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Pandemic, politics lead to closure of storied Hong Kong bar

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HONG KONG — Nearly 15 years ago, Grace Ma decided to name her bar Club 71, in commemoration of a July 1, 2003 rally where hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers protested a proposed national security law for the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

“I took the name Club 71, because somehow it is more hopeful, with half a million Hong Kong people having a demonstration, a rally, to stand for themselves, not to ignore what’s going on in Hong Kong,” said Ma.

For years, the storied bar has served as a watering hole for the city’s pro-democracy activists and intellectuals, who could freely engage in discussions over a round of beer or two.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and, in a blow to the city’s Western-style freedoms, the central government in Beijing in June imposed sweeping national security legislation targeting political expression in response to massive anti-government protests last year. For Ma, the troubles meant it was time to shutter the business for good.

Months of government-mandated bar closures as part of coronavirus restrictions had pushed Club 71’s finances deeper into the red, and operating the bar no longer made financial sense, she said. The bar will close at the end of October.

“We have closed for three months, out of the past six months,” said Ma, who is in her 60s. “For our business, it’s impossible.”

Social distancing restrictions have also halved the capacity of the city’s bars and restaurants, making it more difficult for them to turn a profit.

“Restaurants are allowed to have four at one table … but bars only two per table,” she said, pointing out that bars have been subject to much stricter restrictions, compared to eateries.

In the last days of the bar, customers have shown up in force, gathering outside in the park and occasionally milling in and out as they order pints of beer. The colorful interior walls are plastered with posters advertising art exhibitions and performances, as well as pro-democracy artwork.

“This is a place in Hong Kong where people can drop by and exchange ideas, as long as everyone respects each other, they can say whatever they want,” said Ma.

News of the bar’s imminent closure was disappointing for some of its regulars, who cherished the unique atmosphere and the mix of people.

“There are very few bars of this kind in Hong Kong. We call it the quiet bar, which allows people to chat with each other,” said Keung Fung, 41, another loyal patron and a former Hong Kong student union representative.

“It is very unfortunate (that the bar is closing),” he said. “I’ll need to look for another bar with similar atmosphere.”

Some of Club 71’s customers also include former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long Hair” in Hong Kong. Leung had been a regular in Club 71’s predecessor, Club 64.

Ma had also run Club 64, before a skyrocketing rent forced her to move to its current location in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood. It was then that she renamed the bar to Club 71.

“It is a hub for everyone to connect and communicate with each other, sometimes sit around and discuss what to do. So you can say it’s a meeting point,” said Leung, who had visited the bar for a beer.

Other famous bargoers over the years included Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, who is known for her pro-democracy stance, as well as acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Doyle.

Although Ma is saddened at having to close Club 71, in some ways it is also a relief, she said.

“Financially, I really couldn’t hang on,” she said. “It’s time to move on, I want to do something else.”

___

Associated Press journalist Phoebe Lai contributed to this report.

Zen Soo And Alice Fung, The Associated Press

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The Lesson from Bolivia for Latin American Politics – The New York Times

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On Oct. 18 Bolivians elected Luis Arce, the presidential candidate of the former President Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party and his chosen successor. Some saw the victory as a call for Mr. Morales to return to the government. But perhaps the electoral landslide may be better understood as an example of how to move forward in the wake of a tumultuous year for the world. It’s also a lesson on how similar movements weighed down by the baggage of past leaders can keep political relevance — without their looming influence.

As a candidate, Mr. Arce signaled his willingness to turn the page on Mr. Morales, whose controversial tactics and unconstitutional bid for a fourth presidential term ended in his expulsion from the country last year after the military called on him to step down. Mr. Arce committed to a return to the stability and inclusion that defined much of Mr. Morales’s government. With the more moderate Mr. Arce on the ballot, the Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, actually outperformed expectations — increasing its share of the vote by eight percentage points over last year’s results.

Ultimately “MAS did not win because of Evo but in spite of Evo,” tweeted Pablo Solón, the former United Nations ambassador during Mr. Morales’s tenure.

Mr. Morales was among a wave of leftist leaders who came into office in the 2000s, when their countries’ economies were buoyed by high commodity prices. Mr. Morales used the windfall to reduce poverty and expand the middle class. But from Bolivia to Ecuador to Argentina, the good times were followed by corruption scandals, attacks on the press, power grabs, debt-induced recessions — and eventually shifts to the right.

These leaders continued to influence national politics after leaving office, and their polarizing quests for comebacks threatened to undermine the very movements they helped start.

“Lingering ex-presidents prevent the nation from moving on,” Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College, wrote in Americas Quarterly in 2018. “Liberating countries from their influence is a collective good because it helps with leadership renewal.”

Mr. Arce’s victory signals that renewal is possible. He has distanced himself from Mr. Morales, saying the former president’s bid for a fourth term was an “error.” He vowed that Mr. Morales would not have a role in his government.

Mr. Morales resigned last year, after his attempt to win a fourth term sparked unrest and ended in a contested election, in what some have called a coup. But if leaders like him can pass the baton to less polarizing figures, they may be able to inject new life into their political movements.

In fact, Mr. Morales’s absence helped energize, rather than weaken, MAS, the Bolivia-based journalist Pablo Stefanoni contends, writing that the crisis surrounding his departure “enabled the rise of a new group of leaders” whose ascension had been limited during Morales’s government.

It’s not easy to convince popular leaders who have had a taste of power, and who often seek a return to office as relief from the legal problems they face, to move on. In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, besieged by numerous corruption charges, was expected to pursue a third presidential term in 2019 but reversed course after polls suggested she’d lose. Instead, she promoted Alberto Fernández, a law professor and former chief of staff seen as less ideological, as her party’s candidate, and instead ran as vice president. He won by a large majority.

In Ecuador, the former President Rafael Correa is following the same playbook. His political movement nominated Andrés Arauz, a 35-year-old economist and former government minister, as its candidate for February’s presidential election. Mr. Arauz’s chances may depend on how much distance he can put between himself and the polarizing Mr. Correa, who in April was sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.

Other leaders may see themselves as the only ones who can defeat their opposition. In Brazil, there is talk that the former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva may run for president in 2022. But while Mr. da Silva remains a larger-than-life figure in Brazilian politics, he would be 76 by the time he runs, and his support has its limits — enough only to get him to a second round in an election, where polls say he’d lose to President Jair Bolsonaro. Passing the baton to the new leaders emerging under Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency may be a better bet for his Workers’ Party.

The lesson does not just apply to left-wing parties. In Argentina, the former President Mauricio Macri’s center-right coalition will likely try to stage an electoral comeback in the 2023 presidential election. But, given his deeply unfavorable view among voters, his party may be more likely to find success by championing someone else.

Polls suggest that person may be Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta of Buenos Aires. Though some critics say he lacks charisma, Mr. Rodríguez Larreta’s reputation as an efficient manager has made him one of the most popular political figures in the country. It would be another example of a less polarizing figure offering a fresh start for Mr. Macri’s political project.

While Mr. Arce’s victory in Bolivia is cause for optimism, over time his effort to turn the page on Mr. Morales may become a cautionary tale. As Mr. Corrales wrote, successors who take over from outgoing leaders walk a tightrope.

“When a president betrays a campaign promise — in this case, the promise to carry the torch from a predecessor — they disappoint two groups: those who wanted continuismo, and those who wanted real change, with the latter never becoming convinced that you are a true convert,” Mr. Corrales wrote.

To repair the worst elements of Mr. Morales’s 14-year presidency, Mr. Arce will need to strengthen institutions that for years were manipulated to benefit the former president. Similar successors to popular but polarizing figures, like Lenín Moreno of Ecuador and Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, chose to pursue limits on re-election, for example, as one method of institutional reform.

If Mr. Arce can make positive institutional changes, while navigating Bolivia’s complicated politics and troubling economic panorama, he may be able to govern with the best of MAS’s values, tackling poverty and celebrating Bolivia’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity without Mr. Morales’s divisiveness and strongman tendencies. Ultimately, that could help him create his own legacy and set an example for political movements across the region.

Brendan O’Boyle (@BrenOBoyle) is a senior editor at Americas Quarterly, a publication on business, politics and culture in Latin America. He has studied the region for a decade and has lived in Buenos Aires, Quito, Ecuador and Mexico City.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – Kelowna Capital News

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Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

READ MORE: Companies warn Tory motion could deter domestic production of PPE

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


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As Trump weakens rules insulating civil servants from politics, an official resigns in protest. – The New York Times

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The head of a federal panel that advises the White House on compensation issues resigned on Monday to protest President Trump’s new executive order that could wipe out employment protections for tens of thousands of federal workers.

Ronald P. Sanders, the chairman of the Federal Salary Council, who was appointed by Mr. Trump in 2017, said that the new executive order would replace “political expertise with political obeisance.”

The order, signed last week, gives Mr. Trump and his political appointees the power to hire and fire certain federal civil servants who now hold jobs that are supposed to be exempt from political influence.

“The Executive Order is nothing more than a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President, or failing that, to enable their removal with little if any due process,” Mr. Sanders, who called himself a lifelong Republican, wrote in his resignation letter, dated today and sent to the White House. “I have concluded that as a matter of conscience, I can no longer serve him or his administration.”

The president’s executive order has already provoked protests by federal labor unions and some Democrats in Congress. If Mr. Trump is not re-elected, the next administration could repeal the measure.

Mr. Sanders wrote of civil servants, “The only ‘boss’ that they serve is the public,” adding, “No president should be able to remove career civil servants whose only sin is that they may speak such a truth to him.” The board Mr. Sanders resigned from is made up of experts in labor relations and representatives of federal labor unions.

A White House official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House, in a statement that accompanied the executive order, said the new employee classification was justified because under current rules “removing poor performers, even from these critical positions, is time-consuming and difficult.”

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