Made in China, exported to the world: The surveillance state


The New York Times reports:

The squat gray building in Ecuador’s capital commands a sweeping view of the city’s sparkling sprawl, from the high-rises at the base of the Andean valley to the pastel neighborhoods that spill up its mountainsides.

The police who work inside are looking elsewhere. They spend their days poring over computer screens, watching footage that comes in from 4,300 cameras across the country.

The high-powered cameras send what they see to 16 monitoring centers in Ecuador that employ more than 3,000 people. Armed with joysticks, the police control the cameras and scan the streets for drug deals, muggings and murders. If they spy something, they zoom in.

This voyeur’s paradise is made with technology from what is fast becoming the global capital of surveillance: China.

Ecuador’s system, which was installed beginning in 2011, is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress. According to Ecuador’s government, these cameras feed footage to the police for manual review.

But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents. Even as a new administration under President Lenín Moreno investigates the agency’s abuses, the group still gets the videos.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices. A global infrastructure initiative is spreading that technology even further. [Continue reading…]

Xi Jinping wants to restore China’s former glory through expanding military power

An extended Reuters special report says:

During his period as China’s paramount leader, President Jiang Zemin handpicked Xi [Jinping] for senior office because the younger man was perceived to lack ambition, according to sources with close ties to the Chinese leadership. Xi was also thought to be a pliable candidate because he lacked a power base, one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But as China’s top leader, he has shown a willingness to impose radical change at the top of the party, government and military.

“When I talk to my mainland friends, they all say he is a risk taker,” said Andrew Yang Nien-Dzu, former defense minister of Taiwan. “You never know what his next move will be.”

From the beginning, Xi’s corruption purge and promotion of loyal officers made it clear he had big plans for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army]. Then, in mid-2015, he cut 300,000 mostly non-combat and administrative personnel before launching a sweeping overhaul of the military structure.

He broke up the four sprawling, Maoist-era “general departments” of the PLA that had become powerful, highly autonomous and deeply corrupt, said Li [Nan] from the National University of Singapore. Xi replaced them with 15 new agencies that report directly to the Central Military Commission he chairs.

He also scrapped the seven geographically based military regions and replaced them with five joint-service theater commands. These new regional commands, comparable to those that govern the U.S. armed forces, are responsible for military operations and have a strong focus on combining air, land, naval and other capabilities of the Chinese armed forces to suit modern warfare.

Xi also promoted favored commanders, many of them officers he knew in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where he served the bulk of his early career as an official, according to Chinese and Western observers of the PLA. Others hail from his home province of Shaanxi or are fellow princelings.

At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi further tightened his grip over the top military leadership, paring the Central Military Commission from 11 members to seven and stacking it with loyalists. Xi knew most of them from Shaanxi and Fujian.

As he burnishes his military credentials, Xi draws on his early service in uniform. In speeches to military audiences, he describes himself as a soldier-turned-official, according to reports in the state-controlled media. In distinctive PLA camouflage fatigues, cap and combat boots, he has overseen some of the biggest military parades since the 1949 Communist victory. In the most recent of these displays, Xi has taken the salute from the troops without sharing the podium with the usual line-up of fellow party leaders and elders.

In a massive naval exercise in April last year, Xi boarded the guided-missile destroyer Changsha to review the Chinese fleet of 48 warships in the South China Sea. State-run television showed the navy commander, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, and navy political commissar, Vice Admiral Qin Shengxiang, standing to attention as they reported to Xi and saluted. Xi then gave the order for the exercise to proceed.

Both navy chiefs are Xi protégés. Shen has been rapidly promoted under Xi, leapfrogging other, more senior officers, according to Chinese and Western analysts. Qin had worked closely with the Chinese leader in a top post in the Central Military Commission before his promotion in 2017 to his navy role, China’s official military media reported.

Xi was also in fatigues again in July 2017 at a massive military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA at the Zhurihe training ground in Inner Mongolia. He took the salute from the parade commander, General Han Weiguo, an officer who served in Fujian while Xi was a party and government official in the province. Han has enjoyed a meteoric rise under Xi, being promoted to command China’s ground forces shortly after this parade.

“Xi Jinping is obsessed with military parades,” said Willy Lam Wo-lap, a veteran observer of personnel movements in China’s military and political elites and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He loves these demonstrations of raw power.” [Continue reading…]

Deregulation and climate change result in growing number of Americans breathing polluted air

CNN reports:

More Americans are breathing air that will make them sick, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report.

The country had been making progress in cleaning up air pollution, but during the Trump administration, it has been backsliding, the report says. Deregulation and climate change are largely to blame.

President Donald Trump made a pledge in his 2017 State of the Union address to “promote clean air and water,” but his administration has reversed or proposed rollbacks to major air pollution protections, emissions standards and drilling and extraction regulations. He’s also slashed the EPA budget; the current proposal is to cut the budget by a third. [Continue reading…]

ISIS still has global reach despite the caliphate’s collapse

Robin Wright writes:

Exactly a month after losing its final piece of territory, the Islamic State is giving notice that it can still surprise the world—this time in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, it claimed responsibility for Easter bombings of three churches and three popular hotels which killed more than three hundred innocent civilians, including more than forty children, and injured another five hundred. “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka were from the ranks of the fighters of the Islamic State,” the ISIS news agency, Amaq, claimed in its chat rooms on Telegram, a social-media app. “Coalition” refers to an international alliance of more than seventy countries that ousted ISIS from its territory in the Middle East. A second ISIS communique included a video of eight men standing in front of the black-and-white ISIS flag, seven with their faces covered by black-and-white kaffiyehs, as they pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. The communique identified each man who targeted each site on an “infidel holiday.”

Evidence beyond the claim is far from definitive. But Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, at a press conference, that government officials had early suspicions about ties between ISIS and two local Muslim extremist groups. So did U.S. counterterrorism officials. “Everyone believes there was some kind of external link because of the sophistication of the attack,” a U.S. official told me.

The scope of the attacks in Sri Lanka reflects the ongoing danger from extremist movements, whether ISIS, Al Qaeda, their offshoots, or their wannabes. The routing of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden, a decade later, did not eliminate Al Qaeda. Today, the group has active branches in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, and it controls a strategic Syrian province on the border with Turkey. In the past two years, ISIS has lost territory the size of Britain inside Syria and Iraq, but it still has eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism. [Continue reading…]

Official efforts to raise alarm about Russian threat to 2020 elections, stymied by Trump

The New York Times reports:

In the months before Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign, she tried to focus the White House on one of her highest priorities as homeland security secretary: preparing for new and different Russian forms of interference in the 2020 election.

President Trump’s chief of staff told her not to bring it up in front of the president.

Ms. Nielsen left the Department of Homeland Security early this month after a tumultuous 16-month tenure and tensions with the White House. Officials said she had become increasingly concerned about Russia’s continued activity in the United States during and after the 2018 midterm elections — ranging from its search for new techniques to divide Americans using social media, to experiments by hackers, to rerouting internet traffic and infiltrating power grids.

But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”

Even though the Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for civilian cyberdefense, Ms. Nielsen eventually gave up on her effort to organize a White House meeting of cabinet secretaries to coordinate a strategy to protect next year’s elections.

As a result, the issue did not gain the urgency or widespread attention that a president can command. And it meant that many Americans remain unaware of the latest versions of Russian interference. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s thirst for Mueller revenge could land him in legal trouble

Politico reports:

Special counsel Robert Mueller may be done, but President Donald Trump and his team are still adding to an already hefty record of evidence that could fuel impeachment proceedings or future criminal indictments.

Team Trump’s bellicose tweets and public statements in the last few days are potentially exposing Trump to fresh charges of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and impeding a congressional investigation — not to mention giving lawmakers more fodder for their presidential probes — according to Democrats and legal experts.

Already, a fusillade of verbal assaults aimed at former White House counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, have sparked questions about obstruction and witness intimidation as Democrats fight the Trump White House to get McGahn’s documents and testimony.

“This is risky,” said William Jeffress, a prominent Washington defense attorney who represented President Richard Nixon after he left the White House. “I find it surprising because he’s taking these shots at witnesses who gave information to Mueller, and I think he’s got to be careful because there’s an explicit federal statute punishing retaliation against witnesses.” [Continue reading…]

I was Bernie’s biggest critic in 2016 — I’ve changed my mind

Peter Daou writes:

If you had told me in the spring of 2016 that three years later I’d be touting the merits of the Bernie Sanders campaign—taking flak from Hillary Clinton supporters for not being loyal enough to her—I would have laughed and asked what alternate reality you lived in. But life and politics have a way of taking unexpected turns, and here I am writing about the considerable strengths Sanders brings to the 2020 election.

I do so not to endorse Sanders or to minimize the large and diverse Democratic field. It is early in the primary and voters should take the time to assess all their options. I am going through that process myself, studying how the candidates campaign, how they deal with the corporate media, what policies they’re putting forward. The reason I’ve focused on Sanders in recent weeks is because I am concerned that festering anger from the 2016 primary is causing a rift in the electorate that Trump and the Republican Party can—and will—successfully exploit.

Bernie Sanders is unquestionably in the top tier of candidates for the Democratic nomination, and it would be an epic act of self-destruction for Democrats to plunge into an internecine conflict over his candidacy at a time when they need to marshal every asset to defeat Trump and his GOP cronies. I am calling on Democrats, progressives, and leftists to hit the pause button, to table our disagreements, no matter how intense, as we fight to preserve the rule of law and the last semblance of our democracy. We owe it to ourselves and our country. [Continue reading…]

A Trump transition staffer says it’s time for impeachment

J. W. Verret writes:

Let’s start at the end of this story. This weekend, I read Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report twice, and realized that enough was enough—I needed to do something. I’ve worked on every Republican presidential transition team for the past 10 years and recently served as counsel to the Republican-led House Financial Services Committee. My permanent job is as a law professor at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, which is not political, but where my colleagues have held many prime spots in Republican administrations.

If you think calling for the impeachment of a sitting Republican president would constitute career suicide for someone like me, you may end up being right. But I did exactly that this weekend, tweeting that it’s time to begin impeachment proceedings.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In August 2016, I interviewed to join the pre-transition team of Donald Trump. Since 2012, every presidential election stands up a pre-transition team for both candidates, so that the real transition will have had a six-month head start when the election is decided. I participated in a similar effort for Mitt Romney, and despite our defeat, it was a thrilling and rewarding experience. I walked into a conference room at Jones Day that Don McGahn had graciously arranged to lend to the folks interviewing for the transition team. [Continue reading…]

France blasts U.S. for weakened UN resolution on sexual violence in conflicts

France 24 reports:

The UN Security Council on Tuesday approved a watered-down resolution on sexual violence in conflicts, eliminating language on providing survivors “sexual and reproductive health care” to get US support in a move criticised by France.

Tuesday’s vote on the German-drafted resolution was 13-0, with Russia and China, which had submitted a rival draft, abstaining.

Both Russia and China said they opposed sexual violence in conflicts, but denounced “lax interpretations” in the text and a “manipulated” struggle to create new UN structures and “override” mandates already approved.

France vehemently criticised the US for threatening to use its veto over a reference in the text to reproductive rights, seen by Washington as an encouragement of abortion.

“It is intolerable and incomprehensible that the Security Council is incapable of acknowledging that women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict — and who obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant — should have the right to terminate their pregnancy,” French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told the 15-member body after the vote.

“We deplore that the veto threats were brandished by permanent members of the council to challenge 25 years of gains in favour of women’s rights in situations of armed conflict,” he said. [Continue reading…]

Sri Lanka’s pain is going to spread

Mihir Sharma writes:

In Sri Lanka, memories of war and terrorism are very much alive. The decades-long civil war between the Sinhala-dominated government in Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was brutal by any standards, and it ended a decade ago with a climactic battle near the Indian Ocean that took thousands of civilian lives. But Sri Lanka, beautiful and multicultural, has never had just the one fault line. On Easter morning, when hundreds of Christians and hotel guests were killed by suicide bombers there, we were tragically reminded that this is not a country at peace with itself.

In that, it’s not alone in South Asia. The entire subcontinent that the British once ruled from Delhi has seen, over the past decade, religious and ethnic identities harden and divisions deepen. Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be hotbeds of extremism and terrorism, with religious minorities most vulnerable to violence. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, democratization has proved a mixed blessing, as the new government has overseen the persecution and expulsion of its Muslim Rohingya minority.

Violence in Kashmir has flared up again after a decade of relative quiet, and the transformation there of a secular-nationalist separatist movement into one dominated by radical Islamist impulses is complete. The Indian northeast is on edge as the government in New Delhi builds up a giant register of citizens in order to isolate and expel migrants from Bangladesh that officials claim number in the millions. And this Indian election, more than any other since independence, is being fought on the basis of religion, security and identity.

One thing is clear: The naive presumption that economic growth and prosperity, or even increasing education, would help minimize these cleavages and prevent them exploding into violence stands completely discredited. Sri Lanka itself is perhaps the most advanced part of the Indian subcontinent when measured in terms of human development indicators. Even within India, it isn’t just the poor and left-behind north that is the problem. [Continue reading…]