Asian Insider, June 2: US mulls welcoming Hongkongers, SIA set to fly to 27 cities but CEO bails on bond subscription, and new Covid-19 clusters in northeast Asia

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

Hi all,

In today’s bulletin: US mulls welcoming Hongkongers as Tiananmen vigil banned, SIA will soon fly to 27 cities but CEO bails on bond subscription, new Covid-19 clusters emerge in HK and South Korea while China sees new death, Indonesia scraps the haj, and more.

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HONG KONG BANS TIANANMEN VIGIL; US MAY WELCOME HKERS

Hong Kong has for the first time in three decades banned an upcoming vigil to mark the Tiananmen crackdown, citing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. The June 4 event draws huge crowds each year and is the only place on Chinese soil where such a big commemoration of the anniversary is allowed. Organisers say the virus is an excuse to bar the pro-democracy supporters from congregating. They urged people to instead light a candle at 8pm on Thursday and observe a minute of silence wherever they are. 

The vigil ban comes as finance workers seek to organise a 100,000-strong strike to protest against China’s national security legislation for Hong Kong that has sparked concerns over the city’s basic freedoms and continued autonomy. The Hong Kong Financial Industry Employees General Union hopes to garner the support of one-third of the sector’s workforce by June 12; no date was given for the planned action. 

The United States is considering welcoming Hongkongers, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the country’s latest response to China’s security law. He gave no details, however. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam called out America’s “double standards”, pointing to ongoing protests against police brutality in the Western nation, while China’s ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming rebutted accusations that Beijing is suppressing Hong Kong activists. 

The implications of the US-China standoff are rippling across the globe. The heightened tensions have hijacked what was meant to be a landmark year for Sino-Japanese relations. Where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would have welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to his country this year - the first of its kind in a decade - Mr Abe now finds himself sandwiched in a dispute between Japan’s biggest trading partner and its sole military ally even as he struggles to save an economy set for its deepest contraction in at least 65 years. 

Read more: Hong Kong sees rush to renew British passports as fears for future grow 

Delve deeper with global affairs correspondent Benjamin Kang Lim: Xi Jinping has 'three great mountains' to conquer

NEW COVID-19 CLUSTERS IN HK, S.KOREA; CHINA’S LATEST DEATH

Northeast Asia has seen a small spike in new coronavirus cases in recent days. Hong Kong’s 16-day streak of zero local coronavirus cases has come to an unceremonious end, with a new outbreak in a residential estate that has so far seen nine people infected. The cluster is linked to a 34-year-old woman. Her husband, two colleagues, four neighbours, and a paramedic who performed some procedures on her, have also tested positive. The government on Tuesday (June 2) extended social distancing measures until June 18. 

In South Korea, church-linked cluster cases are rising steadily in the Seoul metropolitan area, with the country reporting 38 new infections on Tuesday. Many of the cases are linked to small churches, after worshippers gathered without adhering to hygiene measures. The authorities, still reeling from clusters tied to nightclubs and a logistics centre in the greater Seoul area, remain skittish about a potential new wave of mass infections. 

China registered its first Covid-19 fatality in weeks, after state media reported on Tuesday that a Wuhan doctor who worked with late coronavirus whistle-blower Dr Li Wenliang had died. Dr Hu Weifeng, a urologist who passed away last Friday, is Wuhan Central Hospital’s sixth doctor to die of the disease. China recorded five new coronavirus infections and 10 new asymptomatic cases on Monday. Wuhan, after testing most of its 11 million residents, found no new cases but 300 asymptomatic carriers, city officials said. 

If you’re wondering: Can you catch Covid-19 from delivered packages?

MALAYSIA AND THAILAND EASE FURTHER, BUT INDONESIA SCRAPS HAJ

Countries across Asia have been easing their lockdowns as their coronavirus outbreaks come under control. In Malaysia, interstate travel for the purpose of getting married as well as outdoor pre-wedding photo shoots are now permitted. Childcare centres can also start to operate, in a step to help parents otherwise tied down by their children, get back to work. 

Thailand has announced plans to create “travel bubbles” through bilateral agreements to keep the virus at bay when it reopens its borders. Its borders are currently restricted under a state of emergency that lasts until June 30. Many of the Buddhist country’s temples are seeing visitors again, and people have also started returning to its famed sandy beaches, including in Pattaya and Hua Hin. Phuket remains off limits, though. 

In the Pacific, New Zealand may remove most of its remaining coronavirus restrictions on people and businesses as soon as next week, as its cabinet brings forwards its decision on the rules to June 8. The country is on the verge of eliminating the virus, with just one active case remaining and no new infections for the past 10 days. 

But Indonesia cancelled this year’s haj pilgrimage over fears its coronavirus outbreak might worsen. The decision is a disappointment for many in the Muslim-majority nation, as the religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia - where Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are located - is a once-in-a-lifetime event with an average waiting time of 20 years due to a quota system. 

SIA SET TO FLY TO 27 CITIES; DIRECTORS BAIL ON MCB SUBSCRIPTION

Singapore Airlines will resume flights to several destinations in June and July, flying to 27 cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Christchurch, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Osaka. The national carrier will also add more flights for some of its other services. The flights are subject to regulatory approvals and changes, it said. 

Customers whose flights were cancelled by SIA or SilkAir would have the unused portion of their tickets converted to flight credits, which can be used to book flights until the end of 2021. The airline’s travel waiver policy has been extended to July 31 for tickets bought before March 16. Rebooking and no-show fees have also been waived. 

Meanwhile, most SIA directors chose not to subscribe for the mandatory convertible bonds (MCBs) the company is offering to investors as part of a multibillion-dollar cash call to help tide it through the coronavirus crisis that has decimated air travel demand. Among them, SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong let his provisional allotments of 3.34 million rights MCBs lapse last week, according to a Singapore Exchange filing. 

Earlier: SIA to strengthen balance sheet for the future through rights issue, CEO says 

Commentary: Shedding light on Singapore Airlines' rights issue

RARE, POWERFUL CYCLONE POISED TO PUMMEL INDIA’S FINANCIAL HUB

India’s financial capital Mumbai is set to be hit by a rare cyclone on Wednesday that may cause widespread disruption to businesses and upend efforts to fight the coronavirus at the epicentre of the country’s outbreak. Cyclone Nisarga, India’s second cyclonic storm in a fortnight will bring heavy rains and strong winds of up to 120kmph, powerful enough to fall electricity poles and lay waste to plantations. 

The storm will batter a part of India at a time when millions in the country have been pushed into poverty after losing their livelihoods due to the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, and thousands of Indians have lost their lives from the deadly disease. Asia’s third-biggest economy is headed for its first full-year drop in gross domestic product in over four decades. 

In other news in India: Approval granted for emergency use of remdesivir to treat Covid-19

IN OTHER NEWS

JAPANESE CITY SEEKS TO BAN PHONE USE WHILE WALKING: Officials in Yamato city, near Tokyo, have submitted a Bill to the city assembly to stop people from using their phones while walking, in the first potential such ban in Japan. In 2014, a computer simulation showed that if 1,500 people used Tokyo’s hectic Shibuya pedestrian crossing while all looking at their smartphones, two-thirds would not make it to the other side without incident. 

S.KOREA TO RESUME WTO COMPLAINTS AGAINST JAPAN: South Korea on Tuesday said it would resume dispute settlement proceedings over Japan’s export controls, after talks to resolve the issues rooted in wartime history fell through. Seoul had in September last year complained to the World Trade Organisation over Tokyo’s imposition of curbs on exports to South Korea of three materials used to make semiconductors and displays, threatening a pillar of the South Korean economy and the global supply chain of tech components. 

COSTLY DIVORCE MINTS ASIA’S NEWEST WOMAN BILLIONAIRE: Ms Yuan Liping, the former wife of Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products chairman Du Weimin, is now a billionaire after one of Asia’s most-expensive break-ups. As part of the couple’s divorce, Mr Du transferred US$3.2 billion (S$4.5 billion) worth of the vaccine manufacturer’s shares to Ms Yuan late last month, instantly catapulting her into the ranks of the world’s richest people.

That’s it for now. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed today’s newsletter, and we’ll be back with more insightful stories tomorrow. 

Magdalene