News from Hong Kong, Venezuela and Russia

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on September 30, 2014

HONG KONG – Schools and banks closed as Hong Kong paralysed by protest


People disperse after police fired tear gas upon pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 28, 2014.

Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the center of the global financial hub on Monday, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.

The Communist government in Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against any foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the free-wheeling, capitalist city of more than 7 million people.

“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defiantly told a news briefing in Beijing.

The unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule over the former British colony in 1997, sent white clouds of gas wafting among some of the world’s most valuable office towers and shopping malls before riot police suddenly withdrew around lunchtime on Monday.

Tens of thousands of mostly student protesters are demanding full democracy and have called on the city’s leader [Mayor/Chief Executive] Leung Chun-ying to step down.

China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the territory only a degree of democracy.



As riot police withdrew on Monday, weary protesters slept beside roads or sheltered from the sun beneath umbrellas, which have become a symbol of what some are calling the “Umbrella Revolution.” In addition to protection from the elements, umbrellas have been used as flimsy shields against pepper spray.

Nicola Cheung, an 18-year-old student from Baptist University, said the protesters in central Admiralty district were assessing the situation and planning what to do next.

“Yes, it’s going to get violent again because the Hong Kong government isn’t going to stand for us occupying this area,” she said. “We are fighting for our core values of democracy and freedom, and that is not something violence can scare us away from.”

Organizers have said that as many as 80,000 people have thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.

The protests, with no single identifiable leader, bring together a mass movement of mostly tech-savvy students who have grown up with freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. The movement represents one of the biggest threats for Beijing’s Communist Party leadership since its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square. …

The protests are expected to escalate on Oct. 1, China’s National Day holiday, with residents of the nearby former Portuguese enclave of Macau planning a rally. Pro-democracy supporters from other countries are also expected to protest, causing Beijing further embarrassment.

Such dissent would never be tolerated on the mainland, where the phrase “Occupy Central” was blocked on Sunday on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The protests have received little coverage on the mainland, save for government condemnation.

Protesters say there should be open nominations for candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership election. China’s rubber-stamp parliament endorsed a framework on Aug. 31 that ensured only pro-Beijing candidates.

VENEZUELA – Maduro Deems Outbreak of Deadly Disease ‘Terrorism’

CARACA – President Nicolás Maduro said he ordered the prosecution of doctors who had alerted the public to the recent deaths of nine people in a public hospital from an unidentified but possibly infectious disease.

“They wanted to impose a scheme of alarm, of psychological terrorism,” Mr. Maduro said Wednesday (Sept. 17) in a speech broadcast on TV. “There is no other name for this, it’s terrorism.”


Nicholas Maduro

He said he had spoken with Attorney General Luisa Ortega “so that our organs of justice work with severity, with all the firmness and severity that the law permits. You have to punish these people.”

Mr. Maduro’s warnings come after doctors said publicly said that they suspected a possible outbreak of Chikungunya disease, which is carried by mosquitoes from victim to victim, in the city of Maracay just west of here. Mr. Maduro’s government, which has lost support amid an economic crisis and soaring crime, hasn’t said what it believes caused the deaths.

From Aug. 30 until Sept. 14, nine people – four of them children – died at the large Central Hospital of Maracay, medical personnel in the city said. Doctors and the family of the last victim, Franklin Fossi, 41, a truck driver who died on Sunday, said he and the other victims suffered from fevers, blisters on their skin and severe joint pain.

“We don’t know what we are confronting,” Angel Sarmiento, the president of the Medical College of Aragua state, told reporters in the middle of September.  Dr. Sarmiento was singled out by the president for his comments about the deaths.  [“To dissent, to have a position different from the government, leads to a witch hunt,” Dr. Sarmiento said in a telephone interview on Sept. 19. “I am not a terrorist. I am a doctor.” He said he was still in Venezuela but was in hiding because he worried he would face a politically motivated prosecution.

map-south-americaDr. Douglas Natera, president of Venezuela’s medical federation, which represents doctors, said the opaque nature of Mr. Maduro’s government and its criticism of the medical establishment is generating anxiety in Maracay, where many people have gone to neighborhood clinics complaining of symptoms found in people infected with Chikungunya.

“Had they given out information quickly, they wouldn’t have caused people to be alarmed in Maracay, and then later in the whole country,” said Dr. Natera, who was also criticized by Mr. Maduro. “The people know what’s happening in the communities, where they have fevers and pain.”

Since first appearing in the Americas in Martinique last year, Chikungunya has spread across the Caribbean, infecting more than 9,000 people and killing 113 in the region, says the Pan American Health Organization.

Doctors and epidemiologists say that with preventive planning and medication, deaths can be prevented.

In Venezuela, Health Minister Nancy Perez on Wednesday provided what doctors here said were the government’s most extensive comments on the disease, saying that 398 cases had been detected and that three of those infected had died.

“What is important now is that at this moment there is no strange virus,” Ms. Perez said on Venezuelan TV, without providing details or mentioning the deaths in Maracay.

Medical associations here, as well as former government health officials, have said that the government should call a health emergency in Maracay because of the possibility that an epidemic has taken hold. And in neighborhoods in that city, residents who have lined up at clinics, feeling ill, say they don’t understand why there is not more information about the disease.

“People die and they say it’s a lie,” said Eseglaine Tovar, as she waited for attention with her baby boy, who has been sick. “They say it’s a rumor and it’s done to destabilize, but it’s true what we’ve seen.”

Mr. Maduro, though, suggested that the doctors who had criticized his government’s handling of the case might have even been plotting a biological attack against the country.

“We have serious suspicions that the right-wing was aiming to introduce a type of virus in the hospital in Maracay or elsewhere,” he said. “Their campaign fell into the abyss, thanks to God.”

RUSSIA – Facebook and Gmail face blacklist under Russian web laws

Facebook, Gmail and Twitter have been warned they must comply with controversial internet legislation signed by Vladimir Putin, a senior Russian official has said, raising fears that Western social networks could be blocked from the country.


Vladimir Putin

The three internet giants have been given until January to register with Russia’s communications watchdog and establish servers inside Russia or face “administrative sanctions,” Maxim Ksenov, the deputy head of the Roskomnadzor agency said in an interview with Izvestia.

“These three resources must make a decision on locating their data centers in Russia in accordance with the law on bloggers,” Mr. Ksenov said. “They are preparing to do so and want to fulfil the law.”

Google and Twitter both declined to speak about the move, while Facebook failed to respond to requests for comment.

The “bloggers laws” refer to a package of internet legislation that critics have described as an effort to crack down on online dissent and pave the way for blocking social networks in the country.

The laws, which entered into force on August 1, forces any blogger with more than 3,000 daily readers to register with the media watchdog, whole Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail must register as “organisers of information distribution.”

Companies registered on the list are obliged to retain records of user activity for six months on servers in Russia so the authorities can access it.

Several Russian firms, including Yandex and Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, have already registered, Mr Ksenov said.

Russia_RandMcNallyWith the Kremlin maintaining a tight grip on television and other media platforms, social networks have become a key tool of opposition to the Russian government.

Dissenting groups have made extensive use of the internet to criticise the government and organise protests, including the spate of anti-Putin rallies that gripped Moscow in 2011 and 2012.

But lawyers have warned that non-compliance with the new laws would leave companies open to blacklisting, and ultimately the blocking of their services in Russia.

“If sites are not registered, Roskomnadzor has the right to issue a second request that must be fulfilled in 15 days. If it is not, the agency can add that platform to a blacklist, blocking it for Russian users,” Sergey Kopylov, the head of the legal department for the national domain regulator, told Izvestia.

Roskomnadzor did not respond to requests for comment.

The warning came as the lower house of the Russian parliament approved a bill restricting foreign ownership of media outlets, in a move widely seen as an effort to stifle press freedom.

Deputies in the State Duma voted 430-2 to restric foreign ownership to 20 percent, citing the need to protect Russia from an “information war” being waged by the West.

The law will hit several major news outlets, including the Russian edition of Forbes magazine and Vedomosti, the country’s leading business daily.

The bill must be approved by the upper house and signed into law by Mr Putin before it becomes law.

(The news briefs above are from wire reports and staff reports posted at Reuters on Sept. 29, The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 18 and London’s Daily Telegraph on Sept. 26.)



Heavy-handed policing ignited Sunday's Hong Kong protests:

From BBC News:

What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain.

China agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems", where the city would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected.

Its leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200-member election committee. A majority of the representatives are viewed as pro-Beijing.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says that "the ultimate aim" is to elect the chief executive "by universal suffrage".

So what has changed?
The Chinese government has promised direct elections for chief executive by 2017.

But in August 2014 China's top legislative committee ruled that voters will only have a choice from a list of two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee.

This committee would be formed "in accordance with" Hong Kong's largely pro-Beijing election committee. Any candidate would have to secure the support of more than 50% of the nominating committee before being able to run in the election.

Democracy activists believe China will use the committee to screen out candidates it disapproves of.

What does China say?
China has defended its ruling on election candidacy. Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said that openly nominating candidates would create a "chaotic society" and that any chief executive must "love the country."

China has condemned the pro-democracy protests and called the unofficial referendum a "farce."

In its June 2014 white paper, China said some had a "confused and lopsided" understanding of the "one country, two systems" model.

It stressed that while Hong Kong has a "high degree of autonomy", it is "not full autonomy". China still has "comprehensive jurisdiction".


Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted by mosquito bites that has been present in Africa and Asia for decades but only recently spread to the Americas. Though there is no cure for the disease, its symptoms can be alleviated with medication. The disease has killed at least 113 people this year in the Caribbean region, according to the Pan American Health Organization, with the islands of Martinique and Guadaloupe hardest hit.

Health authorities from Mr. Maduro's government and independent epidemiologists agree the disease arrived in Venezuela several months ago. The two sides, though, are at odds about practically everything else about the disease.

In this polarized country, some leading epidemiologists said they believed Chikungunya was spreading so fast that a health emergency needed to be declared. The government has rejected that idea and accused its critics of trying to score political points. (from a Sept. 22 WSJ article)