Hong Kong protesters rally against planned virus quarantine centers

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of demonstrators rallied for a second day in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against plans to turn some buildings into coronavirus quarantine centers, reviving anti-government protests in the Chinese-ruled city.

The virus has opened a new front for protesters after months of demonstrations over the perceived erosion of freedoms had largely fizzled out over the past month, as people stayed at home amid fears of a community outbreak of the virus.

About 100 people braved rain in the New Territories district of Fo Tan, where authorities plan to use a newly built residential development that was subsidized by the government as a quarantine center. Riot police stood by.

A 38-year-old mother of two said she had waited eight years for her home in the Chun Yeung estate and was expecting to get her keys by the end of this month.

“There’s no consultation and we don’t know how long they’ll use Chun Yeung estate. That’s why we are so mad,” she the woman.

Father-of-two Koby, 36, also expressed frustration at not being told for how long the public housing might be used for quarantine.

“I’ve waited eight years. I have two children studying in kindergarten and have already transferred them to the school in Fo Tan,” he said.

Protesters gathered in other districts on Sunday.

With Hong Kong property prices among the most expensive in the world, owning a home is a distant dream for many, and frustration over housing has triggered protests in the past.

Many Hong Kong people, already angry about what they see as meddling by Beijing in the former British colony’s affairs – which it denies – have criticized the government’s handling of the virus scare, piling pressure on embattled city leader Carrie Lam.

On Friday, the government sought to appease families that have been allocated a flat in the Fo Tan estate by pledging a special subsidy.

Three weeks ago, protesters set alight the lobby of a newly built residential building in another district in the New Territories, that authorities had planned to use as a quarantine facility. The government dropped the plan.

Hong Kong has had 57 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. One person has died of it in the city.

Some Hong Kong people have called on the city government to seal the border with the mainland to block the virus but Lam has ruled that out.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Writing By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong records first virus death, Macau shuts casinos

By Farah Master and Ryan Woo

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hong Kong reported its first coronavirus death on Tuesday, the second outside mainland China from a fast-spreading outbreak that has killed 427 people and threatened the global economy.

China’s markets steadied after losing $400 billion in stock values the previous day, and global markets also recovered from a sell-off last week. But bad news kept coming.

The Chinese-ruled gambling hub of Macau asked casino operators to close for two weeks to help curb the virus.

And in the latest major corporate hit, Hyundai Motor said it was to gradually suspend production at South Korean factories because of supply chain disruptions.

Hong Kong’s first fatality was a 39-year-old man with an underlying illness who had visited China’s Wuhan city, the epicentre of the outbreak, hospital staff said.

Chinese authorities, meanwhile, reported a record daily jump in deaths of 64 to 425. The only other death outside mainland China was a man who died in the Philippines last week after visiting Wuhan, the virtually quarantined city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Total infections in mainland China rose to 20,438, and there have been nearly 200 cases elsewhere across 24 countries and China’s special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau.

Thailand’s tally of infections jumped to 25, the highest outside China, while Singapore’s rose to 24, four of those from local contagion as opposed to visitors from China.

New cases were reported in the United States, including a patient in California infected via someone in the same household who had been infected in China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and experts say much is still unknown, including its mortality rate and transmission routes.

FOREIGN FEARS

Such uncertainties have spurred strong measures by some countries – offending Beijing’s communist government which has called for calm, fact-based responses instead of scaremongering.

The deluge of misinformation on social media – from a recommendation to eat more onions to a warning of spread via a video game – has led Asian governments to hit back with arrests, fines and fake news laws, alarming free speech advocates.

At least 16 people have been arrested over coronavirus posts on social media in Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Australia sent hundreds of evacuees from Wuhan to an island in the Indian Ocean, while Japan ordered the quarantine of a cruise ship with more than 3,000 aboard after a Hong Kong man who sailed on it last month tested positive.

Thousands of medical workers in Hong Kong, which had seen months of anti-China political protests, held a second day of strikes to press for complete closure of borders with the mainland after three checkpoints were left open.

“We’re not threatening the government, we just want to prevent the outbreak,” said Cheng, 26, a nurse on strike.

The Asian financial centre has confirmed 17 cases of the virus and its public hospital network is struggling to cope with a deluge of patients and containment measures.

Hong Kong was badly hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from China in 2002 to kill almost 800 people worldwide and cost the global economy an estimated $33 billion.

WHO figures show SARS killed 299 people in Hong Kong then.

Chinese data suggest the new virus, while much more contagious, is significantly less lethal, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

In Wuhan, authorities started converting a gymnasium, exhibition centre and cultural complex into makeshift hospitals with more than 3,400 beds for patients with mild infections, the official Changjiang Daily said.

U.S.-CHINA FRICTIONS

Raising the prospect of another major spat – just as trade frictions were easing – Beijing on Monday accused the United States of spreading panic after it announced plans to block nearly all recent foreign visitors to China.

A handful of other nations have done the same.

With the world’s second biggest economy facing increasing international isolation and disruption, some economists predict world output will shrink by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points.

Many airlines have stopped flights to parts of China, with Japan’s biggest carrier, ANA Holdings <9202.T>, the latest to announce cuts, saying it would slash the number of flights to Beijing by two-thirds for at least seven weeks.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd <0293.HK> plans to cut 30% of global capacity over the short term, including 90% to mainland China.

Data from aviation statistics provider VariFlight showed 41 Chinese carriers cancelled nearly two-thirds of 16,623 planned flights for Tuesday as of 10:30 a.m. Beijing time (0230 GMT).

In addition, 10 regional airlines from Hong Kong and Taiwan had cancelled 162 flights, while 37 airlines from other countries cancelled 168 flights on the same day, it said.

each day since the start of February.

For a graphic comparing coronavirus outbreaks, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2GK6YVK.

(Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Farah Master in Hong Kong, Cheng Leng and Winni Zhou in Shanghai, Roxanne Liu, Muyu Xu and Se Young Lee in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Zoey Zhang in Shanghai, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Byron Kaye in Sydney, Matthew Tostevin in Bangkok, Linda Sieg, Sakura Murakami and Ami Miyazaki in Tokyo, John Geddie in Singapore, Kate Kelland in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence; Fernandez and Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong suspends four more border crossings to curb spread of virus

By Felix Tam and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China on Monday, leaving just three checkpoints open, but stopped short of demands for the entire border to be closed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which emerged in central China in December and has killed more than 360 people there and sent jitters through global markets.

Carrie Lam, chief executive of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, was speaking hours after more than 2,500 workers from the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) went on strike to call for the border to be shut and better protection for hospital staff, among other demands.

“We should be united if we have the same goal. At this critical moment, (some people are) taking extreme means and it is inevitable it will affect the rights of patients,” Lam said.

“Those using extreme means to try to force the government’s hand will not succeed.”

The Hospital Authority said those using extreme means “to try to force the government and Hospital Authority’s hands will not succeed”.

Striking workers at the Hospital Authority building booed as they watched Lam speak, calling her a liar and chanting: “Close all borders.”

The medical workers, members of the newly formed union, held a press conference shortly after Lam spoke and said they planned to keep up their strike action.

HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu said she expected around 9,000 of the alliance’s roughly 18,000 members to strike on Tuesday.

Pro-democracy protesters have in recent months formed about 40 unions as a way to press their demands on the government and at least a dozen have come out in support of the HAEA’s strike.

Reflecting concerns in the broader business community, three-quarters of American business leaders polled said they wanted Hong Kong to shut the border with the mainland, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Lam has rejected calls to shut the entire border, saying such a move would be “inappropriate and impractical” as well as “discriminatory”.

By making it inconvenient for people to cross the border, Lam said she hoped it would help contain the spread of the virus although she does not “rule out future measures as the situation evolves”.

The health scare comes after months of at times violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong triggered by fears the city’s autonomy, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, is being eroded by Beijing.

China denies meddling and accuses foreign governments of fomenting the unrest.

The virus is expected to heap more pressure on the former British colony, which on Monday reported its economy contracted for the first time in a decade in 2019.

The HAEA’s five demands are for the government to close the border, distribute masks to the public, ensure that front-line medical workers have adequate supplies and protection, provide enough isolation wards for patients and guarantee no reprisals for strikers.

Panic-stricken residents have emptied shelves in major supermarkets in Hong Kong, stockpiling meat, rice and cleaning products as fears escalate over the coronavirus.

About 90 percent of the city’s food is imported, with the bulk coming from the mainland, according to official data.

Toy shop owner Lam Wa-yin, 45, said closing the border would intensify worries about supplies of staples.

“They’ve started rushing to buy supplies even before they fully close the borders,” Lam said.

“It’ll get worse if it is fully closed. Especially food. People have been rushing to buy oil, salt and rice, not to mention the face masks.”

(Reporting By Felix Tam, Joseph Campbell, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Yoyo Chow; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)

China sure of slaying ‘devil’ virus, Hong Kong to cut links

Tony Munroe and Muyu Xu

BEIJING (Reuters) – President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday China was sure of defeating a “devil” coronavirus that has killed 106 people, spread across the world and rattled financial markets.

Despite his confidence, alarm was rising, with nations from France to Japan organizing evacuations and Hong Kong – scene of anti-China unrest for months – planning to suspend high-speed rail and ferry links with the mainland.

A medical worker in protective suit checks the body temperature of a driver at a checkpoint outside the city of Yueyang, Hunan Province, near the border to Hubei Province that is on lockdown after an outbreak of a new coronavirus, China, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Among countries pulling nationals out of Wuhan, the central city of 11 million people where the outbreak started, the United States’ Embassy in Beijing said a chartered plane would take its consulate staff away on Wednesday.

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Xi met in Beijing to discuss how to protect Chinese and foreigners in areas affected by the virus and “possible” evacuation alternatives, a WHO spokesman said.

 

“The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide,” state television quoted Xi as saying.

“China will strengthen international cooperation and welcomes the WHO participation in virus prevention … China is confident of winning the battle against the virus.”

Investors are fretting about the impact on the world’s second-biggest economy amid travel bans and an extended Lunar New Year holiday. Global stocks fell again, oil prices hit three-month lows and China’s yuan currency dipped to its weakest in 2020.

A WHO panel of 16 independent experts twice last week declined to declare an international emergency. Traditionally, the WHO is reluctant to antagonize or ostracize countries dealing with epidemics for fear of undermining future willingness to report cases of infectious disease outbreaks.

GRAPHIC: Number of confirmed cases rockets – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH/0100B56G2WC/coronavirus.jpg

CONTAGION

The flu-like virus has spread overseas, but none of the 106 deaths has been beyond China and all but six were in Wuhan, where the virus emerged last month, probably from illegally-traded wildlife.

The WHO said only one of 45 confirmed cases in 13 countries outside China involved human-to-human transmission, in Vietnam.

But a Japanese official said there was a suspected case of human-to-human transmission there and Germany confirmed a case after a man contracted the virus from a colleague visiting his workplace from Shanghai.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong said high-speed rail services to the mainland will be suspended from midnight on Thursday, while the number of flights would be halved.

Thailand confirmed six more infections among visitors from China, taking its tally to 14, the highest outside China. Far eastern Russian regions would close their borders with China until Feb. 7, Tass news agency said.

Wuhan is under virtual quarantine, with a lockdown on transport and bans on gatherings. Tens of millions of others in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, live under some form of travel curbs.

The number of confirmed cases in China surged to 4,515 as of Monday from 2,835 the previous day, the government said.

Communist Party-ruled China has been eager to show it is transparent over this outbreak, after initially covering up the extent of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that killed about 800 people globally in 2002-2003.

Known as “2019-nCoV”, the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia and, like other respiratory infections, it spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes. It is too early to know what its death rate will be, since there are likely to be many cases of milder disease going undetected.

It has an incubation of between one and 14 days.

Authorities in Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, have been the focus of public outrage on China’s heavily censored social media over what many see as a bungled initial response.

In rare public self-criticism, Mayor Zhou Xianwang said Wuhan’s management of the crisis was “not good enough” and indicated he was willing to resign.

SARS, also believed to have originated in a wildlife market, led to a 45% plunge in air passenger demand in Asia. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travelers now, and China’s share of the global economy has quadrupled.

Analysts said China’s travel and tourism would be the hardest-hit sectors, together with retail and liquor sales, though healthcare and online shopping were likely outperformers.

With Chinese markets shut for the holiday, investors were selling the offshore yuan and the Australian dollar as a proxy for risk. Oil was also under pressure as fears about the wider fallout grew.

The U.S. S&P 500 closed down nearly 1.6%.

(Reporting by Winni Zhou, Sun Yilei, Cheng Leng, David Stanway and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Cate Cadell, Gabriel Crossley, Tony Munroe, Muyu Xu and Yawen Chen in Beijing; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo, Matthias Blamont in Paris; Writing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Global alarm mounts as China virus deaths hit 17

By Cate Cadell and David Stanway

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday with more than 540 cases confirmed, increasing fears of contagion from an infection suspected to originate from illegally traded wildlife.

The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from an animal market in central city of Wuhan, with cases now detected as far away as the United States.

Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China’s communist government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions travel for the Lunar New Year.

“The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading,” National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was meeting in a high-tech room at its Geneva headquarters to decide whether the outbreak is a global health emergency.

Many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places such as cinemas and shopping centers, and even turning to an online plague simulation game or watching disaster movie “The Flu” as a way to cope.

“The best way to conquer fear is to confront fear,” said one commentator on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

The virus has spread from Wuhan to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.

With more than 11 million people, Wuhan is central China’s main industrial and commercial center and a transport hub, home to the country’s largest inland port and gateway to its Three Gorges hydroelectric dam.

The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose from nine to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.

The official China Daily newspaper said 544 cases had now been confirmed in the country. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.

U.S. President Donald Trump said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a good containment plan. “We think it is going to be handled very well,” he said at Davos in Switzerland.

RESPIRATORY THREAT

Li said the virus, which can cause pneumonia and has no effective vaccine, was being spread via breathing. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.

“I believe the government for sure, but I still feel fearful. Because there’s no cure for the virus,” said Fu Ning, a 36-year-old woman in Beijing. “You have to rely on your immunity if you get an infection. It sounds very scary.”

Fears of a pandemic initially spooked markets but they regained their footing on Wednesday.

But companies across China, from Foxconn  to Huawei Technologies and HSBC Holdings , warned staff to avoid Wuhan and handed out masks.

Terry Gou, founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, said he was advising employees not to visit China. Automaker General Motors Co, which operates a plant in Wuhan in a joint venture with China’s SAIC Motor, placed a temporary restriction on employees’ travel to Wuhan.

The chief executive of one of the world’s largest aircraft lessors, Aercap, said he expected the virus to impact Chinese airlines’ profitability in the first quarter.

Chinese officials believe wildlife trafficked at a Wuhan market was the source of the virus. Two sources said provincial and city officials in Wuhan had been told to remain in the city, and those who have left were told to report their whereabouts.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases would appear as China increased monitoring. But Li said there was no evidence of “super-spreaders” capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the SARS outbreak. SARS was thought to have crossed to humans from civet cats sold for food.

GLOBAL PRECAUTIONS

Airports globally stepped up screening from China.

Russia strengthened its sanitary and quarantine controls, Britain said it was starting enhanced monitoring of passengers from Wuhan, and Singapore started screening all passengers from China. Italy created a task force to monitor the possible spread of the virus.

The Chinese-ruled gambling hub of Macau confirmed its first case of pneumonia linked to the coronavirus and tightened body-temperature screening measures.

A first case emerged in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, media reported, with the patient arriving via high-speed railway from the mainland, and Mexico was investigating a potential case.

North Korea banned foreign tourists, several foreign tour operators said. Some qualifying boxing matches for the 2020 Olympics set for Wuhan were canceled and women’s football qualifiers were shifted to Nanjing.

China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the top legal authority, said anyone failing to report virus cases “will be forever nailed to the pillar of historical shame”.

But some experts were skeptical. “We have reason to doubt whether surv (surveillance) is adequate as cases mount,” tweeted Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell, Lusha Zhang and Jiang Xihao in Beijing, David Stanway in Shanghai, Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Josh Smith in Seoul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Alexandra Alper in Davos, Shreyashi Sanyal in Bangalore, Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Nick Macfie)

Human Rights Watch report blasts China as its chief barred from Hong Kong

UNITED NATIONS/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a scathing review of the Chinese government, calling on the international community to push back against “the most brutal and pervasive oppression China has seen in decades” in its 2020 annual report.

The organization’s global head, Kenneth Roth, was denied entry on Sunday to Hong Kong where he was expected to launch the report, which covers the global human rights situation but features China prominently.

The report condemns Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and warns that China’s growing political influence and efforts to censor people abroad pose an “existential threat to the international human rights system.”

“If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” Roth said in the report.

China last month announced sanctions on HRW and other U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a countermeasure to the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports anti-government protests in Hong Kong and threatens China with sanctions for human rights abuses.

Beijing says the NGOs are encouraging violent crime linked to anti-government protests in Hong Kong that have plagued the city for over six months. Roth rejected the accusation.

Chinese state media has also broadly blamed fake news and Western interference for landslide victories against pro-Beijing election candidates in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

On Wednesday U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House, which was also hit with sanctions, released a separate report criticizing Beijing’s efforts to influence media overseas and calling on governments to impose penalties on Chinese officials.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters he would not read either report, adding that both organizations “distort the truth” and have no objectivity.

“Currently, China’s human rights’ situation is the best it’s been in history,” said Geng.

The HRW report, released at the United Nations on Tuesday, said Hong Kong police have used “excessive force” and have “increasingly restricted freedom of assembly” there. It criticized Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam for refusing to launch an independent investigation into police abuses.

TRUMP CREDIBILITY

Beijing has previously criticized HRW over its investigations on surveillance technology and re-education camps in Xinjiang. The United Nations estimates roughly 1 million Uighurs have been previously detained in Xinjiang.

Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs or others in Xinjiang, saying it is providing vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism and to teach new skills.

China has always been sensitive to rights allegations, but in the past year it has become increasingly forceful in rebuking criticisms, which have periodically threatened to derail trade negotiations with the United States.

“To avoid criticism of them, the Chinese government is trying with increasing ferocity to use its economic and diplomatic clout to silence critical voices abroad and to undermine global institutions that protect human rights,” Roth told a news conference at the United Nations.

When it came to countering China on human rights, Roth said several important governments have been “missing in action.”

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump has lost credibility because he so often embraces friendly autocrats, rather than defend the human rights standards that they flout,” Roth said.

“The European Union has been diverted by Brexit, it’s been obstructed by nationalist members, it’s been divided over migration and as a result it’s often found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights,” he said. “Other governments are simply bought off (by China.)”

Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng addressed reporters at the end of the news conference, saying China totally rejected the HRW report as prejudiced and fabricated.

“Hong Kong is a part of China, so given what you said here, I think it is clear to all why you have been barred such entry,” Xing told Roth.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

China rattles saber – and offers friendship – days before Taiwan’s elections

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – With just days to go before Taiwan’s elections, its giant neighbor is trying a push-and-pull strategy on the island Beijing claims as Chinese territory, rattling its saber while trying to coax electors with outwardly friendlier policies.

Taiwan, which says it is an independent country, has long been wary of Chinese attempts to sway its elections in favor of candidates who may look more kindly upon Beijing.

Fear of China has become a major element in the campaign, boosted not only by the anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong but also by a speech Chinese President Xi Jinping gave in January outlining China’s “reunification” agenda, including threats of force.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her team are pressing home a message that people need to “protect” Taiwan from China when they vote in the Jan. 11 presidential and parliamentary election.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said China had sailed another carrier group through the Taiwan Strait just weeks after the last mission.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu quickly took to Twitter to denounce it.

“There it goes again!” he wrote. “Military threats like this only toughen Taiwan’s determination to defend itself and preserve regional peace and stability.”

A few days before that, retired but influential Chinese General Wang Hongguang outlined at a state-media organized forum in Beijing how China could bring Taiwan to its knees by invading its outlying islands and “terrifying” Taipei into submission.

At the same time, China has rolled out policies promising better treatment for the Taiwanese business community, which has invested billions in China, and on Saturday revised a law to give those promises a firmer legal basis.

China has also encouraged Taiwanese abroad, even in places where Taiwan has its own representative offices, to seek consular help from Chinese embassies.

Taiwan says China has sinister intentions, and it must defend its freedoms.

Taiwan only enjoys democracy now after decades of struggle, Tsai’s running mate, William Lai, told supporters on Saturday.

“How can we go backwards, and become a second Hong Kong or Tibet?” he said.

China has ramped up pressure on Tsai since she won office in 2016, cutting off talks and flying bombers around Taiwan, believing she wants to push for the island’s formal independence.

Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country: the Republic of China, its official name.

China may have overreached recently, said one senior foreign envoy in Taipei, describing Xi’s January speech as effectively “Xi campaigning for Tsai” because of how badly it was received in Taiwan.

‘WE WOULD WIN’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beijing doesn’t see it that way.

Jin Canrong, Deputy Dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s elite Renmin University and a government adviser, said Xi’s speech marked a shift in policy away from preventing independence to actively promoting “reunification”.

China is confident that it could successfully use force against Taiwan, he added.

“China really does have the military ability, which is the say the armed ability, to resolve the Taiwan issue,” Jin said. “Although we would pay a price, in the end we would win.”

Any invasion would be bloody and difficult, as Taiwan’s military is well-armed, though the island could probably not hold out for long unless U.S. forces came quickly to their aid, military experts have said.

Opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which favors close ties with China and who is trailing in the polls, says the best way to deal with China is to talk to Beijing and stop demonizing the Chinese for electoral gain.

Han adviser Su Chi, a former general secretary of Taiwan’s National Security Council, said he believed Xi was actually a “dove among the hawks” when it came to Taiwan and wanted a peaceful solution.

“There are loud voices in the mainland for using force to reunify Taiwan, especially in the People’s Liberation Army. I think he (Xi) doesn’t really want this,” Su said.

But Tsai’s returning to office would not necessarily mean relations with China would continue to worsen, as Beijing may realize it must talk to her, said senior legislator Lo Chih-cheng of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“If our party or our president continues to be in power, eventually China has to come to terms with the incumbent government. They refuse to talk to the DPP because they believe the KMT had a chance to come back,” he told Reuters at his campaign office in a Taipei suburb.

“After seeing the probable defeat of the KMT, leaders in Beijing may believe that in the foreseeable future the KMT may not come back to power again,” he added. “So it might be reasonable or sensible for them to come to terms with the DPP government.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Gao Liangping in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to 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.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

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.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

Hong Kong marchers target malls on third day of Christmas protests

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters marched through Hong Kong shopping malls on Thursday, disrupting business in the Asian financial hub for a third day over the festive period and prompting riot police to close off a mall in a tourist district.

The “shopping protests” have targeted malls across the Chinese-ruled city since Christmas Eve, turning violent at times with police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in areas filled with shoppers and visitors.

While the turnout on Thursday was smaller than on the previous two days, riot police stepped up patrols at shopping centers on the Kowloon peninsula and in the rural New Territories.

Dozens of police with batons and shields surrounded and sealed off the Langham Place shopping mall in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district after black-clad, masked protesters occupied it.

“I think the purpose for us to come out is to… let people realize that so many front-line protesters sacrificed (things) for them. They should not forget and (simply) celebrate Christmas,” said Sandy, a young demonstrator who wore a black mask to hide her identity.

“…We have been fighting for almost seven months now, and the Hong Kong police have done so many bad things.”

The protests began more than six months ago in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

They have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement, and became more confrontational over the festive season. Earlier in December, after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections, they had been largely peaceful.

Many protesters have been angered by what they see as the use of unnecessary force by the police, and demanded an independent inquiry into the force’s behavior.

Police, who say they have used only minimum force to control the protests, on Thursday detained several people at a mall in rural Tai Po, north of the city’s financial center, public broadcaster RTHK said.

Demonstrators are also angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering, saying it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time, and blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the protesters in a Facebook post on Wednesday, saying many Hong Kongers and tourists were disappointed their Christmas Eve celebrations had been ruined, while local businesses had also been hit.

On Thursday, some restaurants and stores pulled down their shutters in the malls as protesters, some wearing balaclavas and carrying black flags, marched by.

The government on Thursday criticized “unprecedented violence” by some protesters, but said that protecting freedoms and human rights remained a top priority.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet)