Rising Concern Over Working Conditions as China’s Gig Economy Booms

Liu Jin wanted his due — $733 in back pay.As a scooter driver in a blue uniform, Liu gigged for Ele.me, an online food delivery service owned by the Alibaba Group, a growing multibillion-dollar behemoth that dominates China’s e-commerce.On January 11, Liu showed up at Ele.me’s distribution center in Taizhou, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Onlookers captured the scene on video, their footage displaying the Ele.me slogan “Instant Delivery, Beautiful Life” on a wall behind the man engulfed in flames.A video of the incident went viral on Weibo, China’s social media platform, as the 48-year-old worker was being treated for third-degree burns.Liu’s protest in China’s eastern Jiangsu province came not long after a 43-year-old scooter driver referred to only as Han died while delivering meals in Beijing. Han also worked for Ele.me. The company’s insurance paid $4,600 in compensation to his wife, parents and two children.When his family spoke out, the company offered $92,500. A woman wearing a face mask rides an electric bicycle with her groceries past delivery workers of Meituan and Ele.me, in Beijing, China, July 13, 2020.The incidents cast a spotlight on the working condition for China’s gig economy workers.“This shows the helplessness of an ordinary workers,” said one commentator on Weibo.“Now that the society is ‘ruled by law,’ the capitalists are not afraid of anything,” said another.According to a 2020 Drivers of the food delivery service Ele.me attend a morning briefing before an internal security check in Beijing, China, Sept. 21, 2017.Li Qiang, director of the New York based rights group China Labor Watch,  said that the gig economy workers have to pay a huge price to defend their rights through legal channels.”Fighting through legal channels doesn’t guarantee you can get your salary back, and it’s extremely time consuming. So for most workers, they will choose to be quiet and quickly get another job,” said Li.He added that labor unions in China need to be more effective to ensure proper enforcement of labor laws. He also pointed out when enforcing the law, local government authorities favor businesses over workers because companies are considered useful for creating job opportunities and maintaining social stability.If workers protest, “they might be arrested and imprisoned for crimes such as ‘disrupting social order’ or ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ ” Li continued.Although China recognized flexible and informal employment in 2001 in the tenth Five-Year Plan, Beijing has yet to implement real structural changes and protection for gig economy workers.On January 20, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee received a draft regulation for review. According to the draft, workers, including those with flexible employments, can apply for legal aid to help solve disputes over work-related accidents such as traffic accidents, food and drug safety accidents, medical accidents and personal damages. Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said the new regulation, if passed, will offer some help to those at the bottom of the society. But in China, he cautioned such regulation will have limited effect because of the centralized, authoritarian system.“In many cases, it is not just a lack of legal service or legal consultation, but also the corruption in the entire legal channel,” he said. “The legal system in China is opaque and laws can be difficult to enforce, so the actual effect of legal aid will be limited.”Lin Yang contributed to this report which originated on VOA Mandarin.  

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Hong Kong Activists Feel Pressure as Chinese Authorities Approach Relatives in Mainland China 

A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong is the latest to disclose that Chinese authorities questioned his family and friends in mainland China for information about him. Yat-Chin Wong, 19, is the organizer of StudentPoliticism, a political group in Hong Kong whose aim is to promote “core values such as democracy and liberty and our sentiments to Hong Kong.” The teenager was arrested twice last year, while national security officers warned group members about their continued activism. Wong, who spent his childhood in China before moving to Hong Kong while in primary school, revealed that his relatives in Sichuan had recently been approached for questioning. “I was told by my family in the past few days that my relatives, friends and even classmates from primary school in China were questioned by public authorities. They wanted to know my plans and whereabouts. They told my relatives and friends not to keep in contact with me,” Wong told VOA. After learning about the questionings, Wong severed ties with his family and friends. “From past to future, my stand and actions are entirely on my own and are not associated with, or linked to, any of my relatives and family,” Wong posted on his Facebook page. But Wong said he is still worried that further action could be taken. “China suppresses people who hold opposite ideas against them. I guess the government could still approach or interrogate or question them,” he said. “I haven’t seen or contacted them in a long time. Rather, I am more worried about the political prosecution that might happen to me in Hong Kong,” he said. Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” agreement that promised Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047. But since the handover, Beijing has attempted to further tighten its control of the city. In 2019, a now-withdrawn extradition bill sparked widespread anti-government protests in Hong Kong  In response, Beijing implemented the National Security Act for Hong Kong, effective June 30, 2020.FILE – Chinese President Xi Jinping reaches to vote on a piece of national security legislation concerning Hong Kong during the closing session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, Thursday, May 28, 2020.The widely interpreted law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and carries maximum sentences of life imprisonment. Since the law became active, it has been a catalyst for changes in the city. In 2019, a now-withdrawn extradition bill sparked widespread anti-government protests in Hong Kong that led to further demands, such as universal suffrage. The protests often turning violent. To restore stability to the city, Beijing implemented the National Security Act for Hong Kong, effective June 30, 2020. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and carries maximum sentences of life imprisonment. Since the law became active, it has been a catalyst for changes in the city. Street demonstrations have stopped, pro-democracy slogans have been banned, activists have been arrested, or jailed and some have fled the city. ‘Time for a change’ Wong founded StudentPoliticism last May. As anti-government street demonstrations were declining, he said he felt it was time for a change. “I actually realized the old method of demonstrations — taking our demands to the street — is not working anymore because the political suppression is so strong,” he told VOA.  He explained his group held different activities such as holding street counters every weekend, including to support both jailed protesters in Hong Kong and the 2020 Thailand protests. His efforts still came at a cost. He was arrested by authorities in September and November. “The first was on the 6th of September. We were merely sending out masks due to the pandemic, and I was charged with unlawful assembly,” he said. “The reason for the second arrest [was] because of the [demonstrations] I held to support 12 Hong Kong Youths. Citizens were encouraged to write letters to send love to the 12 youths. I was arrested while I [was] sending the letters,” he added. Both arrests led to no further investigations, according to Wong. But in December, Wong and members of his group were warned by national security officers that if their activism showed any suspicions that promoted Hong Kong independence, they would be arrested immediately. It is not the first time that Beijing’s sweeping National Security Law has been used against young activists in Hong Kong. FILE – Tony Chung was found guilty of unlawful assembly and desecrating the national flag. He will be sentenced on Dec. 29, 2020. Photo taken in Mongkok, Hong Kong, Oct. 2020. (Tommy Walker/VOA)In October, Tony Chung, the former organizer of the pro-independence group Studentlocalism, was detained by national security officers. Chung, also 19, is facing four charges under the law, including secession, money laundering and conspiracy to publish seditious materials.  According to local reports, Chung is facing up to seven years in jail if convicted, with his next court hearing on January 28. He earlier had been sentenced to a four-month jail term unrelated to the security law for allegedly insulting the Chinese flag during a protest in May 2020.  Wong admitted his group will have to resort to “different activities” because of the National Security Law.“I’m not in university now. I’m retaking my exam (from) last year. … Last year, I concentrated on the activism. I believe I have the ability to go to university, so I retook the exam,” he said. He added, “Hong Kong’s freedom is slowly getting eroded under the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] control. And our fight for democracy … is under enormous strain,” he said. 

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Trump’s Gone, But North Korea Tensions Still Loom in US-South Korea Alliance

After U.S. President Joe Biden took office last week, perhaps no world leader breathed a bigger public sigh of relief than South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  “America is back,” Moon declared in a congratulatory message marking Biden’s inauguration. The statement didn’t directly mention outgoing President Donald Trump, but the intent was clear..FILE – Police officers use umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun while anti-war activists hold a rally against planned South Korea-U.S. annual joint military exercises near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, Aug. 5, 2019.Worry in Seoul A more adversarial U.S. stance toward North Korea would likely upset Moon and his allies in Seoul. At a news conference last week, Moon said the starting point for Biden should be the 2018 Singapore agreement between Kim and Trump, in which both sides agreed to “work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  In an North Korean soldiers keep watch toward the south as South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young inspects the truce village of Panmunjom, Sep. 24, 2020.But will it work? That kind of push for talks would in some ways mirror 2018, when Seoul successfully converted inter-Korean sports cooperation at the Winter Olympics into a series of North-South meetings, which eventually led to the Trump-Kim talks.  But there are plenty of reasons to question whether such a move would work this time. The most obvious: the Olympics may not be held at all because of the coronavirus. If the games were held, host Japan may not agree to participate in the talks.  “I’d be shocked if his plan worked again because the environment right now is completely different,” says Duyeon Kim, a Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.  “It was easy to trick Trump into a summit with Kim because Trump loves theatrics and a good photo op,” she adds. “Biden is too smart, experienced, and serious about national security.” How will North Korea respond? In any case, North Korea may not even agree to resume dialogue. For months, Pyongyang has boycotted meetings with both the United States and South Korea, upset among other things that Washington has not relaxed sanctions on its nuclear program. 
At a major political meeting this month, North Korea said it was looking for ways to improve relations with the South, but called on Seoul to stop holding military drills with Washington and to stop acquiring new military capabilities.  North Korea has also showcased several new weapons over the last few months, including a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as a ballistic missile possibly designed to be fired from a submarine.  Some analysts have expressed concern North Korea could soon test one of those new weapons, or possibly conduct another nuclear test, noting Pyongyang’s tendency to showcase new military capabilities around the start of U.S. administrations.  Staying on the same page  Another concern among some analysts is that such a major test by the North could sharpen divides between Biden and Moon. “I hope Seoul and Washington can stay on the same page, because it’s going to be challenging. North Korea will continue to pressure South Korea, and there’s only a year left from the Moon administration’s perspective,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a recent online forum. “The Moon administration just needs to realize that they’re just not going to be able to appease the North,” said Terry, a former CIA analyst. “There’s not going to be a breakthrough on inter-Korean relations until there is a breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.” Some in Seoul are more optimistic, expressing hope Biden and Moon will find enough common ground. “The Biden administration cannot ignore” North Korea, says Youn Kun-young, a South Korean lawmaker and member of Moon’s Democratic Party. “(And) solving the North Korean nuclear issue with only sanctions just isn’t possible.”  Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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Indonesia’s COVID-19 Cases Top 1 Million

Indonesia surpassed 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases Tuesday, when the Indonesian Health Ministry reported 13,094 new infections. Meanwhile, deaths are nearing 29,000 in the fourth most populous country in the world.
 
These numbers come at a time when the country is nearing capacity in intensive care units. Ministry data shows that hospital capacity nationwide is currently at 70%, although some areas have been hit harder. In parts of Indonesia’s most densely populated island of Java, as is the case of West Java, East Java and Yogyakarta, occupancy rates are 95%.
 
“This is time for us to mourn as many of our brothers and sisters who died, including more than 600 health care workers, while dealing with (the) pandemic,” Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said in a Tuesday televised address.
 
Two weeks ago, President Joko Widodo announced a nationwide campaign to vaccinate at least two-thirds of Indonesia’s 270 million people. Widodo himself has already received the first shot of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac.
 
In a country of more than 17,000 islands and limited infrastructure, Indonesian officials are working around the clock to deliver the first doses in a timely manner.
 
With cases going up, many local governments, especially in the islands of Bali and Java, have imposed new quarantine measures, while the Wododo administration has urged Indonesians to observe health guidelines and collaborate.
 
“This 1 million figure gives an indication that all Indonesian people must work together with the government to fight against the pandemic even harder,” the health minister said.

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Trump’s Gone, But Tensions Still Loom in US-South Korea Alliance

After U.S. President Joe Biden took office last week, perhaps no world leader breathed a bigger public sigh of relief than South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  “America is back,” Moon declared in a congratulatory message marking Biden’s inauguration. The statement didn’t directly mention outgoing President Donald Trump, but the intent was clear..FILE – Police officers use umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun while anti-war activists hold a rally against planned South Korea-U.S. annual joint military exercises near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, Aug. 5, 2019.Worry in Seoul A more adversarial U.S. stance toward North Korea would likely upset Moon and his allies in Seoul. At a news conference last week, Moon said the starting point for Biden should be the 2018 Singapore agreement between Kim and Trump, in which both sides agreed to “work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  In an North Korean soldiers keep watch toward the south as South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young inspects the truce village of Panmunjom, Sep. 24, 2020.But will it work? That kind of push for talks would in some ways mirror 2018, when Seoul successfully converted inter-Korean sports cooperation at the Winter Olympics into a series of North-South meetings, which eventually led to the Trump-Kim talks.  But there are plenty of reasons to question whether such a move would work this time. The most obvious: the Olympics may not be held at all because of the coronavirus. If the games were held, host Japan may not agree to participate in the talks.  “I’d be shocked if his plan worked again because the environment right now is completely different,” says Duyeon Kim, a Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.  “It was easy to trick Trump into a summit with Kim because Trump loves theatrics and a good photo op,” she adds. “Biden is too smart, experienced, and serious about national security.” How will North Korea respond? In any case, North Korea may not even agree to resume dialogue. For months, Pyongyang has boycotted meetings with both the United States and South Korea, upset among other things that Washington has not relaxed sanctions on its nuclear program. 
At a major political meeting this month, North Korea said it was looking for ways to improve relations with the South, but called on Seoul to stop holding military drills with Washington and to stop acquiring new military capabilities.  North Korea has also showcased several new weapons over the last few months, including a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as a ballistic missile possibly designed to be fired from a submarine.  Some analysts have expressed concern North Korea could soon test one of those new weapons, or possibly conduct another nuclear test, noting Pyongyang’s tendency to showcase new military capabilities around the start of U.S. administrations.  Staying on the same page  Another concern among some analysts is that such a major test by the North could sharpen divides between Biden and Moon. “I hope Seoul and Washington can stay on the same page, because it’s going to be challenging. North Korea will continue to pressure South Korea, and there’s only a year left from the Moon administration’s perspective,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a recent online forum. “The Moon administration just needs to realize that they’re just not going to be able to appease the North,” said Terry, a former CIA analyst. “There’s not going to be a breakthrough on inter-Korean relations until there is a breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.” Some in Seoul are more optimistic, expressing hope Biden and Moon will find enough common ground. “The Biden administration cannot ignore” North Korea, says Youn Kun-young, a South Korean lawmaker and member of Moon’s Democratic Party. “(And) solving the North Korean nuclear issue with only sanctions just isn’t possible.”  Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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For Some Wuhan Residents, Silence Masks Anger

With fanfare unusual for a documentary film, “Days and Nights in Wuhan” premiered this weekend throughout China.  A co-production of official state media and the Hubei Propaganda Department, the film released Friday marks the first anniversary of the lockdown to contain a new and frightening virus in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 first took hold.  With shots of heroic medical personal tending patients and empty streets, the film chronicles the suffering and sacrifices of the city’s 11 million residents. The documentary is the latest effort by Beijing to control the official narrative and deflect blame about the origins of the coronavirus that has gone on to kill more than 2 million people worldwide, upend the global economy and forever alter whatever most people see as normal in their daily lives.Residents attend an exhibition on the city’s fight against the coronavirus in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. A year after it was locked down to contain the spread of coronavirus.Chen Chen, 27, employee of a Chinese state-owned enterprise  Chen said at the beginning of the lockdown, like everyone else, she tracked the increasing death toll day by day. She accused local authorities of covering up what happened in the earliest days of the outbreak. Now she said she thinks the government did a fantastic job.   “In the beginning, everyone blamed the government for suppressing information, leaving us unprepared for such a severe lockdown. But I think they did a great job making up for those mistakes,” Chen told VOA. She added that work resumed last April, businesses resumed last May, and in October, tourists packed Wuhan during the National Day holiday season, responding to government travel subsidies.“The hardest time in Wuhan has passed,” Chen said, “I think we have recovered completely.” Her aunt, who works in a hospital and has recovered from COVID-19, told her that medical personnel have started wearing protective gear again as coronavirus reemerges in China ahead of the Lunar New Year travel season. Yet Chen said she’s not worried. “Now people say Wuhan is the safest city. You won’t find a single person on the street without a mask,” she told VOA. “If you don’t wear a mask, it’s like you are not wearing clothes.”   Chen said her parents remain worried.  “My parents are in their 50s, and they have never encountered anything like the lockdown before. They described it as a nightmare, and they often say they are afraid Wuhan will be locked down again.” Zhang Hai, 51, former real estate professional Zhang Hai lost his father to COVID-19 last February. His father, Zhang Lifa, was a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army, who had spent decades working on China’s nuclear weapons program. Zhang and his father, both Wuhan natives, were living in Guangzhou then, and traveled to Wuhan only for surgery on the older man’s leg. At the time, local officials were playing down the risk of human-to-human transmission. Zhang said that if he and his father had known what was really going on at the time, they would not have gone to Wuhan.  Zhang filed a lawsuit in June against the local government demanding accountability. Since then, he has been constantly harassed by the police. He told VOA that authorities blocked his social media accounts six times, monitored his activity on the messaging app WeChat and tapped his cell phone. He was threatened that if he doesn’t “stop talking,” he would be thrown to jail.     “They even followed me when I went back to Wuhan. After I moved to another apartment, three policemen reviewed the surveillance camera footage of the neighborhood,” he told VOA. “I am extremely angry. I’m just an ordinary citizen. I’m not a spy. I’m not anti-party,” he said referring to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. “My demand for accountability is a patriotic act.”    Zhang is one of the few outspoken citizens among those who lost loved ones in the pandemic.  “People are silent, that doesn’t mean their anger has disappeared,” he said.  “The Chinese government’s narrative that it has won the COVID-19 ‘war’ is conditioned on silencing those who speak out about failings in the government’s pandemic response and abuses committed under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.   Lin Yang contributed to this report that originated on VOA Mandarin. 

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White House Says US Seeks ‘New Approach’ with China   

The White House says Washington is being patient as it seeks a “new approach” toward relations with China at a time when the two countries remain in serious “strategic competition.” ”What we’ve seen over the last few years is that China’s growing more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad, and Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday during a news briefing. Hours earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by video to the World Economic Forum where he urged countries to cooperate on climate change and public health — and also warned against conflict between Washington and Beijing without naming the United States. Xi said containing the coronavirus is the most pressing task for the international community.    China’s Xi Jinping Warns Against ‘New Cold War’ In virtual address to World Economic Forum, Chinese leader urges world to come together to fight coronavirus pandemicBeijing’s message comes as U.S. President Joseph Biden’s foreign policy team prepares to rally allies to take on pressing challenges, ranging from preserving democracy to a growing rivalry with China and other authoritarian states.  ”A divided world cannot tackle the common challenges facing humanity, and confrontation will lead humanity to a dead end,” Xi said during a virtual address to the World Economic Forum. Relations between the world’s two leading economies are at their worst in decades as the nations clash over trade, 5G technology, human rights and regional security.    Washington accuses Beijing of a years-long effort to steal intellectual property and engage in industrial espionage. Biden’s administration is reviewing plans to delist three Chinese telecommunication companies from the New York Stock Exchange. Last Tuesday, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Chinese Communist Party has engaged in genocide against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang. The policy determination could trigger new reviews and sanctions.     US Classifies China’s Policies Toward Uighurs as ‘Genocide’ Determination could lead to broader US policy reviews, with Secretary of State nominee Blinken saying he agrees with Pompeo’s judgment Later Monday, a State Department spokesperson told VOA that a comprehensive U.S. strategy will be holding China accountable for its unfair and illegal practices, and “making sure that American technologies aren’t facilitating China’s military buildup or human rights abuses.” “We need a comprehensive strategy and a more systematic approach that actually addresses the full range of these issues, rather than the piecemeal approach of the past few years,” said the spokesperson.   ‘Spirit of no conflict’    A statement from the Chinese Embassy to the U.S. over the weekend said that the Beijing government hopes Washington can “uphold the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” to focus on cooperation and manage differences.That call is likely to be greeted skeptically by the Biden administration, which is outspoken about how it views China’s intentions.  ”We’re in a serious competition with China,” Psaki said Monday. “China is engaged in conduct that hurts American workers, blunts our technological edge and threatens our alliances and our influence in international organizations.” 
 

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Thailand’s Economy Struggles with Second COVID Wave

Heavily dependent on tourism and exports, Thailand was one of Asia’s worst-hit economies by the coronavirus in 2020. Now as a second wave strikes, an unpopular government is desperately trying to avoid the economic damage of a full lockdown. Nevertheless, bars, massage parlors and restaurants are struggling even as the public health crisis worsens. From Bangkok, Vijitra Duangdee explains.  
 

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