Radio Free Asia
Radio Free Asia (RFA) is an international broadcasting corporation that broadcasts and publishes online news, information, and commentary to listeners in six different countries in East Asia. RFA, which distributes content in nine Asian languages, is funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent American federal agency responsible for all non-military, international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S. government.
Geopolitics

Pasta In Italy. Rice In China. Guns In U.S.: A Hoarding World Tour

People around the world have been rushing out to buy 'essential' products, a concept that varies from culture to culture.

One of the more striking outward signs of these troubled times are the ravaged grocery store shelves. Across the world, one of the first reactions people had to the quickly spreading pandemic was to make a rush on basic necessities. Even more troubling, however, are empty warehouses, as anxious demand combines with interrupted supply chains. But just as every country differs in how it tries to control the coronavirus, there are also nuances, from place to place, when it comes to hoarding supplies.

RICE RICE BABY: Fears of a looming food shortage during the coronavirus crisis spurred China — the world's largest grain importer — to make a serious run on rice. In March alone, the country purchased some 50 million metric tons of it, reports Radio Free Asia. But this is not necessarily national policy orchestrated by Beijing, says Fengrui Niu, the former director of the Urban Development and Environment Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Many imports are from individual businesses "profiting from the raging epidemic to hoard food in order to cash in huge profits," he told the U.S.-funded news outlet.

PASTA PANIC: The Italian staple of choice likewise showed a major boost in the month of March, a 59% increase as one in three families bought pasta supplies every 72 hours, reports Agrifood Today. For those old enough to remember, the buying frenzy may spark memories from 1974, when government price controls caused a nation-wide pasta scarcity. Mamma mia!

BUYING UP BOOZE: Down under, in Australia, it's been bottoms up. Data compiled by the Commonwealth Bank suggest that Ozzies have turned from stockpiling toilet paper to hoarding alcohol, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. As pubs, clubs and restaurants closed down the last week of March, spending on alcohol was 86% higher compared to the same period last year, leading the government to impose limits on alcohol purchases. Now, people can only buy up to two cases of 24 beers or a case of 12 bottles of wine — or both.

ZUMA_US_Hoarding

Cars line up at a drive-up food distribution center in a parking lot in Palm Beach, Florida, United States.— Photo: Gregg Lovett

COLD HARD CASH: Rather than food, Germans appear to be hoarding the money used to buy it, as the country has experienced an unprecedented level of ATM withdrawals. Cash was already the most popular means of payment before the crisis, but was expected to shrink as supermarkets encourage card payments to lower infection risk. According to the Bundesbank, there is no economic or social explanation for hoarding money, as the cash supply is ensured even in times of crisis.

WIPES AND WEAPONS: People can be forgiven in this period of such uncertainty for wanting to feel safe and secure. And for many Americans, that apparently means having an ample supply of... toilet paper. Lots and lots of it. So much, in fact, that stores are facing drastic supply shortages, both online and off. There's also been a rush on (what else?) guns. In March alone, the FBI reported 3.7 million gun-purchase background checks, not only a 41% increase from the month before, but also the largest number of background checks conducted in a single month ever. Gun and ammunition dealers are also facing a shortage of supplies.


JAVA JITTERS: The whole world apparently can't imagine starting its day without that morning coffee. "Panic buying and stockpiling" has led to higher demand in some countries, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), and prices have surged as a result. In the U.S. alone, weekly sales of coffee increased as much as 73% in March. But the underlying fear behind this compulsive consumerism may not be so unfounded, as the current pandemic is leading to supply disruptions due to lockdowns in coffee producing countries. In Colombia, for example, the usual coffee harvest is in April, yet the country is set to be under a nationwide lockdown until April 27.

Geopolitics

Coronavirus — Global Brief: Why We Care About Boris Johnson

The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on this crisis from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

SPOTLIGHT: WHY WE CARE ABOUT BORIS JOHNSON

Boris Johnson Taken To Intensive Care: It's a headline that stands out among the non-stop flow of disturbing coronavirus news flashes. We already knew the 55-year-old British Prime Minister had been infected two weeks ago, and even Sunday's news that he was being brought to the hospital with a persistent fever was presented as routine testing.

But there's nothing routine about the ICU, nor the oxygen he was being given after breathing difficulties had suddenly appeared on Monday. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is running the country, and Boris Johnson is by all appearances fighting for his life.

There will be time another day to reflect on what this means politically in the UK, where Johnson has been questioned for his choices in fighting the pandemic and more generally criticized about his policies on healthcare. But serious illness turns every politician into a person.

He is of course hardly the only person: 1.4 million have been infected, and more than 76,000 people have died from COVID-19 around the world. On Tuesday, Britain's death toll alone hit a one-day high of 854. Yet for those not touched directly, the gravity of this pandemic hits home again as a very public person deteriorates in real-time before our eyes. Indeed, Johnson had posted a video just before being taken to the hospital where he seemed a bit fatigued, but otherwise his usual moppy-haired wry self. So it's him this time, we tell ourselves. Who will be next?

This has happened before in Britain, in 1918, when the nation's war hero prime minister David Lloyd George caught the flu during a ceremonial visit to Manchester's Albert Square. As his condition worsened, and with World War I in full swing, the prime minister's illness was kept hidden to prevent the news from reaching the country's enemies.

A century later, the stricken leader is very much in plain view — it's the enemy that we can't see.

— Jeff Israely

THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

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Society

Wife Of Chinese Activist Petitions To Live In Jail With Husband

Lai Wei'e wants to stay by the side her Chinese human rights advocate husband, Liu Yao, who was recently condemned to a 20-year prison sentence.

It is not unusual for a husband or wife of a jailed political prisoner to campaign for their spouse's release. But the wife of Liu Yao, a Chinese human rights defense lawyer recently condemned to a 20-year sentence in the southern province of Guangdong, has taken another recourse: Lai Wei'e has applied to be allowed to live inside prison with her jailed husband, Radio Free Asia's Chinese website reports.

Liu Yao had gained prominence by defending local farmers whose land had been grabbed illegally by unscrupulous officials. He was first detained in 2007, and subsequently sentenced to four years in jail. In 2015, he was once again accused of crimes, including extortion, fraud and child-trafficking because his wife, suffering from infertility, had adopted a child.

Beijing has used many forms of harassment to try to silence the defenders of rights.

The particularly harsh sentencing, which was upheld in appeal in November, was widely regarded as a reprisal by the corrupt officials his cases had targeted.

Lai Wei'e petitioned the court late last month to be allowed to join her husband in prison. ""Though my husband is convicted to imprisonment, the law, however, doesn't specify that married prisoners be deprived of continued emotional communication and cohabitation with their spouses," she wrote in her request.

Lai Wei'e and her husband Liu Yao — Photo: RFA

Chang Weiping, the attorney acting for Liu, told Radio Free Asia that Lai's application should be granted: "You get sentenced to have your personal freedom limited, not to lose other basic human rights," Chang said, adding that the couple "should not be deprived of their emotional exchanges and physiological needs."

Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a growing crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers. According to a report published in September by Human Rights Watch, Beijing has used many forms of harassment — surveillance, house arrest, revocation of licenses, physical assault, illegal detention, coercion, misinterpretation of the law, and the imprisonment of lawyers — to try to silence the defenders of rights and to eliminate civil society.

China was widely criticized last July when jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died from cancer, after being denied health treatment abroad. The activist's wife, the poet and artist Liu Xia, has been forced to live under house arrest and constant surveillance.

Society

Why The Vatican Is Now 'Off Limits' For Chinese Tourists

Chinese tourist agencies will be severely punished for organizing tour groups to St. Peter's Square and the Sistine Chapel (as well as the tiny Pacific island of Palau). The reason? Taiwan

"Travel agencies are required to cancel any tours that include the Vatican or St. Peter's Basilica in the itinerary ..." These words are part of a new, bluntly-word directive issued by China's National Tourism Administration. The Chinese-language outlet of Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports that the new restriction is justified: "because China has no diplomatic relation with the country."

Most of China's travel agencies are state-run, and the authorities allow them to organize tours to 127 countries and regions in the world, excluding the 20 countries that still have official ties with Taiwan. However, until recently, Beijing had allowed Chinese tourists to visit the Holy See, the enclave that usually makes up an integral part of any trip to Rome.

Though as the report also pointed out, Beijing "never leaves a paper trail" for such interference, the new directive is regarded as a way for China to put pressure on the Vatican to sever its official ties with Taiwan.

Citing an industry source, the RFA reported that the Chinese authorities "frequently order the industry to comply with its political or diplomatic requirements, without being seen to do so publicly. Examples in the past include South Korea, Sweden and Japan."

Ever since Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's female president, took office a year ago, organized Chinese tours to the island state have also dropped sharply, due to Tsai's refusal to affirm China's "92 Consensus' which says "there is only one China."

It's not the first time there has been tension between Vatican and Beijing.

Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, it has always held to atheism. Not only are religious believers frequently persecuted, including Catholics, but China also maintains control by ordaining more and more of its own state-designated bishops, without Vatican approval, to meet the needs of a Catholic population that continues to grow nonetheless, the RFA reported.

The papal city-state is the only country in the advanced world to maintain a diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan, for the very reason of its religious discord with China.

Only a few days ago, local authorities in Jiangxi Province demanded that Protestant farmers remove Christian paintings and writings from their home, and put up the photo of President Xi Jinping instead. This was in an effort to "convert religious belief to belief in the Party," The Liberty Times reported.

A party staff was cited as saying that "many villagers regard God as their savior. But after Communist cadres work on them, they will understand that they shouldn't rely on Jesus, but to turn to the Party."

Last July, China's State Administration for Religious Affairs also told Chinese Communist Party members that they are not allowed to have religious beliefs and "Between the party and God or Buddha, you can only choose one."