left to face the wrath of Chinese retaliation.

It's a hell of a predicament, and one that no one appears to want to untangle . To complicate matters further, this week the US House of Representatives passed a round of targeted sanctions against senior Chinese officials – for the imprisonment of more than a million Uighurs and other minorities. And complicating things even further, a Canadian judge ruled that Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou's extradition hearings are to continue, moving her one step closer to a Stateside trial. If the gravity of that case isn't apparent, simply imagine the stink if a comparable executive from Apple or Google was facing jail time in China! Given that both country's leaders reap domestic benefits from antagonising the other, there is no end in sight.

All the while Hongkongers endure a 50-year-long 'ship of Theseus' experiment: as their freedoms are dismantled and replaced, at what point is Hong Kong no longer Hong Kong?


Minneapolis mourns. PHOTO: AFP

"I can't breathe"

The senseless killing of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis on Monday has set the city alight in riots , and reignited the debate over racially-charged police brutality in the US. Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died lying on the hot concrete as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for several minutes. Floyd was echoing the words of Eric Garner in 2014: “I can’t breathe”. The deeply unnerving footage of Floyd’s death went viral, prompting the officers’ dismissal. But a population scarred by the systemic brutalisation of African Americans on the streets and in their homes is demanding that the officers be charged with murder. Thousands rioted in Minneapolis and across the US – looting stores , blocking freeways, facing off with police , and setting a Minneapolis police station alight . These riots have triggered more gun violence in their own right, from Minneapolis to St Louis . In their midst, Donald Trump has called for the FBI to investigate Floyd's death.

African American deaths at the hands of authorities are rooted in the legacies of 400 years of slavery, 18th-century slave patrols , lynchings (for which perpetrators were rarely brought to justice), and Jim Crow. Despite Black Lives Matter, the increased use of police body cams, and a swathe of police training programs, these tragedies continue. The number of police killings has held steady at around 1,100 annually between 2013-2019 . And a black person is three times more likely to be killed by police than a white one. As a modern comparison to the lack of accountability that defined and perpetuated public lynchings, 99% of police killings between 2013-2019 went uncharged. What has changed is the fact that these deaths are now broadcast to the world – prompting outrage well beyond the US . While justice remains elusive for many, the facts are not. Law enforcers have an obligation towards the preservation of life. And all people, regardless of skin colour, deserve to move through the world free from fear of brutality or murder.

Germany will be ascending soon. PHOTO: AFP

Debt brakes and hand brakes

Say that ten times, quickly. Fresh from launching a €500b bailout for struggling European Union states (no strings attached, for once!), German leaders are refocusing their efforts within the reich. As the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent, Berlin begrudgingly released its grip on the constitutional debt brake (a law that keeps federal debt to GDP below 0.35% and state debt at 0%). The famously tight-fisted Germans have already splashed €150b on stimulus measures for furloughed workers and faltering businesses. But it's clear the recovery will require at least that much again. The good news is that there are early signs of a strong bounce-back.

One early recipient of Germany's newfound largesse is Lufthansa (the biggest airline in Europe behind bring-your-own-seat Irish carrier, Ryanair). It has fared about as well as all airlines have in this crisis. The German government has offered a €9b life jacket with a mixture of loans and silent capital, and has bought a 20% stake in the airline. It's still subject to review from the EU competition watchdog , not to mention a vote from Lufthansa shareholders. It's the former causing most of a ruckus at the moment – Brussels is trying to prise prized landing privileges at Munich and Frankfurt from Lufthansa. Moreover, Berlin is contending with concerns about overt state influence; remember, Lufthansa was only privatised in 1994. Swings and roundabouts.

But while the German-Franco economic engine is spluttering back to life, an automaker synonymous with German industrial excellence has been slapped with an unroadworthy sticker. Volkswagen's well-engineered system to cheat diesel emissions was pulled apart years ago. But now a case in Germany's highest civil court has ruled that VW must buy back its polluting vehicles from another 61,000 autobahn warriors. The company has expressed hope that it will finally be able to view the Dieselgate saga through the rearview mirror.

The Best of Times

Simply extraordinary. PHOTO: Jorge de la Quintana

Art for the heavens

There are over 1,000 colossal tributes to the gods etched into Peru's Nazca Plateau. They are amongst the most arresting pieces of art in our species' history. And perhaps the least enjoyed: the vast majority cannot be seen from ground level. But now, with the rediscovery of 'La orca de Piedras Gorda' (an enormous monster that is part killer whale and part man) in the hills outside Palpa, they are also fit for human viewing.

Art under our feet

Just have a look at these exquisite mosaics discovered near Verona. It's enough to put you off floorboards for good.

The Worst of Times

The jets that Moscow insists aren't there. PHOTO: New York Times

Meddling, always meddling

Russian president-for-as long-as-he-damn-well-pleases Vladimir Putin is putting the tactics developed in Syria (overwhelming airpower unfazed by international law) to work in Libya. The Kremlin has delivered at least 14 fighter bombers (including several venerated Mig-29s) to a warlord with a rank, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Expect the offensive on Tripoli to be rekindled. And for Turkey to double-down on its support for the teetering government. Why can't anyone keep their hands to themselves?

Degrees of sympathy

Following last week's Deep Dive, it's our solemn duty to share with you another tidbit about how dinosaurs disappeared from the Earth. The asteroid that left the 200km-wide Chicxulub crater came in at a trajectory of 60°. This is, according to researchers, the deadliest angle as it ejected gas and material in all directions of the atmosphere, allowing it to entirely blanket the planet and kill 75% of all life. Good aim, bad luck.

Weekend Reading

The image

The Taliban rule Afghanistan's Alingar district. Jim Huylebroek for the New York Times.

The quote

"Golden Madi also has a ring attached to her foot with my contact number inscribed on it. All Indian forces have to do is add dialling code 0092 before the number and they can ascertain that she is my pet and not a spy."

– Pakistani pigeon trainer Habibullah politely requested that his prized specimen be returned. Golden Madi has been in Indian detention, on charges of espionage, since flying over the Line of Control late last week.

The numbers


- The estimated number of US cancer lawsuits Bayer is hoping to pay out in one fell swoop. Ever since the German agri-giant purchased Monsanto (and its toxic Roundup herbicide brand) in 2016, these lawsuits have sprouted across the globe. The company is aiming to keep the total payout below $10b.


- The number of years that the Western Australia's Juukan Gorge has been continuously inhabited by the ancestors of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. The cultural value of the caves found in the gorge were of incalculable value – one artefact made of human hair proved a direct 4,000-year-old connection between the traditional owners and their forebears. The site was blown up this week to make room for a Rio Tinto mine expansion.

The headline

"A new report says 50 billion years of evolution is being threatened by stupid humans" Mic (though we'd like to point out that there is only so much damage stupid humans can do – it's the smart ones you have to worry about).

The special mention

At risk of turning the coveted special mention into an in-memoriam section, this week we're paying tribute to a giant of the Aids crisis, Larry Kramer . Faced with the indifference from the Reagan administration and state legislators, Kramer poured all his energy into shaming them. His good works survive him today. Vale, Larry.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton