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China’s Huawei Soft Power Push Raises Hard Questions

As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Huawei’s bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of “Hockey Night in Canada.” TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.”

The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality.

The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools .

Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China’s authoritarian government spy on people around the world.

“Huawei’s marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.”

At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week.

Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei’s critics were fabricating threats.

Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative.

“At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don’t think the government should do business with Huawei,”’ said Saint-Jacques.

There’s no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei’s marketing, which isn’t unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention.

Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020.

In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks.

Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score.

And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain’s Cambridge University.

Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there’s no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don’t automatically own any resulting patents.

Britain’s Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei’s money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense.

Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts.

Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists.

The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It’s expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology.

Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei.

The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium’s King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei’s chief EU representative, Abraham Liu.

“We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei’s biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said.

To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters.

Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei’s charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government’s surveillance and censorship it uses.

“It’s not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said.

Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy.

“Today’s innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”

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Indonesian Musicians Rally Against Music Bill

More than 200 Indonesian musicians have started a movement against a draft bill on music law (RUU Permusikan) being considered in the legislature that they say could limit freedom of expression.

Mondo Gascaro, a composer and music producer, and one of the people who initiated the National Coalition against the Draft Bill on Music, says most of the articles in the bill are problematic.

“These articles don’t address the problem about the welfare of people in the music industry. The government’s regulations should ensure a good ecosystem for music (industry), and instead the articles in the bill can potentially limit musicians’ freedom of expression,” he said at a press conference in Jakarta on February 6.

Gascaro believes the bill is also problematic because it is unclear what are the issues that the government wants to regulate because the bill only focuses on the musicians.

“They said this is about governance of the music industry, but there are terminologies that are missing from the bill when you talk about the industry, there’s production, creation, distribution, artists,” he continued.

The coalition is calling for the bill to be discarded. Arian Arifin, a vocalist of the Indonesian heavy metal band Seringai, said it is pointless to revise the bill because he said more than 80 percent of the articles are disorganized. 

Bill not yet finalized

Although the draft bill on music law has been included in the 2019 National Legislation Program (Prolegnas), which means it is one of the priority bills that can be passed this year, Representative Inosentius Samsul, a backer of the measure, said it is not final. 

“It can still be revised and reviewed,” the lawmaker said at a press conference on February 4.

“We make the framework and the main stakeholders (musicians) only need to fill it. If there are things that need improvement, we will be open to discuss it and revise the script,” he explained. 

The coalition is not convinced, however, because the bill is already in the Prolegnas, and revising a script with articles can be problematic. 

“Why bother revising, you might as well create a new one. Start from the beginning with transparency and credible sources,” Arifin said. 

One of the sources cited in the draft bill is a Blogspot page that was written by a student from a high school in Central Kalimantan. Rara Sekar Larasati, a singer and a researcher on Cultural Anthropology, questioned the sources that were used as a basis of the bill’s script. 

“The sources for the articles are irrelevant. How can you cite a Blogspot that was made by a high school student?” she told VOA.

Potential criminalization

Larasati said a major concern for artists is the possibility for musicians to be prosecuted and jailed under the draft bill.

“We see there’s Article 5 that can potentially be a ‘rubber law,’ ” she said, referring to the term used in Indonesia for a law with ambiguous wording that is open for broad interpretation. “This is like a pattern for the state to censor and control its citizens.”

The article states that musicians are not allowed to encourage the public to commit violence, make pornographic content, provoke dispute, commit blasphemy, bring the negative influence of a foreign culture, and demean people’s dignity.

Asfinawati, director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), said Article 50, at the end of the script, states anyone who violates Article 5 can be punished with imprisonment or fines. 

“But the wordings are problematic, must not encourage the public to commit acts against the law. In law, the word encourage is ambiguous. For example, a musician can sing on stage, but in one corner there are people gambling. The authority can say the performance encourage gambling, or be connected to a violent act in the same place,” she explained. 

In addition, the bill mentions the negative influence of foreign culture. Asfinawati is unsure whether it refers only to the negative things that may be adopted from another culture or deems all foreign cultures negative.

“When we talk about foreign (culture), the problem is there is not a single country in the world that is authentic. We have been influenced by other cultures. Should we muzzle all of it? And musicians must not demean one’s dignity? What if they wrote a song about rape or domestic abuse. They may need to portray the act of demeaning another person to highlight the social issue,” she said.

Moreover, Article 32 states that to be acknowledged in the profession, musicians must take a competency test.

Gede Robi, a member of an Indie band Navicula, believes this can be used to silence independent musicians who are critical of the government. 

“They may not find negative elements in the songs, but it’s possible we can simply be dismissed from the profession, and no longer acknowledged as a musician,” he added. 

Robi said that a poorly drafted bill will hurt the music industry in Indonesia, especially the smaller independent bands. “We want the state to make our lives easier by not diminishing our efforts,” he said. 

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Thai Political Party Facing Dissolution

Thailand’s election commission is calling for the dissolution of the political party that nominated a member of the royal family as its candidate for prime minister. 

The commission filed a request with the Constitutional Court Wednesday to disband the Thai Raksa Chart party because it violated the country’s system of a constitutional monarchy alongside a democratically elected government. 

The Thai Raksa Chart party last Friday nominated Princess Ubolratana Mahidol to run for prime minister in the March 24 general election. The 67-year-old Princess Ubolratana gave up her royal titles after her marriage in 1972 to an American, whom she has since divorced. But King Maha Vajiralongkorn overruled the move as inappropriate and unconstitutional, saying Ubolratana is still a member of the royal family. The Election Commission formally disqualified her on Monday.

In a message on her social media account, Ubolrantana expressed remorse that “my genuine intention to help work for the country and all Thai people has created a problem that should not happen in this day and age.” The message ended with the hashtag theme “#howcomeitsthewayitis.”

The move to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart is notable because it is aligned with the Pheu Thai, the main political party of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin remains popular among Thailand’s rural majority, and his affiliated parties have won every general election since 2001. 

Thaksin and the royalists have been quarreling for most of the last two decades in a bitter feud that has fueled bloodshed and two coups, including one in 2014 that returned the country to its current state of military rule.

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How Communist Vietnam Will Gain as Host of US-North Korea Summit

When Singapore played host in June to the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, businesspeople in the city-state made money from summit-themed merchandise and side events. About 2,500 journalists visited, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted saying the summit would bolster his country’s image abroad.

Now Vietnam, as host to a second Kim-Trump summit scheduled for February 27-28, should expect to get even more, country specialists say.

The summit in Hanoi, likely covering U.S. concerns about the buildup of North Korean weapons, will earn Vietnam new respect from both democratic and communist countries, good for its multi-country foreign policy and reputation as a go-to country for business including large international events.

“All the stakeholders, North Korea, the United States, China and South Korea, trust Vietnam to be a neutral host,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia. China backs North Korea, which the U.S. government fears is developing nuclear weapons.

“Vietnam’s success will reaffirm the correctness of its foreign policy of ‘diversifying and mutilateralizing’ its external relations and being ‘a reliable friend to all,’” he said. “Vietnam benefits from the leverage it acquires as host for the second summit.”

Ties with world’s biggest economy

Once war-ravaged Vietnam’s quick economic growth since the late 1980s stands to get special attention at the summit from the United States.

Foreign direct investment drawn by cheap labor has driven the Southeast Asian country’s economic growth of 6-7 percent since 2012. Last month alone, registered investment from abroad grew 27.4% compared to the same month a year ago. Also last month Vietnam joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal encompassing about 13.5 percent of the world economy.

The U.S. government had placed Vietnam under a 19-year trade embargo through 1994.

American consumers now look to Vietnam for shoes, clothing and electronics as U.S. firms increasingly eye the Vietnamese middle class as a viable export market, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit. 

“Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S. will definitely be a key feature of this meeting,” Biswas said. “Although the meeting is obviously between the U.S. and North Korea, I think the backdrop of President Trump visiting Vietnam is also very positive for Vietnam. It offers the opportunity for bilateral dialogue.”

U.S.-Vietnam relations are “moving to a new higher level,” he said, and this summit “puts a spotlight” on that trend.

In 2017 Trump lauded Vietnam’s economic progress as a “great miracle” despite a trade gap favoring Hanoi. His comment tells North Korea that as a country with Communist rule like Vietnam’s it can improve too, said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

International events

The summit will add to Vietnam’s list of major international events, analysts add. Countries in Asia, Thayer said, “know that Vietnam is capable of providing security, excellent accommodation, and professional diplomatic experience to managing a high-level summit meeting.”

The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting took place in 2017 in Vietnam’s central coast city Da Nang. Next year Vietnam will chair the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a role that requires holding a series of large-scale events.

“I think that Vietnamese leaders have not really been confident in the international arena,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “This is a chance for them to be used to receiving a lot of attention in the world.”

Political prestige

Vietnam, already trusted by the summit parties, will go on record this month for supporting a regional peace effort if the two summit participants make progress on handling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Burke said.

“It’s stature in terms of the international community, not just a responsible member but actually as a leader who steps up to the highest level of international relations and international problem solving,” Burke said. 

Vietnam, like other Southeast Asian governments, pursues a balanced foreign policy to get security and economic benefits from China as well as from Western powers.

At the summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim issued a broad joint statement covering U.S. security guarantees for North Korea and expressing support for a cut in nuclear weapons.

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Reddit Value at $3B After $300M in Finance Led by Tencent

Social media service Reddit Inc. says it has raised $300 million in a financing round led by Chinese internet giant Tencent.

Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, told CNBC on Monday that values the privately held company at $3 billion.

Half the new money came from Tencent, Asia’s most valuable tech company. Other investors included Sequoia, Fidelity, Andreessen Horowitz, Quiet Capital, VY and Snoop Dogg.

The announcement prompted criticism of Reddit for linking itself with a company from China, where the ruling Communist Party enforces extensive online censorship. Access to Reddit is blocked in China.

Tencent operates online games and popular WeChat social media service. It owns 40 percent of “Fortnite” creator Epic Games and 15 percent of photo service Snap.

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Acrimony, Fear Reign in Thailand Following Princess’s PM Ploy

The dramatic foray of a Thai princess into the country’s election, which collapsed almost as dramatically as it began over the weekend, has returned Thai politics to a familiar state of turmoil and fear.

 

In a country that has endured more than 30 attempted coups since 1932, 12 of them successful, rumors are now circulating wildly of another.

 

“More has happened politically in the past five days than has happened in 15 years, if not 20 years, in Thailand. And this is creating a lot of confusion and everyone is scrambling to keep up with what’s happening,” said Thailand based political risk consultant George McLeod.

 

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol triggered the pandemonium on Friday by registering as a prime ministerial candidate for upcoming March 24 elections – an unprecedented royal foray into frontline politics.

Initially it was heralded as a political masterstroke as the popular princess was considered a far more appealing electoral prospect than incumbent military junta rule Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

 

But the move was quickly struck down – first by her younger brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who called it highly inappropriate and unconstitutional hours later, and then by the Election Commission on Monday.

 Thai royals have long been held to embody a higher moral purity that serves to lift the country above the pettiness of political bickering.

 

Rules preclude them from participating directly in party politics, though the princess believed she was exempt from these because she relinquished her royal title in 1972.

 

Thailand’s ultra royalists are still angry over her short dalliance with Thai Raksa Chart – a party under the control of their staunch enemy, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

 

Thaksin and the royalists have been quarreling for most of the last two decades in a bitter feud that has fueled bloodshed and two coups, including one in 2014 that returned the country to its current state of military rule.

 

Now concerns are growing that the already fragile process that was to see a transition back to civilian rule – albeit with many autocratic, military friendly caveats built into the system – could collapse.

 

A political pressure group called The Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, has pushed the Election Commission to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart entirely.

 

Thai Raksa Chart has reportedly hit back with a member filing a complaint that calls on the commission to disqualify current Prime Minister Prayuth for an alleged constitutional breach as well.

Future Forward party spokesperson Pannika Wanich said that in political circles it was considered a near certainty that Thai Raksa Chart would be dissolved.

 

But a greater worry for her was that the political turmoil would be used as a justification to call off or postpone the election.

 

“It is hard to predict Thailand’s political situation right now, but I would say it’s quite gloomy and we don’t expect a coup to happen anytime soon but there is quite a chance, maybe a 30 or 40 percent, of some political accident might happen,” she said.

 

Pannika said her party was focused on cooling tensions and restoring normality but that if another coup was attempted they would do whatever they could to prevent it.

 

“We cannot accept that – three coup d’etats in 12 years. That’s too much,” she said.

 

McLeod said a series of events over the weekend, including the deployment of police, had fueled the rumors.

 

“You know at the time it’s a very fast situation and I personally didn’t really hang my hat on there being a coup.”  he said. “The authorities that were mobilized were police and they were mobilized for the purpose of crowd control, which is consistent with the fact that the EC (Election Commission) is in the process of dissolving the [Thai Raksa Chart] party and possibly Pheu Thai as well.”

Pheu Thai is the major party controlled by Thaksin’s red-shirt movement and observers have suggested it could also be dissolved by the commission on the grounds that it is linked to Thai Raksa Chart.

McLeod said it looked like Thaksin would pay a heavy price for the stunt.

 

“What we know is that Thaksin took a gamble and he lost. He took a high stakes gamble and he lost and he lost on something that was the wild card,” he said.

 

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, suggested Thaksin may have got exactly what he wanted.

 

“If this would be a plot of Thaksin’s party to try and further politicize the monarchy then Thaksin has become successful. If this an attempt on the part of Thaksin to show there is a conflict within members of royal family, then again Thaksin has become successful,” he said.

 

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China to Fund Installation of Modern Facilities at Pakistan-Afghan Border Crossings

China plans to fund and install modern reception centers, drinking water and cold storage facilities at main entry points on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese project aims to better serve the daily movement of tens of thousands of people as well as trade convoys, and will help ease tensions between the two countries, officials said.

Beijing, which is on good terms with both countries, continues to undertake diplomatic and economic initiatives to help improve Islamabad’s troubled ties with Kabul and encourage them to jointly work for a political settlement with the Taliban to end the Afghan war.

The deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, Zhao Lijian, told VOA in a wide-ranging interview the border development program is an outcome of recent high-level talks held in Kabul between foreign ministers of the three countries.

“We are trying to promote these projects so that it can help with the improvement of relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and also finally it would be helpful with peace and development in Afghanistan,” Lijian noted. The trilateral dialogue, he said, was initiated by Beijing in late 2017 with a mission to promote “counterterrorism, strategic dialogue and pragmatic cooperation” among the three nations.

Lijian explained that the cold storage facilities will be established at the busy northwestern Torkham and southwestern Chaman crossings while the water schemes will be installed at the Ghulam Khan Khel terminal in North Waziristan district.

“Small businessmen they are entering Torkham and Chaman everyday so if there is some cold storage facilities they could use those facilities to store their fruits. If there is a proper reception center and a drinking water scheme, those kind of facilities may serve the people in a better way,” Lijian said.

Pakistan consumes 90 percent of Afghan fresh fruits and vegetables, according to official estimates. Islamabad recently waived off regulatory duties on fresh fruit imports from Afghanistan, leading to an estimated 30 percent increase in Afghan exports to Pakistan in 2018. Officials say some 60,000 people commute across the border between the two countries.

Overall bilateral trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has significantly declined in recent years due to political tensions. Moreover, Pakistani authorities are unilaterally constructing a robust fence to secure the nearly 2,600 kilometer porous Afghan border and tighten monitoring of cross-border movement to deter militant infiltration.

China and the Afghan conflict

The Taliban, championed by China as a political force in Afghanistan, allegedly uses Pakistan as a sanctuary for directing insurgent activities. Islamabad in turn accuses Afghan intelligence agencies of sheltering fugitive anti-state militants and supporting terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

Beijing has invested billions of dollars to help build infrastructure projects, power plants, ports and industrial zones in Pakistan as part of President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The bilateral project, known as China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was implemented five years ago, creating tens of thousands of jobs for Pakistanis, and effectively resolving the country’s electricity crisis.

Lijian said extending CPEC to Afghanistan, which is part of BRI, is under consideration to develop and improve trade routes through the war-ravaged country to Central Asia markets.

“For China, we have been having this 40 years of economic development, reforms and opening up, and in Afghanistan for these last 40 years they have been suffering from chaos, from civil war, from foreign occupation. So, we are very much sympathetic with Afghan people and we would like to extend a helping hand to them,” he said.

China hails Pakistan’s role

Lijian defended Beijing’s close contacts with the Taliban, saying they are used to encourage the insurgents to seek an inclusive political understanding with incumbents in Kabul to help “manage” if not end Afghan hostilities in the near future.

“Pakistan has been helping the United States and the Taliban to have direct talks and it is playing a very critical role. We hope that the peace process can take some root in the heart of the people, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan,” the deputy Chinese ambassador noted.

A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar told VOA his group maintains close contacts with China and believes the Chinese are well placed to assist in resolving the Afghan crisis.

“We really appreciate their latest public stance of declaring the Taliban as a political force in Afghanistan. They understand the ground realities in our country. Their stance could be really helpful for Afghan peace building,” Suhail Shaheen noted.

US peace talks with Taliban

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has held several direct meetings with the Taliban in recent months, triggering hopes the dialogue could help jumpstart long-sought intra-Afghan peace negations.

Pakistan takes credit for arranging the U.S.-Taliban peace talks to help bring an end to years of bloodshed in Afghanistan, saying peace in the neighboring country is key to promoting regional development.

Beijing has noted U.S. plans to draw down troops in Afghanistan if progress is achieved in talks Washington is holding with the Taliban. But Lijian cautioned against staging a hasty withdrawal.

“They should have a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in a gradual way and during this process they should also try to promote the intra-Afghanistan dialogue so that when the American troops leave Afghanistan, Afghanistan will not be condemned into a chaotic situation like before,” the Chinese official noted.

China’s security concerns are also behind its stepped-up Afghan diplomacy. Officials in Beijing worry that continued instability in Afghanistan could encourage terrorist groups, including the anti-China militant group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), to foment problems in the western border region of Xinjiang.

International human rights groups have expressed concerns that authorities in Xinjiang are allegedly forcing Uighur and other Muslim minorities to renounce their religious beliefs in internment camps set up under the guise of vocational education centers. China rejects the charges as Western media propaganda.

 

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‘Water from Air’ Aims to Turn Back Thailand’s Tide of Plastic

Staying at a hotel on the Thai island of Koh Samui in 2015, Meghan Kerrigan noticed the four bottles of water she was given every day were clogging her bin with plastic.

Outside her door, Chaweng beach was smothered in rubbish. It was then that she and Kohler brothers, Ryan and Matthew, had a “light-bulb moment.”

“Instead of trying to solve the problem by cleaning the beaches every day, let’s go to what the source of the problem is, and take the plastic bottle away,” said Kerrigan, now 31.

In 2016, the trio founded startup company Generation Water, based on the Thai resort island of Phuket.

They partnered with Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, in January 2017 to come up with a sustainable alternative to plastic bottles that would be commercially competitive and meet the needs of resorts and authorities.

Two years on, the South African-born entrepreneurs explained the workings of a pilot water plant at the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa on Mai Khao beach, next to slogans saying “Save Water Drink Air” and “Made 100% from the air.”

Here, in the sweltering heat, two water generators suck in vapor from the air, which then condenses into water when it hits cold coils.

The water drips into tanks, making 4,000 liters a day. It is filtered, minerals are added, and it is put into reusable glass bottles. These are placed into 445 guestrooms at the JW Marriott Phuket and neighboring Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa.

The bottled water is also being trialed at two Marriott vacation clubs nearby.

The move is part of a wider effort on the holiday island to cut down on plastic bottles, rife in the hospitality industry, and a major problem in Asia and its travel hotspots.

Sustainable shift

In many parts of Asia, tap water is unsafe to drink, so hotel guests get complimentary water, mostly in plastic bottles.

As much as 60 percent of the plastic found in the ocean comes from five Asian nations, including Thailand, according to U.S.-based nonprofit group Ocean Conservancy.

In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific organized a forum to encourage sustainable water management on resort islands.

On Phuket, which is half the size of Hong Kong, more hotels are being built, and water is already in short supply.

Trucks navigate crowded roads as resorts without their own catchment area bring in water from reservoirs.

Phuket was the world’s 11th top city destination in 2017, with 11.6 million international arrivals, according to global research company Euromonitor International.

To cope with the environmental impacts of this influx, nearly 70 hotels from the Phuket Hotels Association have pledged to cut plastic bottles and straws by the end of 2019.

Since Marriott started producing its own water four months ago, it has stopped more than 100,000 plastic bottles from entering landfill or oceans, the chain says.

It plans to expand the scheme to all Marriott resorts in southern Thailand, handing out 4 million glass bottles.

Carsten Siebert, Marriott International’s director of operations for Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, said the company understood it had “a greater obligation to operate responsibly given our expanding global footprint.”

The chain has a goal to reduce water consumption per occupied room by 20 percent between 2007 and 2020.

‘Climate-positive’

The “water from air” technology uses 78 percent less energy than producing standard bottled water, has a lower carbon footprint, and is about a third cheaper, Generation Water says.

“The good thing is that it starts to become financially affordable,” said Matthias Y. Sutter, general manager at JW Marriott Phuket.

Nor does the system rely on pulling water from the ground, rivers or lakes.

“We don’t have to invest in land to secure our own water,” said Kanokwan Homcha-aim, corporate social responsibility manager for the same Marriott hotel.

Guests here have reacted positively since the bottled water was introduced in September, happy that “finally a big brand made a move,” she said.

They also like the taste. Michael Lawson, a lawyer from Sydney sitting at the Sala Sawasdee lobby bar, said his children were “quite picky” about water. “But it’s very refreshing and they are fighting over it in the room,” he said.

Downstairs in the Siam Deli, teenage student Jeremy Frydman from Melbourne said it was better than tap water at home.

One challenge for Generation Water is explaining the science behind the technology.

Many guests ask about air pollution, for example. But the water collected is clean to start with, and the technology still works if the air is polluted as only water condenses, not the air or its contaminants, said Ryan Kohler.

And with human activities emitting more greenhouse gases, the atmosphere is warming up, causing more water to evaporate, which further heats the air in “a vicious circle,” he added.

The water-from-air system helps reduce this vapor, said Kerrigan, adding that it has no impact on rainfall levels.

Thailand’s food and drug administration approved Generation Water last August, and the company is now expanding.

It is building a plant in Phuket, which will use solar energy to make “climate-positive” water, producing more than 20,000 liters of water per day by the end of the year.

Nine Marriott resorts on Phuket are in the process of signing up, along with 30 other hotels.

Generation Water is now eyeing the rest of Thailand, and is talking to hotels in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Maldives, Kohler said.

It also sells smaller water production units that can be used in homes, offices, classrooms and yachts.

The company’s goal is to stop 1 billion 500 ml plastic bottles from entering landfills and the oceans every year by the end of 2021 — equal to supplying 3,000 hotels of 250 rooms.

As for Marriott staff on Phuket, they have “no excuse now,” said Homcha-aim.

Their birthday gift from the company will be a reusable tumbler, which they can fill up with “water from the air.”