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A pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on Jan. 1. (ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

China stories to watch

Seven top issues to follow in 2020

At the beginning of 2019, I listed seven China-related stories worth following throughout the year. Some became big headlines—the Uighur detentions, the U.S.-China trade war, and Chinese influence overseas. Others are perennial issues, such as Taiwan’s relationship with China and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Still others represented the trend of greater control in the country, such as the government crackdown on Christians and forced disappearances.

What I didn’t foresee was 2019’s biggest China-related story: Hong Kong’s pushback against mainland China’s encroachment. Who would have thought a controversial extradition bill would unleash pent-up anger within Hong Kongers and lead to a protest movement still going strong in its eighth month?

As we begin 2020, I’ve picked seven China stories worth watching in the new year.

1. Hong Kong:  The 1-million-strong New Year’s Day protest shows the movement’s momentum is continuing into 2020. That’s because even though the Hong Kong government has withdrawn the extradition bill, it refuses the demand of the people to set up an independent investigation into police brutality or to allow direct elections. Young Hong Kong protesters view this as a fight for survival, so arrests and increasingly harsh police actions have done little to dampen their enthusiasm.  

2. Taiwan: The upheaval in Hong Kong has shown the self-governed island of Taiwan a terrifying picture of what could happen if the island accepts China’s “one country, two systems” policy. As a result, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen—who has been vocal in her criticism of the Chinese government—rose in the polls and is expected to win tomorrow’s presidential election. If Tsai wins a second term, Beijing will likely continue isolating Taiwan on the international stage and luring away diplomatic allies (Taiwan currently has only 15).

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Kathy Willens/AP

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Reforming reforms

Did New York’s criminal justice reforms go too far?

A New York moment: 

On Jan. 1, bail reform went into effect in New York, prohibiting judges from setting cash bail in about 90 percent of cases. Before, New York’s bail system was a mess. In 2018, I wrote about it, spending a day trying to post bail for someone at a far flung city jail. The national push for this particular criminal justice reform has been bipartisan, focused on how cash bail singles out the poor for pretrial detention. 

Reform advocates in New York have pointed out several examples of this disparity: Harvey Weinstein stands accused of the violent crime of rape, but he had the means to post his $1 million bail to stay out of jail pretrial. Meanwhile, Bronx teenager Kalief Browder spent three years at Rikers pretrial over an alleged theft of a backpack, because his family could not pay the $3,000 bail, only to have charges eventually dropped. Browder made several suicide attempts in jail, and then finally died of suicide two years after his release. 

New York’s bail reforms that passed last year went well beyond what other states had done, even New Jersey, which eliminated cash bail but allowed judges to assess the risk of releasing defendants pretrial. Under the New York reforms, judges can only set bail for certain violent crimes—all others are released pretrial. 

What makes New York complicated is that its judges have never been allowed to assess a defendant’s risk to the community in setting bail, on the grounds that this helped ensure the right to presumption of innocence. As a main condition for setting bail, New York judges are only allowed to determine someone’s flight risk. The new law doesn’t change that.

But it does rely on measures that reasonable criminal justice reform advocates have endorsed to me: supervised release and ankle monitoring. The problem is that the state did not add additional funding for these programs even though the numbers needing monitoring will grow substantially. (Bail company advocates have argued to me that the bail system has worked for hundreds of years, and these new measures won’t.)

Now, barely a week under the new bail law, New York’s reforms are under heavy scrutiny, from New York Police Department chief Dermot Shea and from the Jewish community. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would revisit the law to address concerns, particularly from the Jewish community after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. The new law does not allow judges to set cash bail in cases of hate crimes. Support groups for victims of domestic violence have also advocated for New York judges to have more discretion in setting bail. I’ll be keeping an eye on where this leads, and what it might mean for such criminal justice reforms nationally.

Worth your time:  

It’s been more than a year since this fascinating story about the Appalachian mafia rigging the McDonald’s Monopoly game came out. Here’s hoping someone is making it into a movie. As an aside, I love that American prosecutors put so much creative effort into naming their investigative operations (in this case, “Operation Final Answer”). 

This week I learned: 

Dogs on the loose delayed 107 trains in the city last year, and raccoons took second place by delaying 87. Late getting to work in New York? Blame a goose on the tracks. 

A court case you might not know about: 

This spring the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the validity of various subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s taxes and other financial information. Meanwhile, in a less noticed case in New York, a woman who accused Trump of rape might seek the release of his New York tax returns to show that her defamation case has jurisdiction in New York. Trump’s legal team in that case had argued the New York courts don’t have jurisdiction over the case, because Trump’s comments against the woman were made in Washington, D.C.  

Culture I am consuming: 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. What a dazzling book. One of my friends pointed out that someone should do an essay comparing it with another afterlife parable, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org

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MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

Chinese police stand guard outside the Chengdu People’s Intermediate Court in Chengdu. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages)

Long-expected sentence

China’s imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi had prepared himself for governmental persecution

After a closed-door trial the day after Christmas, a court in Chengdu, China, on Monday sentenced prominent house church Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church to nine years in prison. His crimes: inciting subversion of state power and operating an illegal business. The sentence comes more than a year after Chinese authorities cracked down on Early Rain Church on Dec. 9, 2018, breaking down the doors of church members’ and leaders’ homes and arresting more than 100 people. 

This is the longest prison sentence handed to a house church pastor in more than a decade, according to Bob Fu of ChinaAid. The sentence signals the Chinese government’s increased crackdown on Christianity and its fear of Wang’s influence in the Chinese church. Authorities also stripped Wang of his political rights for three years and seized $7,200 worth of assets.

“This is a pure case of unjust religious persecution against a peaceful preacher of a Chinese Reformed church,” Fu said. “This grave sentence demonstrates [President Xi Jinping’s] regime is determined to be enemy to the universal values and religious freedom.”

Authorities have released all Early Rain members except for Wang and Qin Defu, an elder who was sentenced to four years in prison for “illegal business operations.” Officials continue to monitor and harass the released believers and have sent some back to their hometowns. Those who remain in Chengdu continue to gather in homes for weekly services. 

Titus Wu, a church leader at Early Rain, said he and the other leaders felt a mix of emotions upon hearing Wang’s sentence: relief that the sentence wasn’t longer, anger at the injustice of the ruling, and grief for Wang’s wife Jiang Rong and son Shuya, who will spend his teenage years without his father. Wu (whose name WORLD has changed for security reasons) said they also felt encouraged that Wang had stood firm in his faith while imprisoned. It caused them to reflect on how they can serve God more fervently over the next eight years until Wang’s release.

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