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News Brief: China's Hong Kong Law, Coronavirus College Tests, Guantanamo Delays


How far will China go to keep its hold on Hong Kong?


The National People's Congress is meeting this week in Beijing. As always, in the one-party state, the legislature is not holding much meaningful debate. It is advancing the agenda of China's leadership, which includes proposed sedition laws. They would add to China's authority to crack down on protesters in Hong Kong. And that's seen as another move against the territory's limited autonomy. You will recall that Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed independent courts and other rights.

KING: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing for us covering this one. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What do these new sedition laws say?

FENG: They go beyond just sedition. If passed, they would criminalize any activity seen as representing foreign interference, advocating for Hong Kong autonomy, as well as behavior that might be seen as terrorism. Now, these are really general terms. They can be very broadly interpreted. And the proposed law so far would have China also set up its own national security offices in Hong Kong, which, up until now, runs its own law enforcement.

For Beijing, they see this as a much needed and overdue way to retain control over the city. And Western diplomats actually told me that Beijing sent letters to several foreign missions explaining why they were passing this. They saw it as a way to counteract infiltration and destruction of China. But in Hong Kong, they're seeing this as the most overt codification so far of Beijing's control.

KING: At the crux of this, Emily, of course, is that Hong Kong has been under Chinese rule since 1997. So if it passes, this law would signify something major. What, exactly?

FENG: If passed, this would signify, effectively, the end of one country, two systems, this idea that Hong Kong is part of China but gets to retain certain independent administrative functions and its own rule of law. That autonomy, as you mentioned, was supposed to extend until 2047. But this law is being passed well before that. It will be a watershed moment. And it will dissolve the legal barriers between the mainland and Hong Kong. Here's Dennis Kwok - he's a prominent pro-democracy lawmaker - speaking earlier today at a press conference.


DENNIS KWOK: This is the end of Hong Kong. This is the end of one country, two system. Make no mistake about it, that Beijing, the Central People's Government, has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people.

FENG: China's legislature has just said it's going to discuss a proposal for this law this coming Monday. It will vote on a resolution to write that law on Thursday. And that would then give power to a smaller group of lawmakers to actually draft and pass the real text of the law.

KING: And will it pass, do you think?

FENG: It will almost certainly pass. China's legislature passes basically everything put in front of it. Now, Hong Kong could challenge this law once passed as unconstitutional. But unfortunately, the same group of Beijing lawmakers who draft this national security law also has final power of interpretation of Hong Kong's constitution. So that's a dead end. And in proposing this law and passing it in Beijing, China is bypassing Hong Kong's own legislature, where you might have pro-democracy lawmakers who would try to block such a bill.

Beijing actually tried to pass a similar bill in 2003. There were mass demonstrations in Hong Kong. And they gave up. So this time around, Beijing has just said, we'll go it alone. We will impose this law by fiat. In the U.S., there are two senators that have already said they're going to sanction anyone who enforces this law. And it's possible the U.S. might revoke Hong Kong's special trade and economic privileges if they see that freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong are gone.

KING: And you'll be waiting to see, I imagine, whether or not protests erupt in Hong Kong over this.

FENG: They almost certainly will.

KING: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you, Noel.


KING: All right. So lots of college students are wondering what exactly college is going to look like in the fall.

INSKEEP: And that includes the most basic question, whether they'll be able to go to campus at all. The Centers for Disease Control is offering to help colleges and universities answer that question. The agency has published recommendations for reopening.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education. She's been following this story. Hi, Elissa.


KING: OK. So what does the CDC recommend to colleges?

NADWORNY: So guidelines out this week offered a number of ways colleges can help reduce the spread - closing dining halls or other communal spaces, having students wear masks, allowing faculty and staff to telework, if possible. They said the lowest risk is going to be those online classes. The highest risk are regular, in-person classes, campus events, shared dorms. The challenge is that everybody wants to be in person if possible.

KING: Well, it's college.


KING: So all of what you just said makes complete sense - masks, teleworking. We have also, though, seen schools announce schedule changes for the fall, including some schedule changes that seem kind of strange. Can you explain what those are and what is the thinking behind them?

NADWORNY: That's right. The University of Notre Dame and some other schools have announced they'll be starting the fall semester earlier and ending by Thanksgiving. It's essentially trying to sneak in a semester before a potential second wave in the late fall. They also plan to eliminate the fall break. That's when lots of students travel. And so they're trying to cut down on that. That was a CDC recommendation.

We've seen colleges announce, basically, every option - online, in person, a mixed bag. What we haven't seen is a plan for an outbreak. And we do know that that's possible. This is an environment that's ripe for that. We've got faculty members and staff who are in an at-risk age group. And then, of course, colleges are really worried about liability. What happens if an outbreak happens on campus?

KING: It sounds like you're saying there will be enormous hurdles before students can get back to campus in the fall. What has to happen?

NADWORNY: That's right. Well, there's got to be contact tracing, social distancing. And of course, a big part is going to be testing on campus if they're going to be there in the fall. That means that colleges have got to start thinking about tests. Where do they get them? How do they do it? What does it look like?

KING: Could colleges conduct the test themselves? I'm thinking, could I go to the nurse on campus and just get it done?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So some schools are going to offer it in-house. The University of California, San Diego, actually started a pilot program on campus where they're testing current students. The idea is they do this mass testing project. And it's going to help them figure out if they can scale it in the fall. Dr. Robert Schooley is a virologist at UC San Diego. He's running the program. He says, so far, they have not found a positive case. That's great. But that's not the point.

ROBERT SCHOOLEY: We're not trying to test to see if we can detect an outbreak right now. We're trying to make sure that we can scale to be able to do that in the fall.

NADWORNY: The university says it'll cost about $2 million a month to carry out this program. This is coming at a time when colleges and universities are strapped for money. So it'll be a really hard financial decision. For smaller schools, it's going to be even more challenging. They'll need to work with local and state health officials to figure out what opportunities they have for testing in the fall.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education. Elissa, thanks for this reporting.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Noel.


KING: Most legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have stopped.

INSKEEP: Yeah. With at least two cases of COVID-19 diagnosed there, all hearings are canceled until July. Court-related travel to the island - of course, Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba - has essentially stopped. In 18 years of operation - more than 18 years - the military court and prison have cost more than $6 billion and secured only a single finalized conviction. So is this an opportunity for change?

KING: Sacha Pfeiffer with our investigations team has been reporting on this. She's been asking that question to various people. Sacha, good morning.


KING: Remind us first - who is still being held at Guantanamo Bay?

PFEIFFER: There are now 40 prisoners there. That's down from almost 800 over the years. These are people rounded up after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. And the ones remaining include alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

KING: OK. And these 40 inmates, their cases were supposed to be tried when?

PFEIFFER: The 9/11 trial was scheduled to begin next January. Now, that always seemed too optimistic given how slow the legal process is there. But now it seems impossible. I spoke with Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who follows Guantanamo closely. And he thinks that is just not going to happen.

BOBBY CHESNEY: We certainly know this, that as long as COVID-19 is raging and these detainees are located in Guantanamo, there are going to be basic practical difficulties getting a single thing done.

PFEIFFER: And, Noel, it's not just the pandemic that's brought things to a virtual standstill. Guantanamo has always been dysfunctional. But lately, it's been dysfunction on steroids. The 9/11 judge basically quit last month after less than a year on the job. The head of the military court was replaced last month also after less than a year on the job. And two of the lead attorneys for the 9/11 defendants stepped aside recently.

KING: Yeah. That does sound messy. And that messiness is giving critics an opening here, right?

PFEIFFER: Yeah. They think this is an opportunity to do something radically different. Georgetown Law School professor Abbe Smith went to Guantanamo in January to watch some hearings. And she later wrote a piece for the National Law Journal titled "It's Time To Rethink Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions." She says, we either need to try these men or release them.

ABBE SMITH: It's unbelievable what we're paying to maintain this system that hasn't accomplished anything, I mean, especially post-COVID. Imagine what we could do with that money.

PFEIFFER: That's U.S. taxpayer money, by the way. And as you said earlier, more than $6 billion spent there since 2002.

KING: I know that you've also been talking to family members of people who died on 9/11 about what they think. What are they telling you?

PFEIFFER: One of the people I called was Colleen Kelly. Her brother died in the World Trade Center attacks. And she's made more than a dozen trips to Guantanamo to watch court hearings.

COLLEEN KELLY: My basic thought is that this is kind of the perfect time to change everything about Guantanamo.

PFEIFFER: Colleen thinks the Guantanamo cases should, instead, be tried in U.S. federal court, which has lots of experience with terrorism cases, or that the prisoners could plead guilty in exchange for life sentences.

KING: I like that she's a civilian with a solution.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

KING: How realistic is her solution?

PFEIFFER: Well, the U.S. Defense Department says it plans to stay the course. It told me the military is trained to do rotations, so we'll continue to rotate personnel in and out of Guantanamo. And it said the Guantanamo cases have no fixed timeline. So it gave no indication that any changes are coming.

KING: And at this point, Steve said, there are at least two cases in Guantanamo Bay. Do we know anything else about the health of either the inmates or the people guarding them?

PFEIFFER: Reporters have not been able to visit the prison in a long time. But they are certainly aging. Having been tortured, some of them have some health issues. But we haven't seen them in person, except in the courtroom, for a while.

KING: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team with the latest on Guantanamo Bay. Sacha, thanks so much.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.