Last month in East Asia, protest and political violence activity decreased by approximately 20%, yet there were several key developments. A new education policy in China to replace school instruction in Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese triggered demonstrations across Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia. In Hong Kong, authorities continued sweeping arrests in line with the new national security law. Demonstrations supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong were held in Japan and Taiwan. Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis continued to lead to political disorder across East Asia. South Korea’s medical community held mass rallies and nation-wide strikes as COVID-19 cases reached a five-month high, while conservative and Christian groups in the country rallied against new coronavirus restrictions. In Mongolia, protests continued calling for the government to bring back citizens stranded abroad due to the pandemic. Finally, North Korea strengthened security on the border with China, fearing a COVID-19 outbreak.
In mainland China, a new national-level education policy to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction for three subjects in elementary and middle schools sparked mass demonstrations across Inner Mongolia. The policy is widely seen as the latest effort by the central government to curtail minority language rights after similar policies have been introduced in Xinjiang and Tibet (Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2020). The new policy, which was kept secret until it was leaked by the US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center around 20 August, set off multiple-day demonstrations. Likewise, around 300,000 ethnic Mongolian students joined a school boycott on the first day of the new semester (RFA, 3 September 2020). These large-scale demonstrations and boycotts have since prompted a strong reaction from authorities, with police publishing a list of wanted suspects, offering cash rewards for their arrests (CNA, 3 September 2020). In addition, authorities shut down the country’s only Mongolian-language social media platform and imposed curfews in Tongliao City, the epicenter of the demonstrations. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, Chinese ethnic Mongolians who live in Ulaanbaatar, civil society organizations, and professors and students staged a number of protests in Ulaanbaatar against the Chinese government’s new policy (iSee.mn, 3 September 2020; Ikon.mn, 31 August 2020). Protests against this policy were also reported in Japan.
In Hong Kong, authorities continued to crackdown on prominent pro-democracy figures under the national security law. On 10 August, police arrested 10 people, including the co-founder of the now-disbanded Demosistō, the founder of Apple Daily (a tabloid-style newspaper that favors the pro-democracy camp), and six others linked to the newspaper. Police also conducted a court-warranted search of the Apple Daily and Next Media newsrooms on the same day (South China Morning Post, 10 August 2020). The event triggered citywide protests, with supporters rushing out to purchase physical copies of the newspaper in bulk the next day. In addition, 16 more people, including two pro-democracy lawmakers, were arrested on 26 August for suspected involvement in last year’s anti-extradition bill demonstrations.
With the two-person size limit on public gatherings enacted since late July, demonstrations in Hong Kong have dwindled over the last month. Amid the third wave of the coronavirus outbreak, labor groups demonstrated throughout the month to call for financial support from the government. The government’s decision to invite a medical team from mainland China to support citywide comprehensive coronavirus testing has prompted strong resistance from health workers and the pro-democracy camp, who fear that the testing will be used as an opportunity to collect DNA samples for surveillance purposes.
On 30 and 31 August, pro-democracy protesters staged demonstrations to commemorate the first anniversary of the “8.31 Prince Edward MTR incident”, which refers to an incident where police allegedly attacked protesters indiscriminately at the Prince Edward MTR station after one of the anti-extradition bill demonstrations. Demonstrations in support of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were also reported in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in major cities in Taiwan to form human chains in solidarity with Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators (Apple Daily, 1 September 2020). In Japan, around 200 protesters, including Chinese nationals, gathered in Tokyo and several other cities to oppose the arrest of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and free-media magnate Jimmy Lai, demanding that the Japanese government take more decisive action to respond to the arrests (Mainichi Shimbun, 12 August 2020; Shimbun Akahata, 13 August 2020). In South Korea, sympathizers gathered in front of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, urging the abolition of Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact developments across East Asia. In Mongolia, repatriated citizens continued to protest outside the dedicated quarantine facility in Tuv Province and Ulaanbaatar, demanding better conditions and urging the government to do more to bring back citizens who are still stranded abroad (News.mn, 3 September 2020; Unuudur.mn, 4 September 2020). In Japan, people demanded effective coronavirus measures and opposed the government’s “Go To” domestic travel campaign.
In North Korea, the government lifted the coronavirus-related lockdown of Kaesong City, while sources within the country claim that troop presence at the northern borders in Ryanggang and North Hamgyong provinces has doubled to 3,000 in an effort to stop illegal border crossings and to restrict movement during the pandemic (Daily NK, 13 August 2020). In preparation for a planned military parade and mass rally this October, central authorities have clamped down on border smuggling and ordered the military and local police to shoot-on-sight anyone seen within one kilometer of the Sino-North Korean border due to COVID-19 fears.
In South Korea, in a rare move in response to the government’s plan to increase the number of medical students across the country, health workers held nation-wide strikes and protests, including mass rallies with approximately 20,000 people attending in Seoul alone (The Korea Herald, 14 August 2020; JoongAng Ilbo, 14 August 2020). The government is planning to raise admission quotas to medical schools by 4,000 over ten years starting in 2022, citing the need for more doctors in rural areas and also the need for doctors amid the coronavirus pandemic (The Korea Herald, 7 August 2020). Unions supporting the government’s plan argue that this policy will prevent people from reaching out to other illegal medical care practices due to the lack of doctors. Other unions, however, fear a possible decrease in income, also arguing that there is no need for more doctors given the decline in the population. The Korea Medical Association (KMA), the largest medical interest group in the country, launched a three-day strike opposing the government’s plan (The Korea Times, 28 August 2020). KMA faced public criticism due to their perceived negligence, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise. The ruling Democratic Party signed an agreement with KMA to bring an end to the medical strike. However, other groups affiliated with KMA opposed the agreement and continued to protest, which led to further disputes among groups in the medical community (Reuters, 4 September 2020). Due to disagreements between the government and the unions, as well as within the unions, health workers’ mass rallies and strikes have become increasingly unpredictable, further complicating the pandemic situation in South Korea.
Large-scale rallies were also held in Seoul on 15 August on the occasion of the National Liberation Day of Korea. Conservative and Protestant Christian groups held an anti-government rally, while the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and other civic groups rallied nearby, calling for the dissolution of the Republic of Korea-US working group and the suspension of Korea-US joint military exercises. More than 10,000 people amassed in the city center and several people were arrested for not complying with the rules imposed by authorities (YNA, 15 August 2020; Seoul Shinmun, 15 August 2010). Amid the large-scale anti-government protests staged by conservative groups, South Korea’s daily coronavirus case-count reported triple-digit increases for eleven days straight (AP, 24 August 2020). The government has banned gatherings of more than 50 people indoors or 100 outdoors in the greater Seoul area. In response, many protests are being held as “press conferences” in order to circumvent the restrictions (Hankook Ilbo, 31 August 2020).Separately, in Taiwan, Kuomintang lawmakers and pig farmers led demonstrations across the island against the government’s decision to lift the ban on pork imports containing ractopamine from the United States, citing public health concerns and the negative impact on farmers’ livelihoods. Despite the concerns raised, the President’s decision to ease restrictions was regarded as a breakthrough to deepen trade relations between Taiwan and the United States (The News Lens, 8 September 2020).
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