As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
In a little more than a week, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding. Along with fireworks and a weeklong holiday, the festivities will include a large military parade that state media say will show off the Communist nation’s latest nuclear arsenal.
Yet amid the celebrations, China is experiencing several crises: Protesters plan large demonstrations in Hong Kong as the upheaval there passes the 100-day mark. The U.S.-China trade war is slowing China’s economic growth. The global community is pressuring China over its detention of minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. Perhaps most concerning, an outbreak of African swine fever is killing China’s pigs and has raised the price of pork by nearly 50 percent in the past year.
Pork makes up two-thirds of the country’s meat consumption. With the national holiday coming up on Oct. 1, pork is in especially high demand. Recently China opened its pork reserves, and on Thursday it auctioned 10,000 metric tons of frozen pork. For China’s leadership, fixing the pork shortage is a “national priority.”
While harmless to humans, African swine fever is a highly contagious disease that kills every pig that becomes infected. Currently there is no cure or vaccine. The outbreak began in August 2018, and since then the Chinese government says it has culled 1.2 million pigs to stop the disease’s spread. Authorities have also set up quarantine and travel restrictions in areas where the disease has been found and directed farmers not to feed pigs kitchen waste, according to The New York Times.
Yet many believe that large numbers of African swine fever infections have gone unreported, as safety standards are difficult to enforce in China’s millions of small backyard farms. The disease has spread to Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea, and South Korea. In order to keep the virus out of Taiwan, airport customs officials fine visitors up to $32,000 for bringing pork onto the island.
On top of the pig problem, food costs overall have increased by 10 percent in China in the last year. One culprit is the ongoing trade war: China has placed tariffs on agricultural goods from the United States. Tariffs that went into effect on Sept. 1 imposed extra taxes on American products, including pork—but last Friday, state media announced China would exempt American soybeans, pork, and other agricultural products from additional tariffs.
Corn, which makes up almost 8 percent of China’s gross domestic product, is also feeling the blow of African swine fever. With the country’s live pig population falling by 40 percent (according to China’s agriculture ministry), corn demand could fall by 25 percent. That could wipe out at least 23 million metric tons of corn consumption, Lan Renxing, an executive at a major feed producer, told the South China Morning Post.
Spies for China?
This week the Reuters news service reported that China was behind a cyberattack on the Australian Parliament and the country’s three largest political parties before last May’s elections. Australia’s cyber intelligence agency discovered the attack in March but recommended keeping it secret in order not to hurt trade relations with Beijing.
In the United States, John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told NPR, “The Chinese are our No. 1 intelligence threat.” He noted that three former U.S. intelligence officers have been convicted or pleaded guilty to spying for China in the past year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has identified multiple additional cases of alleged Chinese economic espionage, according to NPR.
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A New York moment:
The press screenings for the New York Film Festival have begun, and on Monday I screened a new film by the Dardenne brothers. The film, called Young Ahmed, is about a teenage boy trying to embrace radical Islam. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are considered the “Coen brothers of Europe,” and we published a feature last year on their spiritually infused films.
Many of the films the Dardennes write and produce focus on the relationship between fathers and sons. Often they focus on middle-school-age boys struggling with their identity. In Young Ahmed, our middle-school protagonist’s father is absent, and his mom sighs at one point that Ahmed wouldn’t be running after extremist ideologies if his father were around. It’s a fascinating and complex film, and fits in just right with the Dardennes’ other films about boys with absent fathers, such as The Kid With a Bike.
But at the end of the New York screening, the (white) critic in front of me dismissed the film as a portrayal of Islam from “problematic white men.” Another reviewer afterward called it a “hateful, duplicitous little movie” full of “toxic Islamophobia.” That misses completely, I think, the religious nuance of what the Dardennes are doing here—their films tell the spiritual stories of Belgium, not just Catholic Belgium. And Young Ahmed depicts many different strains of Islam if the grouchy critics would pay closer attention.
But I shouldn’t be surprised if the New York reception of the film is overly political or self-righteous. What the Dardennes gave us is another philosophical pinprick about our own identities: our perceived righteousness and need for forgiveness.
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On Sept. 1, I landed at Hong Kong International Airport after a 15-hour flight, looking forward to a hot shower and a dim sum dinner. Instead, I got stuck there for six hours.
For several months, pro-democracy protesters have been rallying against the government. What started out as peaceful protests quickly escalated into violent confrontations with the police. These protesters have targeted the Hong Kong International Airport and several mass transit stations, at one point causing hundreds of canceled flights.
The Sunday I chose to fly to Hong Kong, they targeted the airport again. Hundreds of protesters gathered at the airport bus terminal that afternoon, chanting “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” Soon after, officials suspended certain train and bus services connected to the airport, and police piled into the area.
By the time my flight arrived at the airport at 6 p.m., officials had stopped all traffic between the city and the airport. Riot police had marched in, and protesters had pushed everything they could find—from stolen railings to trolleys—to block police from the airport. Thousands of people were stranded. Some passengers desperate to catch their flight even dragged their luggage across the 10-mile bridge to the airport.
I asked a security official at the airport how I could get out of there, and the guy shrugged. “You can wait like the rest of them,” he said, pointing at the long lines of people queued to nowhere.
“Can I take taxi or Uber?” I said, and he shook his head: “No way out right now. You just wait.”
I tried to get something to eat at a 7-Eleven at the terminal, but the store was so crowded with people that elbows jabbed me in the ribs and suitcases ran over my feet several times. Finally, I heard a buzz sweeping through the crowd that the bus terminal had opened up, so I hurried over—along with hundreds of other people. Within seconds, dozens more people and their giant suitcases had thronged behind me. I was stuck like a grain of rice in a rice bag.
So there I was, smashed against sticky bodies and luggage in a sweltering humidity, hoping against hope that I would make it to my hotel soon. So many people were squashed together that nobody knew where the line started or ended, or even which line belonged to which bus service. From time to time, the heavens unleashed downpours of rain. Some people plucked out their umbrellas, almost poking eyeballs out, while the other poor unprepared folks stood soaking up the rain, unable to move more than an inch due to the crowds.
I was lucky enough to be standing under a roof, but I still felt miserable. I couldn’t move, my bladder was swelling, I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no place to sit. Everyone stood steaming in the communal fumes of body odor, frustration, and exhaustion.
Some dealt with the situation with humor. One elderly woman joked, “I should pretend to faint. The quickest way out of here is in an ambulance.”
Others reacted with anger. One man began screaming in Cantonese, waving his hands in the air as though he was slapping an invisible person.
Most were resigned. A couple leaned on each other and shut their eyes for a nap while standing up, some stared into space, and others watched dramas on their cell phones.