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How Taiwan Quietly Gained on China in Global Diplomatic Rivalry

Even as Taiwan loses diplomatic allies to its bigger rival China, the increasingly isolated government has bested Beijing at a level of international relations that common people can feel: the number of countries that let citizens enter visa free.

Taiwan has persuaded 166 countries to allow their 23 million citizens to enter without visas or with simplified visa applications, sometimes over fears that China would retaliate, foreign ministry sources say. Just 21 countries offer visa-free entry to people from China.

The rise of visa-free countries from 10 years ago to places such as the United States and Europe indicates that Taiwan can expand diplomatically in at least one way despite China’s countermeasures and have something to show citizens who want more foreign policy achievements.

Personal experience

“Because for most of the people foreign relations is a very distant thing, but the ability to travel free around the world is a direct and personal experience,” said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan.

“If Taiwan continues to enjoy visa-free travel, that means a lot of countries recognize the administration and allow the people from Taiwan to their lands, and that will be a major, major foreign affairs achievement,” Lei said.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over, and insists on eventual reunification with, self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s and tries to limit its international profile. To cast Taiwan as a part of China rather than a country, Beijing has barred it from joining United Nations agencies since the 1970s. It also offers aid to countries that switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Taipei has 20 allies left following Panama’s recognition of China last month. Beijing is recognized by more than 170 countries.

​Visa-free treatment

The push to expand visa-free treatment for Taiwanese took off under former president Ma Ying-jeou, who held office from 2008 to 2016. China and Taiwan had set aside political grievances then to build trust through economic deals, making it hard for Beijing to stand in the way of Taiwan’s informal or people-to-people relations abroad.

“Cables regarding that were sent to all the offices and missions abroad, and we kept reminding officials of the importance and urgency of getting visa waivers or visas upon arrival,” said Huang Kwei-bo, chair of the foreign ministry research and planning committee from 2009 to 2011.

The government in Taipei also tightened passport renewals to “reduce the percentage” of counterfeited documents, allaying another concern overseas, Huang said.

“We tried to tell those potential targeted countries not to feel worried about punishment from the Beijing authorities,” because warmer ties under Ma “would make the visa waiver issue less sensitive in the political term,” Huang said.

Taiwan passports ranked No. 28 in the world in 2015 in terms of visa-free access to other countries, according to the Henley & Partners 2015 Visa Restrictions Index. China ranked 93rd.

Relations could chill waivers

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen lacks the trust of Beijing, though she hasn’t crossed China’s red line of seeking legal independence to consecrate self-rule. That chill in relations could make it harder for Taiwan to add countries to its visa waiver roster, said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.

But Tuesday, Taiwan and its diplomatic ally Paraguay agreed to let each other’s citizens enter without visas. The foreign ministry is also preparing to let Filipinos enter visa free, even though Manila still requires visas of Taiwanese.

Countries have let Taiwanese enter visa-free for economic benefits as well as to get along better with Taipei, according to Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson Eleanor Wang.

“For other countries to want to let in Taiwan passport holder without visas, they can attract more Republic of China (Taiwan) people to go visit, which can help two-way relations and help their economy — all sorts of advantages — so they agree to exempt visas,” Wang told reporters Tuesday.

Taiwanese not eager to flee

China struggles to earn visa waiver rules abroad because its citizens sometimes migrate illegally for economic gain. Chinese use illegal smuggling networks to enter Europe and may be “exploited by traffickers,” said human rights group Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in 2015.

In Taiwan, “the country has achieved a certain level of economic sufficiency, therefore its citizens are not that eager to flee from the country and get settled in other countries,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in greater Taipei.

“Most of them want to come back. They find Taiwan more comfortable,” he said. “Countries that give Taiwan visa waivers are not threatened.”


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Rights Groups, Nobel Commission Express Regret Over Liu’s Death

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is calling for China to release Liu Xiaobo’s widow from house arrest Thursday.

“I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes,” he said in a statement hours after the Nobel Laureate’s death.

“In his fight for freedom, equality, and constitutional rule in China, Liu Xiaobo embodied the human spirit that the Nobel Prize rewards.  In his death, he has only reaffirmed the Nobel Committee’s selection,” Tillerson added.

Liu, a Chinese a literary critic-turned-dissident and pro-democracy advocate, died Thursday at age 61 following a high-profile battle with liver cancer.

“I join Secretary Tillerson in mourning the death of Liu Xiaobo, a courageous advocate who dedicated his life to the pursuit of democracy and liberty,” U.S. ambassador to China Terry Branstad said.

“China has lost a deeply principled role model who deserved our respect and adulation, not the prison sentences to which he was subjected.  We again ask that China release Liu Xia from house arrest, and permit her and her family to travel as they wish,” he added. “As we mourn the loss and celebrate the life of this remarkable man, we call on China to release all prisoners of conscience and to respect the fundamental freedoms of all. 

The leader of the Norwegian Nobel committee said Thursday the Chinese government bore a “heavy responsibility” for his death.

“We find it deeply disturbing that Liu Xiaobo was not transferred to a facility where he could receive adequate medical treatment before he became terminally ill,” said Berit Reiss-Anderssen.  “The Chinese Government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death,” she said in an emailed statement.

Rights groups were quick to praise his achievements and legacy while calling on the international community to investigate deaths in captivity and work to prevent them.

“Even as Liu Xiaobo’s illness worsened, the Chinese government continued to isolate him and his family, and denied him freely choosing his medical treatment,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government’s arrogance, cruelty, and callousness are shocking – but Liu’s struggle for a rights-respecting, democratic China will live on.”

The U.N. Human Rights chief expressed “deep sorrow” over Liu’s death, saying the human rights movement has lost a “principled champion”.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi also expressed her condolences for Liu and disappointment with the Chinese government’s handling of his illness.

“The world grieves loss of one of the great moral voices of our time.  We had hoped that the Chinese … they mistreated him in prison, contributed to his illness, we would hope that they would allow him to leave the country to receive medical care,” she said, “They did not.  It is a sad day.”


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Indonesian Muslim Martial Arts Club Takes Aim at IS

Indonesia’s Sunni Islamic social welfare organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which calls itself the largest Muslim group in the world with a claimed membership of 50 million, is using its martial arts division to take aim at a new foe, the Islamic State.

The group, widely considered the country’s leading moderate Muslim organization, has worn many hats since its founding in 1926: it was once a political party, it is still a charity that has built hundreds of schools and hospitals, and it is an eminent advocate for Indonesia’s pluralistic, tolerant Islam Nusantara, or “Islam of the archipelago,” around the world.

But one of NU’s lesser-known wings is Pagar Nusa, a martial arts division that initially arose to protect NU’s Islamic boarding schools in pre-independence Indonesia. Although Pagar Nusa “warriors” have been present through Indonesia’s independence struggle and democratic Reformation. One of its most recent targets is the international extremism of the so-called Islamic State.

“IS has spread threats against Indonesian groups like the police and armed forces, and specifically threatened NU,” Pagar Nusa chairman Nabil Haroen told VOA.

In response, Pagar Nusa is stepping up its activities across Indonesia, where it maintains a presence across most major provinces, including Java, Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Papua. It is also holding a special training for constituent warriors in Pekalongan, Central Java later this month.

Multi-pronged approach

Pagar Nusa claims three million followers, and its training combines “physical strength, martial arts, and spiritual intelligence,” according to Nabil. Its goal is not to engage in armed combat — in fact, violence is something of a last resort — but to train a corps of Indonesian Muslims who can defend their traditions against ongoing and evolving threats.

“Basically Pagar Nusa, and by extension, Nahdlatul Ulama, uses persuasion,” said Nabil. “We use cultural approaches and ideological campaigns [against extremists]. If we can invite extremists back to moderate Islam, then we move forward with da’wah, or preaching.”

“The violent approach is the last resort of a knight, or a swordsman. We seek to conquer the enemy before the fight occurs.” But, he went on, “under any circumstances, Pagar Nusa is always ready.”

In Pagar Nusa programs across Indonesia, there are daily, weekly, and biweekly physical drills for members, depending on the local teacher and regimen, said Nabil. But the mandatory spiritual exercise component ideally takes place every single night, he said.

If it seems strange, at first glance, that a social welfare group like NU also has a martial arts club, but it is actually in step with recent Indonesian history.

In modern Indonesia, major political parties have been historically linked with their own paramilitary arms. NU’s youth wing, Ansor, has a “paramilitary” arm called Banser that has long helped the National Awakening Party, especially on Java island.

Extremism remains attractive

In light of the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State, which has inspired a slow drip of actual and attempted terrorist attacks in Indonesia over the last three years, Nabil said Pagar Nusa is educating its members about IS ideology and recognizing warning signs among would-be extremist youth. Its work can be seen as a complement to other NU counter-extremism efforts, particularly in the digital sphere.

Savic Ali, director of NU Online, said his group’s counter-extremism work “is mainly in the education, media and social monitoring sectors.” “NU, as a nationalist-religious organization, certainly will oppose and resist IS because it can destroy the Indonesian nation-state,” he told VOA.

Pagar Nusa’s efforts could also be useful in a general sense because martial arts appeal to young people, said extremism analyst Nava Nuraniyah, of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict.

“Many surveys have identified youth as the most vulnerable target of extremist recruitment,” she told VOA. “Some teenagers… are attracted by the ‘cool’ image of an IS fighter: heroes of Islam, holding guns, and all that. While this program’s effectiveness as PVE (prevention of violent extremism) is yet to be tested, Islamic martial arts clubs like Pagar Nusa could at least provide an alternative to these teenagers to channel their energy in a more positive way.”

Beyond that, as hinted at by Savic, it can help with a mainstay of NU programming: nationalism. One of the phrases taught in NU schools, according to Nuraniyah, is hubbul wathon minal iman, or “loving one’s homeland is part of faith.” This brand of high-stakes nationalism, she said, “might add a sense of heroism which appeals to the youth.”

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Liu Xiaobao, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies in Chinese Hospital

Chinese human rights prisoner Liu Xiaobo has died in a Chinese hospital after a high-profile battle with liver cancer. The 61-year-old writer and activist, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” remained a lightning rod for controversy even as he neared death. VOA’s Natalie Liu has more from Washington.

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India China Standoff in High Himalayas Pulls in Tiny Bhutan

A tense standoff between India and China in the high Himalayas is being played out not on the disputed borders between the two Asian giants, but on a plateau claimed by China and Bhutan. Many analysts say the face off is also a play for power in the tiny, strategically located country, which is India’s closest ally in South Asia, but where Beijing wants to increase its presence.

Indian troops obstructed a Chinese road-building project at Doklam Plateau around mid-June. The area also known as “Chicken’s Neck” is hugely strategic for India because it connects the country’s mainland to its northeastern region.

New Delhi cites its treaties with Bhutan, with which it has close military and economic ties, for keeping its soldiers in the area despite strident calls by Beijing to vacate the mountain region.

As the standoff drags on, there are fears in New Delhi that Beijing is also testing its ties with Bhutan, the tiny nation that has made gross national happiness its mantra, but where worries are growing about a big power conflict on its doorstep.

Analysts point out that China wants to wean Bhutan away from India and expand ties with a country with which it has no diplomatic ties.

“At a strategic level, China would like to separate India from Bhutan, they would like to open up Bhutan to their greater influence, that goes without saying,” said Manoj Joshi, a strategic affairs analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

One small move at a time

According to political analysts, it is not the first time the Chinese have built a road in a disputed area in Bhutan, which has a disputed border with China at several places in the high Himalayas.

“They have done the same in other areas, built roads in mountains and valleys and then claimed it was their territory during border negotiations,” said a Bhutanese political analyst who did not want to be identified. “It has been a hot button issue here, and has been repeatedly debated in parliament.”

These “encroachments” are seen as efforts by Beijing to muscle into Bhutan in the same manner as it has done in South China Sea. Analysts call it a “salami slicing” tactic.

But Bhutan, which worries about being drawn into the rivalry between the two large neighbors, has maintained a studied silence on the latest dispute, except to issue one demarche calling on Beijing to restore the status quo in the area.

“Bhutan has done well, so far, to avoid both the fire from the Dragon on our heads and also the Elephant’s tusks in our soft underbelly. We must keep it this way,” Bhutanese journalist Tenzing Lamsang wrote for The Wire.

Despite some calls in Bhutan to settle its border with China without worrying about Indian interests, political analysts say public opinion largely favors New Delhi’s firm stand on the Doklam plateau.

Influence at stake

While keeping the Chinese out of the strategic plateau is India’s immediate concern, there is also concern about maintaining its influence in Bhutan, which is a buffer between China and India.

India has watched warily as Beijing has steadily increased its presence in its neighborhood in recent years as countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have also been increasingly drawn into the Chinese sphere of influence by the promise of massive investments in roads, ports and other infrastructure.

In India there are concerns that the same should not happen in Bhutan, its most steadfast ally. Saying the Chinese have been applying pressure on the Bhutanese border, analyst Manoj Joshi said. “If Bhutan were to go the way of say Nepal, where Indian influence is now questioned, it would make a difference, that buffer would vanish.”

India’s foreign secretary S. Jaishankar this week expressed confidence that India and China have the maturity to handle their latest dispute and it will be handled diplomatically. “I see no reason why, when having handled so many situations in the past, we would not be able to handle it,” he said.

But while in the past such border standoffs have been resolved quickly, this time around there are no signs the issue is getting resolved, nearly a month after it erupted.

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Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies in Chinese Hospital

China’s best-known human rights prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, died Thursday at age 61 following a high-profile battle with liver cancer that made his death as controversial as his life.

Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent his last eight years as a prisoner of conscience, passed away at a hospital in Shenyang, China, where he had been moved from his prison cell in the final stage of his illness. The judicial bureau in Shengyang announced the cause of death as “multiple organ failure.”


Liu’s final days were marked by a public dispute over the quality of his care and Beijing’s refusal of a family request that he be transferred for treatment to the United States or Germany. He is the first Nobel laureate to die in state custody since Carl von Ossietzky, who died of tuberculosis under the watch of Nazi secret police in Berlin, Germany, in 1938.

Tributes to Liu quickly poured in from Chinese intellectuals and human rights advocates, who described the former college lecturer as a moderate liberal who advocated peaceful resistance to Chinese authorities.

“He was a man of humanity and an idealist. He’s by no means a politician. Judging from his writings and speech, what he had illustrated is more of a social idealism of humanities,” said Zhang Lifan, a prominent Chinese historian.

Reputation for outspokenness

Liu, whose name means “he who knows the waves,” was born into an intellectual family in 1955 in China’s northeastern province of Jilin. He received his doctorate degree in Chinese literature from Beijing Normal University in 1988.

His reputation as an outspoken dissident had deep roots. In his brief, government-sanctioned role as a popular writer and academic, he was known for his criticism of traditional Chinese culture and for urging his fellow literati to exhibit more individualism. His sharp critiques created a sensation within literary and intellectual circles and won him opportunities to travel abroad as a visiting scholar.

His promising career took a drastic turn in the spring of 1989 when he cut short a visiting scholarship at Columbia University in New York City and returned home to join student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

“During the June 4th protests, he rushed back to Beijing from the U.S. to take part in the movement without any hesitation. That showed his earnest hope in the society’s transformation and the country’s democratization,” said Hu Jia, a Chinese rights activist and friend of Liu and his family.

Hu credited Liu with saving many lives by encouraging hundreds of students to leave the square rather than confront the Chinese troops who moved into the square with tanks in the early hours of June 4.

Despite that action, and a controversial television appearance in which he cast doubt on reports of a massacre in the square, Liu was labeled a “black hand” and jailed for his role in the protests.


Upon his release in early 1991, he continued to call for political reforms and was sentenced to three years in a labor camp from 1996 to 1999. Liu kept on pursuing his reform goals after his release, making him a constant target for state surveillance.  

End to one-party system

In 2008, Liu and other dissidents and intellectuals issued a document known as Charter 08, modeled partly on Charter 77, which Czech dissidents, including Vaclav Havel, drafted in 1977.

The political manifesto, which was endorsed by more than 10,000 intellectuals, calls for an end to China’s one-party system and establishment of a new republic comprising a “federation” of regions and political communities, with genuine participation from the public.

“If there has been any progress in the Chinese society and politics over the last 20 years, it is all because the citizens have been pushing for change,” Liu said in an interview that year.  “Ultimately, change will happen when problems persist and enough people are concerned.”

Even while he was enjoying relative freedom out of jail, thoughts of when he, and others like him, might be locked up again were never far from his mind.

“For those of us in the opposition movement under dictatorships, part of our job is confronting police, and spending time in prison. So, a dissident not only needs to learn how to oppose oppression, but also how to face the crackdowns, and time in prison,” Liu told reporters from Hong Kong.

‘I have no enemies’

Liu’s convictions were put to the test in 2009, when he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in the Charter 08 movement and other “subversive” activities. Worldwide fame came soon afterward when he was named as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

Liu learned of the honor from his wife during one of the limited prison visits she was permitted. He replied that the prize should be dedicated to those who died in the 1989 mass protests and subsequent crackdown.

Liu was known as an advocate of changing China through reasoned, non-violent means. Shortly before being sentenced in 2009, Liu praised elements of the Chinese legal system, including the polite treatment he received in jail, in a speech entitled “I have no enemies.”

“Hatred can corrupt one’s conscience and intelligence, enemy mentality could poison a nation’s spirit,” Liu said in the speech, which was read in his absence at the Nobel Prize ceremony.  

Liu’s remarks confounded many advocates for democracy and freedom for China.

Critics pointed to the harsh treatment, including severe torture, of other activists to show the Chinese prison system is far less “humane” than Liu described it. Some suggested the authorities purposely showed leniency toward Liu so that he would make public statements in their support.

Unfulfilled wish

Liu was still three years from completing his prison term when he died.

The German and American doctors who were allowed to see him during his last days reported that Liu, days before his death, had clearly communicated his wish to leave China for treatment elsewhere. However, Chinese authorities maintained that he was too sick to be moved.

Liu Xiaobo is survived by a son, and his wife of 21 years, Liu Xia, a staunch supporter of her husband who is reported to have said that she was determined to marry the “enemy of the state.”  Reflecting on their lives in a poem, she said, “I like to draw trees; why? I like the image of it standing. A life spent standing must be tiresome, you say; I answer, yes, but still I must.”


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Coal Mine Crackdown Dims Prospects for Mongolia’s Fortune Seekers

Working 50 meters (164 feet) under ground with minimal air supply, Uuganbaatar is one of thousands of Mongolians trying to make a living digging for coal.

Although the mining season does not begin until autumn, when the ground freezes and work is safer, the 31-year-old and his colleagues are seeking to gain a head start by digging a shaft in Nalaikh, one of the nine districts of Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, in late June.

But their mine could soon be shut by the government, which has launched an unprecedented crackdown on sites that don’t meet safety standards.

That would mean even fewer opportunities for Mongolia’s individual prospectors, who have already been hit hard by the privatization of mines previously open to all.

Miners such as Uuganbaatar dig for coal under loose arrangements with local unions and private companies.

“Things seem really tough for private miners now,” said Uuganbaatar, who, like many Mongolians, goes by one name. “All the licenses have been bought up by influential big shots. Whenever you start to dig somewhere, someone shows up and chases us away. It’s impossible to find a place or mine to dig in.”

A weak economy and particularly harsh winters drove herdsman from across Mongolia to Nalaikh’s private mines in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The district, with a population of nearly 30,000, was home to Mongolia’s first state mining company, which collapsed in the 1990s in the midst of a post-communist economic crisis. The firm’s dilapidated buildings dot the landscape.

With the economy slowing again after a commodities boom earlier in the decade, authorities fear more people could be tempted down the mines.

“More mines will probably be shut down,” said Byambadorj, a woman who ran two private mine shafts with her husband for 13 years until the government closed them in June.

“In Nalaikh, life revolves around mining, and mining is the main means to support our lives,” she says, insisting that her mines were operating according to the safety standards.

The government had tried to get companies to improve safety by issuing licenses. An official said nine companies had been granted licenses, but not all had met the standards.

“People were working in shafts with no air supply,” said S. Battulga, an official whose department is responsible for reviewing mining licenses across the country.

“Therefore, it was requested that the private mining licenses in Nalaikh be cancelled” on health and safety grounds, he added.

Nalaikh authorities would like people to switch from mining to work in brick factories, but no one seems keen to switch despite the danger.

In the past 25 years, the government has recorded 234 fatalities in Nalaikh’s coal mines, although residents say the real number is hundreds higher.

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Cambodian Children’s Books Show ‘Girls Can Do Anything’

From a girl who builds a flying bike to save her village to a female cicada defying the odds to join a flying contest, a new children’s book project in Cambodia is seeking to inspire girls to fight stereotypes and male dominance.

The vividly illustrated e-books in the local Khmer language tell the stories of eight different female characters who overcome challenges through courage and ingenuity under the tagline “Girls Can Do Anything.”

One story features a girl who invents a flying contraption that looks like a bike with bat-like wings to save her village while another girl fights aliens seeking to destroy her city.

“The availability of original storybooks for children in Khmer is limited. Content related to the empowerment of women is even more scarce,” said Edward Anderson from The Asia Foundation, which is running the project.

“The books … can serve as role models for young girls, helping them to break away from traditional subservient expectations and empower them to become leaders,” added Anderson, the acting Cambodia chief for the U.S.-based charity.

Cambodia was ranked 112 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2016, after scoring poorly in political empowerment and education attainment for women.

Campaigners say a gap in education persists in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, with fewer girls attending and completing school, while sexual and labor exploitation remain a serious problem for women.

The book series, under a wider initiative known as “Let’s Read!” which aims to encourage reading among children, was created by Cambodian writers and illustrators during a “hackathon” event.

Prum Kunthearo, one of the eight writers, said it was the first time she had used a female protagonist in a story since she began writing books in 2013.

She said her story “Green Star,” about a girl who uses her knowledge of science to help a boy find his way home, was inspired by a lack of women in the science and technology sectors in the nation of 16 million people.

“Children should understand the importance of gender equality from an early age,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Phnom Penh.

Illustrator Pors Socheata hoped Cambodian girls would be empowered through the stories.

“Most of the characters in our storybooks are males, especially when they are superheroes or have achieved something good,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although the books are only available in digital format for now, The Asia Foundation said it is working with the Cambodian government and companies to promote them, while it explores the possibility of publishing the books in hard copies to distribute to remote parts of the country.