China v Hong Kong | Protests in Colombia

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Good morning!

Are you watching the Euros? Even if you're not a sportsball fan, you probably heard that last week Denmark's Christian Eriksen collapsed halfway through a match.

Medics rushed onto the field and defibrillated Eriksen as players, fans in the Copenhagen stadium, and viewers around the world watched on in eerie silence.

We would later find out that Eriksen's heart had stopped, and he had been quite literally brought back to life on live TV. Denmark was required to finish the match against Finland without Eriksen (because UEFA = 👿), which they remarkably only lost 1-0.

Fast forward to Monday night when the Danes thrashed Russia 4-1 to go through to the round of 16. Watching Denmark win in such style, and qualify for the knockout stages in front of 25,000 emotional Danish fans, was just about as wonderful as sport gets.

Also wonderful but a different kind of wonderful - Scotland played England in London for the first time in ~25 years. Scottish fans flooded into a rainy London in an exuberant mood:

The technique. The supportive onlookers. The polite clap. Never change, Scotland.

This week:

  1. 🍎 Hong Kong: a fresh crackdown on Hong Kong’s remaining free press.

  2. 🔥 Unrest in Colombia: tax protests spiral out of control.

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1. 🍎 Hong Kong: China bites Apple Daily (again)

By Helen + John

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai named his sensationalist and racy tabloid publication ‘Apple Daily’ after the forbidden biblical fruit: there’d be no evil or bad news to share, ever, if Adam and Eve had listened to the big guy/gal and left the apple alone.

Now that’s branding! Take a good hard look at yourself, ‘The Australian’.

Little did Lai know that 26 years on, his popular publication would become an icon for liberal media in Hong Kong. Apple Daily is known for two things: 

  1. Sharp political commentary that’s unabashedly pro-democracy

  2. Spilling the tea on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials’ debaucherous weekend activities

While the average Hongkonger found the content irresistible, the CCP was less impressed. 

So, over 200 police officers raided Apple Daily’s offices in August 2020, where Lai and his two sons were arrested on charges of ‘foreign collusion’ under Hong Kong’s new national security laws. Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence.

The raid only served to boost Apple Daily’s readership, with daily circulation numbers spiking from ~70k to ~350k.

If the first lesson in PR is ‘there's no such thing as bad publicity’, then the second lesson is that authoritarian governments seem incapable of learning the first. 

A quick history refresher

We’ve written before about Hong Kong’s shrinking press and political autonomy, its complicated British colonial past, and its equally complicated ‘one country, two systems’ present-day relationship with mainland China:

  • The British leased Hong Kong until 1997, when they returned the territory to China. Mainland China guaranteed Hong Kong an autonomous political, economic, and legal system, independent from the mainland until 2047.

  • As China’s power has risen, the country has chipped away at Hong Kong’s autonomy. Things came to a head in 2019, when large-scale pro-democracy protests drew two million people (nearly a third of the city’s adult population)* onto the streets over a period of two months. 

  • China enacted the National Security Law in July 2020 to quell the protests. This law extended Beijing’s reach over Hong Kong for vague crimes like collusion with foreign forces, secession, subversion, and terrorism. What does that mean? Lots of room for legal interpretation from judges sympathetic to the CCP.

New raids and more arrests...

Last week, the Hong Kong police once again raided Apple Daily HQ (this time with twice the number of officers), and arrested five of the media company’s senior staff, including its CEO, COO, and Chief Editor.

Apple Daily's top brass were accused of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and endangering China’s national security (aka saying mean things about the CCP).

More specifically, the Chinese government blamed the executive team’s decision to publish more than 30 Apple Daily articles about the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests for playing a ‘crucial part’ in inspiring foreign sanctions against China and Hong Kong. 

According to Hong Kong’s Security Minister, Apple Daily’s work was not ‘ordinary journalistic work’. What is 'ordinary journalistic work, you might reasonably ask?

We'll spare you the clichéd reference to Orwell.

…this time with one important difference

Apple Daily, the company, is also being investigated for publishing various op-eds and commentaries in opposition to the Chinese government. 

That’s important because it has allowed Hong Kong authorities to freeze US$2.3 million worth of assets belonging to Apple Daily, sparking fears the company could collapse without enough funds to pay staff wages.

(⚡ Update: since sending this newsletter, news outlets are reporting that Apple Daily will close its doors this Saturday)

Rather than detailing what the US/UK/Europe said and how China reacted in this instance, we’ll provide a cut and paste formula for how issues like this will probably play out going forward:

  1. China uses national security law as the basis to arrest anyone working to prevent Beijing's complete control of Hong Kong.

  2. Western governments release strongly worded statements criticising Beijing and calling upon the Chinese government to uphold Hong Kong's rule of law under the 'one country, two systems' doctrine.

  3. China rejects Western criticism, and accuses foreign forces of trying to undermine rightful Chinese control of Hong Kong.

It's a dance as old as, well... 1949.

🗝 Key takeaways

The political situation in Hong Kong has been worsening for a couple of years now. But there are a few significant takeaways from this latest raid on Apple Daily HQ:

  1. It’s the first time that a company, rather than just individuals, has faced a national security investigation. This will no doubt spook many companies, especially as more laws come into effect like the recently approved ‘Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law’.

  2. It’s the first time Hong Kong police have deemed the publication of newspaper articles to be a crime under the national security law. Hong Kong's global press freedom ranking is already poor (80/180) - this will likely worsen things by triggering more self-censorship in the Hong Kong media.

  3. China’s national security laws can and will be applied retroactively, despite reassurances from the government that this would not happen (“we have also retroactively removed our assurances, psych!”). China is clearly doubling down on its efforts to catch all political dissidents in Hong Kong.

The idea of a free press is on life support in Hong Kong, and let's be honest, it's not going to recover. Let's also not forget that Hong Kong only had a free press because the British forcibly seized the island from China during the First Opium War in 1841. History is annoyingly complex. 

But whatever you think of the history of colonialism, or the modern day CCP, what is beyond doubt is that independent journalists in Hong Kong are now in real danger:

In an era where the regime can draw arbitrary red lines, the staff of Apple Daily will remain in their positions and report the truth for Hong Kong people in a legal, reasonable and fair manner.
- Editorial Board, Apple Daily

From our comfortable desks, we can only admire their bravery.

📚 For a gripping and on-the-ground account of Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, check out friend of International Intrigue Antony Dapiran’s City on Fire: the fight for Hong Kong.

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*Correction: updated from a previous version stating that it was nearly a quarter of the city’s adult population. Our calculation erroneously included those who were under 19 in 2019, inflating the size of the adult population.


2. 🔥 Unrest in Colombia: tax protests spiral out of control

By Helen + John

⭐ This is the first piece in a series on the current unrest in Colombia. Didn’t realise there was unrest in Colombia? That’s why you read International Intrigue! It’s a remarkably complex situation that we’ll explore over the coming weeks. Today, we set the scene with a recap of what’s going on and why.

Turns out people really don’t like taxes, and Colombians are no different. Colombia has experienced widespread, and often violent, protests for almost two months.

And look, we didn’t plan on writing two tax stories in three weeks but… we’re not quite sure how to finish that sentence.

What’s going on?

  • Protests broke out on 28 April in opposition to a proposed tax hike on wages, public services, fuel, and pensions. Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez put forward the tax increases as a way to reduce debt and fund a universal basic income program established last year in response to the pandemic.

  • President Duque withdrew the tax proposal and the Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigned in early May. Colombia’s credit rating was downgraded to ‘junk bond’ status, worsening the economic crisis.

  • But that didn’t stop the protests. Ignoring a court-ordered ban on protests due to Covid-19, tens of thousands of Colombians have since taken to the streets across major cities including Bogota and Cali. Protesters have erected roadblocks, leading to shortages of food and fuel in some areas. 

  • More than 60 people have died, ~200 people have been reported missing or feared arbitrarily detained, and ~2,300 wounded. The police are accused of using lethal force (including use of live rounds), and there are numerous reports of sexual violence. 

Covid-19; the spark that reignited long-simmering problems

Covid-19 has hit Colombia hard. Economic analysts suggest that Covid-19 has pushed as many as 3.6 million Colombians into poverty due to job loss and illness.

In November 2019 (remember pre-Covid times?), demonstrations broke out across the country calling for:

  • Colombia’s riot police to be disbanded

  • security forces to treat protesters humanely

  • both the police and the military to be accountable to an independent body separate from military courts

This time in 2021, protesters are demanding (among other things) that the Colombian government introduce a universal basic income of one million pesos (~$260) per month for lower-income families, and drop university tuition fees for all students.

Economic instability is a sure-fire way to dredge up a society’s underlying problems:

  1. Structural racism

Aside from tackling new taxes and economic strain, protests in cities like Cali have also addressed deep-seated structural racism against Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples.

Cali has the second-largest urban Afro-descendent population in Latin America, and protestors say police brutality is particularly egregious in Cali’s low-income and marginalised neighbourhoods. 

But there are also reports of Cali’s local residents turning on indigenous groups, and instances of protestors attacking police. It’s all about as clear as one’s head after a heavy night on aguardiente.

  1. Long history with armed groups

Colombia has a long history with armed groups and is a notorious hotbed of drug wars and dangerous crime. Also, cocaine hippos.

And you’ve probably heard of Colombia’s rebel group the FARC (not just because the acronym sounds like when an Australian sees the bill at the end of a long drinking session).

Colombia’s ~50 year civil war was no joke - it killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed huge areas of forest and farmland before a landmark peace deal ended the war in 2016.

Since the peace deal, Colombia has revamped its reputation to the point where every second Instagram story was a Californian posing in front of a hipster coffee shop in downtown Medellin. Still, for native Paisas, that’s got to be a huge improvement to being known for the city's starring role in HBO’s man-child-dramedy Entourage.

But decades of fighting do not disappear overnight - the same military and police remain equipped and enabled to fight the war years after it’s ended.

🗝 Key takeaways

It’s unclear what the average Colombian thinks of the protests. Many Colombians understandably just want the violence to end. And there are plenty of reports of counter-protestors fighting with protestors to clear roadblocks.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore just how many Colombians, from all different walks of life, have joined these protests.

What does it mean for Colombians in the near future?

  • The anger generated by the protesters is almost certain to be a major factor in next year’s Presidential elections

  • Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war drew attention away from the country’s deep structural problems. The latest protests have brought global attention to socioeconomic issues, improving the chances of meaningful reform

  • It’s clear that Colombia’s problems won’t be solved with the resolution of these protests, or with next year’s Presidential election. Colombia is the second-most economically unequal country in Latin America, after Brazil. Add to that the fact that Covid-19 shrunk the Colombian economy by 7%, and that more than 42% of Colombians are now living below the poverty line.

In the coming weeks we’ll explore some of the underlying issues in more detail including Colombia’s position in Latin America, whether Colombia might become a failed state like Venezuela, and more optimistically, how Colombia can chart a path out of trouble in the future.

A huge shout-out to great friend of International Intrigue, Miguel Camacho, for providing us with a vast treasure trove of resources on what’s going on in Colombia.


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

This week, we’re proud to be supported by:

We started International Intrigue to bring you insightful analysis of global affairs. That’s why we’re delighted to have discovered The Factual. Their mission is to bring you unbiased news, and to contextualize trending US, world, and business news.

We chatted with the founder, Arjun Moorthy (a lovely guy btw!) who explained that The Factual uses a transparent ratings system to find the most objective articles across the political spectrum, and curates them in a daily email and app.

The daily newsletter has short summaries to save you time as well as useful charts and long-read recommendations - a refreshing change from sensational news sources.

😍 Arjun has also been kind enough to give International Intrigue readers 10% off The Factual’s premium subscription! 

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