What We’re Watching: China’s open door, sticky US border policy, Iran’s “mercy” deficit, Kosovo’s creeping crisis, Nepal’s “Terrible” new top dog
China’s COVID opening worries the neighbors
China’s National Health Commission announced on Monday that beginning January 8, travelers entering China will no longer be required to quarantine for eight days. Hong Kong followed the mainland by similarly relaxing testing requirements for international arrivals. It’s the latest signal that China has abandoned its zero-COVID lockdown-intensive policy, despite evidence the virus is now sweeping through a country where millions remain unvaccinated and even larger numbers have been jabbed only with less effective Chinese-made vaccines. An announcement last week that China will change the way it counts COVID deaths had led to anxiety elsewhere that Beijing has decided it can no longer contain new infections, that the economic cost of its zero-COVID approach is too high, and that it will now hide the true number of infections and deaths across the country to weather domestic and international criticism of its handling of the virus. This worry will feed the fear that much higher rates of transmission across this country of 1.4 billion people will help the virus mutate, spawning new variants that again infect people around the world. It’s no wonder then that Japan’s government has announced that, beginning Friday, it will tighten border controls for all travelers entering Japan from China, while the US is also mulling restrictions for Chinese arrivals.
SCOTUS: Title 42 stays … for now
The legal rigmarole surrounding Title 42 will continue after the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision on Tuesday that the Trump-era law can remain in place while appeals make their way through the courts. Quick recap: Title 42 was invoked by the Trump administration in 2020 and allows the US to expel migrants without processing their asylum applications on public health grounds. The highest court in the land agreed to take up the legal appeal being pushed by GOP-led states when it resumes hearing arguments in February 2023. The court’s three liberal justices ruled against the measure, as did Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, who dissented on the grounds that “the current border crisis is not a COVID crisis.” The Biden administration, for its part, is likely not too displeased with the ruling. After all, it helps avoids an influx of migrants at the southern border, and Biden can appease progressives with the fact that he tried to ditch a policy many of them deem discriminatory. For now, asylum-seekers will continue to be deported without having their claims heard.
“No mercy” in Iran
The anti-government protests that have now rocked Iran for more than 100 days, the most intense since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, show no sign of abating, and Iran’s leaders show no sign of softening their response to them. On Tuesday, Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s president, announced that his government will show “no mercy toward those who are hostile” toward their government’s right to rule. International rights groups estimate that more than 500 people have been killed since protests began. An estimated 18,400 have been arrested. Two have been executed, and nine others have so far been sentenced to death. The protests began after a young Kurdish Iranian woman was arrested by morality police for violating a regime-enforced dress code and died in custody. As they have following large-scale protests in the past, Iranian officials accuse foreign governments of feeding the unrest.
Kosovo crisis escalates
Serbia has placed its military on high alert amid rising tensions between ethnic Serbs and the government in neighboring Albanian-majority Kosovo. Meanwhile, ongoing protests on Wednesday prompted Kosovo to shut its main border crossing with Serbia. The center of the action is the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo. Earlier this year, Serbs there refused to adopt Kosovo license plates and set up barricades to keep Kosovar authorities out of their areas. In recent weeks, things have gotten worse with more roadblocks and exchanges of gunfire between Mitrovica Serbs and local police. Kosovo’s government says Serbia, with backing from its friends in Moscow, is deliberately stirring up trouble in the country. Belgrade says it’s merely protecting its ethnic kin across the border. The background? Serbs consider Kosovo their historical heartland, but for centuries the region has been populated chiefly by Albanians who consider it home. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia after surviving a brutal 1998-1999 assault by Belgrade. The US and most Western European countries recognize that independence, but a number of countries, including Brazil, China, India, and Russia, do not. The EU has, as usual, called for an elusive calm. No one in Belgrade or Mitrovica seems to be listening.
Nepal’s “Terrible” new Prime Minister
Following a fierce scrum of politicking in the wake of November’s election, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a former Maoist guerrilla, has been appointed Nepal’s prime minister. Dahal — who still goes by his nom de guerre Prachanda, meaning “terrible” or “fierce” — led an insurgency that overthrew the country’s Hindu monarchy 15 years ago. At the time, the establishment of a republic sowed hopes for opportunity and change in one of Asia’s poorest countries. But after seeing 13 governments in the past 14 years, many Nepalese aren’t optimistic about Prachanda’s ability to move the country forward — he has already been PM twice himself. Outside of Nepal, Prachanda will find himself enmeshed in a growing struggle for influence between Nepal’s traditional partners in India, a China that is trying to curry favor by investing in infrastructure, and the US, which has tried to blunt Beijing’s advance with its own recent $500 million investment pledge.