US ambassador to China Terry Branstad is stepping down, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday, at a time of increasingly strained ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
Thanking Branstad for his service, Pompeo said in a tweet that he had “contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.”
In a statement, the US embassy in Beijing confirmed the departure, saying Branstad was retiring and would leave Beijing next month. It added that he had confirmed his decision to President Donald Trump by phone last week.
The 73-year-old had been in his post since May 2017.
“I am proudest of our work in getting the Phase One trade deal and delivering tangible results for our communities back home,” the statement quoted him as saying.
It noted his work pushing Beijing to class the powerful opioid fentanyl as a controlled substance, making its sale to the United States subject to China’s maximum legal penalty.
It did not give any details on who would take over at the embassy.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — while acknowledging Pompeo’s tweet — said it had not received notice of his resignation.
Branstad — who previously served as governor of Iowa for more than 20 years across two spells — has represented Washington in Beijing during a period when tensions with China were heightened over trade, regional territorial claims, the coronavirus pandemic, and unrest in Hong Kong.
In June, he was summoned by Beijing after President Trump signed a law that paved the way for sanctions over Hong Kong, an action the foreign ministry slammed as “gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”
Last year, he called on Beijing to open a “substantive dialogue” with the Dalai Lama during a rare visit to Tibet, a region where the central government is accused of widespread repression.
An early supporter of Trump’s run for the White House in 2016, Branstad was appointed soon after the election.
At the time, Trump’s transition team praised his “tremendous understanding of China and Chinese people.”
He was reported to have a long-standing relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he first met in the 1980s.
China’s leaders held a triumphant ceremony to celebrate beating the coronavirus on Tuesday, as billions of people around the world still suffer the fallout from the pandemic and the global death toll nears 900,000.
The upbeat mood in Beijing comes as concerns grow about a resurgence of Covid-19 across Europe, with France tightening restrictions, cases in Britain spiking and schools resuming around the region in recent days.
Worldwide infections to date now stand at more than 27 million and over 890,000 people have died from the disease, with the pandemic showing no sign of peaking.
But in China the virus has been all but banished through a combination of lockdowns and travel restrictions earlier in the year that have officials touting the nation as a coronavirus success story.
President Xi Jinping said China had passed “an extraordinary and historic test” during an awards ceremony for medical professionals decorated with bugle calls and applause.
“We quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus,” Xi said.
“We are leading the world in economic recovery and in the fight against Covid-19.”
The nation’s propaganda machine has been attempting to seize the narrative surrounding the pandemic, reframing the episode as an example of the agility and organisation of the Communist leadership.
Xi had stern words for China’s doubters, saying “selfish moves, any buck-passing and deeds that confuse right and wrong” risked inflicting damage across the world.
Beijing is also touting progress on its vaccines as a sign of global leadership and resilience.
China put its homegrown Covid-19 vaccines on display for the first time at a Beijing trade fair this week and authorities hope the jabs will be approved for use by year-end.
The vaccines are among nearly 10 worldwide to enter phase 3 trials, typically the last step ahead of regulatory approval, as countries race to stub out an illness that continues to ravage large parts of the globe.
– ‘We have to get out of our homes’ –
Spain on Monday became the first country in Western Europe to pass half a million infections. The nation had largely gained control over its outbreak but cases have surged since restrictions were removed at the end of June.
In neighbouring Morocco, the government shut all schools and imposed a lockdown on Casablanca on the day classes were supposed to resume after cases surged in the city.
Officials said the virus risked overwhelming the North African country if it was not controlled, but some parents were left fuming.
“They were on cloud nine over returning to school tomorrow,” one father wrote of his children on Twitter.
“How do you explain this to a six-year-old and an eight-year-old?”
Restrictions have also been reimposed in France where seven more regions were placed on a red list after successively recording daily infection rates of between 7,000 and 9,000.
And in England, officials fiddled with overseas quarantine rules again, imposing curbs on travellers from seven Greek islands popular with holidaymakers, after Britain at the weekend registered a level of infection not seen since late May.
In Asia, India pressed ahead with reopening its battered economy even as it surpassed Brazil on Monday as the second-most infected nation in the world with 4.2 million cases.
Trains began running again in the capital New Delhi after a five-month shutdown and 12 other cities also restarted subway services.
“For our lives to move on, we have to get out of our homes… so this is a good move by the government,” commuter Deepak Kumar told AFP in Delhi.
– Barty to skip French Open –
French footballer Kylian Mbappe became the latest sports star to test positive for the virus after his club teammate Brazilian forward Neymar was confirmed to have Covid-19 last week.
Mbappe has been ruled out of France’s Nations League game against Croatia on Tuesday and is the seventh Paris Saint-Germain player to contract the illness.
A number of tennis players have also been infected, and on Tuesday, world number one Ashleigh Barty announced she will not defend her French Open crown due to virus fears.
The Australian star said it was a “difficult” decision but the health of her family and team came first.
China said Tuesday that it had detained a high-profile Australian journalist working for its state media on “national security grounds”.
Cheng Lei’s detention was a new blow to deteriorating relations between the two countries that have seen China warn its citizens of travelling to Australia and vice versa.
In the first comments on CGTN anchor Cheng Lei, held since August 14, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said authorities took “compulsory measures” against her on suspicion “of criminal activity endangering China’s national security”.
“The case is still in the process of investigation in accordance with the law,” Zhao said, adding that her “legal rights and interests are all receiving full legal protection”.
He did not give further details of the allegations against her.
Cheng — who conducted interviews with international CEOs for CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk shows — has not been seen in public since being held, although Australian diplomats in Beijing were able to speak to her on August 27.
Two other Australian reporters Bill Birtles and Michael Smith fled China overnight, saying they also feared arrest.
“As long as foreign journalists obey the law… they have no reason to worry,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said after stating authorities had investigated the Australian pair as part of an unspecified case.
The Australian Financial Review, Smith’s employer, reported that both journalists had been told that “they were persons of interest in an investigation into Ms Cheng”.
Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.
Earlier this year, Australia warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention if they travelled to China.
China has put its homegrown coronavirus vaccines on display for the first time, as the country where the contagion was discovered looks to shape the narrative surrounding the pandemic.
High hopes hang on the small vials of liquid on show at a Beijing trade fair this week — vaccine candidates produced by Chinese companies Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm.
Neither has hit the market yet but the makers hope they will be approved after all-important phase 3 trials as early as year-end.
A Sinovac representative told AFP his firm has already “completed the construction of a vaccine factory” able to produce 300 million doses a year.
On Monday, people at the trade fair crowded around booths showing the potential game-changing vaccines.
China, which is facing a storm of foreign criticism over its early handling of the pandemic, has been trying to repurpose the story of Covid-19.
State media and officials are now emphasising the revival of Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the deadly pathogen surfaced, as a success story in the fight against the virus.
They are also touting progress on domestic vaccines as a sign of Chinese leadership and resilience in the face of an unprecedented health threat that has pummelled the global economy.
In May, President Xi Jinping pledged to make any potential vaccine developed by China a “global public good”.
The potential vaccines on display are among nearly 10 worldwide to enter phase 3 trials, typically the last step ahead of regulatory approval, as countries race to stub out the virus and reboot battered economies.
Sinopharm said it anticipates the antibodies from its jab to last between one and three years — although the final result will only be known after the trials.
China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times reported last month that “the price of the vaccines will not be high”.
Every two doses should cost below 1,000 yuan ($146), the report said, citing Sinopharm’s chairman, who told media he has already been injected with one of the candidate vaccines.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported Monday that another vaccine candidate, developed by Chinese military scientists, can deal with mutations in the coronavirus.
As of last month, at least 5.7 billion doses of the vaccines under development around the world had been pre-ordered.
But the World Health Organization has warned that widespread immunisation against Covid-19 may not be on the cards until the middle of next year.
Amazon has banned sales of imported seeds in the United States after thousands of Americans said they had received packets of seeds they had not ordered, mostly from China.
“Moving forward, we are only permitting the sale of seeds by sellers who are based in the US,” the e-commerce giant said in a statement Saturday.
In late July the Department of Agriculture reported that packages of seeds had been sent to Americans and warned not to plant them, in case they posed a danger to US agriculture.
Examination of the mystery packages revealed at least 14 different kinds of seeds, including mint, mustard, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus and roses.
“At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam’ where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales,” the Department of Agriculture said in a statement on August 12.
China issued a fierce rebuke Friday to UN experts who said a draconian national security law imposed upon Hong Kong poses a serious risk to the city’s freedoms and breaches international legal obligations.
Beijing has faced a barrage of criticism over the legislation, imposed late June after pro-democracy protests rocked the semi-autonomous city last year.
The law, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces, carries a maximum life sentence and has intimidated many protesters into silence.
In a letter made public Friday, the UN special rapporteurs on human rights warned parts of the legislation “appear to criminalise freedom of expression or any form of criticism” of China.
In customarily strong language, China’s foreign ministry was swift to strike down the allegations, saying the law “punishes an extremely small number and protects the absolute majority” in the financial hub.
“Some people disregard the facts and maliciously slander China’s human rights situation… and crudely interfere in China’s internal affairs,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
“Stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s affairs in any way.”
Hong Kong lurched into chaos last year as pro-democracy protesters — furious at perceived encroachment by China on the city’s freedoms — clashed with police.
Unrest has simmered down thanks to coronavirus restrictions and the chilling effect of the security law — under which more than 20 people have been arrested, including a prominent media tycoon.
The letter by the UN advisers — the first issued since the law blanketed the southern Chinese city — gave a vigorous dissection of the damage being inflicted upon the freedoms once enjoyed in Hong Kong, enshrined in an agreement made before the 1997 handover from British colonial rule back to China.
The security law “poses a serious risk that those fundamental freedoms and due process protections may be infringed upon”, the rapporteurs said.
The letter warned the legislation could “impinge impermissibly on the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and of peaceful assembly”.
The rapporteurs urged China’s “reconsideration” of the legislation and for a fully independent reviewer to be appointed to ensure it complies with China’s international human rights obligations.
They also expressed concern over one of the most controversial points of the law — which allows cases to be transferred from the jurisdiction of Hong Kong to mainland China — and warned it could undermine the right to a fair trial.
The broadly worded law criminalised certain political speech overnight, such as advocating sanctions against China or greater autonomy or independence for Hong Kong.
Lawyers for some of the more than 20 people arrested under the law so far say police are trawling historical actions of pro-democracy activists to beef up their cases.
The UN experts also raised concerns over the definition of terrorism under the national security law.
They warned it extends to damage of physical property such as transport facilities — which goes well beyond the UN Security Council’s definition of terrorist conduct as aiming to cause death or serious bodily harm.
The first international flight in more than five months landed in China’s capital Thursday with passengers greeted by airport staff in full hazmat suits as a ban on foreign arrivals in Beijing eased.
Chinese aviation authorities are allowing arrivals in Beijing under intense Covid-19 safety rules from Thailand, Cambodia, Pakistan, Greece, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Canada — countries deemed low-risk for cross-border infections.
Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed an Air China plane taxiing at the Beijing Capital International Airport after landing from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Passengers disembarked wearing masks and dragging luggage — some appeared to be in full protective suits — before going past customs officials and police wearing visors and protective gear.
Travellers arriving in China need to show a negative coronavirus test before boarding, and are subject to centralised quarantine on arrival for 14 days, along with two more tests, officials said this week.
The number of passengers on direct international flights to Beijing is capped at 500 per day during a trial period, CCTV said.
Since late March, Beijing-bound international flights have been diverted to other Chinese cities, where passengers are screened for the coronavirus and quarantine.
Eleven cases were reported Thursday in China, where the coronavirus first emerged late last year. Health officials said they were all imported.
China remains wary of the risk of an influx of cases from other countries now that its local outbreaks have been largely brought under control.
Most foreigners are still forbidden entry into the country.
The demand for goods and services from China is still on the high as the Asian country tops the list of import trading partners by 31.41% in the second quarter of 2020, the latest data from Nigeria’s statistics agency shows.
This is despite the sharp fall in the value of the country’s total trade to N6.24 billion, representing 27.30% in Q2, against the 27.46% level recorded in the corresponding quarter, and 27.46% year-on-year.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics Foreign Trade in Goods Statistics released on Wednesday, the value of total imports dropped by 10.69% in the quarter in review, against the level recorded in Q1, but increased by 0.39% year-on-year.
The report however stated that imported goods in agriculture, raw material, solid minerals, manufacturing, and energy all increased by 59.01%, 85.69%, 35.51%, 4.69%, and 591.47% respectively, with other oil products imports recording a decrease by 82.32% in Q2.
It is a different tale for export items as the total goods which left the shores of the country dropped by 45.64% in Q2, lower than the 51.73% recorded in the corresponding year.
Unlike their performances in the import segment, export in agricultural goods, raw material, solid minerals, manufactured goods, crude oil, and energy goods all decreased significantly.
“Total exports were 45.64% lower in Q2, 2020 than Q1, 2020 and 51.73% lower than Q2, 2019.
“Agricultural goods export dropped 38.2% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1, 2020 but rose 6.3% year-on-year. Raw material goods export recorded a decrease of 56.2% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1, 2020, and 52.4% compared with the same quarter in 2019.
“Solid minerals exports registered a decrease of 2.3% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1, 2020 and 79.4% compared to Q2, 2019. Manufactured goods export decreased in value by 42.8% in Q2, 2020 against the level recorded in Q1, 2020 but increased 139.6% compared with the corresponding quarter in 2019.
However, despite the decrease on a quarterly basis, “crude oil exports decreased in value by 47.2% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1. Energy goods decreased by 13.7% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1, 2020. Other oil products decreased by 40.7% in Q2, 2020 compared to Q1, 2020, and failed to increase year-on-year.
Meanwhile, Spain topped the export trading countries by 14.00%, followed by Netherlands, China India, and South Africa.
China, United States, India. Netherlands and Germany made the top five list of major import trading partners in Q2, 2020.
India on Wednesday banned 118 more Chinese apps in a stepped-up backlash over an increasingly bitter border showdown between the giant neighbours.
The Information Technology Ministry said the apps — including the mobile version of the popular video game PUBG and other services provided by China internet giant Tencent — promoted activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.
India and China have been embroiled in a series of deadly clashes and showdowns on their Himalayan border in recent weeks.
In June, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat in the Ladakh region of the border. An Indian special forces member was killed in one of two incidents at the weekend.
China has also suffered casualties but has not given figures.
India had already banned 59 Chinese apps — including the video-sharing platform TikTok — after the June battle.
The PUBG mobile phone app has millions of young users in India.
Other apps closed down include games, online payment services, dating sites and even software to edit selfies.
PUBG was developed by a South Korean company, but the mobile version that has taken off around the world was developed by Tencent.
The IT ministry accused the apps of stealing user data.
The “mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures”, it said.
A Tibetan-origin soldier with India’s special forces was killed in the latest border showdown with Chinese troops on their contested Himalayan border, a Tibetan representative said Tuesday.
The death is the first reported from two incidents in 48 hours on the border which has heightened tensions between the giant nations just two months after a battle that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.
India and China, which fought a border war in 1962, have accused each other of seeking to cross their unofficial frontier in the Ladakh region in a bid to gain territory on Saturday night, and then again on Monday.
Neither side has announced any casualties but Namghyal Dolkar Lhagyari, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, told AFP that the Tibetan-origin soldier was “martyred during the clash” on Saturday night.
She said another member of the Special Frontier Force that reportedly includes many ethnic Tibetans who oppose China’s claim to their home region was wounded in the operation.
“Provocative military movements”
The world’s two most populous countries have sent tens of thousands of troops to the region since a brutal June 15 battle fought with wooden clubs and fists.
India has said 20 troops were killed. China acknowledged casualties but did not give figures.
The two sides blamed each other for the latest incidents.
India’s defence ministry said Chinese troops “carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo” at the border on Saturday.
China’s People’s Liberation Army said that India was “seriously violating China’s territorial sovereignty” with its operation staged Monday and demanded that Indian troops withdraw.
India’s foreign ministry said Tuesday that China had caused the latest incident “even as ground commanders of the two sides were in discussions to de-escalate the situation.”
Indian media reports, quoting military sources, said PLA forces tried to take hilltops traditionally claimed by India around Pangong Tso, a lake at 4,200 metres (13,500 feet) altitude.
India’s defence ministry said its troops “undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.”
The Business Standard newspaper said that the SFF had been used to take heights that China considers its own. The Indian government does not comment on the special force’s operations.
Amid calls for boycotts of Chinese goods, India has stepped up economic pressure on China since the June battle and repeatedly warned that relations would suffer unless its troops pull back.
India has banned at least 49 Chinese owned-apps, including the TikTok video platform, frozen Chinese firms out of contracts and held up Chinese goods at customs posts.
Australia’s parliament is set to probe alleged foreign interference at public universities, a government minister said Monday, as concerns grow about Chinese influence.
A proposed inquiry by the security and intelligence committee follows a series of controversies over China’s clout on Australian campuses, ranging from hacks of university data to questionable financial donations and intimidation of Beijing’s critics.
Concerns have also been raised about the nature of research links between academics and scientists in the two countries.
Alan Tudge, the minister for population and cities, told Sky News the mooted inquiry was the latest government attempt to tackle spiralling foreign interference now at “levels not seen since World War II”.
The move comes after Canberra announced last week that it was seeking new powers to scrap deals between local authorities and foreign countries that threaten the national interest — sweeping powers that would extend to universities.
It also comes less than a year after Australia announced new guidelines for universities for research collaboration, cybersecurity, and international partnerships.
Tudge said the inquiry would “go further” than previous probes into alleged foreign interference.
“We need to be assured and the public need to be assured that there isn’t that foreign interference in our universities sector,” he said.
He did not say if the probe was aimed at China.
The Australian newspaper reported that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton outlined the terms of reference for the inquiry in a letter Sunday to committee head Andrew Hastie, a government parliamentarian and outspoken China critic.
Advisors to Dutton did not respond to a request for comment.
The university guidelines announced in November push public institutions to enhance cybersecurity systems, undertake due diligence before signing partnerships with overseas organisations, and train staff to recognise foreign influence attempts.
Academics have been urged to be wary of sharing knowledge on sensitive topics and discern how joint research with international scholars could potentially be misused.
Schools and government officials also committed to more intensive consultation to protect Australia’s national interests.
Beijing has repeatedly denied interfering in Australian campus life.
China-Australia relations have reached a new ebb in recent months, with the two governments at loggerheads over trade and competing for influence in the Pacific.
Tensions spiked in April when Australia infuriated China by calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Nearly 5,800 people suspected of killing health workers, selling defective medical equipment and lying about their travel history have been arrested in China for epidemic-related crimes since January, the state prosecutor’s office said.
One case involved a shopper who beat another customer to death for not wearing a mask in a supermarket.
Other cases included a person who deliberately mowed down medical workers with a car, and another was arrested for stabbing a health inspector with a dagger when monitoring temperatures.
Some have also been accused of embezzling money collected from fundraisers to help coronavirus patients, selling defective medical equipment and lying about their travel history or health condition.
“From January to July, 5,797 people were arrested and 6,755 were prosecuted,” the Supreme People’s Procuratorate said in a statement Thursday.
The statement did not specify how many people were still in detention or whether some had already been sentenced.
China has largely brought the spread of the novel coronavirus under control — since it first emerged in the central city of Wuhan in December 2019 — with strict lockdowns, aggressive contact tracing and close monitoring of neighbourhoods.
The country has also deployed a range of smartphone apps to track the whereabouts of people to quickly identify possible cases.
Wearing a mask is mandatory in supermarkets, cinemas or on public transport, and many choose to wear one while outdoors as well, as a safeguard against the virus.
China has not reported any locally transmitted infections in recent days.