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July 30, 2020


ASIA: Weekly politics update

BY Tobias Harris, Bob Herrera-Lim, Gabriel Wildau

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( 6 mins)

HONG KONG: Election officials ban opposition candidates from LegCo elections

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam met with ministers on 28 July to discuss postponing Legislative Council (LegCo) elections scheduled for 6 September. The ostensible reason is the new wave of Covid-19 cases in the city, but pro-democracy lawmakers suspect that the real motivation for a possible delay is that the pro-Beijing camp faces defeat, following the pan-Democrats’ landslide victory in district council elections in November. Lam will hold another meeting on 1 August, after nominations for LegCo are closed. Hong Kong election law allows for elections to be postponed for no more than 14 days in case of emergency, but a broader emergency powers law, which dates to British colonial rule in 1922, allows for “any regulations whatsoever” in case of “emergency or public danger.”

Even if elections do proceed, some opposition candidates will be barred from standing. The Hong Kong Electoral Affairs Commission has banned at least 12 opposition candidates from running, including four incumbent LegCo members and eight other pro-democracy candidates. Citing the new National Security Law, which established Collusion with a Foreign Power as a national security crime, election officials said that the opposition figures’ previous calls for foreign governments to sanction the mainland and Hong Kong governments was a disqualifying factor. The would-be candidates had also pledged to block the government’s budget. A further 21 would-be opposition candidates are waiting for the commission’s decision on their candidacy applications. Beijing’s liaison office in the city expressed support for the first batch of disqualifications, saying the candidate hopefuls “tried to paralyze the government and subvert state power.”

JAPAN/SOUTH KOREA: Tokyo seeks apology in new statue row

The Japanese government is seeking an apology and warning of a “decisive impact” on relations between Japan and South Korea, after a new statue was unveiled at a private botanical garden in Pyeongchang. The statue appears to depict Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bowing before a statue of a seated girl representing “comfort women,” Korean women who were forced to work in Imperial Japanese military brothels. The sculpture is on private grounds, but the Japanese government has frequently protested “comfort women” statues, including a statue that a civil society group placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and similar statues that Korean-American groups have unveiled in the US.

Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has been circumspect, recognizing the need to consider “international comity” with regard to foreign leaders but also denying that Seoul can do much about a privately commissioned statue. While seemingly a trivial issue, Tokyo has viewed the statues as part of the Moon administration’s broad contravention of the informal 2015 bilateral agreement between Abe and Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, which deemed the issue “finally and irreversibly solved.” The latest statue also inflames tensions ahead of what could be a more challenging moment for the bilateral relationship: on 4 August, a district court in the South Korean city of Daegu will finish serving papers to Japan’s Nippon Steel, freeing the court to sell assets seized to provide reparations that Korean courts ruled that Nippon owes to wartime forced laborers and their descendants.

JAPAN: Koike calls for limited business hours as cases continue to rise

For the first time, Japan reported 1,300 new cases of Covid-19 in a single day on 30 July, with sizable tallies in the four major metropolitan areas – Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka – that appear to be driving the latest surge of new cases. In response, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announced that from 3 August through the end of the month, restaurants, karaoke bars, and other establishments that serve alcohol will be asked to close at 10pm. Small businesses that comply will be eligible for a JPY 200,000 (USD 1,904) subsidy from the metropolitan government. Koike also announced that her government would aim to double testing and contact tracing capacity in the capital. For now, however, none of the other prefectures, nor the national government, has followed Koike in announcing new business restrictions. However, the Abe government’s advisory subcommittee will meet on Friday, 31 July to assess the nationwide situation, with Koike and Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura joining by teleconference.

PHILIPPINES: Bill imposing VAT on digital transactions makes progress in lower house

A committee of Congress’ lower house approved a bill imposing a 12% value-added tax (VAT) on digital transactions, which will cover online sales of goods, streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, and online advertising and subscription sales. Online goods sales have increased during the country’s lockdown – with a significant portion coming from China through sites such as Lazada and Shopee – but were not subject to taxes. The bill would likely require the online shopping platforms to levy the VAT.

The legislation reflects the government’s need to raise revenues to finance increased spending on pandemic control and relief. It is unclear how much support the measure has in the Senate, since President Rodrigo Duterte has not mentioned it as priority legislation. However, influential Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez mentioned in June that his department was studying how to impose the VAT on digital transactions and seemed amenable to congressional action.

THAILAND: Dropping of charges against Red Bull heir threatens to become a political issue

The attorney general dropped charges late last week against Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, the grandson of one of the Thai founders of the energy drink Red Bull. Yoovidhya was accused of killing a police officer in a Ferrari accident in Bangkok in a prominent 2012 hit-and-run case. He fled on a private plane two days before being charged. The dismissal of the case sparked a noticeable outcry online and in Thai media over what critics describe as legal impunity for the rich, and the issue is threatening to become politicized. Opposition legislators from the Move Forward Party, which succeeded the dissolved Future Forward Party, are asking the government to explain the dismissal and highlighting accusations of preferential treatment. The dismissal of charges could become another rallying point for the opposition, which is already engaged in protests against the military’s influence in politics.

MALAYSIA: Is five decades of politics over?

( 6 mins) The political dynamics that had kept Malaysian politics stable since the 1970s have been unravelling gradually over the past decade. The return of a United Malays National Organization (UMNO) politician to the prime ministership is

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