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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of March 21, 2014

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
March 21, 2014

Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, looks on as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama writes calligraphy in a class at the Beijing Normal School on March 21, 2014. (Andy Wong/courtesy Reuters) Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, looks on as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama writes calligraphy in a class at the Beijing Normal School on March 21, 2014. (Andy Wong/courtesy Reuters)

Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, Charles McClean, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top stories in Asia today.

1. Michelle Obama visits China. U.S. first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Beijing on Thursday and will spend six days in China. Accompanied by her mother and two daughters, Obama toured Beijing with Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Obama will stay away from politicized topics such as human rights, and instead promote cultural and educational exchanges, particularly for young people. Currently, the number of Chinese studying in the United States outnumber Americans studying in China by at least ten to one. The Obama administration must certainly hope that the first lady’s efforts in the Middle Kingdom are as successful as her “Let’s Move” campaign to inspire American youth to exercise more.

2. Japan and North Korea agree to restart formal talks. On Thursday, Japanese and North Korean officials agreed in a meeting in Shenyang, China, to restart stalled bilateral talks between the two countries on a wide variety of issues including North Korea’s weapons program as well as the past abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang. The two countries’ Red Cross societies also met to discuss the abduction issue, a sticking point in bilateral discussions for decades. Formal talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang ended in December 2012 after North Korea tested  a long-range missile over Japan.

3. Court annuls Thailand’s February election. The country’s Constitutional Court voided last month’s general election on Friday, a decision that will only deepen Thailand’s political crisis. Thailand’s prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra called the February 2 elections after months of demonstrations against her government; in turn, protestors prevented prospective officeholders from registering and voters from registering and casting ballots. Because of the protests, voting could not be conducted on the same day across the country, as Thailand’s constitution demands. The court’s ruling puts further pressure on the embattled Shinawatra administration, which now rules without a full government and with Yingluck facing impeachment over a failed rice subsidy scheme. The court’s secretary-general stated that a new general election must be held, though there is no indication as to when this might happen.

4. The search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues, now off the coast of Australia. Satellite imagery detected a pair of floating objects off the southwest coast of Australia that could be from the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8, but the debris has not yet been recovered. Malaysian police have also focused their search on the plan’s pilot; they found that information was deleted from the flight simulator he used in his home and called in the U.S. FBI to help in the investigation. So far there is no evidence that links the pilot or copilot to any terrorist groups or any evidence of suicidal tendencies. Malaysian and U.S. officials believe that the plane was deliberately diverted off course, but still cannot explain why or to where. Several countries, especially China, have criticized Malaysia’s handling of the investigation, claiming it should be more willing to share intelligence. Chinese relatives of missing passengers protested at a media conference on Wednesday, demanding more information and threatening a hunger strike.

5. Sri Lanka arrests human rights activists under anti-terrorism law. Three prominent human rights activists were arrested in Colombo on “charges of creating communal disharmony and inciting racial hatred.” Ruki Fernando, Reverend Praveen Mahesan, and Jeyakumari Balendran were released after a forty-eight hour detention in the Terrorist Investigation Division under court orders prohibiting them from speaking to the media. The arrests occurred days before a crucial UN Human Rights Council vote on a possible investigation into war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war.

Bonus: “Smog insurance” for sale in China. China’s Ping An Insurance Group announced a new insurance plan this week. By paying a premium of 100 yuan, or $16, purchasers of the insurance in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shijiazhuang, Xi’an, Harbin, and Chengdu can now insure themselves against air pollution. According to a report from Xinhua, those insured will receive medical examinations when the air quality index (AQI) hits more than 300 for five consecutive days and $240 in compensation if they are hospitalized by smog. As Beijing begins its “war on pollution,” the insurance product represents an attempt to profit off the country’s dirty skies.

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