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Li Qiang, Xi Jinping’s loyal lieutenant | International

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His face inscrutable, Li Qiang stood motionless, like a sentry, in the Great Hall of the People. Like other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, he was dressed in a dark suit and red tie. His untinted eyeglasses seem to be only distinguishing feature from many of his CCP peers. On October 23, six men emerged from a gold door and climbed the Great Hall stage behind President Xi Jinping to be presented to the world as the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top leadership.

It was the culminating event of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and the seven men entered the Great Hall in rank order of the positions they will assume in March 2023. As General Secretary of the CCP, President Xi led the way, closely followed by 63-year-old Li Qiang, who will most likely become China’s next prime minister, a meteoric rise to power that surprised almost everyone.

A close Xi ally, Li has served as the party secretary in Shanghai for the last five years. Anyone who was expecting China to abandon its strict zero-Covid strategy will probably be disappointed by Li’s ascendancy, since he was the man tapped by Xi to lock down a city of 25 million people for more than two months last spring. The move unleashed a burst of anger among Shanghai residents and paralyzed the economy in the country’s financial nerve center.

But the man remains an enigma to outsiders. For some, his stern demeanor and square jaw represent Xi’s powerplays to secure an unprecedented third term. Others see him as a pro-business counterbalance to hardliners and point to his rhetoric of openness and reform. Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang was once seen as a leading reformist, but his influence has waned in Xi’s shadow to the point that he is considered one of the least influential prime ministers in recent decades.

In a 2013 interview with Caixin, China’s leading business and financial news outlet, Li Qiang boasted of the entrepreneurial spirit of Zhejiang, his dynamic home province in eastern China. He had just been appointed governor of the province and touted the enterprising Zhejiang merchants who “earned their first yuan shining shoes.” He said deregulation was an important stimulus for private enterprise and industrial development. “The biggest success in China’s campaign of economic reform and opening has been the measures to encourage innovation and initiative.”

It was a different time. Tech titans like Jack Ma, the founder of ecommerce giant Alibaba (based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang), had not yet fallen from grace. Li rubbed shoulders with Ma at tech conferences and encouraged the Chinese to emulate him. But Ma is now a symbol of Xi’s “new era” and of Beijing’s campaign to subjugate China’s tech industry. He is rarely seen in public now after the Chinese government blocked an initial public offering (IPO) for Ma’s Ant Group, the world’s largest financial technology firm, after he openly criticized global banking laws and China’s regulatory system in 2020. Chinese authorities are now planning to fine Ant Group over $1 billion, according to a Reuters report.

One prominent party member and businessman says that Li and Xi trust each other, because both advocate the strong central government that is needed in a huge, overpopulated country like China. “I think they make a good team and won’t have many disputes,” he said, which will make for more efficient decision-making and relegate the prime minister to a weaker role. He is also confident that the country will continue to open up the economy, a journey that began in the “golden years,” as he called the early 2000s.

Li studied agricultural mechanization at Zhejiang Agricultural University (now Zhejiang Wanli College), and began his professional career working in an electromechanical irrigation station. He became secretary of the local Communist Youth League and joined the CCP when he was 24. Li slowly worked his way up the colossal power pyramid and gained various party leadership positions in his province. In the 1990s, he pursued graduate studies in management engineering, and attended the Central Party School for on-the-job graduate studies in world economics from 2001 to 2004. He received an executive Master of Business Administration from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2005.

Li first met Xi Jinping in 2004 when he started working as Xi’s chief of staff at the Zhejiang CCP Provincial Committee. Three years later, Xi was elected First Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, consolidating his position as President Hu Jintao’s eventual successor. When Xi became president in 2012, Li rode his coattails to the top, demonstrating “Xi’s intention to help bolster Li’s leadership credentials,” according to a Brookings Institute profile.

Li was promoted in 2013 to governor of Zhejiang, and promoted again in 2016 to party secretary of Jiangsu province. Just one year later, he was appointed party secretary of Shanghai, the same post Xi held before ascending to loftier roles. “Li Qiang is one of Xi Jinping’s most trusted protégés,” says the Brookings profile.

“He has a strong pro-business track record that’s focused on economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, an organization that represents 1,800 European companies. Schoen-Behanzin says that Li has been one of the few senior officials to defend western-made RNA vaccines. “It remains to be seen whether he will prioritize business interests, the economy and China’s economic opening, or whether he will strictly adhere to Xi’s zero-Covid policy.”

While he was governor of Shanghai, Li developed a relationship with American entrepreneur Elon Musk. In 2019, Tesla opened its first overseas plant in Shanghai at a time when bilateral relations were tense during the Trump administration. Built in just one year, the Shanghai factory is now Tesla’s largest, and has the capacity to produce 750,000 vehicles a year. Tesla was able to keep its Chinese production lines rolling during Covid shutdowns by housing thousands of workers in special, closed-loop facilities.

Schoen-Behanzin’s says the two-month lockdown last spring was “a big blow to Shanghai’s international reputation.” As the city begins to rebound, she is not quite sure which way the wind will blow. “The new leaders are all loyal [to Xi], which suggests that economic growth policies will take a back seat to stability and control measures.”

Celvin Wong (not his real name), a Shanghai-based publicist who spent more than 70 days in Covid confinement last spring, says “Li’s motives are transparent. What has he done? Nothing – he just follows orders.” Celvin claims that after a failed attempt to coexist with the virus, the Shanghai lockdown was the predictable result of Li’s quest “to get promoted and enter the party’s inner circle. He had to show he could be tough and prove his loyalty to you-know-who – the big guy,” said Celvin, obviously reluctant to say the name.

Loyalty to Xi

Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University (Washington, DC) and author of The Party and the People (Princeton University Press, 2021), believes that Li’s climb to the top shows that the CCP is no longer the meritocracy it used to be. Many thought Li would be fired for this handling of the latest Covid crisis, but instead he was rewarded. In an online meeting with reporters, Dickson said it wasn’t a reward for achievement, but for his loyalty to Xi.

Li’s critics point to his lack of experience in Beijing’s central government, while supporters laud his experience in three of China’s economic powerhouses – Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. They believe that Li’s close relationship with Xi will enable him to convey a first-hand view of China’s economic reality to the president.

Dickson doubts that anyone can act as a counterweight to Xi, or that the president will encourage “independent thinking” in his inner circle. “Li has not reached his current position by challenging his old friend, but by going along. I don’t know how much autonomy he will have if he becomes prime minister.” When Li does assume that position, Dickson says we will have to wait and see if the president gives back the economic authority he “usurped” from Premier Li Kechiang. If Xi does that, it could signal a greater willingness to share power. If not, perhaps the parade of six men in suits who followed Xi onto the Great Hall stage was just for show.

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‘Destitution is almost inevitable’: Afghan refugees in Greece left homeless by failed system | Migration and development

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Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli, 70, looks at his five-year-old granddaughter, sitting on the floor next to him watching cartoons on a phone. They live in a two-bedroom flat in a suburb of Athens. “Even tomorrow, we don’t know what will happen to us,” he says.

The former judge and legal adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Justice, who had a role in putting together the 2004 Afghan constitution, is facing eviction with his family, including his three grandchildren. This is in line with regulations in Greece, which state that once someone has obtained refugee status, they must leave the accommodation provided for them within 30 days.

Since being evacuated to Greece last October, the family have been in limbo, hoping to join relatives in the UK and grieving for lives left behind in Kabul. Due to Rasooli’s high-profile work, as well as that of his daughter, a former journalist, and his son-in-law Fazel Sultani, a prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice, the family had gone into hiding after the Taliban stormed Kabul.

“We had a lot of problems, because the Taliban were saying if somebody had worked with NGOs or international organisations we’d be killed. It was very difficult for me to be there; we went to hide in a few places until we got evacuated,” says Rasooli. He scrolls through his phone to show photos of his home, pointing out books on the shelves, including legal texts he wrote, which he has been told have since been destroyed by Taliban soldiers.

The family has tried to make the best of things and the children are in Greek schools, but until recently, Rasooli feared to go outside in case his papers were checked. They had to wait until this month to receive asylum seeker ID cards.

They struggled to navigate a catch-22 system whereby access to rent subsides requires having a rental contract, while landlords will not rent without proof of the subsidies.

Rasooli and his family are not alone, says Minos Mouzourakis, an advocacy officer at Refugee Support Aegean (RSA). “Destitution is almost inevitable for refugees recognised in Greece. Expecting them to promptly leave accommodation despite exclusion from social welfare and protracted, often year-long, delays in renewing documents is a policy choice breaching the country’s legal obligations according to jurisdictions across the continent,” he says.

Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli (second left), sits with Fazel Sultani, his son-in-law, granddaughter and daughter in their flat in Athens, Greece.
Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli (second left), sits with Fazel Sultani, his son-in-law, granddaughter and daughter in their flat in Athens. Photograph: Anna Pantelia/The Guardian

RSA has gathered more than 100 testimonies of recognised refugees in Greece who have turned to jobs such as collecting waste cardboard around Athens to sell to recycling companies. For such work they may earn between €10 and €20 a day.

RSA has recorded cases where refugees returned to Greece have faced destitution, such as Soraya* and Somaya* from Afghanistan who were sent back from Sweden in June this year. They are now reliant on soup kitchens and solidarity networks and must wait until January 2023 to get identification documents. Some courts, in countries such as Germany, have halted returns of refugees to Greece judging that they are likely to face inhumane or degrading treatment.

“The situation for recognised refugees in Greece is dire. It is commonplace that people granted protection status in Greece face destitution and homelessness following their positive asylum decision,” says Lucy Alper, a legal coordinator with Refugee Legal Support in Athens.

“The only integration programme, Helios, funded by the EU and implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is not fit for purpose. Many people enrolled in the Helios programme cannot access the limited rental subsidies offered, as they must first open a Greek bank account, pay a deposit on a flat and sign a house contract via the government’s online platform. Barriers are at every turn, exacerbated by the bureaucracy of the Greek asylum system.

“Notwithstanding these failures, people are being evicted from their accommodation. There is no safety net,” says Alper.

The IOM says 19,000 people had leased an apartment so far, which spoke to the “feasibility of the requirements”. They added there are, “all the necessary services to support recognised refugees in finding and leasing apartments … IOM in coordination with its partners ensures support and interpretation in issuing all required documents … whenever obstacles are encountered, targeted support is provided to solve possible problems.” It says it had no “recorded cases” of difficulties from those who applied within the appropriate time frame due to bureaucracy.

Rasooli hopes to go to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) but has a rejection that is under review. His initial rejection letter, seen by the Guardian, states that since he has asylum in Greece, he will have access to medical care and is in relative safety – facts disputed by NGOs who have documented the precariousness of life for refugees in the country.

For now, the family remains in Athens, hopeful for an offer of an apartment for the short term. Nothing about the future is certain.

The Greek Migration Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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Europe Lost Russia as Energy Supplier, Russian Envoy Says

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VIENNA (Sputnik) – Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said Europe has lost Russia as its largest energy supplier.

“Isn’t it vice versa: Europe has lost Russia as its largest energy supplier to get the opportunity to buy the US LNG at a much higher price? Great achievement!” Ulyanov wrote on Twitter.

It was his response to a user post that quoted the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) saying Russia had lost Europe as its largest energy client “forever.”

IEA chief Fatih Birol said in October that Russia had lost the European oil and gas market forever and would face a drop in production. The West stepped up sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine, which led to higher prices for electricity, fuel and food in Europe and the United States.

A view shows gas metering units at the Gazprom's Amur Gas Processing Plant near the town of Svobodny, Amur Region, Russia. The plant was launched on June 9, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.11.2022

Russia Determined Not to Sell Energy Resources to Those Who Set Price Caps: Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said cheap and reliable Russian energy resources were Europe’s competitive advantage, and even a partial rejection of them already had a negative impact on its economy and residents. The US, pushing through the EU’s complete rejection of Russian energy carriers and other resources, is leading to the de-industrialization of Europe, he said.

Putin, commenting on the West’s idea to limit prices for Russian energy resources, said Russia would not supply anything abroad if this was contrary to its own interests.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said Russia would not supply oil to countries that set any price cap. He added that such restrictions were interference in market tools, and Moscow was prepared to work with consumers ready for market conditions.



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Kirchner: Argentina’s vice-president blasts ‘firing squad’ overseeing her corruption trial | International

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“Last words…” said Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from her office in the Senate, staring at the camera. She paused for a second, smiled and delivered the line she had already envisaged as a headline. “Never has a judicial term been so appropriate to define what this court is: it is a firing squad.”

Her words were aimed at three federal judges who on December 6 will decide whether she is guilty of leading an alleged scheme to divert state funds through public works contracts. The prosecution wants Fernández de Kirchner to spend 12 years behind bars and be permanently barred from holding public office.

Fernández de Kirchner, 69, has been charged with “illicit association” and “aggravated fraudulent administration” in connection with a corruption case involving 12 other defendants and known in Argentina as the Vialidad Case. The 51 contracts under scrutiny were awarded in the province of Santa Cruz, the political cradle of Kirchnerism, to companies owned by a friend of the Kirchners, Lázaro Baez, over a 12-year period (Baez has since been sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering). Prosecutors said many contracts were inflated and some were never carried out. They have estimated that the scheme cost the state around $1 billion. The defendants include officials accused of collecting bribes and businesspeople suspected of paying them.

But the vice-president claims to be a victim of political persecution.

“A government that was democratically elected three times is not an ‘illicit association’,” she said, alluding to the government of her late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003 -2007) and her own two terms in the president’s office between 2007 and 2015.

On Tuesday, the vice-president spoke for less than 20 minutes, a far cry from the long speeches she has given in the past in court. At her first hearing on December 2, 2019, she claimed to be the victim of a case in which the sentence had been decided ahead of time. The ultimate goal of the trial, according to the vice-president, is to remove her from politics and erode Peronism, the movement she represents.

“The sentence is written, but I never thought it would be so badly written,” said Fernández de Kirchner, accusing the two lead prosecutors in the case, Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola, of spreading lies about her. To reinforce the idea of the firing squad, she recalled the assassination attempt against her outside her house in early September.

Kirchner has maintained throughout the trial that the entire investigation against her is a set-up by the opposition to imprison her. Her lawyers have uploaded a document entitled “The Twenty Lies of the Vialidad Case” to social media.

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