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An Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong?

Is this the most consequential moment in Hong Kong’s 17 year history as part of China?

What started as a protest against interference by Beijing in the quest for Hong Kongers to choose their own regional leader has exploded into much more as protests popped up around the region, far from the original target of the Central Government Complex. As the protests spread, so does the police response with riot police using tear gas to try and clear crowds around the city. This was unprecedented for Hong Kong. Photos emerged of Hong Kongers using umbrellas to try and shield themselves from the teargas. The term “Umbrella Revolution” was born.

There are many motivations behind the protests, from frustration with the local and national governments to a sincere desire to maintain the freedoms that make Hong Kong unique within China. But a lot of it has to do with economics.

As a more prosperous region than the Mainland in 1997, Hong Kong put controls in place to limit immigration from mainland China and preserve space and opportunity for native Hong Kongers. Yet mainland elites used loopholes and government connections to gain residency while others moved in search of better opportunity even though they are often not welcomed by locals. Far from the scenic harbor views, there remains a severe shortage of affordable housing for lower and middle class Hong Kongers despite constant promises that more would be created. Likewise, economic opportunities often go to well-connected mainlanders or Hong Kong proxies, creating stark economic inequality throughout the population. By 2013, the Hong Kong government estimated that 20% of the region’s population lived below the poverty level. Hong Kong’s Gini co-efficient, which measures income inequality, came in at 0.537 in 2011; the United Nations considers any measurement more than 0.4 to be an indicator of possible social unrest.

Looking at the social and economic landscape, it would appear that these protests were inevitable. But China’s own bumbling on the universal suffrage issue as its new President, Xi Jinping, dealt with internal divisions within the Chinese Communist Party also contributed. If Hong Kong needed a sign that their local political culture and freedoms were eroding, they got it throughout the summer as Beijing first forcibly cleared student protests in July and then denied the notion of universal suffrage through electoral manipulations in early September. Over the last three weeks it has become clear that Beijing has no intention of backing down, but neither do the organizers of Occupy Central. As tensions increased, so did the likelihood that people would be forced to take sides.

But a lot has happened since China gained control over Hong Kong from the British in 1997. The protests come at a time when arguably Hong Kong’s leverage against mainland China is at its lowest since the official start of One Country-Two Systems rule. Where Hong Kong represented 18% of China’s GDP at the handover in 1997, it now represents a mere 3%. Economically, this means that China is no longer as dependent on Hong Kong as it once was, but given the delicate political façade Beijing must always maintain, Hong Kong can still cause problems for the Communist regime. Although the government officially stopped reporting it in 2000 when it surpassed 0.41, analysts estimate the mainland’s own Gini coefficient is at 0.55, representing a “severe gap” between the rich and the poor with the same risk for social unrest that Hong Kong has.

The biggest consequence of all this may be the unraveling of the One Country-Two System regime. The system was a compromise between Beijing and the departing British colonists but is only in place for a period of 50 years; by 2047 when the system is set to end, it was hoped that either Beijing or Hong Kong would change enough to allow peaceful integration with the other. However a look at the protests overtaking the city, it seems clear that this will likely never happen without major conflict.

Melissa Chan, a former correspondent for Al Jazeera English who caused a stir when the government failed to renew her press credentials in 2012, put the general sentiment quite concisely on Twitter:

“Covered my first Hong Kong protest in the summer of 2000 as an intern for CNN. It’s 2014. One country, two systems – has failed.”

Whether future generations in Hong Kong will mark 9/28 with the same fervor they do Tiananmen’s 6/4 anniversary remains to be seen. But the scene on the streets suggests change is in the air.

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via wikimedia, JosephNye

Episode 34: Joseph Nye

Joseph Nye is on the line today. You probably know him best for “soft power,” but the international relations theorist has a long history of trailblazing research and analysis. Arguably one of the most influential academics of the last half century, Nye tells Mark about how he got his start. (It begins in, in a way, in east Africa.) Nye also discusses growing up in New Jersey, his career in and out of government service, and his “a-ha!” moment about “Soft Power.”  It’s a great episode with a top-notch thinker. They kick off with a discussion about the international relations theory that underpins Putin’s moves in eastern Ukraine.  Have a listen!

And be sure to subscribe on iTunes and check out the archives for more of these long form interviews with foreign policy thought leaders. 

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The Hong Kong 1 July protests, credit Ross Pollack, via Flickr

These Hong Kong Protests are a Very Big Deal

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Hong Kong has never seen this before. China watchers expect Beijing to crackdown very hard. “The heavy-handed police measures, including the city’s first use of tear gas in years and the presence of officers armed with long-barreled guns, appeared to galvanize the public, drawing more people onto the streets. On Monday morning, protesters controlled major thoroughfares in at least three different parts of the city. A few unions and the Hong Kong Federation of Students called for strikes, and the federation also urged a boycott of classes.The confrontation threatened to tarnish Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe enclave for commerce, and immediately raised the political cost of Beijing’s unyielding position on electoral change here; footage and photos of unarmed students standing in clouds of tear gas facing off with riot police officers flashed around the world on Sunday. It also set the stage for a prolonged struggle that poses a test for President Xi Jinping of China, who has championed a harsh line against political threats to Communist Party rule. (NYT

An inside look into the US Military’s Ebola Response So Far…An excellent story from the Wall Street Journal about the US military’s struggle to rapidly build a field hospital in Liberia.


Thousands of people protested in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, calling on President Joseph Kabila to respect his country’s constitution and step down when his second elected term ends in 2016. (Reuters

The United Nations’ peacekeeping chief on Saturday warned of a resurgence of Islamist fighters in northern Mali, where several UN peacekeepers have been killed in a wave of recent attacks. (AFP

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir raised concerns on Saturday about U.N. peacekeepers focusing on protecting civilians amid renewed violence – as instructed by the U.N. Security Council – instead of state-building in the world’s newest nation. (Reuters

In an effort to save lives, health authorities are determined to roll out potentia ebolal vaccines within months, dispensing with some of the usual testing, and raising unprecedented ethical and practical questions.(Reuters

Social and economic development has long been touted as the way to revive the fortunes of Nigeria’s impoverished north and prevent legions of disaffected young men turning to radical Islam. (AFP

The WHO today said it is intensifying its cooperation with a wide range of partners trying to accelerate work on experimental therapies and vaccines as it announced that Ebola has now sickened more than 6,500 and killed more than 3,000. (UN News Centre

More than 700 residents crowd onto a small piece of land in Rwamutonga, a small village outside Hoima, Uganda. The people say they have been unfairly forced from their homes and abused after a land dispute with their neighbor, Joshua Tibagwa. (VOA

Through the Action for Transparency Smartphone app, being piloted in three Ugandan districts, communities are being armed with information allowing them to report anonymously when budget allocations for health centres and schools fail to match public expenditure. (AFP


The United States and Russia see Islamic State as a common enemy but are failing to overcome deep mutual distrust and agree on how to tackle the threat together, making any role for Moscow in the U.S.-led campaign unlikely. (Reuters

Hundreds of Yemenis demonstrated in Sanaa on Sunday demanding that Houthi rebels who had seized control of the capital last week leave, a day after the Shi’ite Muslim fighters attacked the home of the intelligence chief. (Reuters


Five big challenges facing Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani. (BBC

Indian prime minister Narenra Modi is getting a rock star recpetion in the United States–including playing at Madison Square Garden (Time

The Americas

Racism and corruption are still rife in Brazil yet a mixed-race woman, born into almost absolute poverty in the jungle interior, could soon be elected to lead this country of 200 million people. Marina Silva is certainly an enigma. (BBC

Narendra Modi, Jim Kim and Ban Ki Moon were just a few of the guests at this year’s Global Citizen Festival. (NYT


Kissinger Is Right: ‘Asia’ Is a Western Construct (The Diplomat

The Experts Missing From The Ebola Response: Anthropologists (NPR

Good news from South Sudan (Roving Bandit

Get your Africa facts right: websites seek to stem flow of misinformation (Guardian

Finding New Ways to Bridge the Aid Gap in Syria (UN Dispatch

25 years of the Convention on the Rights of a Child: Is the world a better place for children? (ODI

Inequality and injustice the legacy of Sudan’s September protests (Guardian

Celebrity development bullshit bingo-Victoria Beckham UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador appointment speech edition (Aidnography

After New York, how should climate change campaigners approach Paris? (From Poverty to Power


British far-right groups demonstrated against immigrants entering the country from France on Saturday, in a protest at the southern English port of Dover. (AFP

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Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Finding New Ways to Bridge the Aid Gap in Syria

It is difficult to understate the humanitarian toll the Syrian conflict has taken, not just on the 22 million Syrians that once called the country home but on the region as a whole. As the death toll from the war approaches the grim milestone of 200,000, the UN estimates another 3 million Syrians are registered as refugees, 6.5 million are displaced within Syria and nearly 11 million Syrians are in need of international assistance inside Syria while 4.6 million are located in hard to access of besieged areas.

These numbers represent millions of individuals and families desperately fighting to survive as well as a massive burden on neighboring countries as they struggle to absorb and care for new arrivals in addition to their own people. Yet despite being the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, aid funding for this disaster consistently comes up short despite demand.

There are likely numerous reasons for this including the strain the 2008 economic crisis continues to have on traditional donor states as well as the large number of other natural and conflict-related disasters in recent years that have demanded funding assistance. The normalcy of the crisis – now going on for over three years – also likely contributes to the stagnation in donations when aid organizations make their appeals. But in the US, part of the problem is also probably due to people not knowing where they should contribute or where the money will go to. Global Impact, an international spin-off of the United Way, is working to change that in multiple ways.

Rather than carry out activities on the ground, Global Impact works with the public and private sectors to build partnerships and raise money for ongoing programs. Much like the traditional United Way campaigns, the central focus of Global Impact is workplace giving campaigns although the organization is now working with corporate donors to fill gaps in pre-existing donations to make sure they are able to succeed.

This is the goal in their new Syria campaign announced at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this week. By creating and promoting a general Syrian Refugee and Resiliency Fund, Global Impact hopes to fill gaps in education and healthcare that would otherwise prevent programs from getting off the ground.

Talking to UN Dispatch this week, Global Impact CEO Scott Jackson used the example of providing education to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Companies such as Pilosio S.p.A have committed to providing school and training structures while numerous companies and organizations have committed to providing textbooks and supplies as well as funding teacher salaries. But no one has currently committed to creating a teaching curriculum, a vital part of the education process that is needed to help Syrians continue their education even while displaced. This is where the Resiliency Fund would come in: by helping fill this gap with additional funds for curriculum development it ensures that the other commitments made can succeed.

This is just one example of how even small amounts of funding can make a difference. With such a massive humanitarian disaster, gaps exist throughout the chain that prevents projects from having a greater impact on communities that desperately needs them. But by building bridges between donors, aid organizations and communities, there is room to capitalize on funds already raised as well as encourage people to give more.



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Photo: Carol Han, OFDA/USAID

Combatting Ebola with Public-Private Partnerships

While the UN General Assembly gets underway with a renewed focus on the fight against terrorism, yesterday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon convened a high-level meeting regarding the ongoing fight against Ebola. The actions of governments, UN agencies and aid organizations are generally gaining the most attention as the international community struggles to bring the epidemic under control but the private sector is also stepping up to assist efforts in the region.

The stakes for how bad things can get if the epidemic is not controlled came into stark relief earlier this week with the release of two epidemic models by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Unchecked and without major additional intervention, the WHO predicted the number of reported and probably cases of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea could top 20,000 by November. In comparison, the CDC’s model estimated that between 550,000 to 1.4 million cases could occur in the region by January 2015.

The models differ in the predicted number of unreported cases, which explains the wide range of figures given. As the epidemic is already the largest known Ebola outbreak in history, even the lower estimates pose significant challenges for the countries affected and the aid organizations attempting to stem the tide of the disease.

Already the outbreak is straining the resources of the region’s fragile health systems and budgets of aid organizations on the ground. In addition to the recent commitments announced by Western governments for further aid and personnel, for aid organizations already combatting the epidemic, making the most of every dollar available is essential. One possible cost saving mechanism is a program called Airlink, which enlists the help of commercial airlines and cargo flight companies to transport equipment and aid at pennies on the dollar.

Steven Smith, Executive Director of Airlink, announced at CGI this week the creation of a dedicated “airbridge” from the US and Europe that will deliver 80 tons of medical supplies to aid agencies working in Liberia every two weeks through the end of the year. By working with partners such as Royal Air Maroc and Nippon Cargo Airlines as well as the Liberian Ministry of Health, the aid will be connected to 10 NGOs already working in the country that will then distribute the supplies throughout Liberia where it is needed.

“The reason we work with non-profits like AmeriCares and DirectRelief is because they already have the connections on the ground and the distribution plan,” said Smith to UN Dispatch. “We are just facilitating getting it to the main airport.” Unfortunately, this is no small task. As countries and airlines continue to cut off flights and travel from Ebola-effected countries, international response efforts are being impacted as it becomes much harder to move supplies and personnel into the countries where needed. But getting the supplies there is only the first step as the epidemic is widespread throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. “There is always a plan always in place with each shipment,” continued Smith, “with partners on the ground or their own people to take those things and get them where they need to go.” This helps ensure that all the supplies brought in are needed and are distributed to the places that need the most help.

Approaching aid logistics this way will potentially save aid organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars by combining available resources and streamlining the delivery process. This will allow them to spend much needed money on additional medical equipment and personnel rather than on chartering flights to deliver supplies. Given the size of the problem in the region and the possible consequences of not getting the epidemic under control soon, every little bit counts.

However, such programs are more than just about Ebola. Airlink already works with partner airlines and government officials to respond to humanitarian emergencies and provide disaster support around the world, from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to Hurricane Iselle in Hawaii. As the number of people impacted by disasters grows, a critical part of building disaster resiliency is maximizing impact while not cutting aid. Public-private partnerships such as Airlink allow organizations and governments responding to calls for action to do just that, and allow the private sector to contribute in ways that support the work already being done by governments and NGOs on the ground in vulnerable communities.

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Joe Biden at the Peacekeeping Summut

Why Joe Biden is Talking About UN Peacekeeping at the United Nations Today

UN Peacekeeping is at a breaking point. There are currently over 100,000 UN Peacekeepers serving in 17 missions across the globe. This is near an all time high–and the kinds of missions that are being undertaken are radically different today than they were just a few decades ago. So far, the international community has has a tough time adapting.

This could change with a big meeting chaired by Joe Biden at the United Nations today.

The challenge is deep: Missions in places like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Darfur are exceedingly complex. There are multiple warring factions, some of which are non-state actors and terrorist groups who do not respect the neutrality of the United Nations. In the meantime, since the failures of Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s UN Peacekeeping has evolved from simply serving as a buffer between two warring factions to making civilian protection as its core operating principle. But the resources required to fulfill this mandate are sometimes not there.

For example, the sudden outbreak of ugly sectarian civil war in South Sudan caught the entire international community by surprise. But Peacekeeping did not have the capacity to rapidly summon new resources to deal with it. Rather, it pulled troops from other missions. The UN Peacekeeping mission was able to protect civilians who fled to their compounds, but was too under-equipped (for example, did not have enough helicopters) to provide the kind of pro-active patrols that the people of South Sudan deserved. Similarly, the mission in Central African Republic is struggling to get off the ground, even as the international community warns that ethnic cleansing is underway. And in places like Mali, UN Peacekeepers are increasingly the target of attacks, with tactics used against them (like suicide bombing and IEDs) imported from Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is the backdrop to today’s big UN Peacekeeping summit convened at the request of Ban Ki Moon and the United States. Vice President Joe Biden, who has a long history of support for UN Peacekeeping, is charing the meeting.

This is significant.

The fact that the USA is chairing the meeting means that other countries are coming to it with concrete pledges in hand. The USA is the largest financial contributor to UN Peacekeeping, picking up about 28% of the cost of each mission. From an American perspective this is a bargain: the rest of the world picks up 72% of the cost of each mission, and there are very few US boots on the ground in these dangerous conflict zones (118 to be precise). UN Peacekeeping’s budget is just north of $7 billion. (For comparison’s sake, the US Department of Defense’s budget is $600 billion).

“When we ask them to do more, we owe them more,” said Biden at the start of the meeting. Ban Ki moon then listed six concrete and urgent needs of UN Peacekeeping: enhanced rapid reaction capacity when a sudden crisis breaks out; more helicopters; more medical units; protection against IEDs; better intelligence assets; and better coordination with regional organizations in Africa.

Many of the pledges made at this meeting are commitments against these needs. For example, the USA used the summit to showcase a $110 program to bolster rapid response peacekeeping capabilities among African countries. (The program, known African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership as was announced just last month at the African Leaders Summit in Washington, DC.) Japan announced that it will deploy more engineers; France pledged to train 20,000 African peacekeepers per year; Tanzania pledged to contribute another infantry battalion; China pledged to contribute helicopter units for the first time; and in advance of this summit Mexico announced that it would contribute Blue Helmets for the first time in decades.

There are, in all, 30 countries speaking at this conference and each is expected to bring something concrete on the table. @UNPeacekeeping is compiling most of these pledges through out the conference.

This demonstration of political, financial and material support to UN Peacekeeping is key. UN Peacekeepers are sent to places in the world to put a lid on humanitarian crises when no country is able or willing to do so alone. The international community has an obligation to help UN Peacekeepers live up to the promise of UN Peacekeeping. Or, as the German foreign minister said succinctly: “UN peacekeeping can only be as strong as the commitment of its member states.”  What we are seeing today is a much needed display of support–and it’s coming at a critical time.


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