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Hong Kong Protesters Increasingly Desperate as Campus Standoff Continues

Waves of student protesters attempted daring escapes past police lines, while less than 200 others remain barricaded inside a Hong Kong University, which has been surrounded by riot police since Sunday.

VOA Cantonese Service reporter Iris Tong, who was with students inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, described scenes of desperation, with at least two young teenagers threatening suicide. 

“I saw one boy (threaten) to use a knife on his neck,” Tong says. “I didn’t see any blood from his neck, but he just talked about how he wanted to kill himself. But other people said it wasn’t necessary for him to do that and told him to put down the knife.” 

“I can feel they are hopeless,” she said. “It’s quite sad.”

Since Sunday, police have ordered the protesters to drop their homemade weapons and leave the campus via a single exit, where they likely would face riot-related charges. As of early Tuesday, hundreds had agreed to leave the school following negotiations by local officials and community leaders.

Many other students have attempted to escape to freedom — some by sliding down ropes to waiting motorcycles, which tried to zoom past the security cordon that surrounds the campus. Police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at those who attempt to flee.

Last week, hundreds of students barricades themselves on the campus, collecting makeshift weapons including bricks, arrows, and molotov cocktails. Now, only “100-something” protesters remain, says Tong. “But less than half of them can go to the frontlines,” she estimates. 

Lam comments

Hong Kong’s executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday made her first substantial remarks on the standoff, saying she is “extremely worried” and hopes the situation can be resolved peacefully.

But the Beijing-friendly Lam also defended police actions, saying she was shocked that the students had turned the campus into a “weapons factory.” About 600 protesters have left the campus so far, Lam said. 

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam addresses a news conference in Hong Kong, China, Nov. 11, 2019.

The scene around the campus was relatively calm as of midday Tuesday. A night earlier, waves of protesters tried unsuccessfully to breach police lines and reach the campus with supplies. Protesters lobbed petrol bombs at police and set obstructions on the street, but were eventually turned back by the police, who fired water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. 

Escalation

The clashes are some of the worst violence since anti-government protests began in Hong Kong five months ago.

The protests started in opposition to a proposed bill that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland. The protests quickly morphed into wider calls for democracy and opposition to growing Chinese influence.

A smaller group of hardcore protesters have also increasingly engaged in more aggressive tactics — clashing with police, destroying public infrastructure, and vandalizing symbols of state power. The protesters have defended the tactics as a necessary response to police violence and the government’s refusal to make political concessions.

Beijing standing firm

Neither Beijing nor Hong Kong authorities show signs of giving in.

Earlier this week, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that the government’s ban on face masks was unconstitutional. The face mask ban, which went into effect last month, punished offenders with up to a year in prison.

But China’s top legislature on Tuesday slammed the court ruling, insisting Hong Kong courts have no authority to rule on the legality of legislation.

Beijing’s statement fundamentally threatens the rule of law in Hong Kong, says Angel Wong, a Hong Kong lawyer.

“This completely changes our understanding of our legal system,” says Wong. “It makes us worry what Beijing will do to take away the power of the Hong Kong court(s).”

Many Hong Kongers are outraged by the steady erosion of the  “one country, two systems” policy that Beijing has used to govern Hong Kong since Britain handed it over to China in 1997.

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US, S. Korea Break Off Defense Cost Talks Amid Backlash Over Trump Demand

South Korean and U.S. officials broke off talks on Tuesday aimed at settling the cost burden for Seoul of hosting the U.S. military, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, amid a public backlash over a U.S. demand for a sharp increase in the bill.

Officials had resumed a planned two-day negotiation on Monday, trying to narrow a $4 billion gap in what they believe South Korea should contribute for the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the country for next year.

“Our position is that it should be within the mutually acceptable Special Measures Agreement (SMA) framework that has been agreed upon by South Korea and the U.S. for the past 28 years,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, referring to the cost-sharing deal’s official name.

“The U.S. believes that the share of defense spending should be increased significantly by creating a new category,” the ministry said in a statement.

Negotiators left the table after only about one hour of discussions while the talks were scheduled throughout the day, South Korean media reported, citing unnamed foreign ministry officials.

South Korean lawmakers have said U.S. officials had demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times the 1.04 trillion won ($896 million) Seoul agreed to pay this year for hosting the 28,500 troops.

U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed the number, but Trump has previously said the U.S. military presence in and around South Korea was “$5 billion worth of protection.”

The negotiations are taking place as U.S. efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs appear stalled, ahead of a year-end deadline from Pyongyang for the U.S. to shift its approach.

Lee Hye-hoon, head of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, said in a radio interview on Tuesday the U.S. ambassador to South Korea talked to her at length earlier this month about how Seoul had been only paying one-fifth what it should have been paying for the cost of stationing U.S. troops.

Under South Korean law, the military cost-sharing deal must be approved by parliament.

Ruling party lawmakers have said this week they will “refuse to ratify any excessive outcome of the current negotiations” that deviate from the established principle and structure of the agreements for about 30 years.

Trump has long railed against what he says are inadequate contributions from allies towards defense costs. The United States is due to begin separate negotiations for new defense cost-sharing deals with Japan, Germany and NATO next year.

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Union Raises Money to Help US Diplomats Pay Impeachment Legal Bills

The union representing U.S. diplomats said on Monday it has raised tens of thousands of dollars in the last week alone to help defray the legal costs of foreign service officers who have testified in U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) also issued a statement defending U.S. diplomats after Trump criticized several of those who have appeared before Congress and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said nothing specific in their support.

“These patriots go abroad to every corner of the world and serve the interests of the American people,” AFSA President Eric Rubin said in a statement. “They do so with integrity and have no partisan or hidden agenda.”

“We should honor the service of each and every one of them.”

Separately, Rubin said: “We have raised tens of thousands of dollars in the past week alone” in the union’s Legal Defense Fund to help defray lawyers’ bills. He did not provide details.

One person caught up in the inquiry said he had already run up a legal bill of more than $25,000.

Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to requests for comment. A State Department spokesperson has previously said the agency planned to provide legal assistance to employees called to testify but did not give details.

FILE – Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed-door hearing in Washington, Nov. 7, 2019.

Trump lashed out on Sunday at Jennifer Williams, a U.S. diplomat and foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence who has testified that some of Trump’s comments on a July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart were “inappropriate.”

The call is at the heart of the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ inquiry into whether Republican Trump misused U.S. foreign policy to undermine former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 election.

Writing on Twitter, Trump accused Williams of being a “Never Trumper” who should “work out a better presidential attack.”

Trump has denied wrongdoing and branded the probe a witch hunt aimed at hurting his re-election chances.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a statement during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, Nov. 18, 2019.

Asked on Monday why he had not spoken in support of his employees, Pompeo said he would talk about U.S. policy toward Ukraine but not about the impeachment inquiry.

Pressed, he said nothing specific: “I always defend State Department employees. It’s the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world. Very proud of the team.”

Asked if he shared Trump’s view, expressed on Twitter, that “everywhere (former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine) Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Pompeo replied: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements.”

 

 

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Warren’s ‘Medicare for All’ Plan Reignites Health Care Clash

Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to gradually move the country to a government-funded health care system has further inflamed the debate over “Medicare for All,” likely ensuring the issue will play a significant role in this week’s Democratic presidential debate.

The Massachusetts senator announced Friday that her administration would immediately build on existing laws, including the Affordable Care Act, to expand access to health care while taking up to three years to fully implement Medicare for All. That attempt to thread the political needle has roiled her more moderate rivals, who say she’s waffling, while worrying some on the left, who see Warren’s commitment to a single-payer system wavering.

The divide could complicate plans by Democrats to turn health care into a winning issue in 2020. The party successfully took back control of the House last year by championing programs that ensure that people with preexisting medical conditions keep their insurance coverage while arguing that Republicans want to weaken such provisions. But the Medicare for All debate is more delicate as advocates including Warren grapple with concerns that a new government-run system won’t provide the same quality of coverage as private insurance – and would be prohibitively expensive.

“The Medicare for All proposal has turned out to be a real deal-breaker in who gets the Democratic nomination,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University School of Public Health professor whose teaching responsibilities include courses on political strategy in health policy and public opinion polling. “This is not just another issue.’’

Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attend a Medicare For All event on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2019.
FILE – Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attend a Medicare For All event on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2019.

Warren’s transition plan indicates she’d use her first 100 days as president to expand existing public health insurance options. That is closer to what has been supported by former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Both Democratic presidential candidates have criticized Medicare for All for wiping out private insurance – something they say many Americans aren’t ready for.

Warren insists she’s simply working to expand health insurance in the short term to people who don’t have it while remaining committed to the full plan in the long run.

“My commitment to Medicare for All is all the way,” Warren said while campaigning in Iowa over the weekend.

Still, the transition signified a step toward pragmatism and an acknowledgement that the government has ways to expand health insurance coverage before embracing a universal system – something that would be difficult for any president to get through Congress. Consider that current entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, were phased in over years, not all at once.

“If she’s looked at it and decides the sensible thing to do in order to not cause too much disruption in employment situations and within the medical system is to gear up over three years, she’s probably right,” said Cindy Wolf, a customer service and shipping manager who attended the California state Democratic Convention on Saturday in Long Beach.

Still, the move may prove politically problematic for a candidate who has long decried others settling for consultant-driven campaigns seeking incremental changes at the expense of big ideas.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the original architect of Medicare for All and has made fighting for it the centerpiece of his 2020 White House bid. He tweeted following the release of Warren’s transition plan: “In my first week as president, we will introduce Medicare for All legislation.’’

Una Lee Jost, a lawyer from Pasadena, Calif., holds signs supporting Bernie Sanders at the California Democratic Convention in…
Una Lee Jost, a lawyer from Pasadena, Californi, holds signs supporting Bernie Sanders at the California Democratic Convention in Long Beach, California, Nov. 16, 2019.

Campaigning in Nevada on Monday, California Sen. Kamala Harris said, “I believe that government should not be in a position of taking away people’s choice.”

“Especially on one of the most intimate and personal decisions people can make,” Harris said, “which is about how to address their health care needs.’’

The criticism from others was far sharper. Top Biden adviser Kate Bedingfield dismissed Warren’s plan as “trying to muddy the waters” by offering “a full program of flips and twists.” Buttigieg spokeswoman Lis Smith said it was a “transparently political attempt to paper over a very serious policy problem.’’

It’s easy to see the issue spilling into Wednesday’s debate because Warren rode a steady summer climb in the polls to become one of the primary field’s front-runners – but no longer seems to be rising. Polls recently show her support stabilizing, though not dipping, as focus on her Medicare for All ideas intensifies.

The last two debates featured Warren failing to answer direct questions on whether she would be forced to raise middle class taxes to pay for the universal health care system she envisions. That set up a plan released two-plus weeks ago in which Warren vowed to generate $20-plus trillion in new government revenue without increasing taxes on the middle class – but that’s been decried by critics who accuse Warren of underestimating how much Medicare for All would really cost.

And, though Warren never promised to begin working toward Medicare for All on Day 1 of her administration, the release of the transition plan, which spelled out that the process will take years, has unsettled some.

Una Lee Jost, a lawyer who was holding “Bernie” signs in Chinese and English at the California Democratic Convention, called any lengthy transition to Medicare for All “a serious concern.’’

“We should have implemented this decades ago,” she said.

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Trump Administration Changes Position on Israeli Settlements in West Bank

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday the U.S. is changing its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, dismissing the State Department’s 1978 legal opinion that civilian settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are “inconsistent with international law.”  The announcement is the latest in the Trump administration’s moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Pelosi Invites Trump to Testify as New Witnesses Prepare for Impeachment Hearings

 Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited President Donald Trump to testify in front of investigators in the House impeachment inquiry ahead of a week that will see several key witnesses appear publicly.

Pushing back against accusations from the president that the process has been stacked against him, Pelosi said Trump is welcome to appear or answer questions in writing, if he chooses.

“If he has information that is exculpatory, that means ex, taking away, culpable, blame, then we look forward to seeing it,” she said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Trump “could come right before the committee and talk, speak all the truth that he wants if he wants,” she said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer echoed that suggestion.

“If Donald Trump doesn’t agree with what he’s hearing, doesn’t like what he’s hearing, he shouldn’t tweet. He should come to the committee and testify under oath. And he should allow all those around him to come to the committee and testify under oath,” Schumer told reporters. He said the White House’s insistence on blocking witnesses from cooperating begs the question: “What is he hiding?”

The comments come as the House Intelligence Committee prepares for a second week of public hearings as part of its inquiry, including with the man who is arguably the most important witness. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is among the only people interviewed to date who had direct conversations with the Republican president about the situation because the White House has blocked others from cooperating with what it dismisses as a sham investigation. And testimony suggests he was intimately involved in discussions that are at the heart of the investigation into whether Trump held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine to try to pressure the country’s president to announce an investigation into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading 2020 candidate, and Biden’s son Hunter.

Multiple witnesses overheard a phone call in which Trump and Sondland reportedly discussed efforts to push for the investigations. In private testimony to impeachment investigators made public Saturday, Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council aide and longtime Republican defense hawk, said Sondland told him he was discussing Ukraine matters directly with Trump.

Morrison said Sondland and Trump had spoken approximately five times between July 15 and Sept. 11 – the weeks that $391 million in U.S. assistance was withheld from Ukraine before it was released.

And he recounted that Sondland told a top Ukrainian official in a meeting that the vital U.S. military assistance might be freed up if the country’s top prosecutor “would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation.” Burisma is the gas company that hired Hunter Biden.

Morrison’s testimony contradicted much of what Sondland told congressional investigators during his own closed-door deposition, which the ambassador later amended.

Trump has said he has no recollection of the overheard call and has suggested he barely knew Sondland, a wealthy donor to his 2016 campaign. But Democrats are hoping he sheds new light on the discussions.

“I’m not going to try to prejudge his testimony,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said on “Fox News Sunday.” But he suggested, “it was not lost on Ambassador Sondland what happened to the president’s close associate Roger Stone for lying to Congress, to Michael Cohen for lying to Congress. My guess is that Ambassador Sondland is going to do his level best to tell the truth, because otherwise he may have a very unpleasant legal future in front of him.”

The committee also will be interviewing a long list of others. On Tuesday, it’ll hear from Morrison along with Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, Alexander Vindman, the director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine.

On Wednesday the committee will hear from Sondland in addition to Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, a State Department official. And on Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former top NSC staffer for Europe and Russia, will appear.

Trump, meanwhile, continued to tweet and retweet a steady stream of commentary from supporters as he bashed “The Crazed, Do Nothing Democrats” for “turning Impeachment into a routine partisan weapon.”

“That is very bad for our Country, and not what the Founders had in mind!!!!” he wrote.

He also tweeted a doctored video exchange between Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, in which Schiff said he did not know the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the inquiry. The clip has been altered to show Schiff wearing a referee’s uniform and loudly blowing a whistle.

In her CBS interview, Pelosi vowed to protect the whistleblower, whom Trump has said should be forced to come forward despite longstanding whistleblower protections.

“I will make sure he does not intimidate the whistleblower,” Pelosi said.

Trump has been under fire for his treatment of one of the witnesses, the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump criticized by tweet as she was testifying last week.

That attack prompted accusations of witness intimidation from Democrats and even some criticism from Republicans, who have been largely united in their defense of Trump.

“I think, along with most people, I find the president’s tweet generally unfortunate,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Still, he insisted that tweets were “certainly not impeachable and it’s certainly not criminal. And it’s certainly not witness intimidation,” even if Yovanovitch said she felt intimidated by the attacks.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Trump “communicates in ways that sometimes I wouldn’t,” but dismissed the significance of the attacks.

“If your basis for impeachment is going to include a tweet, that shows how weak the evidence for that impeachment is,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

And the backlash didn’t stop Trump from lashing out at yet another witness, this time Pence aide Williams. He directed her in a Sunday tweet to “meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!”

 

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Libyan Officials: Airstrike Kills 7 Workers in Tripoli

An airstrike slammed into a biscuit factory in the capital, Tripoli, on Monday killing at least seven workers including five foreign nationals and two Libyans, health authorities said.

Tripoli has been the scene of fighting since April between the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, and an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak government which holds the capital.

The Tripoli-based health ministry said the airstrike took place in the capital’s Wadi el-Rabie neighborhood, the south of the city center where fighting has been raging for months.

Malek Merset, a spokesman with the ministry, told The Associated Press that the dead included five workers from Bangladesh, and two Libyan nationals.

The airstrike also wounded at least 15 foreign workers, mostly from Niger and Bangladesh, who were taken to nearby hospitals for urgent treatment.

Footage shared online showed wounded people with bandages and blood on their legs on stretchers before being taken by ambulances to hospitals.

Fighting for Tripoli has stalled in recent months, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along the city’s southern reaches. The months of combat have killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands.

The fighting threatens to plunge Libya into another bout of violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya has been divided into rival governments, with Tripoli controlling parts of the country’s west, and a rival government in the east aligned with Hifter’s force. Each side is backed by an array of militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.

 

 

 

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Indian Students Face Off With Police Amid Fee Protest

Hundreds of students from a New Delhi university faced off Monday with police, who stopped their march toward Parliament to protest increased student housing fees.
                   
The students from Jawaharlal Nehru University chanted slogans and attempted to cross police barricades. Police detained several students during the march.
                   
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union said in a statement that the students were attacked by the police during the protest.
                   
“The police used brutal force to disrupt our peaceful march and several students have been injured,” the statement said.
                   
The students wanted to appeal to lawmakers to intervene in their university’s decision to hike the fees, which they have been protesting for more than two weeks. Last week, hundreds of protesting students clashed with the police during the university’s graduation ceremony.
                   
Rent for a single-bedroom was increased to the equivalent of more than $8 per month from less than $1 per month. The security deposit more than doubled to more than $160.
                   
Many students said they fear the fee structure would make education inaccessible to underprivileged students.
                   
“I am the first from my family to study at a university. By raising housing fees, the university administration is putting a price on affordable education,” said Jyoti Sharma, a student at the march.
                   
Students held signs at the march reading “Save public education” and “Ensure affordable hostels for all.”
                   
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury offered his support to the protesting students.
                   
“A peaceful protest march to Parliament against the unprecedented fee hikes is being forcibly stopped by the police. Strongly condemn this denial of basic democratic right to protest,” he tweeted.
                   
The students marched despite the university saying it would partially roll back the fees.
                   
“The students will not pay the increased fee,” said Ashutosh Verma, a student.

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China Calls on US to ‘Stop Flexing Muscles’ in South China Sea

China on Monday called on the U.S. military to stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea
and to avoid adding “new uncertainties” over Taiwan, during high-level talks that underscored tension between the world’s two largest economies.

The remarks by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, recounted by a Chinese spokesman, came just two weeks after a top White House official denounced Chinese “intimidation” in the busy waterway.

It also came a day after Esper publicly accused Beijing of “increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in the region.

During closed-door talks on the sidelines of a gathering of defense ministers in Bangkok, Wei urged Esper to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and to not provoke and escalate
tensions in the South China Sea”, the spokesman, Wu Qian, said.

China claims almost all the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands. However, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.

The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.

The U.S. Navy regularly vexes China by conducting what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations by ships close to some of the islands China occupies, asserting freedom of access to international waterways.

Asked specifically what Wei sought for the United States to do differently, and whether that included halting such freedom of navigation operations, Wu said: “We (call on) the U.S. side
to stop intervening in the South China Sea and stop military provocation in the South China Sea.”

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper, in his meeting with Wei, noted China’s “perpetual reluctance” to adhere to international norms.

“Secretary Esper pointedly reiterated that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows – and we will encourage and protect the rights of other sovereign nations to do the same,” Hoffman said.

Chinese carrier transit

Despite warm words exchanged in front of reporters, Wei and Esper also discussed thorny issues, including Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has seen months of anti-government protests.
They also talked about democratic Taiwan, which is claimed by China as a wayward province and is the Communist Party’s most sensitive and important territorial issue.

Fenghe underscored to Esper China’s position that it would “not tolerate any Taiwan independence incident”, Wu said, adding that it opposed any official or military contact with Taiwan. China has in the past threatened to attack if Taiwan, set to hold a presidential election next year, moves towards independence.

“The Chinese side also requires the U.S. side to carefully handle the Taiwan related-issue and to not add new uncertainties to the Strait,” Wu said.

The exchange came a day after news that China sailed a carrier group into the sensitive Taiwan Strait, led by its first domestically built aircraft carrier.

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Nigeria’s Oscar Disqualification Sparks Push for Films in Native Languages

Nigeria’s Oscar Committee is urging the country’s filmmakers to use more native languages in their productions.  This, after the U.S. Academy Awards disqualified a Nigerian entry in the International Feature Film category because the movie used too much English.  While some in Nigeria’s Hollywood – known as Nollywood – support the idea of more native languages in films, others argue that non-English films limit their audience reach. 

Nollywood filmmaker Desmond Utomwen is aiming for a U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award, popularly known as an Oscar, by producing a film in a native Nigerian language.

“It’s actually a Hausa-based film, so it’s a language film, it’s not English.  I’ve done a couple of them in English but, that’s actually my first film in Hausa,’ he says.

Most Nigerian filmmakers make English-language movies to reach a larger audience globally but also inside Nigeria, where the former British colony made English the official language.

Filmmaker Darlington Abuda has been in the industry for years.

“In Nigeria, if I do a purely language film, I have made my film a regional film,” Abuda says.  “It will not get the appeal and audience traction that it needs in the other parts of the country.”

But that tide may be slowly turning after the Academy Awards this month disqualified Nigeria’s first entry in the International Feature Film category.

Only 11 minutes of Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lion Heart” – the first Nollywood film by Netflix – was in the native Igbo language.  To qualify for the international feature award, at least 50 percent of a film’s dialogue must be in a language other than English.

While the rejection was roundly criticized in Nigeria, C.J. Obasi, a member of a Nigerian Oscar committee which was set up five years ago, is optimistic.

“If you look at the bigger picture you realize that it’s a victory in that we made a submission for the first time ever,” Obasi says.  “What that does is that it re-positions the hearts and minds of filmmakers as to how we are going to tell our stories moving forward.”

Nigeria’s Oscar Selection Committee says the rejection should motivate Nollywood filmmakers to create more movies in the country’s over 500 native languages.

But convincing Nigerian filmmakers to turn away from English – the language that ties the country together and with the world – will remain a challenge.

And, for some Nollywood filmmakers like Jim Iyke, the language used is not the point.

“If someone sits in their living room and decide where my movie should be, and what platform or what awards I should get, that is on them,” Iyke says. ” I’ve done my job.  I’ve fed the artist in me.”

While Lion Heart won’t make the February Academy Awards, being rejected and having the backing of Netflix are already drawing more international attention to Nollywood — and what Nigerian filmmakers will produce next.

 

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