State Dept Press Briefing, Feb 16, 2023
US State Department held a Press Briefing on February 16, 2023 with Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel holding the forte.
2:37 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. I have two very brief things at the top, and then we’re happy to dive right into your questions.
Today at the Summit on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence in the Military Domain, which is being held at The Hague, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, on behalf of the U.S., announced a Political Declaration on the Responsible Use of AI and Autonomy.
The aim of the declaration is to respond to rapid advancements in technology by beginning a process of building international consensus around responsible behaviour and to guide states’ development and deployment and use of military AI.
We applaud our Dutch and Korean hosts for convening the summit, which provided us the opportunity to discuss responsible military use of artificial intelligence in the military domain.
This conference provided an opportunity to highlight the importance of developing a common understanding around the benefits and risks of using AI for national security purposes. And we encourage other states to join us in building an international consensus around the principles we articulated in our political declaration.
And lastly, the United States welcomes the appointment of Dorin Recean as the new prime minister of the Republic of Moldova. We look forward to working with the prime minister and his cabinet as they continue to pursue political and economic and anti-corruption reforms.
The U.S. firmly supports Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, democracy, and prosperity. We appreciate President Sandu’s continued leadership as Moldova builds its democratic, European future.
And with that, Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you. I don’t have a lot of hope that you’re going to have any information to offer on this, but following the President’s remarks just now, two brief questions. One is that he said he was directing the Secretary of State to consult with counterparts around the world to come up with some kind of global standard for balloons, surveillance or weather, whatever type. Can you extrapolate? Can you offer any more detail on that? My understanding was that these kinds of talks have been going on for years now.
MR PATEL: Well, first, Matt, we all saw the President’s comments, and I know the Secretary is looking forward to and eager to working with his counterparts to help develop and work on some of these standards as it relates to manoeuvrable and non-manoeuvrable objects, whether they be balloons or otherwise. I don’t have any specific updates to offer on —
QUESTION: But this is not some kind of a new initiative? This is pretty much carrying on from debates that have been going on in Geneva and elsewhere about vertical limits of national sovereignty and that kind of thing.
MR PATEL: I don’t believe it’s intended to be for the discovery of new policy or anything like that.
QUESTION: And then the second thing is that the President said that he hoped to or expected to be talking to President Xi. Is it your understanding, is it this building’s understanding, that rescheduling the Secretary’s trip to Beijing would require another conversation between the – President Biden and President Xi?
MR PATEL: I don’t want to speculate on the sequencing, Matt. The Secretary was pretty clear. He looks forward and intends to continue on with his visit to China when conditions allow.
QUESTION: Yeah, but do you think – but is it possible that he would reschedule and go without there being a leader-to-leader —
MR PATEL: I just don’t want to speculate. I think broadly, over the course of these past couple of weeks, we have maintained channels of open communication with the Chinese. Obviously, the Secretary had the opportunity to speak with Wang Yi and others have been engaging at a working level. But whether the two leaders will speak prior to any potential visit, I’m not going to speculate.
QUESTION: Last week you said that you are aware of Chinese plan to spy on 40 countries. One week in, no country has been forthcoming so far. There’s a belief on your end privately you experience a different traffic? Other countries are approaching to you? Are you in the midst of any consultations with them?
MR PATEL: Well, Alex, I’m just not going to speak for other countries. But if you look to just public commentary that some of the foreign dignitaries that we’ve hosted in this building over the past couple weeks, when they’ve been asked about the high?altitude surveillance asset that was found, discovered over the United States rather, there has been convergence on the United States approach and our handling of the situation. And of course, a big part of this is our close consultation with our allies and partners and the robust engagements and dialogues that have taken places in the days and weeks afterwards. But I’m not going to get anything beyond that.
QUESTION: Okay. And back to Matt’s question. The President used a phrase – common global norms. So, we are at the zero level at this point or there have been norms, just they’re downgraded?
MR PATEL: Certainly, I don’t think that’s what the President was trying to insinuate. Obviously, there have been and are standards and protocols and policies in place, as it relates to the air and aviation, whether it’s manned, unmanned, or otherwise. But it’s clear that – and the President alluded to this – that given the heightened sensitivity and our discovery of these three additional objects that there is more for us to discuss with our allies and partners, with countries around the world as it relates to these things. And so, the Secretary looks forward to doing that.
QUESTION: Can we go on to the Israel and Palestine issue?
MR PATEL: Yeah. Sure, Shaun.
QUESTION: At the UN, as you probably know, there’s a draft resolution that would call on Israel to immediately and completely cease settlement activities. The administration and the State Department have been critical of the latest settlement moves. Does the U.S. have a stance on this resolution?
MR PATEL: Thanks, Shaun. We remain focused on supporting the conditions necessary to advance the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians which is – our belief is the only path to a sustainable end to the conflict, and we continue to engage with all parties on this. The introduction of this resolution is unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary to advance negotiations for a two-state solution. We are aware of the introduction, and we’re coordinating closely with our partners in New York on next steps.
QUESTION: When you say unhelpful, does that mean that the U.S. is ready to veto it? Is it looking to change it before it gets to that point, or not be introduced at all?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to get ahead of the process, Shaun. We are coordinating closely with our partners in New York and are assessing our next steps. But when I say that it is unhelpful, we have been clear as it relates to both the Israelis and the Palestinians – and you saw us be very clear about our stance on this after the events of Sunday, on Monday from this podium about the – about actions, including settlement activity could undermine a two-state solution and also further incite tensions. These are the kinds of things that would do the opposite of that.
QUESTION: If I can just take one more stab at that, on the veto possibility. If it does come, is the veto an option? Is that something that the U.S. is willing to do to not have this see the light of day?
MR PATEL: Shaun, I’m just not going to speculate or hypothesize on – or get ahead of the process here. I think what I will reiterate is that our view is that the introduction of this resolution was unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary to advance negotiations of a two?state solution, just like we believe that the news out of Israel on Sunday was unhelpful and something that would further incite tensions as well. And our viewpoint has always been that both sides should avoid taking steps that puts us further away from a two-state solution and further incites tensions, which these are the kinds of actions that do that.
Let me do Said, and then I’ll come to you, Simon.
QUESTION: Is – are you on the same topic, Simon?
QUESTION: I’ll defer to you. Then I’ll take it.
QUESTION: Yeah. Sorry. Sorry, just to drill down on what you’re saying is unhelpful. I mean, if you look at the wording that’s been reported from this draft text, it seems to be things that you agree with. So, what exactly is unhelpful about a resolution that condemns something that you condemn and restates things that you also agree with regarding the occupation of those territories? So, what exactly is unhelpful about this?
MR PATEL: Simon, we have been fairly consistent in – over the course of this administration that the – we don’t view the UN as the most practical or useful forum for discussing this issue, and that this is something that the two sides need to discuss and engage and negotiate and work on among themselves and that steps like settlement activity, steps like the introduction of such a resolution are unhelpful and put us further away from a negotiated two-state solution, which has been our consistent viewpoint in where we would like this to end.
QUESTION: And you’re still – your position is still – or the administration’s position is still that with regards to – as it was with regard to Russia in the last year that vetoes in the Security Council should be used sparingly as possible?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any new policy to announce or a new strategic assessment to offer on our approach to the UN Security Council, if that’s what you’re asking.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. I think I’m going to belabor the issue of the effort of the UN. I mean, I don’t understand: Israel was founded by the United Nations. It ought to be obligated to what the United Nations – in this case, a record of UN resolutions is calling for it to stop settlements, to end the occupation, to start treating Palestinians humanely and so on. I mean, I have the UN Security Council Number 2334, the last time an issue like this came up in the Security Council, where the United States abstained and hence the resolution passed. I suspect that the resolution on Monday will be pretty much the same thing. Why wouldn’t the United States at least abstain, like they did the last time?
MR PATEL: Said, I am just —
QUESTION: I mean, I know you don’t want to, I mean, jump the gun and so on, but —
MR PATEL: Said, we’re – we – first of all, I am not going to get ahead of the process, and the text that both you and Simon were referring to, they are draft texts. But broadly, we have been very clear about our views on this. And to – I will say two things, is that the United States is committed to achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. And we continue to believe that the two-state solution is the best way for Israelis and Palestinians to preserve, realize, and – their national aspirations.
And to be clear, Ned, the Secretary, our allies and partners, countries around the world were very clear about our opinion as it relates to the news from Sunday. We view the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to that peace, as an obstacle to that two-state solution. We view that as an action that undermines a two-state solution.
Similarly, we believe that – also that the introduction of this resolution is unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary for a two-state solution, for the two sides to come to a negotiated solution. And as I said, we’re working closely with our partners in New York to determine our appropriate next steps.
QUESTION: I mean, I understand, but how you put muscle or you put some strength or some leverage behind your opinion? I mean, you have a very clear opinion on the issue of settlements and so on. But the United States has historically fallen short of making its opinion materialize, or felt by the Israelis. So I mean, is the United States exploring ways and means to effectuate its opinion?
MR PATEL: Said, we – our opinion is one that we have made clear publicly, but it’s also one that we have made clear privately. The Secretary has done so through his counterparts; so has Ambassador Nides and others working on this issue as well.
QUESTION: You know what? Senators, like Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, they issued a statement, a very strong statement. So you’re likely to find a lot of support if you were ever to take actions that can show Israel that this may be costly, correct?
MR PATEL: Said, I am not going to contextualize or parse the words of the senator. I will defer to him and his staff. But we’ve made our view very clear, and we view the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to peace. And we view it as something that undermines the viability of a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Let me ask you one last question. The Knesset just passed by a huge majority, like 94, a new law that would actually deport or take away the citizenship of those who commit acts of terrorism or violence against Israelis and so on, and physically deport them. So there is an element of ethnic cleansing or relocation of population. Are you aware of this, first of all? And second, do you have an opinion on it?
MR PATEL: Let me —
QUESTION: Does that fall under the definition or designation of collective punishment?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things on this, Said. First, I saw the reporting on this this morning. We understand that the law is passed in the Knesset, and we’re working to gather more information and understand the implications of the law. I don’t want to offer an interpretation of that from here, as our teams are still assessing it from a policy standpoint.
But broadly, Said, we have been clear that the practice of paying Palestinian prisoners who committed acts of terrorism against Israelis is abhorrent. And we continue to engage the Palestinian Authority to end this practice, which both our partners in Congress and this administration, we clearly oppose.
QUESTION: But taking it out on the families of those who commit such acts, that would be a collective punishment, correct?
MR PATEL: Said, I am just not going to offer an interpretation on this; that is still being worked out through policy channels.
QUESTION: Can I – I’m sorry, but do you see any difference between an action that one side takes that changes the reality on the ground, and an action that the other side might take that is basically just a statement, words on paper, rhetoric that doesn’t actually do anything? Because when you say – you’re making what sounds like – you’re making a – you’re saying that the Israeli settlement decision and the legalization of outposts was unhelpful. But that actually changes the reality on the ground. A UN Security Council resolution is – it is what it is, but there have been so many UN Security Council resolutions. How many does North Korea agree with? How many does Israel agree with? How many – or do they follow? How many does Russia agree with? How many does Burma agree with? Right? It doesn’t actually do anything.
So I’m not sure I understand how you say that they are the same. How can you oppose something that you just agreed to with five other countries in a statement the other day, and put out a very critical statement about on your own just a day or two before that?
MR PATEL: Matt, I certainly have we tried to make the case that they are the same. They are not. What I am saying, though —
QUESTION: You’re saying that they’re both unhelpful, and I don’t see how —
MR PATEL: They are. They —
QUESTION: I don’t see how – well, explain to me how a UN Security Council resolution is as unhelpful as the Israelis expanding the settlements and legalizing what had been illegal outposts.
MR PATEL: I’m not going to put a metric on this, Matt, but we have been very clear.
QUESTION: That’s probably a good thing, because I don’t think you can.
MR PATEL: I am not saying anything new or trying to represent a new position of this administration.
QUESTION: And that may be the problem here.
MR PATEL: We have been —
QUESTION: Because you’re not – because I find it difficult to believe that you guys think that the two are equitable, that they’re equivalent.
MR PATEL: Matt —
QUESTION: One is literally taking land away and the other is a piece of paper.
MR PATEL: The point that I have been trying to make, and the point that Ned has made earlier this week, and others across this administration have been made – making, is that any step that puts us further away from a negotiated two-state solution, any step that further incites tensions, any step that makes a two-state solution more difficult and less viable we would take issue with, and we have issue with these steps. We are not saying —
QUESTION: Which step takes – takes you further away from that goal?
MR PATEL: I am not going to put a metric on it, Matt, but I am not trying to say that everything is the same or anything like that. That’s not —
QUESTION: Well, but that’s exactly what – that’s exactly what’s going on here. You’re saying that you oppose the – I don’t understand what the difference is between saying that you are harshly critical, you – deeply – what was it – deeply troubled by the Israeli settlement announcement, but you didn’t do anything about it other than say that you were deeply troubled about it. And now when the opposite side comes and says that basically they want to say the same thing that you said but at the UN, you’re opposed to it.
MR PATEL: We have been very clear, though, Matt, that we do not believe that the —
QUESTION: That’s not very clear. That’s the opposite of being very clear.
MR PATEL: We’ve been clear that the UN is – that we don’t feel that the UN is the appropriate —
QUESTION: What, so it’s okay for you guys to say it on your own, and you guys and the French and the Italians and whoever else signed on to that joint statement the other day – that’s okay, but it’s not okay for the UN Security Council to do?
MR PATEL: What you saw that statement say, Matt, including the one that we put out from the Secretary as well as the one that was signed by allies and partners, is a further reiteration of what I’m saying, which is that actions that will undermine a negotiated two-state solutions are unhelpful and not welcome right now.
QUESTION: Okay. I’m looking for your prediction as to the vote in the Security Council on this, because you know what, several of the countries that signed on to that joint statement with you will vote in favor of a resolution such as the one that has been – except for you guys.
MR PATEL: I am just not going to get ahead of the process here, Matt. I don’t have anything else to offer on this.
QUESTION: I have follow-up question on the Chinese balloon.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Today President Biden talked about the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between U.S. and China regarding this Chinese surveillance balloon issue. Now are you confident in resuming communication between U.S. and China at the high official level, including Blinken and Wang Yi?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific calls to preview or any additions to the schedule to offer. We have been pretty clear from the beginning about our desire to keep channels of communications open with the PRC. That has been the case for the – for quite some time now, and we look forward to continuing to engage on this, but I don’t have any specific calls to read out.
QUESTION: Okay. And on Tuesday, State Department issued a readout after the meeting between Deputy Secretary Sherman and Japanese Vice Minister Mori, and it said that Chinese surveillance balloon flew over both Japan and the U.S. Do you have any additional comment on Chinese balloon which flew over Japan?
MR PATEL: Well, I would let the Japanese and our counterparts there speak to their own airspace, but I would actually point you to – as well to the press availability that Deputy Secretary Sherman held with her counterparts from the Republic of Korea and Japan, where they spoke a great deal about the PRC’s activities in the region, and the impacts that they have in the region, and the impact on our shared trilateral view of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. I’m going to move to Secretary’s trip. Before that, Ukraine ahead of Secretary’s trip urged Türkiye and the UN to stop Russia from obstructing grain deal. Was just wondering if this deal overall will be a subject to the Secretary’s talks in Türkiye.
MR PATEL: Well, Alex, we have not held back when it comes to how helpful and fruitful, we have found the Black Sea Grain Initiative deal to be in ensuring that grain gets to the places that it needs to go. It has been so immensely helpful. But let’s be incredibly clear about one thing: It should not have been necessary in the first place. This is a result of Russia’s decision to try and weaponize grain and weaponize food. And so I don’t want to get ahead of his trip, but yes, I am sure that the benefits of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the desire and need to keep it alive is something that will be of topic not just in his upcoming bilateral engagements but I’m sure also at the Munich Security Conference as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. And regarding Munich, I know you mentioned yesterday you don’t want to talk about bilateral meetings, but several countries – Iran and Russia – will be represented by opposition leaders. As you know, this is the first time Russia – Putin’s Russia – will not be invited at a state level. May I get your reaction to, first of all, Russia not being invited? Secondly, is there a plan to meet with any of either Iranian or Russian leaders, opposition leaders?
MR PATEL: Let me say first, speaking to the schedule, I don’t have any scheduling announcements to preview or get into about the participation of the Russian Federation. I think the organizers of the Munich Security Conference were very clear. These are our words, not theirs, but they essentially alluded to the fact that it can’t be business as usual, given Russia’s ongoing unjust and illegal war against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
QUESTION: Okay. And last one, on the Caucasus, is the Caucasus negotiator, Mr. Bono, is he joining the Secretary’s trip in Munich or —
MR PATEL: I’m not sure about his specific travels, but broadly, Alex, I think I’ve said this almost every time you’ve been in the briefing room, that peace in the South Caucasus is something that this administration, we continue to work on. It’s something that the Secretary himself is quite focused on as well. And so we welcome any efforts that will help us get to a durable peace, but I don’t have any travel or anything to preview.
QUESTION: He has been in office for more than two weeks. Is there anything that is preventing him from going to the region?
MR PATEL: I’m not sure. I’m not – I don’t want to speak to any travel. There’s certainly no barrier, but I will let – we’ll announce travel when we have it.
QUESTION: The Chagos Islands. Human Rights Watch issued a report, I believe it was yesterday, saying that the UK Government and as well as the U.S. Government are possibly guilty of crimes against humanity for the forcible displacement of Chagossians. Is there any reaction to that particular – Human Rights Watch calling for more formal compensation to deported Chagossians?
MR PATEL: We are aware of the report from Human Rights Watch concerning the treatment of Chagossians in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. remains steadfast in its respect for and the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals around the world, and acknowledges the challenges faced by Chagossian communities – in a manner of which the Chagossians were removed is regrettable. And we welcome the advocacy of Human Rights Watch to promote respect for human rights globally.
QUESTION: As far as the crimes against humanity issue, you’re not going to (inaudible)?
MR PATEL: I just don’t have anything else to offer. But I will just note that we appreciate the UK’s efforts to improve the livelihood of Chagossians wherever they live, including its commitment to an approximately £40-million support package in 2016. And over the years, the UK has provided educational and community support and revised nationality laws, while assisting Chagossians pursuing British citizenship and opportunities to build a future in the UK.
QUESTION: Thank you. I just wanted to double back one more time to the objects actually that were shot down out of the sky over American airspace after the Chinese surveillance balloon. We heard from the President today something that we’ve heard from other officials, but basically that from the Intelligence Community, its assessment, it seems most likely that these are, in fact, harmless aircraft.
Is there any concern within the State Department that taking action that critics have described as shooting first and asking questions later to take down these objects might undercut the U.S. claims about the – or U.S.’s assessment of the Chinese surveillance program, or perhaps give added boost to Beijing’s claims that these – that the U.S. is overreacting?
MR PATEL: Well, I think the President was pretty clear in his comments that – and if you’re speaking about the three objects over the past about week and a half, he was clear that the current U.S. assessment is that these are not linked to a PRC surveillance program. I don’t have a different assessment to offer from the State Department. But also, you saw the President speak about both these objects and the first high-altitude surveillance asset that was linked to China, that when it comes to protecting our national security, this administration isn’t going to hesitate to take action. And so I will let the DOD and our colleagues at the Pentagon speak to any specific operational updates on the recovery of these items.
QUESTION: Today the Israeli foreign minister met with President Zelenskyy and with his counterpart, and Israel said that they will support Ukraine next week in the General Assembly, and so on. And they said that they will supply Ukraine with humanitarian aid, also civil defense systems or whatever that is. Do you have any comment on that? Have the Israelis now moved maybe close with your position regarding Ukraine, or you think that they remain where they were?
MR PATEL: Said, when it comes to the specific kind of support that any country will provision to our Ukrainian partners, whether it be security assistance, humanitarian assistance, or otherwise – these are decisions that independent countries will take in their own accord through their own government mechanisms. So I will – I don’t have anything different to say than what we’ve said previously is that we of course welcome any country supporting our Ukrainian partners in their defenses against this unjust provocation and invasion of their territorial integrity and sovereignty.
MR PATEL: Dylan, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, immigration related question. Earlier this week, the premier of Quebec called out the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, complaining that he was busing migrants into the U.S. illegally – to the border with Canada – and basically was trying to funnel them into Canada illegally, and said this was unacceptable. I’m just wondering: Are you aware of this complaint? Have you talked to the mayor’s office about it? Is it something that’s come up when you’ve talked with your Canadian partners about immigration issues recently?
MR PATEL: I am not aware of this and, to my knowledge, have not had the State Department engagements with the city of New York on this. But broadly Dylan, as it relates to the status of migrants who are in the United States that are currently going through immigration proceedings or have their proceedings yet to be scheduled, the coordination and the management of all that would be happening through the Department of Homeland Security. So I will refer to you speaking to them if they can offer any updates on this.
QUESTION: — Nicaragua has revoked citizenship of more of its dissidents overseas. I know you’ve reacted to things similar to this in the past, but is there a sense that this is more a trend? Is – does it affect the relationship with Nicaragua and any potential hopes of a thaw?
MR PATEL: Well, the big thing here, Shaun, is that this act is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that everyone has a right to nationality, and we condemn the Nicaraguan’s Government’s move to strip the nationality of another 94 citizens. This regime also reportedly ordered the seizure of their property in Nicaragua. This is a deplorable act, and it’s another step backwards for Nicaraguan people and their hopes of keeping – living in the democracy that they deserve. We remain steadfast in encouraging additional steps by the Government of Nicaragua to restore civil liberties, especially in the light of their unilateral decision to release the 222 political prisoners early last week or late the week before. This move that you just described is a step in the opposite direction.
QUESTION: We didn’t cover Iran – the statement came out this morning, GCC and the U.S. joint statement. Give us the significance of that. Also, what are you going to do about it, about Iran’s regional dysfunctional role, which is outlined in the statement perfectly well?
MR PATEL: Sure. So first, I would refer you to the joint statement, which goes into a little bit of further detail, but the U.S. and GCC partners discussed the full range of challenges posed by Iran and Iran’s threat to regional security and stability. They issued this joint statement condemning Iran’s continued destabilizing policies, including its support for terrorism, its use of advanced missiles, its use of cyberweapons, its unmanned aircraft systems and their proliferation of them in the region and around the world. And this U.S.-GCC working group is the latest example in our close coordination with our partners in the region in tackling the challenge posed by Iran head on.
QUESTION: Any action you might want to preview —
MR PATEL: Alex, you’ve been covering the State Department long enough to know that we’re – never get into the habit of previewing actions, but as you also are quite aware that when it comes to holding the Iranian regime accountable for its human rights abuses against its own people, for its malign and destabilizing actions in the region and around the world, the United States has not hesitated to act and it’s not hesitated to coordinate and act together with our allies and partners as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:14 p.m.)
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