Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon Want asylum in Canada

Waving Palestinian and Canadian flags, hundreds of Palestinian refugees gathered outside the Canadian Embassy in Beirut on Thursday requesting asylum in the North American country.

Many among the group lamented the deteriorating economic and living conditions in Lebanon, which is going through a severe economic crisis, and said they wanted a more dignified life.
There are tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Lebanon. Most of them live in squalid camps with no access to public services, limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership.
“We want to immigrate, we want to go to Canada for a better life. There is no work or money or anything here. I got a stroke and did open heart surgery, no one helped me,” said Haneya Mohammed, one of the protesters.
The periodic protests outside the embassy on the coastal highway north of Beirut began a few weeks ago, after a crackdown on undocumented foreign labor by Lebanese authorities, triggering protests inside some of the 12 camps spread across the country and in Beirut.
The protesters gathered Thursday also decried what they say is widespread corruption at the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA.
They held banners that read: “We want to live with dignity” and “We demand humanitarian asylum” in Arabic and English.  
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, is dealing with a budget crunch after an unprecedented loss of all funding from the United States, its largest donor.



India Says Landline Phone Service Fully Restored in Kashmir

Officials say they have restored all landline phone service in Indian-administered Kashmir after suspending most communications, including mobile internet, on Aug. 5 when India’s Hindu nationalist-led government revoked the Muslim-majority region’s special constitutional status and imposed a strict security lockdown.
In Srinagar, the disputed region’s main city, people lined up at offices or homes that have landline telephones to contact family and friends after being cut off for a month.
Cellphone and internet services have not been restored.

Native American Hemp Growers Hope to Cash In on Super Plant

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp and gave Native American tribes, as sovereign entities, the same rights as states to control and regulate its production.  This month, tribal farmers across the nation will harvest their first legitimate crop, hoping to cash in on a global market worth billions of dollars. But whether their product will make it to market this year is still up in the air.

In early June, Oglala Lakota tribe member Alex White Plume gathered together three generations of his extended family to plant their first-ever legal industrial hemp crop on land he owns on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

After fighting for two decades for the right to grow hemp, it was a joyful occasion, marked by prayer and song. But as the summer draws to a close, White Plume has grown increasingly anxious.

“I’m three weeks away from harvest,” he said. “Right now, it’s just tense. And sometimes it’s overbearing, cause you don’t know whether you are going to be able to sell or not.”

Photo shows Oglala Lakota hemp growers Alex and Debra White Plume standing in their hemp field on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., August 29, 2019.

In 1970, the federal government banned the growing of industrial hemp, once a legal crop in the U.S. The Controlled Substances Act made no distinction between hemp, an agricultural product, and marijuana, a drug. 

Telling the difference

Both hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis plant.  While they may look and smell alike, they differ chemically.  Marijuana (Cannabis indica) contains as much as 20% or 25% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that induces a “high.”  Hemp (Cannabis sativa) contains less than .3 percent THC. 

One of the most versatile plants on the planet, hemp’s seeds, fibers and oils can be used to make health supplements, paper, fabric, biodegradable plastic, biofuels and even cars and airplanes

Hemp advocates view it as a super plant — one that can bolster the U.S. economy, as well as arrest climate change. 

Hemp could also transform broken tribal economies.

In this file photo, a young girl rides her bike on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern S.D. on Tuesday , Jan. 10, 2006. At least 60% of Pine Ridge homes are substandard, lacking electricity, running water or sewage systems. (AP Photo…

The 2014 Farm Bill loosened restrictions, allowing hemp to be grown for research purposes only in states that made it legal. The new law allowed Indian tribes to partner with various states or universities to cultivate hemp on tribal land.

In mid-December 2018, Congress passed an 800-page farm bill that legalized the growing and selling of industrial hemp, and called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop rules on how hemp should be grown, inspected, tested and disposed of in cases where THC levels are too high. The bill also charged the USDA with reviewing and approving individual tribal hemp cultivation plans. 

“Our tribal government, about two months ago, passed a 49-page plan and submitted it to the USDA,” said White Plume. “But we haven’t gotten any response yet.”

That’s because the USDA hasn’t yet published the new regulations, said Patty Marks, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the Oglala Lakota and hemp growers from other tribes.

The USDA promised to issue regulations in fall 2019 to accommodate the 2020 planting season.

“So right now, there are seven tribal plans sitting at the Department of Agriculture,” said Marks. “Agriculture, with some help from friends in the Department of Justice, have been slow-walking it.  And this is just my opinion — there are some folks at Justice who just don’t like cannabis.”

Until the final rule is implemented, tribes, like states, must follow the rules set out in the 2014 Farm Bill. In other words, growing hemp only for research, not commercial purposes.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, right, looks over a pack made of hemp with Rob Bondurant, left, and Mark Galbraith of Osprey Packs of Cortez, Colorado, in the company’s exhibit at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, Colorado, June 19, 2019.

“So, Alex White Plume is in the limbo stage right now,” she said. “Alex is growing — and please put this in quotes — ‘against legal advice.’” 

Marks admits the USDA faces challenges, the greatest of which is coming up with a nationwide THC testing standard.  Currently, several tests have been developed, but they vary in reliability, and an inaccurate result could force the grower into destroying his entire crop.

This week, White Plume says his plants will have fully matured, and he’s planning to take a sample of his crop to a testing facility six hours away in Boulder, Colorado.  If his plants test within legal limits and the weather — of late unpredictable — holds, his harvest could yield 2,700 kilos of product.

With the price of hemp across the country at about $85 a pound, he and his family stand to gain — or lose — a lot.

Either way, White Plume said he’s turning over the hemp growing to his grandson next year.

“I’m just getting too old,” he laughed.


Brazilian Troops Begin Deploying to Fight Amazon Fires

Backed by military aircraft, Brazilian troops on Saturday were deploying in the Amazon to fight fires that have swept the region and prompted anti-government protests as well as an international outcry.

President Jair Bolsonaro also tried to temper global concern, saying that previously deforested areas had burned and that intact rainforest was spared. Even so, the fires were likely to be urgently discussed at a summit of the Group of Seven leaders in France this weekend.

Some 44,000 troops will be available for “unprecedented” operations to put out the fires, and forces are heading to six Brazilian states that asked for federal help, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo said. The states are Roraima, Rondonia, Tocantins, Para, Acre and Mato Grosso.

The military’s first mission will be carried out by 700 troops around Porto Velho, capital of Rondonia, Azevedo said. The military will use two C-130 Hercules aircraft capable of dumping up to 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) of water on fires, he said.

An Associated Press journalist flying over the Porto Velho region Saturday morning reported hazy conditions and low visibility. On Friday, the reporter saw many already deforested areas that were burned, apparently by people clearing farmland, as well as a large column of smoke billowing from one fire.

The municipality of Nova Santa Helena in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state was also hard-hit. Trucks were seen driving along a highway Friday as fires blazed and embers smoldered in adjacent fields.

The Brazilian military operations came after widespread criticism of Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. On Friday, the president authorized the armed forces to put out fires, saying he is committed to protecting the Amazon region.

Wildfires consume an area near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 23, 2019. Brazilian state experts have reported a record of nearly 77,000 wildfires so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018.

Azevedo, the defense minister, noted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer in a tweet to help Brazil fight the fires, and said there had been no further contact on the matter.

Despite international concern, Bolsonaro told reporters on Saturday that the situation was returning to normal. He said he was “speaking to everyone” about the problem, including Trump, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and several Latin American leaders.

Bolsonaro had described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who say the Amazon absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gasses and is crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

The Amazon fires have become a global issue, escalating tensions between Brazil and European countries who believe Bolsonaro has neglected commitments to protect biodiversity. Protesters gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in European and Latin American cities Friday, and demonstrators also marched in Brazil.

“The planet’s lungs are on fire. Let’s save them!” read a sign at a protest outside Brazil’s embassy in Mexico City.

A woman holds up a banner saying ‘ Their life does not belong to us’ during a demonstration against the wildfires in the Amazon outside the Brazilian embassy in Paris, Aug. 23, 2019.

The dispute spilled into the economic arena when French leader Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a European Union trade deal with Brazil and several other South American countries.

“First we need to help Brazil and other countries put out these fires,” Macron said Saturday.

The goal is to “preserve this forest that we all need because it is a treasure of our biodiversity and our climate thanks to the oxygen that it emits and thanks to the carbon it absorbs,” he said.

In a weekly video message released Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Group of Seven leaders “cannot be silent” and should discuss how to help extinguish the fires.

Bolivia has also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields. A U.S.-based aircraft, the B747-400 SuperTanker, is flying over devastated areas in Bolivia to help put out the blazes and protect forests.

On Saturday, several helicopters along with police, military troops, firefighters and volunteers on the ground worked to extinguish fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitanía region, where the woods are dry at this time of year.

Farmers commonly set fires in this season to clear land for crops or livestock, but sometimes the blazes get out of control. The Bolivian government says 9,530 square kilometers (3680 square miles) have been burned this year.

The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales has backed the increased cultivation of crops for biofuel production, raising questions about whether the policy opened the way to increased burning.

Similarly, Bolsonaro had said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms. Brazilian prosecutors are investigating whether lax enforcement of environmental regulations may have contributed to the surge in the number of fires.

Brazil’s justice ministry also said federal police will deploy in fire zones to assist other state agencies and combat “illegal deforestation.”

Fires are common in Brazil in the annual dry season, but they are much more widespread this year. Brazilian state experts reported nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018.

More than half of those fires occurred in the Amazon region.

Powerful, Obscure Law Is Basis for Trump ‘Order’ On Trade

President Donald Trump is threatening to use the emergency authority granted by a powerful but obscure federal law to make good on his tweeted “order” to U.S. businesses to cut ties in China amid a spiraling trade war between the two nations.

China’s announcement Friday that it was raising tariffs on $75 billion in U.S. imports sent Trump into a rage and White House aides scrambling for a response.

Trump fired off on Twitter, declaring American companies “are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” He later clarified that he was threatening to make use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act in the trade war, raising questions about the wisdom and propriety of making the 1977 act used to target rogue regimes, terrorists and drug traffickers the newest weapon in the clash between the world’s largest economies.

It would mark the latest grasp of authority by Trump, who has claimed widespread powers not sought by his predecessors despite his own past criticism of their use of executive powers.

“For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977,” Trump tweeted late Friday. “Case closed!”

For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. Case closed!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2019

The act gives presidents wide berth in regulating international commerce during times of declared national emergencies. Trump threatened to use those powers earlier this year to place tariffs on imports from Mexico in a bid to force the U.S. neighbor to do more to address illegal crossings at their shared border.

It was not immediately clear how Trump could use the act to force American businesses to move their manufacturing out of China and to the U.S, and Trump’s threat appeared premature — as he has not declared an emergency with respect to China.

Even without the emergency threat, Trump’s retaliatory action Friday — further raising tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. — had already sparked widespread outrage from the business community.

“It’s impossible for businesses to plan for the future in this type of environment,” David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.

The Consumer Technology Association called the escalating tariffs “the worst economic mistake since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 — a decision that catapulted our country into the Great Depression.”

And trade association CompTIA stressed the logistical strain that would follow if companies were forced to shift operations out of China, saying it would take months for most companies.

“Any forced immediate action would result in chaos,” CEO Todd Thibodeaux said in emailed comments.

The frequent tariff fluctuations are making it hard to plan and are casting uncertainty on some investments, said Peter Bragdon, executive vice president and chief administration officer of Columbia Sportswear.

“There’s no way for anyone to plan around chaos and incoherence,” he said.

Columbia manufactures in more than 20 countries, including China. This diversification helps shield the company from some fluctuations, but China is an important base for serving Chinese customers as well as those in other countries, Bragdon said. The company plans to continue doing business there.

“We follow the rule of law, not the rule of Twitter,” he said.

Presidents have often used the act to impose economic sanctions to further U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. Initially, the targets were foreign states or their governments, but over the years the act has been increasingly used to punish individuals, groups and non-state actors, such as terrorists.

Some of the sanctions have affected U.S. businesses by prohibiting Americans from doing business with those targeted. The act also was used to block new investment in Burma in 1997.

Congress has never attempted to end a national emergency invoking the law, which would require a joint resolution. Congressional lawmakers did vote earlier this year to disapprove of Trump’s declared emergency along the U.S.-Mexico border, only to see Trump veto the resolution.

China’s Commerce Ministry issued a statement Saturday condemning Trump’s threat, saying, “This kind of unilateral, bullying trade protectionism and maximum pressure go against the consensus reached by the two countries’ heads of state, violate the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and seriously damage the multilateral trading system and normal international trade order.”

Rohingya Refugees Protest Exodus, Demand Rights in Myanmar

Thousands of angry and frustrated Rohingya refugees marked the second anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar into Bangladesh on Sunday by demanding their citizenship and other rights in the country they fled from.

The event came days after Bangladesh with the help of the U.N. refugee agency attempted to start the repatriation of 3,450 Rohingya Muslims but none agreed to go back voluntarily. Myanmar had scheduled Aug. 22 for the beginning of the process but it failed for a second time after the first attempt last November.

The repatriation deal is based on an understanding that the return has to be “safe, dignified and voluntary.” The refugees also insisted on receiving Myanmar citizenship and other rights, which the Buddhist-majority nation has refused to grant so far.

More than 1 million Rohingya live in Bangladesh.

On Sunday morning, more than 3,000 gathered at a playground in Kutupalong camp. Some carried placards and banners reading “Never Again! Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day,” and “Restore our citizenship.”

A prayer session was scheduled for the victims of the killings, rape and arson attacks by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist militias. Security was tight in the camps despite the Rohingya groups’ pledge that they would protest peacefully.

Muhib Ullah, one of the organizers, said they planned a massive rally later Sunday when tens of thousands of refugees are expected to join.

“We want to tell the world that we want our rights back, we want citizenship, we want our homes and land back,” he said. “Myanmar is our country. We are Rohingya.”

Myanmar has consistently denied human rights violations and says military operations in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya fled from, were justified in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

A U.N.-established investigation last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the crackdown on the Rohingya. Myanmar dismissed the allegations.

On Thursday, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a new report concluding rapes of Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces were systemic and demonstrated the intent to commit genocide. The report said the discrimination Myanmar practiced against the Rohingya in peacetime aggravated the sexual violence toward them during times of conflict.

Fortify Rights, a human rights group that has documented abuses in Myanmar, called on the Myanmar government on Saturday to implement recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was appointed by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 and led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The commission recommended that the government end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinya Muslims, ensure full humanitarian access, tackle Rohingya statelessness and “revisit” the 1982 Citizenship Law and punish perpetrators of abuses.

“Rather than deal with ongoing atrocities, the government tried to hide behind the Advisory Commission,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “The commission responded with concrete recommendations to end violations, and the government should act on them without delay. The government needs to urgently address the realities on the ground.”

How US Government’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ Plan Unfurled Into Confusion

This is the second story in a series on how the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols are being carried out in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Read the first story here.

VOA News Center Immigration Reporter Ramon Taylor, and VOA Spanish Service reporters Jorge Agobian and Celia Mendoza contributed to this report.

Like border cities everywhere, Nuevo Laredo is a portal. People and merchandise cross the five road and rail bridges between the U.S. and Mexico every day, in both directions, for work, school, business meetings, shopping, family visits, doctor appointments – the quotidian building blocks of life along the Rio Grande.

Pay 25 cents and you can walk right across Puente #1, as it’s known colloquially, in a few minutes if you’re in a rush and there’s no line at the immigration agent desks.

Formally the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, it links Laredo’s historic city center neighborhood of San Agustin, to the commercial strip of shops, pharmacies and low-key lunchtime restaurants on Nuevo Laredo’s Avenida Guerrero.

It’s at the end of this bridge, when entering Mexico from the U.S., in the parking lot built for buses and trucks at the Mexican immigration agency’s customs office, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have dropped off migrants and asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) policy to wait for their immigration court dates.

FILE – FILE – People walk back to Mexico on the Americas International Bridge, a legal port of entry which connects Laredo, Texas in the U.S., with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 18, 2019.

“In Nuevo Laredo, we’re used to seeing a lot of migrants (traveling through), historically,” said Raul Cárdenas Thomae, secretary of the Nuevo Laredo city council. “But in the last few months, the number of people crossing into the U.S. has definitely increased.”

Register in Mexico

At first, asylum-seekers would register with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which in turn would share lists of the asylum-seekers with the U.S. government, Cárdenas Thomae said. The list would allow the asylum-seekers to schedule an initial hearing with a U.S. immigration judge.

Beginning on July 9, however, Nuevo Laredo began receiving people from the other direction under the Trump administration’s new policy. Since then, more than 3,000 asylum-seekers who had crossed into the U.S. and are awaiting immigration court dates have been returned to Mexico under the MPP policy.

Moreover, migrants aren’t the only — or even the main — issue for local government for this city of about 400,000.

Nuevo Laredo maintains a prickly balance among massive amounts of transnational business, politics, migration and organized crime, and it’s long been a base for the Los Zetas cartel, whose activities are deeply entrenched in the city’s fabric.

Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas Cuéllar said every city has its dangers, its risks. But the city is not the one that is pushing migrants to leave, he insists.

“We obviously can’t force anyone not to be in the city of Nuevo Laredo, but what we can be strict about is that the laws are followed; that there is an order that doesn’t disrupt the rights of others,” he told VOA.

Officials didn’t know how many people to expect. At one point, local officials understood they might receive as many as 15,000 returnees, Cardenas Thomae said. Moreover, they don’t know how long people will stay — or even if they will stay.

FILE – Migrants sit in a bus that will take them and other migrants to Moneterrey, from an immigration center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 18, 2019.

Buses to Monterrey

The Mexican government at first provided buses from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, a 270-kilometer (168-mile)  journey that takes about three hours to drive. The buses were an option for migrants; no one was forced on board.

Beginning earlier this month, though, the buses that showed up at the bridge drop-off site were bound for Chiapas, the Mexican state bordering Guatemala, which in turn, borders Honduras and El Salvador.

Bus route from Nuevo Laredo to Tapachula, Mexico

The Homeland Security Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple VOA requests for comment on Mexico’s busing plan and concerns over how people would be able to return for their U.S. court dates.

Calling the busing plan “voluntary,” said Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights organization, “seems hard to justify when the people aren’t even very clear on what they’re going into.”

Meyer traveled to Chiapas this month to see the buses from Nuevo Laredo arrive, after a more than 30-hour trip. Mexican immigration agents at the border with Guatemala seemed confused about what they should advise the busloads of people, she told VOA.

The arrival also raised issues for the migrants themselves, each theoretically with a U.S. court date in the coming months. Being closer to home could mean a place to shower and regroup, or pick up more paperwork for their cases. However, they often don’t understand that even a brief return home could weaken their asylum cases, Meyer said.

Behind the scenes, CBP officials, journalists, shelter directors, politicians, and immigration lawyers are asking questions about how MPP functions. Unlike CBP and DHS officials, though, Nuevo Laredo municipality officials were willing to not only talk, but sit down for interviews on camera and address MPP.

The migrants themselves don’t have access to these discussions, though, or to people whom they could ask questions. They have some paperwork that in some cases they don’t understand, or don’t trust, such as a list of free or low-cost lawyers from CBP. The migrants have often thrown away their cellphones before crossing the river and haven’t seen the news in weeks or months.

FILE – A woman and her 7-month-old baby stand on a sidewalk after being bused by Mexican authorities from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Mexico.

Immigration attorneys acknowledge that even if the migrants could get cellphone service in Mexico, and can pay for phone credit, there’s a good chance they couldn’t get a lawyer. Border attorneys are stretched thin, and the length of some asylum cases — which can take years — makes it difficult for outside lawyers to connect with potential clients.

US Border Patrol

The long wait may push people to reattempt a stealth border crossing, possibly in a more dangerously remote area.

“I envision a time where everybody… (is) going to try and traverse and evade apprehension and become part of this smuggling effort that happens on this side of the border, as opposed to just on the Mexican side of the border,” Del Rio Sector U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said.

Meanwhile, the migrants and asylum-seekers are still arriving to Nuevo Laredo, and still deciding how and where to wait out the months until their first hearing.

Lilian, a Honduran woman traveling with her 9-year-old son, said the group dropped off at Puente #1 on August 8 was told if they didn’t get on the buses to Chiapas, they would be put out on the street.

She and her son, along with a woman and her children in the CBP facility, did not get on the bus, but headed to another Mexican city.

“What I don’t want is to go back to Honduras. … If we go to Chiapas, how much is it going to cost me to come back? I don’t have that kind of money,” said Lilian, who was given a November court date.


Russian Spacecraft Fails to Dock With Space Station

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft failed to dock with the International Space Station Saturday.

The craft was carrying a humanoid robot that was scheduled to conduct a mission on the station with the cosmonauts who are there.  

NASA said on its blog that the docking system of the Soyuz spacecraft failed to properly lock onto its target on the ISS.

The Soyuz has backed away from the ISS while the cosmonauts work on the station’s docking system.

Officials say the Soyuz will attempt another ISS docking Monday.


China Frees Consulate Staff; Protesters Target ‘Smart Lampposts’

Chinese police said Saturday they released an employee at the British Consulate in Hong Kong as the city’s pro-democracy protesters took to the streets again, this time to call for the removal of “smart lampposts” that raised fears of stepped-up surveillance.

Public security authorities in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong, said Simon Cheng Man-kit was released as scheduled after 15 days of administrative detention. 

Police and demonstrators clash in Hong Kong, Aug. 24, 2019. The city’s pro-democracy protesters took to the streets again, this time to call for the removal of “smart lampposts” that raised fears of stepped-up surveillance.

The detention of the locally hired consulate employee stoked tensions in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which has been rocked by months of antigovernment protests, including one to oppose new smart lampposts that activists fear could contain cameras and facial recognition software.

Cheng was detained for violating mainland Chinese law and “confessed to his illegal acts,” the public security bureau in Luohu, Shenzhen, said on its Weibo microblog account, without providing further details. 

The Chinese government has said that Cheng, who went missing after traveling by train to mainland China for a business trip, was held for violating public order regulations in Shenzhen. 

A spokeswoman at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London confirmed his release. 

The Global Times, a Communist Party-owned nationalistic tabloid, said Thursday he was detained for “soliciting prostitutes.” China often uses public order charges against political targets and has sometimes used the accusation of soliciting prostitution. 

Demonstrators put papers on a fallen smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong, Aug. 24, 2019.

Surveillance fears

Protesters flooded the streets to demand the removal of smart lampposts in a Kowloon district over fears they could contain high-tech cameras and facial recognition software used for surveillance by Chinese authorities. Carrying umbrellas in the sweltering heat, they filled a main road in the Kwun Tong district and chanted slogans calling for the government to answer the movement’s demands.

“Hong Kong people’s private information is already being extradited to China. We have to be very concerned,” said march organizer Ventus Lau.

Some protesters set up makeshift barricades on a road outside a police station, facing off with police in riot gear.

Hong Kong’s government-owned subway system operator, MTR Corp., shut down stations and suspended train service near the protest route, after attacks by Chinese state media accusing it of helping protesters flee in previous protests. 

MTR said Friday that it may close stations near protests under high risk or emergency situations. The company has until now kept stations open and trains running even when there have been chaotic skirmishes between protesters and police.

Lau said MTR was working with the government to “suppress freedom of expression.” 

West’s Divisions Empowering China and Russia, Warn Analysts

China and Russia believe they can behave as they want and have impunity to crush dissent because Western states are at odds with themselves and have lost confidence in their ability to shape the world around them, warn analysts. 

“There is a danger that we in the West are becoming bystanders to the great events swirling around the globe. Our inability to articulate a clear response that generates a change in behavior means a sense of impunity dominates,” argued Rafaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

Writing in Britain’s The Times newspaper, Pantucci said, “Our responses to the current protests going on in Hong Kong and Moscow are the clearest articulations of this problem. Beijing and Moscow have largely behaved as they would like.”

Anti-G-7 activists march along a road near a tent camp near Hendaye, France, Aug. 23, 2019.

Western diplomats and analysts fear this week’s three-day G-7 summit in the French resort town of Biarritz will demonstrate again the lack of unity among Western leaders over a series of issues, including climate change, relations with Russia, rising nationalism, and the trade war between the United States and China, whose fallout is hurting Europe far more than America. The G-7 comprises the world’s largest advanced democracies. 

In order to try to reduce a display of disunity, the summit host, French President Emmanuel Macron, is lobbying for the gathering not to issue a joint communique for the first time in the G-7’s history. He hopes to avoid a repeat of last year when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his endorsement of the joint statement 10 minutes after it was released. Macron wants instead to replace the communique by delivering as G-7 chairman a summary of the main discussions.

Divisions feared

Whether that papers over disputes remains in doubt. Some analysts say the summit risks becoming explosive. 

“There is huge scope for the Western world to look more divided by the end of the meeting than it did at the beginning,” said William Hague, a former British foreign secretary. He says the G-7 leaders are “desperately short of ideas around which they can coalesce,” ones they need in order “to address the main threats that will overcome them unless they look far enough ahead now.”

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on environment and social equality to business leaders on the eve of the G-7 summit, in Paris, Aug. 23, 2019.

On the eve of the meeting, Macron set out an ambitious plan to challenge fellow leaders to rethink their approach to global leadership. He will urge them to rescue democracy from nationalist populists, to temper capitalism, to lessen social inequality and to boost biodiversity, and to re-embrace multilateralism — all of which risks strong pushback from Trump. 

The U.S. leader is skeptical of multilateralism and frustrated with the lack of European support for his “maximum pressure” aggressive stance toward Iran. He is also pressing the Europeans to back his trade confrontation with China, arguing that short-term pain is necessary in order to “take on” Beijing, otherwise the West, in the long term, will be the losers.

Blaming China, Russia

Some Western commentators blame Trump and other nationalist populists for Western disunity, but others see the fraying of Western-shaped global leadership as a consequence of a deeper, historical malaise amid the rise of an aggressive China, which uses commerce as a tool of statecraft and diplomacy, and an assertive Russia that increasingly voices disdain for the West and is eager to develop a partnership with China.

Asked whether he would welcome Moscow being readmitted to the G-7, Russian President Vladmir Putin scoffed at the idea, saying, “The G-7 doesn’t exist. How can I come back to an organization that doesn’t exist?” Putin said he prefers the G-20 format because it includes countries like India and China. The G-20 refers to the group of 20 major economies.

Investing heavily in the West and the developing world, Beijing isn’t shy about demanding a political quid pro quo and the Hong Kong protests have placed the Europeans, especially the British, in a dilemma. Should they champion the rights and freedoms the people of Hong Kong enshrined in a joint declaration signed with Beijing before the British handed the territory back to the Chinese in 1997, or muffle their complaints about Chinese heavy-handedness in order to ingratiate themselves with Beijing and reap commercial benefits? 

FILE – Hong Kong protesters gather outside the subway station in Sheung Wan district participate the “823 Road for Hong Kong” human chain rally (Photo: Iris Tong / VOA Cantonese)

That dilemma is only going to become sharper as anti-government protests in Hong Kong continue, risking Chinese military intervention in the former British colony. Beijing has made it clear, with thinly-disguised threats, that British criticism needs to be tempered, otherwise London, which is desperate to boost its trade with China post-Brexit, will lose out financially.

Hague argues that the G-7 “should be restating the case for freedom.” He says that the end of the Cold War “has deprived democratic nations of their automatic unity, and the global financial crisis has rocked their self-confidence.” 

The financial shock came amid a longer-term trend: the hollowing out of the West’s industrial base with manufacturing shifting eastward, prompting the anger of the working classes in the West, who resent losing out on the benefits of globalism, making them question the whole basis of multilateralism. 

According to Antonio Barroso, an analyst with the geostrategic risk consulting group Teneo, “We have passed from a world that was certainly much more multilateral than the one that we have now.”