Hong Kong leader says sorry as protesters insist she quits

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By James Pomfret and Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam apologized to its people on Sunday as an estimated 1 million-plus black-clad protesters insisted that she resign over her handling of a bill that would allow citizens to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Organizers said almost 2 million turned out on Sunday to demand that chief executive Lam step down in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since it was handed back by Britain 22 years ago.

Sunday’s demonstration came in spite of Lam indefinitely delaying – though not withdrawing – the bill on Saturday in a dramatic climbdown that threw into question her ability to continue to lead the city.

On Sunday, she apologized for the way the government had handled the draft law, which had been scheduled for debate last Wednesday, but gave no further insight into its fate.

Organizers pressed ahead with the protest to demand the bill’s full withdrawal, as well as to mark their anger at the way police handled a demonstration against it on Wednesday, when more than 70 people were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas.

Some of Sunday’s marchers held signs saying, “Do not shoot, we are HongKonger.”

Police said the demonstration reached 338,000 at its peak. Organizers and police have routinely produced vastly different estimates at recent demonstrations.

Organizers estimated a protest the week before drew 1 million while police said 240,000.

“It’s much bigger today. Many more people,” said one protester who gave her name as Ms Wong. “I came today because of what happened on Wednesday, with the police violence.”

Loud cheers rang out when activists called through loud hailers for Lam’s resignation and the cry “step down” echoed through the streets.

“(An) apology is not enough,” said demonstrator Victor Li, 19.

‘SHORTING’ CARRIE LAM

The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

Critics say the planned extradition law could threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law and its international reputation as an Asian financial hub. Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving personal wealth offshore.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump would raise the issue of Hong Kong human rights at a potential meeting with president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan this month.

In a blog post published on Sunday, Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan sought to play down the impact of the protests.

“Even if the external environment continues to be unclear and the social atmosphere is tense recently, overall Hong Kong’s economic and financial markets are still operating in a stable and orderly manner,” he wrote.

Activist investor David Webb, in a newsletter on Sunday, said if Lam was a stock he would recommend shorting her with a target price of zero.

“Call it the Carrie trade. She has irrevocably lost the public’s trust,” Webb said. “Her minders in Beijing, while expressing public support for now, have clearly lined her up for the chop.”

In another indication of a possible shift of mood in the Chinese capital, a leader of the pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations that galvanized Hong Kong in 2014 appeared set to be released from jail.

Joshua Wong’s pro-democracy Demosisto movement said he would be freed on Monday.

Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the latest series of protests -the largest since crowds demonstrated against the bloody suppression of pro-democracy activists in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989 – amid concerns that any large public rallies could inspire demonstrations on the mainland.

Pompeo said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” he was sure the protests would be among the issues that Trump and Xi will discuss.

“We’re watching the people of Hong Kong speak about the things they value, and we’ll see what Lam’s decision is in the coming days and weeks,” Pompeo said.

Last week U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would require the U.S. government to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from China each year in order to continue the special treatment the city gets under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.

ONE COUNTRY TWO SYSTEMS

The city’s independent legal system was guaranteed under laws governing Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule and is seen by business and diplomatic communities as its strongest asset.

Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula since then, allowing freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China but not a fully democratic vote.

Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Asked repeatedly on Saturday if she would step down, Lam avoided answering directly and appealed to the public to “give us another chance.”

Her reversal was hailed by business groups including the American Chamber of Commerce, which had spoken out strongly against the bill, and overseas governments.

The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter: “Well done HK Government for heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights”.

In the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own, about 5,000 people rallied outside the parliament building in Taipei with banners saying, “No China extradition law” and “Taiwan supports Hong Kong.”

Some of the protesters in Hong Kong also waved Taiwan flags.

China’s top newspaper, the People’s Daily, on Sunday condemned “anti-China lackeys” of foreign forces in Hong Kong.

Lam had argued that the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals hiding in Hong Kong and that human rights would be protected by the city’s courts which would decide on any extradition on a case-by-case basis.

Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, have noted China’s justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and say it is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.

(Reporting by Alun John, Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, John Ruwitch, Marius Zaharia, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Farah Master; Additional reporting by by Richard Cowan in Washington, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Jennifer Hughes; Editing by Michael Perry and John Stonestreet)

Chinese raids hit North Korean defectors’ ‘Underground Railroad’

Photo sheets of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Josh Smith

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – A decade after leaving her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time in May after he too escaped into China.

While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities.

“I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s safety. “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”

The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had no official news of his whereabouts.

At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups.

It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”.

“The crackdown is severe,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.

Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the “red zone” where most escapees get caught – and included rare raids on at least two safe houses.

“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen two or three times,” said Kim, who left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years, connecting donors with brokers who help defectors.

“You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”

The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.

“In the past, up to half a million North Korean defectors came to China,” Kim said, citing the period in the 1990s when famine struck North Korea. “A lot of these arrests have to do with China wanting to prevent this again.” 

DIVIDED FAMILIES

Kim Jeong-cheol already lost his brother trying to escape from North Korea, and now fears his sister will meet a similar fate after she was caught by Chinese authorities.

“My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison and was executed in North Korea,” Kim told Reuters. “That’s why my sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man to leave because he’s hungry and about to die?”

Reuters was unable to verify the fate of Kim’s brother or sister. Calls to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.

Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families say there is no sign China has deported the recently arrested North Koreans yet, and their status is unknown.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which does not typically acknowledge arrests of individual North Korean escapees, said it had no information about the raids or status of detainees.

“We do not know about the situation to which you are referring,” the ministry said in a statement when asked by Reuters.

North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are not refugees, it added.

“They use illegal channels to enter China, breaking Chinese law and damaging order for China’s entry and exit management,” the ministry said. “For North Koreans who illegally enter the country, China handles them under the principled stance of domestic and international law and humanitarianism.”

South Korea’s government said it tries to ensure North Korean defectors can reach their desired destinations safely and swiftly without being forcibly sent back to the North, but declined to provide details, citing defectors’ safety and diplomatic relations.

When another woman – who also asked to be unnamed for her family’s safety – escaped from North Korea eight years ago, she promised her sister and mother she would work to bring them out later.

In January, however, her mother died of cancer, she said.

On her death bed, her mother wrote a message on her palm pleading for her remaining daughter to escape North Korea.

“It will haunt me for the rest of my life that I didn’t keep my promise,” said woman, who now lives in South Korea.

Her 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being caught.

“When you get there, you think you’re almost home free,” she said. “You think you’re safe.”

INCREASE IN ARRESTS

There are no hard statistics on how many North Koreans try to leave their country, but South Korea, where most defectors try to go, says the number safely arriving in the South dropped after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

In 2018 about 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea, compared to 2,706 in 2011.

Observers say the drop is partly because of increased security and crackdowns in both North Korea and China.

Over the past year, more cameras and updated guard posts have been seen at the border, said Kang Dong-wan, who heads an official North Korean defector resettlement organization in South Korea and often travels to the border between China and North Korea.

“Kim Jong Un’s policy itself is tightening its grip on defection,” he said. “Such changes led to stronger crackdowns in China as well.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also cracked down on a variety of other activities, including illicit drugs, which are sometimes smuggled by the same people who transport escapees, said one activist who asked not to be named due to the sensitive work.

North Koreans who enter China illegally face numerous threats, including from the criminal networks they often have to turn to for help.

Tens of thousands of women and girls trying to flee North Korea have been pressed into prostitution, forced marriage, or cybersex operations in China, according to a report last month by the non-profit Korea Future Initiative.

“SMASH UP NETWORKS”

An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.

“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the organization’s work.

Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.

“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” he said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

U.S. farmers experimenting with hemp as China trade war drags on

A sample of industrial hemp seeds is shown at a research station site in Haysville, Kansas, U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

By Julie Ingwersen and David Randall

HAYSVILLE, Kansas (Reuters) – A growing number of U.S. farmers battered by low grain prices and the threat of a prolonged trade war with China are seeking salvation in a plant that until recently was illegal: hemp.

A cousin of cannabis plants that produce marijuana, hemp is used in products ranging from food to building materials and cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which is being touted as a treatment for everything from sleeplessness to acne to heart disease.

Interest in hemp picked up with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill in December, which removed hemp from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances and put it under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp doesn’t contain enough of the psychoactive chemical THC to give users a high.

The new rules call for the USDA to award hemp planting licenses to farmers but the agency has not yet regulated the process, meaning individual states are still issuing the licenses.

Industrial hemp plantings this year could double from the 78,176 acres seeded in 2018, said Eric Steenstra, president of advocacy group Vote Hemp. In 2017, 25,713 acres were planted on pilot programs authorized under the 2014 farm bill.

The U.S. hemp market is growing along with supply. U.S. sales of hemp reached $1.1 billion in 2018 and are projected to reach $1.9 billion by 2022, according to Vote Hemp and the Hemp Business Journal, a trade publication.

The profit potential is high: A good yield of food-grade hemp, for instance, can net farmers about $750 per acre, said Ken Anderson, founder of Prescott, Wisconsin-based hemp processor Legacy Hemp. Hemp seeds can be baked in to bread or sprinkled onto cereal or salads.

“That’s a profit that blows corn and wheat and everything else out of the water,” he said.

By comparison, soybeans bring in $150 or less per acre, and sales of the U.S. crop to China have fallen sharply since the onset of the trade war last year.

Before they can cash in on hemp, however, U.S. farmers must learn the science of producing an unfamiliar crop and wrestle with shifting regulations and other uncertainties.

“Nobody has any experience whatsoever,” said Rick Gash, 46, a businessman in Augusta, Kansas, who plans to grow his first-ever hemp crop on a horse pasture on his old family property.

NEW FRONTIER FOR REGULATION

CBD oil, which is concentrated in the hemp plant’s flowers, made up an estimated 23 percent of hemp sales in 2017, according to the Hemp Business Journal.

While the USDA oversees hemp planting, regulation of hemp products mostly falls to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Though the agency has not approved food and supplements containing CBD, such products are widely available and the agency has done little to curtail their sales.

Furthermore, the FDA mainly has jurisdiction over commerce between states, meaning products developed and sold locally in states that have more tolerant laws for hemp products is legal.

“To date, the FDA has only gone after people making aggressive claims – cancer treatment claims, AIDS treatment claims and the like,” said attorney Jonathan Havens, former FDA regulatory counsel and current co-chair of cannabis law practice at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.

Other CBD products with no health claims or ‘soft’ claims have drawn no federal enforcement, he said, “causing many people to confuse availability with legality.”

The FDA said in a statement to Reuters it had developed a strategy to evaluate existing CBD products and create lawful pathways for bringing them to market. The agency knows some companies are marketing products containing hemp-derived compounds in ways that violate the law but has prioritized those making unwarranted health claims for enforcement action, the FDA said.

“Our biggest concern is the marketing of products that put the health and safety of consumers at greatest risk, such as those claiming to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer,” the agency said in the statement.

CBD ICE CREAM?

Despite the uncertainty, analysts at U.S. financial services firm Cowen & Co estimate that products with CBD as an ingredient will generate $16 billion in retail sales for humans and animals in the U.S. by 2025.

Hemp seed is pictured at a salad bar at Whole Foods Market in Evanston, Illinois, U.S., June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Hemp seed is pictured at a salad bar at Whole Foods Market in Evanston, Illinois, U.S., June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Companies are also making big bets: Kroger Co, the nation’s largest grocery chain, said on Tuesday it plans to sell CBD creams, balms and oils in nearly 1,000 stores across 17 states.

Unilever Plc’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream chain said in a May 30 statement it planned to debut CBD-infused ice cream flavors as soon as consuming the oil is “legalized at the federal level.”

In Kentucky, which launched a pilot program for hemp in 2014, farmers who used to grow tobacco are finding hemp grown for CBD oil to be a profitable alternative with a better reputation.

“When I was growing tobacco, everyone said I was growing something that’s bad for your health,” said Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer. “It’s fun to grow something that is making people feel better.”

Farther west, in the U.S. midsection where farmers are more familiar with commodity crops like corn and wheat and have been more scarred by the trade war, some see hemp as a rotational crop grown on a larger scale for seed and fiber, rather than for its labor-intensive CBD oil.

Entrepreneur Rick Gash, founder and CEO of the Hemp Development Group LLC, surveys a field where he plans to grow industrial hemp near his home in Augusta, Kansas, U.S., May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Entrepreneur Rick Gash, founder and CEO of the Hemp Development Group LLC, surveys a field where he plans to grow industrial hemp near his home in Augusta, Kansas, U.S., May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

EXPENSIVE SEED, HARVESTING BY HAND

The Kansas Department of Agriculture began issuing licenses to growers this spring, allowing the crop to be cultivated in the state this year for the first time in decades.

Jason Griffin, a specialist at Kansas State University, remains skeptical of the crop’s potential and cringes when he hears descriptions like ‘gold rush’ to describe it.

Beyond navigating changing regulations, expensive seed is one of many challenges that pioneering hemp farmers will face.

Special equipment for harvesting hemp may also be required, although some growers have been able to re-purpose the combines they already own. The hemp plant’s flowers are typically harvested by hand, while hemp for fiber is grown in fields and must be cut mechanically and dried in the field before storage.

Farmers are particularly dependent on the end buyers of hemp, as there are few third-party brokers to sell it as there are for other cash crops.

“You can’t just go to the local grain elevator and ask what’s your cash price for hemp grain right now,” said Legacy Hemp’s Anderson.

He often cautions farmers not to plant seeds until they have a contract with a buyer because prices vary widely. Legacy Hemp signs contracts with farmers before the planting season.

Other farmers are concerned over the long-term prospects. Montana wheat farmer Nathan Keane is growing female hemp plants exclusively for CBD oil, starting in a greenhouse and transplanting each plant later by hand.

“Honestly, I think the CBD thing is going to be a bubble,” he said. “I will ride the wave but I’m really hoping the sustainability of hemp is going to be in the grain and the fiber.”

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen and David Randall; Additional reporting by Richa Naidu; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Protesters scuffle with Hong Kong police, government offices shut

Pro-democracy legislators speak to the media demanding the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdraw a controversial extradition bill outside Government House, following a day of violence over an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, in Hong Kong, China June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Clare Jim and Sumeet Chatterjee

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Scuffles broke out between demonstrators and police in Hong Kong on Thursday as hundreds of people kept up a protest against a planned extradition law with mainland China, a day after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up big crowds.

Protests around the city’s legislature on Wednesday forced the postponement of debate on the extradition bill, which many people in Hong Kong fear will undermine freedoms and confidence in the commercial hub.

Hong Kong’s China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence and urged a swift restoration of order but has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite the reservations about it, including within the business community.

The number of protesters milling about outside the legislature in the financial district fell overnight but rose again through the day on Thursday to about 1,000 at one stage.

They expect the legislature, which has a majority of pro-Beijing members, will try to hold the debate at some stage, though it issued a notice saying there would be no session on Thursday.

“We will be back when, and if, it comes back for discussion again,” said protester Stephen Chan, a 20-year old university student.

“We just want to preserve our energy now.”

Earlier, some protesters tried to stop police from removing their supplies of face masks and food and scuffles broke out.

Police with helmets and shields blocked overhead walkways and plainclothes officers checked commuters’ identity cards.

A clean-up got underway to clear debris like broken umbrellas, helmets, plastic water bottles and barricades from the streets after the previous day’s clashes. Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Wednesday in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the legislature.

Officials said 72 people were admitted to hospital.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said what began as a peaceful gathering on Wednesday had degenerated into a riot with protesters “acting violently in an organized manner”.

Police arrested 11 people and fired about 150 tear gas canisters at the crowd. The city’s hospital authority said a total of 81 people were injured in the protests. 22 police were injured according to Lo.

Police also later arrested two students at the University of Hong Kong after a raid on a student hall of residence, according to an official at the university. The police gave no immediate response to Reuters inquiries on what charges the students face.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese government “strongly condemns the violent behavior and we support the (Hong Kong) government in dealing with it according to law”.

‘LAWLESSNESS’

Authorities shut government offices in the financial district, which is overlooked by the towers of some of Asia’s biggest firms and hotel chains, for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong in decades.

Hong Kong’s benchmark stock exchange slid as much as 1.5% on Thursday before closing down 0.1%, extending losses from the previous day.

Most roads in the business district were open on Thursday but some shops and offices were closed and banks, including Standard Chartered, Bank of China and DBS, said they had suspended branch services in the area.

Wednesday saw the third night of violence since a protest on Sunday drew what organizers said was more than a million people in the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule.

The handover included a deal to preserve special autonomy, but many Hong Kong people accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms and interference in local elections.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, has sparked concern it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Beijing rejects accusations of meddling and Chinese state media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the bill.

The English-language China Daily said the “lawlessness” would hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its law.

Lam and her officials say the law is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s huge march, said it was planning another demonstration for Sunday.

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Opponents of the bill, including lawyers and rights groups, say China’s justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions and arbitrary detention.

Democratic city legislators condemned Lam and what they said was heavy-handed police action.

“We are not a haven for criminals, but we have become a haven of violent police. Firing at our children? None of the former chief executives dared to do that,” said legislator Fernando Cheung.

“But ‘mother Carrie Lam’ did it. What kind of mother is she?”

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not accept any extradition requests from Hong Kong under the proposed law. The self-ruled island also issued a travel alert.

Hong Kong’s Tourism Board called off a dragon boat carnival this weekend while the city’s Bar Association expressed concern over video footage of police using force against largely unarmed protesters.

Amnesty International and domestic rights groups condemned what they said was excessive force by the police, while a spokeswoman for the U.N. Human Rights Office in Geneva said it was following the situation closely.

Diplomatic pressure was also building after leaders such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump commented on the protests.

The European Union said it shared many concerns over the proposed extradition reform and urged public consultation.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou, Julie Zhu, Sumeet Chatterjee, Clare Jim, Jennifer Hughes, Anne Marie Roantree, James Pomfret, Alun John, Vimvang Tong, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI, Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell in BEIJING, and David Stanway in SHANGHAI; Writing by Farah Master and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

 

U.S. weekly unemployment claims rise; imported inflation weak

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, which could add to concerns that the labor market was losing steam after job growth slowed sharply in May.

Other data on Thursday showed import prices fell by the most in five months in May amid a broad decline in the cost of goods, the latest indication of muted inflation pressures. Signs of a slowing labor market and tepid inflation strengthen the case for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

U.S. central bank policymakers are scheduled to meet on June 18-19 against the backdrop of rising trade tensions. Financial markets have priced in at least two rate cuts by the end of 2019. A rate cut is not expected next Wednesday.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 222,000 for the week ended June 8, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims decreasing to 216,000 in the latest week.

While layoffs remain relatively low, the third straight weekly increase in claims suggests some softening in labor market conditions. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,500 to 217,750 last week.

The economy created only 75,000 jobs in May, with annual wages increasing at their slowest pace in eight months, the government reported last week. U.S. financial markets were little moved by the claims data.

The slowdown in hiring, which occurred before a recent escalation in trade tensions between the United States and China, raised fears of a sharp deceleration in economic growth. The claims data is being closely monitored for signs of any fallout from the trade war.

President Donald Trump in early May imposed additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting retaliation by Beijing. Trump on Monday threatened more duties on Chinese imports if no deal was reached when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit later this month in Japan.

A tariff on all goods from Mexico to force authorities in that country to stop immigrants from Central America from crossing the border into the United States was narrowly averted after the two nations struck an agreement late on Friday.

ECONOMY SLOWING

Data so far have suggested a sharp slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter after a temporary boost from exports and an accumulation of inventory early in the year. In addition to the sharp moderation in hiring last month, manufacturing production, exports and home sales dropped in April, while consumer spending cooled.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product increasing at a 1.4% annualized rate in the April-June quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said import prices dropped 0.3% last month, the biggest decline since last December, after edging up 0.1% in April.

Economists had forecast import prices slipping 0.2% in May. In the 12 months through May, import prices fell 1.5% after decreasing 0.3% in April. The report came on the heels of data on Wednesday showing consumer prices remained tame in May.

Import prices exclude duties. In May, prices for imported fuels and lubricants declined 1.0% after rising 1.7% percent in the prior month. Imported food prices dropped 0.8% last month after surging 2.7% in April.

Excluding fuels and food, import prices slipped 0.2% in May after falling 0.3% in the prior month. So-called core import prices decreased 1.5% in the 12 months through May. Though the dollar has weakened a bit this year, its gains last year against the currencies of the United States’ main trading partners continue to depress core import prices.

The cost of imported capital goods declined 0.1% last month. Prices for imported consumer goods excluding automobiles was unchanged. The cost of goods imported from China edged down 0.1% last month after falling 0.2% in April. Prices fell 1.4% in the 12 months through May, the largest drop since February 2017.

The report also showed export prices fell 0.2% in May, with prices for both agricultural and nonagricultural products dropping. Export prices nudged up 0.1% in April. They fell 0.7% on a year-on-year basis in May after gaining 0.2% in April. Soybean prices tumbled 20.6% year-on-year.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Trump likely to meet with Xi when G20 gathers: White House

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo - RC11ACBFE610

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit later this month in Japan, a White House spokesman said on Thursday, although he suggested a meeting was not yet firmly scheduled.

“It looks like we’re moving in that direction,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News Channel when asked if the two leaders would have a bilateral meeting.

Trump has repeatedly said he expects to meet Xi at the G20 gathering to talk about the trade dispute between the two nations.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Trump says he has a ‘feeling’ that U.S., China can strike trade deal

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had a “feeling” that a U.S.-China trade deal could be reached but again threatened to increase tariffs on Chinese goods if no agreement is reached.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump also reiterated his intention to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping but gave no further details.

“I have a feeling that we’re going to make a deal with China,” Trump said.

Trump and administration officials have been eyeing a possible meeting between the two leaders at the upcoming G20 summit in Japan, but Beijing has not confirmed any planned talks.

Trade talks between the world’s two largest economies fell apart in May.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Hong Kong police fire rubber bullets as extradition bill protests turn to chaos

Demonstrators remove metal barricades during protests against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who threw plastic bottles on Wednesday as protests against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial descended into violent chaos.

Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered peacefully outside the Chinese-ruled city’s legislature before tempers flared, some charging police with umbrellas.

Police warned them back, saying: “We will use force.”

Ambulances sped toward the protest area as panic spread through the crowd, with many people trying to flee the stinging tear gas, according to a Reuters witness. More than 10 people were wounded in the clashes, Cable TV reported.

Police used pepper spray, tear gas and batons to force the crowds back. Some shops put up their shutters at the nearby IFC, one of Hong Kong’s tallest buildings.

Civil Human Rights Front, which organized a protest on Sunday that it estimated saw more than a million people take to the streets in protest against the extradition bill, accused police of using unnecessary violence.

The protesters, most of them young people dressed in black, had erected barricades as they prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy “Occupy” protests that gridlocked the former British colony in 2014.

The violence had died down by early evening under light rain, but tens of thousands still jammed the streets in and around Lung Wo Road, a main east-west artery near the offices of embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

“Didn’t we say at the end of the Umbrella movement we would be back?” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said, referring to the name often used for the 2014 demonstrations, whose trademark was the yellow umbrella.

“Now we are back!” she said as supporters echoed her words.

Others once again called for Lam to step down.

Protesters march along a road demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Protesters march along a road demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

CHINESE MEDDLING

Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered Hong Kong’s biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “once country, two systems” deal guaranteeing it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling since, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with local elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Lam has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite deep concerns in the Asian financial hub, including among business leaders, that it could undermine those freedoms and investor confidence and erode the city’s competitive advantages.

In a brief evening televised address, Lam “strongly condemned” the violence and urged the city to return to normal as soon as possible.

In a separate interview recorded earlier on Wednesday before the worst of the violence, she repeatedly stood by the introduction of the bill, and said the time was right for it to be debated.

“I have never had any guilty conscience because of this matter, I just said the initial intention of our work is still firmly right.”

She added that “perhaps it is impossible to completely eliminate worry, anxiety or controversy”.

Protesters stand behind metal barricades during a demonstration against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The government said debate on the bill that was due to take place in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council on Wednesday would be delayed until further notice.

The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

“We won’t leave till they scrap the law,” said one young man wearing a black mask and gloves.

“Carrie Lam has underestimated us. We won’t let her get away with this.”

Financial markets were hit. The benchmark Hang Seng Index closed 1.7% lower, having lost as much as 2% in the afternoon, while Chinese companies in Hong Kong ended down 1.2%.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said extradition rules in Hong Kong had to respect the rights and freedoms set out in the 1984 Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong’s future.

“We are concerned about potential effects of these proposals particularly obviously given the large number of British citizens there are in Hong Kong,” May told parliament.

“But it is vital that those extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British joint declaration.”

China reiterated its support for the legislation.

“Any actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.

Asked about rumors that more Chinese security forces were going to be sent to Hong Kong, Geng said that was “fake news”.

The rally was within sight of the Hong Kong garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army, whose presence in the city has been one of the most sensitive elements of the 1997 handover.

FOOD, GOGGLES AND BRICKS

The protesters, who skipped work, school or university to join the rally, rallied just a stone’s throw from the heart of the financial center, where glittering skyscrapers house the offices of some of the world’s biggest companies, including HSBC.

Lam has sought to soothe public concerns about the bill and said her administration was creating additional amendments to the bill, including safeguarding human rights.

Under the proposed law, Hong Kong residents, as well as foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, would all be at risk if they were wanted on the mainland.

The failure of the 2014 protests to wrest concessions on democracy from Beijing, coupled with the prosecutions of at least 100 mostly young protesters, initially discouraged many from returning to the streets. That changed on Sunday.

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

China denies accusations that it tramples on human rights and official media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the extradition bill.

 

(Reporting by Clare Jim, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Jennifer Hughes, Felix Tam, Vimvam Tong, Thomas Peter and Joyce Zhou; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Gao Liangping in Beijing and William James in London; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

Hundreds of North Korean public execution sites identified: survey

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea conducts public executions to incite fear among the public, a rights group said on Tuesday in a report pinpointing at least 323 sites used by the government for capital punishment.

The report by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) is the result of four years of research and interviews with more than 600 North Korean defectors living outside the country.

“Public executions are to remind people of particular policy positions that the state has,” said TJWG research director Sarah A. Son.

“But the second and more powerful reason is it instills a culture of fear among ordinary people.”

Purged members of the elite have been among those executed in public, such as leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.

But the most common charges leveled against the condemned ranged from “stealing copper and livestock” to, less commonly, “anti-state” activities and illegally crossing into China, the group said.

The survey of 610 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, included 19 reports of more than 10 people being executed at the same time.

Crowds, often of hundreds of people, and sometimes a 1,000 or more, would gather. The youngest person to witness a public execution was 7 years old, the group said.

The group found that 35 reports of public executions came from one particular river bank, with executions taking place at the unidentified location every decade since 1960s.

Six of the executions were by hanging and 29 by firing squad, the group said.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm any of the accounts in the report.

The group said 83 percent of a sample of 84 surveyed people had witnessed a public execution at some time, but it did not give specific data on how common such executions may be.

Nor did it say if they were getting more or less frequent.

The group warned that the survey sample based on the testimony of defectors was not necessarily representative.

For example, a disproportionate number of the respondents come from northern provinces with the greatest access to the Chinese border for people trying to defect.

Some reports of executions in North Korea have turned out to be untrue, with officials who had been reported as being executed later reappearing.

This month, there have been media reports about the execution of officials involved in nuclear talks with the United States, which collapsed in February at a summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump last week appeared to cast doubt on the news reports about the executions.

“I don’t know if the reports are correct,” Trump said. “They like to blame Kim Jong Un immediately.”

North Korean state media has made no comment.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong pushes bill allowing extraditions to China despite biggest protest since handover

Riot police officers stand guard outside the Legislative Council during a protest to demand authorities scrap a proposed extradition bill with China in Hong Kong, China, early June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Pete

By James Pomfret and Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam vowed on Monday to push ahead with amendments to laws allowing suspects to be extradited to mainland China a day after the city’s biggest protest since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Riot police ringed Hong Kong’s legislature and fought back a hardcore group of several hundred protesters who stayed behind early on Monday after Sunday’s peaceful march that organizers said drew more than a million people, or one in seven of the city’s people.

“I don’t think it is (an) appropriate decision for us now to pull out of this bill because of the very important objectives that this bill is intended to achieve,” a somber Lam told reporters while flanked by security and justice chiefs.

“While we will continue to do the communication and explanation there is very little merit to be gained to delay the bill. It will just cause more anxiety and divisiveness in society.”

The protests plunged Hong Kong into a political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing. Chants echoed through the high-rise city streets on Sunday calling on her to quit. “Extradite yourself, Carrie!,” one placard read.

The rendition bill has generated unusually broad opposition, from normally pro-establishment businesspeople and lawyers to students, pro-democracy figures and religious groups who fear further erosion of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy and the difficulty of ensuring even basic judicial protections in mainland China.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China under a “one country, two systems” formula with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling in many sectors, denying democratic reforms and squeezing freedoms, interfering with local elections and the disappearances of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders. All later appeared in detention in China, and some appeared in apparently forced confessions broadcast in Hong Kong.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing that Beijing would continue to support the extradition bill.

“We resolutely oppose wrong words and actions by any foreign forces to interfere in the legislative matters of the Hong Kong SAR,” he said, referring to the “special administrative region”.

An official newspaper in China, where the Communist Party holds sway over the courts, said: “some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign”.

The proposed changes provide for case-by-case extraditions to jurisdictions, including mainland China, beyond the 20 states with which Hong Kong already has treaties.

It gives the chief executive power to approve an extradition after it has been cleared by Hong Kong’s courts and appeal system.

PEOPLE “TREASURE AUTONOMY”

Lam said last month that, after feedback from business and other groups, only suspects facing more serious crimes, or those normally dealt with by Hong Kong’s High Court, with a minimum punishment of at least seven years, rather than the three years, would be extradited.

She said that extradition requests from China could only come from its highest judicial body, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, rather than any provincial authorities.

A U.S. official said Washington was monitoring the situation closely, noting that it called into question Hong Kong people’s confidence in the future of “one country, two systems”.

“It shows how much Hong Kong people treasure their autonomy and how much they want it to continue,” the official said.

Tara Joseph, president of the local American Chamber of Commerce, said the credibility of Hong Kong was on the line.

“The passage of this bill comes at the expense of the business community and we fear business confidence will suffer,” she said.

Hong Kong leader Lam sought to soothe public concerns and said her administration was creating additional amendments to the bill, including safeguarding human rights.

“This bill is not about the mainland alone. This bill is not initiated by the central people’s government. I have not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing to do this bill,” she told reporters.

She said the bill would be put for debate on Wednesday as planned in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council which is now controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

Lam and her officials stress the need for haste to prosecute a young Hong Kong man suspected of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan. But Taiwanese officials say they won’t agree to any transfer if the bill goes ahead, citing rights concerns.

In Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province, President Tsai Ing-wen said on her FaceBook page: “We support the people of Hong Kong’s search for freedom, democracy and human rights.”

Beijing officials have increasingly defended Lam’s plan, couching it as a sovereign issue. A retired senior mainland security official said in March that Beijing had already had a list of 300 mainland criminals it wanted back from Hong Kong.

Organizers put the size of Sunday’s crowd at more than a million, outstripping a demonstration in 2003 when 500,000 took to the streets to challenge government plans for tighter national security laws.

Police put the figure at 240,000 at the march’s peak.

About 1,000 people joined a protest in Sydney and another protest was also reported in London.

U.S. and European officials have issued formal warnings, matching international business and human rights lobbies that fear the changes will dent Hong Kong’s rule of law.

Guards removed damaged barricades from the front of the Legislative Council building during Monday’s morning rush hour and cleaning staff washed away protest debris. All but one protester were cleared from the area.

Hong Kong newspaper Mingpao said in an editorial the government should take the protesters seriously and that pushing the legislation forward would exacerbate tensions.

(Reporting by Vimvam Tong, Anne Marie Roantree, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim, Sumeet Chatterjee, Jessie Pang, Shellin Li, Forina Fu, Donny Kwok, Aleksander Solum and Twinnie Siu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Farah Master and Greg Torode.; Editing by Nick Macfie)