Gender equality makes democracy stronger, says Kamala Harris

PARIS (Reuters) – Women deprived of freedom of speech or the freedom to vote should fight for their rights and know that the United States stands beside them, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said on Wednesday.

Harris told the Generation Equality Forum at a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron that gender equality was paramount to strengthening democracy.

“Use the tools for democracy, whether that is the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote. And if you do not yet have those freedoms, fight for them and know we will fight alongside you,” Harris told the summit by video link.

Democracy was in peril in countries around the world, Harris said.

“If we want to strengthen democracy, we must fight for gender equality. Because here is the truth: Democracy is strongest when everyone participates and it is weaker when people are left out,” the vice president said.

Two months after entering office, Harris said President Joe Biden’s administration would revitalize Washington’s partnership with U.N. Women – a U.N. body dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Under former President Donald Trump, the United States led a push at the United Nations against the promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health because it saw that as code for abortion.

Harris struck a different tone.

“When women have access to reproductive healthcare to stay healthy, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger,” she said.

Melinda Gates said the Gates Foundation would direct $2.1 billion in new money to strengthening gender equality. More than half would go to sexual health and reproductive rights, while $100 million would be spent on helping get women into positions of power in government and the workplace.

“Women should not only have a seat at the table, they should be in every single room where policy and decisions are being made,” Gates said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Myanmar security forces arrest prominent leader of anti-coup campaign

(Reuters) -Myanmar security forces on Thursday arrested one of the main leaders of the campaign against military rule after ramming him with a car as he led a motorbike protest rally, friends and colleagues said.

Opponents of the Feb. 1 coup that ousted an elected government led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have kept up their campaign against the military this traditional New Year week with marches and various other shows of defiance.

“Our brother Wai Moe Naing was arrested. His motorbike was hit by an unmarked police car,” Win Zaw Khiang, a member of a protest organizing group, said on social media.

Wai Moe Naing, a 25-year-old Muslim, has emerged as one of the most high-profile leaders of opposition to the coup.

Earlier, Reuters spoke to him by telephone as he was setting off to lead the rally in the central town of Monywa, about 700 km (435 miles) north of the main city of Yangon.

Video posted on social media showed an oncoming car swerving into a group of motorbikes.

A spokesman for the junta could not be reached for comment.

Monywa has been one of main centers of the pro-democracy campaign with big rallies day after day and repeated crackdowns by the security forces.

Some colleagues said they feared for Wai Moe Naing’s safety.

The Swedish embassy said it was following his case and urged that all detainees be allowed proper health care and their human rights be respected.

The U.S. Embassy also condemned the reported incident.

“This appalling act further demonstrates why the people of Myanmar do not accept the military regime,” the embassy said in a post on Twitter.

PROTESTING MEDICS

In Yangon, security forces detained Myo Aye, director of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar, activist Ei Thinzar Maung said on Facebook. Myo Aye has also played a major role in organizing the protests.

State media said a famous actor, Zin Wine, and singer Po Po, both known for their support of the democracy movement, had also been arrested.

The coup has plunged Myanmar into crisis after 10 years of tentative steps toward democracy, with, in addition to the daily protests, strikes by workers in many sectors that have brought the economy to a standstill.

An activist group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, says the security forces have killed 715 protesters since the overthrow of Suu Kyi’s government.

Earlier on Thursday, soldiers opened fire in the city of Mandalay to disperse protesting medical workers and one man was killed and several wounded when security forces fired in a nearby neighborhood, media reported.

Some medical workers have been at the forefront of the campaign against the coup, which for many people has dashed hopes of a more open society after tentative steps towards democracy since the military initiated reforms a decade ago.

State television announced that 20 doctors were among 40 people wanted under a law that makes it illegal to encourage mutiny or dereliction of duty in the security forces. Some 200 people are now wanted under the charge.

The military says the protests are dwindling but thousands joined protests marches and motorbike rallies in several towns, according to pictures posted by media outlets.

The United States and other Western countries have imposed limited sanctions focused on the military and called for the release of Suu Kyi and others detained by the new authorities.

Leaders of Southeast Asian neighbors, which have been trying to encourage talks between the rival Myanmar sides, are due to met in Indonesia on April 24 to discuss the situation, Thai PBS World reported.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is due to attend, the broadcaster said, on what would be his first known trip abroad and contact with foreign leaders since he seized power.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Toby Chopra)

Smaller protests in Myanmar as junta deploys more troops, armored vehicles

(Reuters) – Protesters in Myanmar kept up demands on Monday for the release of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and an end to military rule despite the deployment of armored vehicles and more soldiers on the streets.

Suu Kyi, detained since a Feb. 1 coup against her elected government, had been expected to face a court in connection with charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios, but a judge said her remand lasted until Wednesday, her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said.

The coup and arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi and hundreds of others have sparked the biggest protests in Myanmar in more than a decade, with hundreds of thousands denouncing the military’s derailment of a tentative transition to democracy.

“This is a fight for our future, the future of our country,” youth activist Esther Ze Naw said at a protest in the main city of Yangon. “We don’t want to live under a military dictatorship. We want to establish a real federal union where all citizens, all ethnicities are treated equally.”

The unrest has revived memories in the Southeast Asian nation of bloody outbreaks of opposition to almost half a century of direct army rule that ended in 2011, when the military began a process of withdrawing from civilian politics.

Violence this time has been limited, although police have opened fire several times to disperse protesters. One woman who was hit by police fire in the capital Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive.

Two people were lightly wounded on Monday when police in the city of Mandalay used rubber bullets and catapults to break up a protest, media and residents said.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing told a junta meeting on Monday that authorities were trying to proceed softly, but said: “Effective action will be taken against people who are harming the country, committing treason through violence.”

Authorities have said police were also hurt by stones thrown at some protests.

As well as the demonstrations in towns and cities, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.

TROOPS ON THE STREETS

Armoured vehicles were deployed on Sunday in Yangon, the northern town of Myitkyina and Sittwe in the west, the first large-scale use of such vehicles since the coup.

More soldiers have also been spotted on the streets to help police, including members of the 77th Light Infantry Division, a mobile force accused of brutality in campaigns against ethnic minority insurgents and protests in the past.

Crowds were smaller, though it was unclear if people were intimidated by the soldiers or fatigue was setting in after 12 days of demonstrations.

“We can’t join the protests every day,” said a laid-off travel officer worker in Yangon who declined to be identified. “But we won’t back down.”

At a protest outside the central bank, demonstrators pasted a sign saying “We do not want military government” on an armored vehicle. Police sealed off the headquarters of Suu Kyi’s party, searching it as protesters demonstrated nearby.

Police in Naypyitaw detained about 20 student protesters, one of whom posted pictures of them chanting as they were taken away on a police bus. They were later released.

Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to end military rule.

The army has been carrying out nightly arrests and has given itself search and detention powers. At least 400 people have been detained, the group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.

On Sunday, the military published penal code amendments aimed at stifling dissent and residents reported an internet outage after midnight on Sunday that lasted until about 9 a.m.

“It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said on Twitter.

Suu Kyi’s party won a 2015 election and another on Nov. 8, but the military said the vote was fraudulent and used that complaint to justify the coup. The electoral commission dismissed accusations of fraud.

(Reporting by Reuter staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin and Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

Unofficial Hong Kong vote sees new generation take over battle for democracy

By Jessie Pang and Yanni Chow

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A younger, more defiant generation of Hong Kong democrats has secured the most votes in unofficial primary elections in the Chinese-ruled city, setting the stage for a battle with pro-Beijing politicians for control of the city’s legislature.

The success of young contenders in the primaries organized by the pro-democracy camp on the weekend to pick candidates for a Sept. 6 election for a 70-seat city assembly comes amid widespread resentment of a national security law that Beijing imposed last month.

Beijing denounced the vote as illegal and warned it may have violated the new security law, which has raised fears for the freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s open society and success as a financial hub.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong won in his district, but he has been disqualified from previous elections and could face similar hurdles this time.

Wong warned against any sweeping disqualification of candidates when he held a news conference with 15 other young politicians who won in their districts.

“If the government cracks down on us and disqualifies all the candidates who joined the primaries, it will cause more outrage in the international community and encourage more people to vote for the pro-democratic camp in September,” Wong said.

The 16 – all but one under 30 and dressed in black T-shirts – are part of a so-called localist or resistance camp, which outshone the cohort of traditional democrats, which had secured 12 candidate slots as of Wednesday afternoon.

Full results are expected later in the day.

The localists – a term for those who do not see themselves as Chinese and focus on saving the former British colony’s freedoms – tend to be more assertive than traditional democrats.

The localists talk of resistance and saving democracy but they do not all have the same vision for Hong Kong’s future. Some dream of independence – anathema for Beijing – but do not speak of it openly, which would see them fall foul of the new security law and face up to life in prison.

Their performance in the primaries reflects frustration, especially among younger voters, with Hong Kong’s more moderate, traditional pro-democracy politicians.

“Localism has become the mainstream,” said localist candidate Henry Wong. “We will resist against the tyranny.”

The new security law punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and sees Chinese intelligence agents operating officially in the city for the first time.

Critics fear it will crush wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will bring stability after a year of often violent anti-government protests.

‘DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND’

The law has already had a chilling effect on many aspects of life.

Earlier on Wednesday, former democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said he was pulling out as an organizer of the weekend vote amid accusations from Beijing that it was illegal.

“Withdrawal is the only choice … (to) protect myself and others,” Au said in a Facebook post.

A spokesman for Beijing’s top office in the city, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, said the pro-democracy camp’s bid for a legislative majority was an attempt to carry out a “color revolution,” referring to uprisings in other parts of the world.

In comments that critics said were aimed at instilling fear, the Liaison Office as well as Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, have all said the primaries could violate the national security law.

Benny Tai, another organizer of the pro-democracy polls, was defiant.

“For those who do not recognize democracy, or do not agree with democratic values, it is difficult to understand the meaning of the primary election,” Tai said.

Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested the vice chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, on charges of unlawful assembly related to a protest in November.

The political tension in Hong Kong has alarmed the business community while the new law has raised concern in countries that support the “one country, two systems” formula of government meant to safeguard its freedoms.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the city.

China said it would impose retaliatory sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities after Trump signed a law penalizing banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new law.

In an interview with state agency Xinhua, Chief Executive Lam said U.S. sanctions won’t hurt Hong Kong and in time, concern about the security law would prove unfounded.

In another blow to the city’s standing, the New York Times said it would shift part of its Hong Kong office to Seoul, as worries grow that the security law will curb media and other freedoms.

(Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong rings in 2020 with democracy chants instead of harbor fireworks

By Jessie PANG and Mari Saito

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of Hong Kong revelers welcomed in 2020 on neon-lit promenades along the picturesque Victoria Harbour, breaking into pro-democracy chants as the clocks struck midnight after more than half a year of often violent unrest.

Protesters briefly blocked Nathan Road, a key artery leading through Kowloon to the harbor, after forming human chains across the Chinese-ruled city and marching through shopping malls, urging people not to give up the fight for democracy in 2020.

The protesters fled when police came to clear the road of umbrellas, street furniture and debris and a three-meter-tall skeleton of a metal Christmas tree. Several arrests were made.

Authorities had canceled the popular new year fireworks for the first time in a decade, citing security concerns. A “Symphony of Lights” took place instead, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after the countdown to midnight.

There were small-scale pyrotechnics on waterfront rooftops, but the grandiose fireworks launched from vessels in the center of the harbor, broadcast around the world every year, were absent.

The carnival atmosphere on the harbor was interrupted as parts of the crowd of thousands watching the show began chanting protest slogans, such as “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Five demands, not one less.”

The latter refers to the goals of the anti-government movement, which include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.

The protesters are angry at what they see as creeping Beijing influence in the city which was guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy when it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.

“I hope people can continue fighting in 2020,” 28-year-old engineer Eric Wong said.

“We should not forget the people in jail who could not count down to the new year with us.”

On Nathan Road, protesters in a chain stretching for several kilometers raised lit-up smartphones as passing cars and buses honked in support and tourists in party hats and 2020-shaped glasses took pictures. Many protesters held up cards reading “Let’s keep fighting together in 2020.”

The chain later spilled over on to the road, and some protesters built barricades and hid behind umbrellas until police chased them away. A water cannon truck, flanked by an armored jeep, patrolled the road at midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Dozens of people had earlier laid flowers at the Prince Edward metro station, scene of some of the most violent clashes with the police this summer.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

The protest movement is supported by 59% of city residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. More than a third of respondents said they had attended an anti-government demonstration.

BEST WISHES

In a New Year’s Eve video message, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the unrest had caused sadness, anxiety, disappointment and rage.

“Let’s start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together,” Lam said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping extended his best wishes to Hong Kong residents in a speech carried by state television.

“Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can there be a home where people can live and work happily?” he said. “We sincerely hope for the best for Hong Kong and Hong Kong compatriots.”

Police, who reject allegations of brutality and say they have shown restraint, have arrested nearly 6,500 people since the protests began escalating in what is the worst political crisis faced by the city in decades.

Protesters have thrown petrol bombs and rocks, with police responding with tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. There have been several injuries.

On Jan. 1, tens of thousands of people are expected to join a pro-democracy march, starting from a park downtown and ending in the heart of the central financial district.

The previous march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) drew an estimated 800,000 people in early December.

“January 1, see you in Victoria Park,” people gathered on the waterfront chanted.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Mari Saito, Twinnie Siu, Sarah Wu, Tyrone Siu, Joyce Zhou, Simon Gardner in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; writing by Marius Zaharia; editing by Mike Collett-White, Philippa Fletcher, Timothy Heritage and Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong protesters seek international support on rights

By Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong protesters rallied outside diplomatic missions on Thursday to urge foreign governments to follow the United States and pass human rights bills to raise pressure on Beijing and support their pro-democracy campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed legislation last month requiring the State Department to certify, at least once a year, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy from Beijing to justify favorable U.S. trading terms.

About 1,000 people, most of them dressed in black and wearing face masks, marched on a route that took them by the consulates of Australia, Britain, the European Union, the United States, Japan and Canada, to drop off a petition.

British, EU and U.S. diplomats came out to receive it and took photographs with the protesters.

“What happens in Hong Kong is not just a local issue, it is about human rights and democracy. Foreign governments should understand how this city is being suppressed,” said Suki Chan, who participated in the protest.

“We need to continue to seek international attention and let them know this movement is not losing momentum.”

Hong Kong has been rattled for more than six months by anti-government protests amid growing anger over what many see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Beijing has denied such meddling, blaming the unrest on “foreign forces” and saying attempts to interfere in the city are doomed to fail.

The U.S. legislation, which also threatens sanctions for human rights violations, followed similar “citizen diplomacy” petitions in Hong Kong this year and has been cheered by protesters.

Beijing denounced the U.S. legislation and Hong Kong’s government said it sent the wrong signal to the demonstrators and increased economic uncertainty in Hong Kong, a major financial hub.

The marchers’ petition condemned what it called police brutality and urged governments to pass legislation to punish Chinese and Hong Kong officials by denying them visas and freezing their assets.

The police say they have acted with restraint.

Police said separately on Thursday they had arrested four people suspected of money laundering in relation to the protests and had frozen HK$70 million ($9 million) in bank deposits.

Chan Wai Kei, from the police’s financial investigation and narcotics bureau, told reporters the four were part of a group that had asked for donations for arrested and injured protesters but used some of the money for personal investments.

‘LOVE CHINA, LOVE MACAU’

Beijing says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees a high degree of autonomy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has this week visited the neighboring gambling hub of Macau, a former Portuguese colony, which he praised on Thursday, drawing a contrast with the Hong Kong protests.

“Love China, love Macau has become the core value of the whole society,” Xi told local officials.

The Macau government and “all parts of society deeply understand that harmony leads to prosperity, (and the importance of) unity, negotiation, no argument, no internal conflict, resisting external interference.”

On Friday Xi was due to attend ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of Macau’s handover to China, and was expected to announce economic perks as a reward for its stability and loyalty.

At the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, protesters called for U.S. Congress to pass a “Be Water Act”, legislation championed by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and named after a protest slogan borrowed from martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

The bill would freeze assets of Chinese nationals and state-owned enterprises believed to have contributed to suppressing freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Thursday also marked the 35th anniversary of a treaty between China and Britain on Hong Kong’s future, which set the stage for its handover.

British Foreign secretary Dominic Raab urged China in a statement to open dialogue with the protesters and respect the commitments in the treaty.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in 2017 the 1984 joint declaration, signed by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance.

Hong Kong’s special status, which helped it grow into a global financial center and avoid U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, is important to Beijing, which uses the city as its main gateway to global capital.

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Mari Saito, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police

Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police
By Kate Lamb and Josh Smith

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong’s Central financial district and at demonstrators on the other side of the harbour on Tuesday as a senior officer said the unrest had brought the city to “the brink of total breakdown”.

The clashes took place a day after police shot a protester at close range and a man was doused with petrol and set on fire in some of the worst violence in the Chinese-ruled city in decades.

More than 1,000 protesters, many wearing office clothes and face masks, rallied in Central for a second day during lunch hour, blocking roads below some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers and most expensive real estate.

After they had dispersed, police fired tear gas at the remaining protesters on old, narrow Pedder Street. Police made more than a dozen arrests, many pinned up on the pavement against the wall of luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co.

Police said masked “rioters” had committed “insane” acts, throwing trash, bicycles and other debris on to metro tracks and overhead power lines, paralysing transport in the former British colony. TV footage showed activists dropping heavy objects from overpasses on to traffic below, just missing a motorcyclist.

“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told a briefing, referring to the last two days of violence

The demonstrators have been protesting since June against what they believe to be meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to China from British rule in 1997. Tough police tactics in response to the unrest have also fuelled anger.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries including Britain and the United States for stirring up trouble.

STUDENTS DEMONSTRATE

As well as the protests in Central, the heart of the Asian financial hub on Hong Kong island, clashes also erupted in several places on the mainland.

Police fired tear gas at City University in Kowloon Tong and at Chinese University in the New Territories, where protesters threw petrol bombs and bricks at police.

Students in hard hats and gas masks had since morning been barricading City University. Activists, who had home-made shields, stockpiled bricks and petrol and nail bombs on bridges and other approaches.

They overran the campus and smashed up the adjacent Festival Walk shopping mall and set fires, including to a big Christmas tree.

Streets inside and outside the Chinese University campus entrance were littered with bricks, other debris and street fires as police tackled protesters to the ground.

The students were taking part in a heated exchange with the principal when clashes reignited, with police again firing volleys of tear gas and protesters throwing petrol bombs.

Protesters also threw petrol bombs from an overpass on to the highway linking the Northern New Territories with Kowloon, bringing traffic to a standstill in a haze of tear gas smoke.

Several students were wounded in the violence.

Police also fired tear gas in the town of Tai Po, where a truck was set on fire, and in the densely populated Kowloon district of Mong Kok, whose shopping artery Nathan Road has been the scene of many clashes.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said protesters were being selfish and she hoped that universities and schools would urge students not to take part in the demonstrations.

More than 260 people were arrested on Monday, police said, bringing the total number to more than 3,000 since the protests escalated in June. Schools and universities said they would close again on Tuesday.

DEADLY FORCE

The United States on Monday condemned “unjustified use of deadly force” in Hong Kong and urged police and civilians alike to de-escalate the situation.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged Britain and the United States not to intrude, saying: “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference.”

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks since 1997 but it has said it will crush any attempts at independence, a demand for a small minority of protesters.

Geng also said the Chinese government firmly supported Lam’s administration and the Hong Kong police in maintaining order and protecting citizens’ safety.

Yang Guang, spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said China condemned the dousing of the man with petrol and setting him on fire. He demanded that the person responsible be arrested as soon as possible.

Following Tuesday’s violence, the Hong Kong Jockey Club said all off-course betting centres would be closed ahead of Wednesday’s racing at Happy Valley, to ensure the safety of our employees and customers.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Meg Shen, Josh Smith, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Farah Master in Hong Kong and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections
By Sarah Wu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong students, many wearing banned black masks, chanted slogans at their graduation at the Chinese University on Thursday, with some holding up banners urging “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”.

The students defied a ban on masks that the government imposed last month in a bid to curb sometimes violent unrest that has rocked the Chinese-ruled city for more than five months.

Dressed in formal graduation gowns, many of about 1,000 students chanted as they walked to the hill-top ceremony, near the New Territories town of Sha Tin, calling for the government to respond to protesters’ “five demands, not one less” that include universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader.

A man singing the Chinese national anthem and holding a knife during the graduation ceremony was taken away by security officers.

The protests started over a now-scrapped extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, an end to Chinese meddling in the city’s promised freedoms and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other things.

“Even though we are all exhausted, we should not give up,” said Kelvin, a 22-year-old information engineering graduate.

The university said it cut the ceremony short after the degrees were handed out.

The months of protests have plunged the former British colony into its biggest crisis in decades, with no sign the demonstrators plan to give up.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing it colonial freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

About 100 people, including candidates running in Nov. 24 district council elections, the lowest tier of voting, marched against violence on Thursday.

SAFE AND FAIR?

A man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho on Wednesday. Jimmy Sham, a leader of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, was beaten by men with hammers in October after his group organized mass rallies against the extradition bill.

Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu had part of his ear bitten off by a knife-wielding man on Sunday.

District council candidate Clement Woo, who joined the march, said members of the pro-establishment camp had experienced violence and intimidation.

“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters. “We support democracy in Hong Kong, but democracy is incomplete without safety and fairness.”

Executive Councilor Ip Kwok-him, speaking on RTHK radio, expressed doubts as to whether election campaigning could continue in a fair and peaceful manner. He suggested the government decide by Nov. 17 if the elections should go ahead.

China has offered the “one country, two systems” formula for self-ruled Taiwan, an island Beijing considers a breakaway province.

The unrest in Hong Kong had provided a lesson for Taiwan, its foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told Reuters in Taipei.

“People here understand that there’s something wrong (with)the way the ‘one country, two systems’ model is run in Hong Kong … Taiwan people don’t like to be in the same situation,” Wu said.

The unrest has helped push Hong Kong’s economy into recession for the first time in a decade. Retail and tourism sectors have been hit particularly hard as tourists stay away.

UNICEF Hong Kong called off its annual Run for Every Child charity road run on Nov. 24 “due to a range of ongoing and uncertain factors”.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Sarah Wu, Jiraporn Kuhakan and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong and Yimou Lee and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters plead for U.S. help

By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Monday in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.

They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the Chinese-ruled city only hours after police said violent protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level”.

A small bomb exploded and a policeman was stabbed on Sunday night, the latest violence in four months of unrest in which police have responded to petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live rounds.

Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.

On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.

Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Make Hong Kong Great Again”, read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK”.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to China. Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

‘THEY ARE RIOTERS, CRIMINALS’

In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.

Black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.

A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks”, was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.

A police officer also had his neck slashed by a protester.

“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.

“They are not protesters, they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for it never justifies such violence.”

Protests have attracted millions of people but have gradually become smaller in recent weeks. Yet violence by hardcore activists has risen, prompting debate over tactics. But they say they remained united.

“Violence is always undesirable, but in the case of Hong Kong, we have no other option,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.

“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion… Escalation of violence is inevitable,” Chan said.

On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon”.

The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.

“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured… We believe international help will come one day,” said one speaker.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)