Asian Insider Dec 23: China cuts tariffs, a cry for help in a Tesco greeting card, a needed win for the Thai ruling party

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.


In today's bulletin: China cuts tariffs as it pursues trade deal with the US; Beijing denies it uses forced labour from foreign convicts after a cry for help is discovered in a UK Christmas card; Australia's PM is trying to delink the record bushfires from climate policy; Christmas stories from around the world; and more...

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China announced today that it is cutting tariffs next year on a range of products from food items like pork and avocado, to tech items like semiconductors. Beijing said the tariff cuts, which applies to more than 850 products, were in part to increase inflow of products currently facing a demand crunch in China. There is truth to this as China is currently facing a pork shortage after an outbreak of African Swine fever has nearly halved the domestic pig herd. But observers also note that the move helps bolster Beijing's claim that it is opening up its economy, even as many other countries in the world close theirs.

Find out why: Rising pork prices a crisis for China's leadership


Over the weekend, a story about a secret message in a greeting card sparked an international row over labour. Florence Widdicombe, a six-year-old living in London, recently found a purported plea for help from foreign convicts in China inside a charity greeting card from British supermarket Tesco. Tesco then suspended a Chinese supplier of Christmas cards. China today strongly denied that it used forced labour by foreign convicts in Shanghai Qingpu prison, saying the claims were "made up". Thus far, no one has been able to independently verify the facts of the case.

Read more: "We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu Prison China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organisation."


Fire conditions eased in Australia today but Prime Minister Scott Morrison is finding himself trying to tread a difficult middle path between the country's coal industry and a disaster that was fuelled by climate change. Already facing political fallout for going on a Hawaiian holiday at the peak of the fires, he returned to try and delink climate change from the record fires, rejecting calls to make what he called "job-destroying" cuts to the coal industry. The fires had sparked calls for more climate friendly policies.

Don't miss: Cooler weather brings reprieve to fire-hit Australia


Dr Somsak Khun-ngern from the pro-military party Palang Pracharath, picked up a seat for the ruling coalition in the Khon Kaen by-election over the weekend. The win was noteworthy for several reasons. First, in a parliament where the ruling coalition holds a thin three-seat majority, any extra seat provides a valuable buffer. More importantly, the seat was a stronghold for Pheu Thai, the biggest force in the opposition, and it could signal the fading of the influence from a party that has dominated Thai politics for years.

Find out why: Pro-military party wins by-election in north-eastern Thailand, blow for opposition


For our last item today, in the last newsletter before Christmas, I'm going to a quick round-up of Christmas stories around the world. And perhaps in a reflection of the kind of year 2019 has been, this isn't a collection of purely joyful stories.

Australia: 'Burnt Christmas tree' in Sydney a perfect symbol for Australia's fire-ravaged holiday season

Indonesia: Indonesian civil society decries restrictions on Christmas celebration in West Sumatra

Thailand: Elephant Santas deliver Christmas presents at Thai school

UK: Rock 'n' sausage roll tops British Christmas charts

West Bank: Banksy's Scar Of Bethlehem nativity unveiled at West Bank hotel


INDIA PROTESTS: India's main opposition party will stage a silent protest in the capital on Monday (Dec 23) against a contentious new citizenship law, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the legislation at a rally in New Delhi and accused the opposition of pushing the country into a "fear psychosis".

NZ VOLCANO: The death toll from a volcanic eruption in New Zealand has risen to 19 after police said on Monday (Dec 23) that another person died at an Auckland hospital overnight.

HONG KONG: Hong Kong is gearing up for demonstrations over Christmas week, with protesters planning events in districts across the city, including in prime shopping malls, the latest in more than six months of unrest.

Asian Insider is taking a short Christmas break. We'll be back on boxing day. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


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