Santa not coming to towns across China

Santa not coming to towns across China
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At least ten schools nationwide have curtailed Christmas on campus. (AP)
Santa not coming to towns across China
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Three cities have banned Christmas decorations this year. (AP)
Santa not coming to towns across China
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Churches in another city have been warned to keep minors away from Christmas. (AP)
Updated 24 December 2018

Santa not coming to towns across China

Santa not coming to towns across China
  • Christmas remains a shopping festival across most of China
  • At least four Chinese cities and one county have ordered Christmas decorations banned this year

SHANGHAI: It took less than 24 hours for all the Christmas trees, lights and bells to disappear from a 27-story shopping and office complex in the Chinese city of Nanyang.
Even the giant teddy bear at the mall entrance wasn’t spared, said Ma Jun, who works at a tutoring company in the building.
“Everything is gone and cleaned,” she said.
Christmas continues to be a shopping festival across most of China, with huge trees adorning shopping malls in Shanghai and Beijing, but a growing emphasis on traditional culture by the ruling Communist Party and the systematic suppression of religion under President Xi Jinping are imperiling Santa Claus’s position.
At least four Chinese cities and one county have ordered Christmas decorations banned this year, according to official notices and interviews. Students, teachers and parents from 10 schools around China told The Associated Press that Christmas celebrations have been curtailed.
“The ongoing local reaction against Christmas is part of the wider sentiment since Xi took power,” said Zi Yang, a China expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Xi is trying to broaden the appeal of the Communist Party by casting it as a crusader for Chinese tradition in a fast-changing world, he said. “Therefore, foreign cultural elements such as Christmas are placed on the chopping block.”
The seasonal humbug follows similar outbreaks of anti-Christmas rhetoric in 2014 and 2017. It appears not to be centrally organized, but rather a spreading resistance to foreign festivals by local authorities seeking to align themselves with the growing tide of cultural nationalism.
The squeeze on Christmas is an example of how efforts to “normalize” thinking bleed into the everyday lives of many Chinese. That push exploded into view this year through re-education camps for Uighur Muslims and a crackdown on Christian churches that has continued with force in recent weeks.
In Nanyang, about 950 kilometers (600 miles) west of Shanghai, government officials stopped by the office and shopping complex on Dec. 16 to say that Christmas decorations would have to come down, said Ma, the tutoring company employee.
An official from the city’s urban management bureau hung up when asked for comment.
Nine hours by car south, Hengyang, a city in Hunan province, said in a Dec. 19 notice posted on an official government social media account that anyone caught holding Christmas sales or celebrations that blocked the streets would be punished. Communist Party members, the notice said, should avoid foreign festivals and instead be “models of adherence to Chinese traditional culture.” Hengyang police posted a video on their official social media account of locals discussing the importance of Chinese culture and plans to avoid ostentatious Christmas celebrations.
Langfang city, just south of Beijing, banned Christmas stage performances and merchandising promotions, according to a notice circulated on social media.
Shop windows were to be stripped of Christmas stickers and streets kept free of Christmas banners and lights. Law enforcement patrols were to be stepped up Dec. 23-25 to prevent illegal signs of celebration.
The Langfang urban management bureau declined comment. The state-run Global Times newspaper argued that Western media are exaggerating China’s crackdown on Christmas and reported that the restrictions in Langfang were aimed not at Christmas but at cleaning up roadside stalls and migrant vendors in hopes of winning a “National Civilized City” award from the Communist Party.
Some 270 kilometers (167 miles) west, Fuping county, also in Hebei province, issued a similar clean-up notice. Though the Dec. 21 announcement mentions Christmas eleven times, an official from the Fuping urban management bureau said the rules were aimed at street vendors generally, not Christmas.
Police in the Panlong district of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southern China, circulated a notice that hotels, karaoke parlors, Internet cafes, bars and other crowded places must prohibit Christmas-related decorations and activities.
“It is forbidden to hang Christmas stockings, wear Christmas hats, place Christmas trees, and so on,” the notice read.
It wasn’t clear if the notice applied to all of Kunming city, though a police officer told the AP that the order to circulate it came from city officials.
Reverend Jonathan Liu, founder of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness, a California nonprofit, said the pushback against Christmas reflects Xi’s efforts to “Sinicize” religion.
Preachers are coached on how to convey Communist Party core values in their sermons and national flags and songs have been injected into some church services, he said.
Liu provided the AP with a notice sent to churches in Zhoukou, a city to the east of Nanyang in Henan province.
It tells churches to vet Christmas plans with the government, forbids minors from participating in Christmas events and caps expenses at 2000 yuan ($290). “I wish you all a happy Christmas! God bless you,” read the notice, which Liu received from a pastor in China.
An official at the United Front Work Department in Zhoukou referred queries to the religious affairs bureau, which could not be reached for comment.
Before becoming president, Xi went to Finland in 2010 and was photographed with Santa Claus. That kind of chumminess appears to be a thing of Christmas past, experts say.
The central government issued guidelines last year for a cultural revival project that calls for a marked boost in the international influence of Chinese traditional culture by 2025.
“You have a culturally conservative ethos in the country that has definitely been encouraged by the central party-state,” said Guo Yingjie, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney. “It’s not hard for university presidents or officials to say, ‘OK celebrating Christmas can easily be seen as de-Sinification or promoting Western culture.’“
Students have taken to social media to complain about restrictions on Christmas celebrations at their schools.
At a top Shanghai university, a student union had its Christmas plans canceled for the first time, an organizer told the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing rebuke.
The students came up with a solution: By replacing “Christmas” with “New Year’s” in their activity proposal and changing the date from Dec. 25, it sailed past school administrators.
Students in the city of Qingdao were reprimanded for hosting an event about gratitude on Thanksgiving Day and warned not to celebrate Christmas publicly, according to a student, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution.
Liu Kaiming, president of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a civil society group in the city of Shenzhen, said that despite the drumbeat of official discontent, Christmas cheer continues to spread in China.
“The sound of resistance is more powerful on the surface, but it has no practical effect,” he said. “Young people’s enthusiasm for the festival is ever-increasing.”


South Sudan president dissolves parliament

South Sudan president dissolves parliament
Updated 10 May 2021

South Sudan president dissolves parliament

South Sudan president dissolves parliament
  • Activists and civil society groups welcomed the dissolution of parliament, saying it was long overdue but also expressing distrust

JUBA: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has dissolved parliament, opening the way for lawmakers from opposing sides of the country’s civil war to be appointed under a 2018 peace accord. Kiir’s decision was announced on public television but no date was given as to when the new parliament will begin working.

The setting up of a new legislative body was part of an accord signed in September 2018 between Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, for years on opposition sides during the five-year civil war that left 380,000 people dead and four million displaced.

Activists and civil society groups welcomed the dissolution of parliament, saying it was long overdue but also expressing distrust.

“It is a welcome development and we hope that the dissolution (will not) also open the way to a lengthy process toward reconstituting the parliament,” Jame David Kolock, chairman of the South Sudan Civil Society Forum.

“The civil society is getting frustrated and no longer believes that even if the parliament is reconstituted it will be a very viable parliament.”

In accordance with the 2018 accord, the new assembly will number 550 lawmakers, the majority — 332 — from Kiir’s governing SPLM party. The parliamentarians will not be elected but nominated by the different parties.

The dissolution of parliament came on the eve of a visit to the capital Juba by US special envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth.

“Of particular concern to the United States is the slow implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, ongoing violence, and deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions,” the US State Department said in a statement.

Kiir and Machar formed a coalition government on February 22, 2020 after nearly a year of delays.

However few provisions of the truce have been honored, and analysts have warned of a return to war.

The oil-rich country remains severely underdeveloped and poorly managed.

Despite the peace deal, brutal communal conflicts — often over cattle raiding — continue, with more than 1,000 killed in violence between rival communities in the last six months of 2020.


After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
Updated 09 May 2021

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
  • Last week, Uttar Pradesh announced the establishment of 700 help desks ‘for the welfare of cows’
  • Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states amid surge in virus cases

NEW DELHI: Facing a wave of criticism following an announcement to set up help desks to protect cows in the wake of a pandemic crisis, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was on Sunday forced to deny the plan.  

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, known as a hardline Hindu politician of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been promoting cow protection since the beginning of his term in 2017. The state already had 4,500 shelters and some 170 sanctuaries for the bovines, which are sacred in Hinduism.

With the country facing a drastic surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and its hospitals enduring a shortage of beds and oxygen, many were shocked to read in a circular widely quoted by the Indian media last week that Adityanath’s administration had announced the establishment of 700 help desks “for the welfare of cows.” 

The centers, the notice said, would be equipped with “51 oximeters and 341 thermal scanners” in order to “ensure better animal care and testing.”

Following an outcry prompted by the cow help desk plan, Navneet Sehgal, the state’s additional chief secretary for information, told Arab News the reports were “false, slanderous and nonsense.”

The administration, however, has not denied issuing the circular.

India recorded over 400,000 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday and 4,000 related deaths. With Uttar Pradesh suffering as one of the worst-affected states with more than 26,500 new cases and 300 deaths in the past 24 hours, the focus on cows has dumbfounded the state’s residents.

“I feel very angry as a resident of Uttar Pradesh with the way we are being treated and our lives are being compromised,” Kulsum Mustafa, a journalist and activist based in the state’s capital of Lucknow, told Arab News.

“India is asking for support to tide over the crisis posed by COVID-19 ... People are dying without hospital beds and oxygen and our focus is different,” Mustafa said.

Lucknow-based former bureaucrat and political analyst Surya Pratap Singh said the cow help desk plan was a “political tactic to divert the attention from COVID-19 mismanagement.”

He described the situation in the state as “terrible, with people dying in large numbers in villages which are not being reflected in the official figure. Cremation grounds are full.”

Ram Dutt Tripathi, another political analyst in Lucknow, said: “Maybe the government’s feedback channel is choked, and their communication is only one way. The BJP regime is not connected with the grassroot sentiments.”

He added that the move might be related to next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh — the country’s most-populous state — where winning the vote traditionally spells victory in national polls.

“The BJP thinks that communal polarization will work again and again,” he said, adding: “That’s why they are not focusing on governance and people are suffering.”


Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
Updated 09 May 2021

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
  • About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel
  • Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa

MILAN: Seven boats packed with hundreds of migrants arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday, and officials said more people were expected as the weather improved.
More than 1,000 people got off the vessels at Lampedusa, one of the main landing points for people trying to get across the Mediterranean into Europe, ANSA news agency said.
“Migrants arrivals are resuming alongside good weather,” Lampedusa’s mayor Toto Martello told state broadcaster RAI. “We need to restart discussions about the immigration issue.”
Numbers in recent years have been down from 2015-2017, when Europe took in hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them fleeing poverty and conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
But the issue still sharply divides European governments and has fueled anti-immigration sentiment and parties across the continent.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, called on Prime Minister Mario Draghi to tackle the issue.
“With millions of Italians facing difficulties, we cannot care for thousands of illegal migrants,” he wrote on Twitter.
Some of the boats were intercepted off the coast of the Mediterranean island by the Italian tax police, who deal with financial crime and smuggling, ANSA said.
About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel, the agency reported.
Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa, the agency added.


Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
Updated 09 May 2021

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
  • Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year
  • Violence on rise in recent weeks after US postponed withdrawal of troops from country

KABUL: Sixty girls were buried during a mass funeral on Sunday, after a gruesome bomb attack on a school in a poor neighborhood of Kabul a day earlier.

The carnage outside the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in the Shia-dominated suburb of Dasht-e Barchi began when a car bomb detonated as students were leaving classes to break their Ramadan fast.

Witnesses said that as people rushed to take the wounded children to hospital, another explosion and mortar fire tore through the scene, killing some of the rescuers.

“Books and body parts were everywhere ... cries, wailing,” local resident Rahim Dad said.

Over 100 people were wounded in the attack, the deadliest assault in years, coming just a week after a bomb attack killed another 21 children in Logar province, south of Kabul.  

“We buried sixty of the victims, all girls and students of the same school,” Dr. Ali Sadaat, who organized the funeral, told Arab News.

“These students until a few days ago were complaining to school authorities about a shortage of textbooks,” Sadaat said. “They had an enormous desire to earn a bright future. May God never show such a thing to any country. There were some students who were beheaded, some whose faces were beyond recognition.”

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, who denied the accusation, saying a Daesh network was behind the massacre. 

Last June, at least 24 people, including newborns, mothers and nurses, were killed by Daesh gunmen at a maternity ward, also in Dasht-e Barchi.

In November, Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul University, in which 32 people were killed.

“We are safe nowhere in Afghanistan,” Shamsuddin, an elderly resident of Kabul, told Arab News. “People are being targeted in classes, (at) university, wedding halls, mosques. How long this will last?”

Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent weeks after the US postponed the withdrawal of its troops from the country to September from a May 1 deadline Washington had negotiated with the Taliban last year.

Under the US-Taliban deal, the latter promised, among other things, not to allow its members and other militant groups to use the soil of Afghanistan for terrorist attacks.

In a statement issued on Sunday, which has been attributed to Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the elusive Taliban leader said that as the US had again failed to live up to its commitments, “the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all consequences.” 


India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
Updated 09 May 2021

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
  • India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours
  • Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections

MUMBAI: India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Sunday as calls for a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus mounted.
India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. New cases rose by 403,738, just shy of the record and increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
India has been hit hard by a second COVID-19 wave with cases and deaths hitting record highs every other day. With an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in many hospitals and morgues and crematoriums overflowing, experts have said the actual numbers for COVID-19 cases and fatalities could be far higher.
Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections while others have announced restrictions on public movement and shut down cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed during the first wave last year.
India on Saturday reported its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August.
Support has been pouring in from around the world in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment for overwhelmed hospitals.