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Rosy US Economic Report Expected Friday

The U.S. economy likely maintained a brisk pace of growth in the fourth quarter, driven by an acceleration in consumer and business spending, which could set it on course to attain the Trump administration’s 3 percent annual growth target this year.

Gross domestic product probably increased at a 3.0 percent annual rate also boosted by a rebound in homebuilding investment and a pickup in government outlays, according to a Reuters poll of economists. The strong growth pace would come despite anticipated drags from trade and inventory investment.

It would follow a 3.2 percent pace of expansion in the third quarter and mark the first time since 2004 that the economy enjoyed growth of 3 percent or more for three straight quarters.

The Commerce Department will publish its advance fourth-quarter GDP estimate Friday morning.

​Global rebound

The economy’s growth spurt is part of a synchronized global rebound that includes the euro zone and Asia.

It has also benefited from President Donald Trump’s promise of hefty tax cuts, which was fulfilled in December when the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress approved the largest overhaul of the tax code in 30 years.

Despite the economy’ strong performance in the last three quarters of 2017, overall growth for the year is expected to come in around 2.3 percent, because of a weak first quarter.

That would still be an acceleration from the 1.5 percent logged in 2016. Economists expect annual GDP growth will hit the government’s 3 percent target this year, spurred in part by a weak dollar, rising oil prices and strengthening global economy.

Modest boost from tax cuts

While the corporate income tax rate has been slashed to 21 percent from 35 percent and taxes for households have also been lowered, economists see only a modest boost to GDP growth as the fiscal stimulus is coming at a time when the economy is almost at full employment.

“We are encouraged by the current breadth of economic strength and … we expect the pace of U.S. real GDP to accelerate from the expansion average, increasing 3.0 percent in 2018,” said Sam Bullard, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Fed hawks

Robust economic growth has been accompanied by record gains on the stock market and a strong labor market, with the unemployment rate falling seven-tenths of a percentage point last year to a 17-year low of 4.1 percent. Economists said this could put the Federal Reserve on a more aggressive path of interest rate increases than is being anticipated.

“I think that gives the hawks at the Fed more ammunition to say we should contemplate a more aggressive path on rates going forward,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West Economics in San Francisco.

The U.S. central bank has forecast three rate hikes this year, the same number as in 2017.

Consumer spending

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, is expected to have increased by as much as a 3.9 percent rate in the fourth quarter. That would be the quickest pace in three years and would follow a 2.2 percent rate of growth in the July-September quarter.

Consumer spending is likely to remain supported by rising household wealth, thanks to the stock market rally and higher house prices, tax cuts and firming wage growth as companies compete for workers and some states raise the minimum wage.

“Since the election the consumer has been exuding confidence, which is the willingness to spend money, and we see he has got even the ability to spend money too because personal income is creeping up,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America in Baltimore.

“So, you have the willingness and ability to spend. We think consumption is going to pick up and drive the economy.”

Business investment in equipment is expected to have picked up from the third-quarter’s 10.8 percent growth pace. Spending on equipment is likely to be underpinned this year by the corporate income tax cuts and recent increase in crude oil prices.

Investment in homebuilding is expected to have rebounded after contracting for two straight quarters. An acceleration is expected in government spending from the July-September period’s pedestrian 0.7 percent growth pace.

Trade a drag

But trade was likely a drag on GDP growth as the burst in consumer spending was probably satiated with imports, offsetting a rise in exports, which is being driven by dollar weakness.

Economists at JPMorgan estimate that trade cut one percentage point from fourth-quarter GDP growth after adding 0.36 percentage point in the third quarter.

Inventory investment also probably subtracted from GDP growth last quarter after adding 0.79 percentage point to output in the prior period.

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A Cheap Test for Potable Water

According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Many of them rely on wells and streams, making testing the water for bacterial contamination of crucial importance. However, cheap and reliable testing equipment is often not available or not affordable. Scientists in Britain and elsewhere are working on a simple, paper-based test that can confirm that water is safe in a matter of seconds. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Melinda Gates Launches Initiative to Reduce Poverty With New Technology

Melinda Gates has launched a high-level international commission to spark new thinking on how developing countries can best harness new technologies to reduce poverty. The wife of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates spoke at the launch of the commission in Nairobi on Thursday.

The 11-member commission aims to promote use of technology to fight poverty across Africa and provide opportunities for the poor.

 

Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the newly launched commission would create opportunities for everyone.

 

“Let us unleash the opportunity here of all the amazing entrepreneurs, because they are the ones. The markets then will scale these great ideas and so we want to make sure that part of this world we are thinking about everybody, not just the people in the capital cities,” she said.

 

The commission will be co-chaired by Mrs. Gates, former Indonesian finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Zimbabwean philanthropist Strive Masiywa.

 

The team with the help of researchers will deliberate new ideas like robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnology and blockchain to reduce poverty. They will also push for policy recommendations to help government navigate the ever changing technology.

 

According to the United Nations, half of the world poorest people live in Africa, and by 2030 about 400 million people in Africa will be poor.

 

The United Nations estimates 10 million people in Africa every year enter the job market. Experts note the continent needs more economic growth and employment to bring poverty down.

 

Strive Masiyiwa, who is founder of Econet Group, a telecommunications company, says Africa will have to create a better environment to benefit from the opportunities presented by technology.

 

“If we create the right incentives, we can begin to create African venture capitalists who support entrepreneurs on the ground, but they will require incentives, the entrepreneurs themselves need support we need to open our markets constantly deregulate. Deregulation must be a continuous process,” says Masiyiwa.

 

The everyday use of technology has spread in Africa, marked by an increase in mobile money marking and greater use of the internet.

 

But some experts question whether this progress has enhanced economic growth and improved people’s lives.

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At Davos Forum, Trump Threatens to Cut Aid to Palestinians

U.S. President Donald Trump has questioned whether peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians will ever resume.

He made the remarks in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he accused the Palestinians of disrespecting the United States by refusing to meet with Vice-President Mike Pence during his recent visit to the region.

Trump threatened to cut aid money to the Palestinian territories.

“That money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.  Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer,” he told reporters.

WATCH: Trump on Palestinians

Atlantic ties

Earlier, Trump rejected what he called ‘false rumors’ of differences with British Prime Minister Theresa May and promised to boost trade after Britain’s EU exit.

“I look forward to the discussions that will be taking place are going to lead to tremendous increases in trade between our two countries which is great for both in terms of jobs,” he said, adding that Britain and the United States are “joined at the hip when it comes to the military”.

There is nervousness that Trump’s “America First” diplomacy is about to shake-up the global system that underpins the Davos summit.  Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said many Europeans are hoping for a positive message.

“I hope he will send a message, of course it will be ‘America First’, but if he could add on ‘But not alone’, or ‘But America First and we need cooperation with the rest of the world’ or whatever, that could be nice, because I think everybody needs to realize, whether you are a leader from a small or medium-sized or big countries that you can’t achieve what you want on your own.  The world is faced with a lot of challenges, which can only be solved with close international cooperation,” Rasmussen said Thursday.

Wealth distribution questioned

The general mood in Davos is upbeat, with the IMF forecasting synchronized global growth across 2018.  But behind the many closed doors, there is talk of danger ahead.  The background report to the WEF summit is titled “Fractures, Fears and Failures”, a reflection of growing global tension, says Inderjeet Parmar, professor of international politics at City University London.

“Even though international wealth and the wealth of states and the levels of economic growth and the GDPs of states have grown, the inequality of the distribution is having large scale political effects.”

The fortunes of the world’s wealthiest 500 billionaires rose by a quarter last year, while the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population did not increase their income.  Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, in Davos for the summit, says it’s time for action.

“I’m here to tell big business and politicians that this is not natural, that it’s their actions and their policies that have caused it, and they can reverse it.”

Donald Trump is due to give the closing speech to the conference Friday.

“President Trump will be speaking to two audiences, the ones assembled in front of him, and his voter base at home.  And I have a strong feeling that he is going to give some strong words in order to show people back home that he has gone to the belly of the beast itself, of globalization, and told them that he stands for America and the American people,” says analyst Parmar.

Davos is braced for what could be a dramatic finale Friday.

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US Senate Majority Leader Optimistic Immigration Talks to Produce Result

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he is optimistic bipartisan negotiations on immigration, government funding and other issues will lead to results and strongly prefers an agreement before Feb. 8, when current funding for the government expires.

McConnell, a Republican, said in a Senate floor speech that a bipartisan, bicameral group was working on immigration, and he looked forward to seeing a promised White House framework on the matter next week. “I‘m optimistic,” he said, adding: “It is my strong preference that senators reach bipartisan agreement on these issues in advance of February 8.”

McConnell restated his own pledge that if a long-term agreement by Feb. 8 eludes the Senate, the chamber will proceed to legislation on immigration and border security, as long as the government stays open.

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US, Mexican Unions to File NAFTA Complaint Over Labor Bill

U.S. and Mexican unions will formally complain to the U.S. Labor Department on Thursday that Mexico continues to violate NAFTA’s weak labor standards, a move that they hope will persuade U.S. negotiators to push for stronger rules.

The AFL-CIO told Reuters that it and Mexico’s UNT were filing the complaint with the U.S. office that oversees the labor accord attached to the North American Free Trade Agreement as U.S., Canadian, and Mexican negotiators met in Montreal to try to modernize the 1994 trade pact.

The complaint, seen by Reuters, argues that Mexico’s proposed labor law amendments to implement constitutional reforms will violate the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. It seeks efforts from the United States to prevent the measures from being implemented and to demand changes to bring Mexico into compliance.

“Simply by promoting this bill, which aims to undermine the constitutional reforms, the government of Mexico brazenly violates the central obligations of the NAALC – namely to ‘provide high labor standards’ and to ‘strive to improve those standards,’” the AFL-CIO and Mexico’s UNT National Workers Union said in the complaint.

 Talks to overhaul the trade deal have been dogged by U.S. threats to withdraw from the pact, but the foreign ministers of Mexico and Canada on Thursday struck an upbeat note on future negotiations.

A key complaint is that NAFTA has failed to lift chronically low Mexican wages that have steadily drawn U.S. and Canadian factories and jobs to Mexico.

The trade pact has also allowed lower health and safety standards in Mexican factories to persist, but violations of the NAFTA labor cooperation agreement are not enforceable through trade sanctions.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has made steep demands on automotive content to reverse job migration, but its labor proposals have disappointed unions and many Democratic Party lawmakers. The proposals stuck largely to language that Mexico and Canada previously agreed to in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal the Trump administration has abandoned.

“What the USTR put on the table is not acceptable and won’t get the job done,” said Celeste Drake, the AFL-CIO’s trade and globalization policy specialist.

She said past complaints to the Labor Department regarding Mexico’s violation of the labor cooperation pact have not led to major change and this one may be no different, but it aims to influence the negotiations by drawing attention to Mexico’s weak record on worker rights as negotiators discuss labor issues in Montreal.

“It gives ammunition at the negotiating table to U.S. and Canadian negotiators to say, ‘Your violations on NAFTA are not in the past, they’re not over with.’”

A USTR spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Thus far, Canada led the call for higher labor standards in the talks, including making a proposal that the United States revise its so-called right-to-work laws in many southern states that help to limit the spread of unions in manufacturing.

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Puerto Rico Warns of 11 Percent GDP Drop in new Fiscal Plan

Puerto Rico’s governor submitted a revised fiscal plan overnight Thursday that estimates the U.S. Caribbean territory’s economy will shrink by 11 percent and its population drop by nearly 8 percent next year.

The proposal doesn’t set aside any money to pay creditors in the next five years as the island struggles to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt. The original plan had set aside $800 million a year for creditors, a fraction of the roughly $35 billion due in interest and payments over the next decade.

The five-year plan also assumes Puerto Rico will receive at least $35 billion in emergency federal funds for post-hurricane recovery and another $22 billion from private insurance companies.

Some analysts view that assumption as risky given that the U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency recently told Puerto Rico officials that they are temporarily withholding billions of dollars approved by Congress last year for post-hurricane recovery because they felt the island currently had sufficient funds.

A spokesman for Gerardo Portela, director of the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, said he was not immediately available for comment.

The plan does not call for layoffs or new taxes. Instead, Gov. Ricardo Rossello once again called for labor and tax reforms and the privatization of the island’s power company to help generate revenue and promote economic development amid an 11-year recession. He noted that nearly half of the island’s 3.3 million inhabitants lived in poverty prior to the hurricane and that Puerto Rico still faces an 11 percent unemployment rate. Nearly half a million people have fled for the U.S. mainland in the past decade in search of jobs and a more affordable cost of living.

“We must work as a government to prevent this from happening, and that’s what we’re focused on,” he said.

Rossello said an original $350 million cut to the island’s 78 municipalities will not be immediately imposed as they struggle post-hurricane. Instead, he said they will receive more money than usual in upcoming years.

Rossello also called for reducing several taxes, including an 11.5 percent sales-and-use tax to 7 percent for prepared food. More than 30 percent of power customers remain in the dark more than four months after Hurricane Maria, forcing many to spend their dwindling savings on eating out.

A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances has to approve of the plan, which it envisions doing by Feb. 23.

“The Oversight Board views implementing structural reforms and investing in critical infrastructure as key to restoring economic growth and increasing confidence of residents and businesses,” Natalie Jaresko, the board’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday. “Our focus in certifying the revised plans will be to ensure they reflect Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane realities.”

 

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A Girl, a Stranger, and a Quest for Justice in China

The young woman, new to the grind of Chinese factory life, knew the man who called himself Kalen only by the photo on his chat profile. It showed him with a pressed smile holding a paper cup in a swank skyscraper somewhere late at night.

Yu Chunyan and her friends didn’t know what to make of him. Some thought his eyes were shifty. Others said he looked handsome in a heroic sort of way.

Yu was among the doubters. The daughter of factory workers, Yu paid her way through college by working in factories herself. She and thousands of other students had toiled through the summer of 2016 assembling iPhones at a supplier for Apple Inc., but they hadn’t been paid their full wages.

Kalen was offering to help – and asking nothing in return.

This struck Yu as suspicious. If there was one thing she had learned in her 23 years it was this: “There’s no free lunch.”

Disputes like these often don’t go well for workers in China. But over the years, suicides and sweatshop scandals have pushed some companies, like Apple, to reconsider their approach to workplace fairness.

Today, a growing number of brands, including Apple, Nike Inc., Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and the H&M Group prioritize transparency and take public responsibility for conditions throughout their global supply chains. Labor rights groups like the one Kalen worked for, China Labor Watch, can play a useful watchdog role for these companies, by helping them understand what’s really going on at their suppliers.

But not everyone has embraced this new approach.

When China Labor Watch confronted Ivanka Trump’s brand with charges of labor abuses at its Chinese suppliers, her company refused to engage. It made no public effort to investigate the allegations: forced overtime, pay as low as $1 an hour, and crude verbal and physical abuse – including one incident in which a man was hit in the head with the sharp end of a high-heeled shoe.

Ivanka Trump, who still owns but no longer closely manages her namesake brand, stayed silent. Neither she nor her brand would comment for this story.

Unlike Apple, her brand doesn’t publish the identities of its manufacturers. In fact, its supply chains have only grown more opaque since the first daughter took on her White House role.

But as the summer of 2016 was ending, Yu Chunyan had no idea she was about to get an education in geopolitics and corporate social responsibility. She wanted one thing only: her wages. And she saw one way to get them: The stranger with the odd English name.

Kalen and China Labor Watch would link Yu not just to Apple, but ultimately, to the daughter of the President of the United States. Their intersecting stories highlight the contrasting approaches Apple and Ivanka Trump’s brand have taken to workplace fairness – and the impact those decisions have had on the ground in China.

It would take Yu more than a year to discover who Kalen really was.

No help came

When Yu was still a baby, her parents went to work at a factory in one of the southern boomtowns of Guangdong province. As a child, entire years passed without a visit from her mother or father.

This was an ordinary enough fate in China, and Yu grew up bouncing between her grandparents’ homes in central China’s Henan province.

The first extraordinary thing that happened to Yu was her high school entrance exam. She aced it, despite her middling grades, scoring even higher than the known overachievers in class.

The shock of her accomplishment gave Yu a soaring sense of her own potential. She raced to tell her mother.

“Oh,” was her mother’s stony response.

Yu’s test score opened the possibility, unsettling to her parents, that she would not marry young, produce grandchildren and start earning money for the family.

Her parents regarded aspiration warily: Excellence would only lead to inflated expectations. Just the sort of thing, her parents feared, that could crush a person. Better to remain where you are, bound by a certain, riskless horizon.

Yu did not agree. “As long as I want something, I will get it,” she decided.

Her parents let her stay in school, but if Yu wanted to go to college, she would have to pay her own way.

And so she did. She enrolled in a college in Henan province. Ultimately, she wanted to do something creative, like design; in the meantime factory jobs weren’t a bad way to make money.

In July 2016, Yu took her place on the assembly line at Jabil Inc.’s Green Point factory in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai. She spent her 12-hour shift snapping the back cover of the iPhone 7 into a mold and passing it down the line.

“It seems simple,” Yu said. “But if you work the whole day doing this your hands will be really tired. Normally, it’s a job for a man.”

Her group’s production quota kept going up, climbing from 2,000 to 50,000 units a day, Yu said. She got dizzy. Her hands hurt. She thought: “When will it be over?”

In August 2016, she quit, ignoring admonitions that her pay would be docked 500 yuan ($79, at today’s rates) for leaving early.

Yu made the 12-hour train trip back to school in Henan and on Sept. 10, her final paycheck hit her bank account. It was an ugly surprise. She was 1,100 yuan short of the 4,930 yuan she expected. Her salary was supposed to cover her tuition. Now it didn’t.

“I was furious,” she said. “I thought that no matter what I would get my money back.”

She called the factory and the labor broker who had gotten her the job only to be informed of a range of surprising fees, some legitimate, others not.

Yu called the labor union at Green Point for help. “Useless,” she said. She called the local labor bureau, but no one picked up.

On Chinese social media, Yu found a chorus of despair as other students – the children of farmers, factory and construction workers – vented about being stiffed on WeChat, QQ and Weibo.

“Everyone had an attitude like, ‘Well, it has nothing to do with me,'” said Zhuang Huaqian, an electrical engineering student at Hunan University of Technology, who spent the summer assembling iPhones in a moon suit of dust-free clothing.

The head of one of the labor brokers in the dispute, Ding Yan, said his company had done nothing wrong. “Wages are our bottom line. We will never underpay them,” he said. “I wouldn’t risk this brand.”

Frustrated, the students took their case to the press. A few articles appeared detailing their complaints, but Yu and another student said postings began to disappear. Were they being censored, they wondered?

The local government published an article on an official Weibo account that said authorities acted swiftly and more than 2,100 students had been repaid. The post included complaint hotlines workers could call.

Chen Jianbin, head of Wuxi’s labor security supervision unit, said his team had to sort through verbal contracts, informal intermediaries and fake complaints apparently lodged by people paid to smear competing labor agencies.

“We were trying our best to help,” said Chen. “Those students’ lives were not easy.”

But many students hadn’t gotten their money back.

Beneath their fury was growing desperation. Every lever of redress they had tried failed them. They had appealed for help to forces they thought they could believe in – society, the government – but no help came.

‘The world is full of good people’

There was, however, one guy, who did offer help. He called himself Kalen.

Kalen had worked in a phone factory himself, 13 years earlier, polishing cheap landline phones for a Chinese brand at a factory in Shenzhen. Back then, he didn’t realize he was being underpaid until he wandered into the office of a local labor rights group one day and learned that he wasn’t earning the legal minimum wage.

That knowledge electrified him. He devoured books about labor rights in the group’s reading room as he prepared his case. Two months later, he won 3,000 yuan in back pay through a local arbitration panel.

Kalen wondered how many other workers out there were like him, ignorant of their rights. He quit his factory job and dedicated himself to teaching workers how to use China’s laws to protect themselves.

Kalen brought his evidence-based approach to China Labor Watch, a group many of the students had never heard of before. He told them about the group’s past work with Apple suppliers and taught them how to calculate what they were owed. He admonished them to be honest as he gathered details about working hours and pay from over 200 workers.

“Seek truth from facts,” he wrote them on QQ.

In September, China Labor Watch asked Apple to intervene. The company sent a local team to investigate, reporting that 2,501 students had received back wages.

But many said they still hadn’t been fully paid.

When Kalen asked for a volunteer to write a letter to Apple, Yu was torn: Could she get kicked out of school for speaking out?

“It was so hard for me to make this money,” she said. “As long as there was a little bit of hope left I wanted to try.” She stayed up past midnight writing down everything that had happened.

On Sept. 28, Li emailed Yu’s letter to Apple.

Five days later, Apple wrote back: It had done further investigation and would ensure workers got paid for their day of training and extra work during meal breaks.

“Jabil invested hundreds of hours of staff time to contact approximately 17,000 employees,” Eric Austermann, Jabil’s vice-president of social and environmental responsibility wrote in an email to AP. “Although often lacking an email address, phone number, or other standard contact information, Jabil located all but about 5 percent of these employees, all of whom have been paid in full.”

The workers received over 2.7 million yuan ($426,000, at today’s rates), according to Jabil Green Point and an October 2017 email from Apple to China Labor Watch.

Apple declined to the comment on the case.

The students’ payments came in a few hundred or thousand yuan at a time. This was money for school, for food, a way to stay out of debt. By the end of October, Yu had gotten back everything she was owed.

She was impressed. She amended the letter she had written for Kalen, turning it into a testimonial and a statement of personal intent. China Labor Watch posted it on its website.

“Due to this experience, I am confident that the world is full of good people, people who make selfless contributions,” Yu wrote. “I wish to join a public interest organization. I wish to help others.”

But China was changing. Hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists had been swept up in a crackdown against perceived threats to the ruling Communist Party. Those with foreign ties, like China Labor Watch, were viewed with particular suspicion.

Yu had yet to grasp the perils of her growing idealism.

It could have been me

After Chinese New Year, Yu moved to Shanghai, a city she had only seen in pictures, to take a job at an interior design company. In March 2017, five months after she’d received her back pay from the factory, Yu reconnected with Kalen on WeChat.

Kalen told her China Labor Watch might need people to work undercover.

China Labor Watch was closing in on factories that made Ivanka Trump merchandise, including Ganzhou Huajian International Shoe City Co.

But the thought of returning to the grind of factory life was more than she could stomach.

“I needed to push myself forward,” she said. She wanted to learn English, dress better, lose weight.

China Labor Watch ultimately sent two men to work undercover. The group obtained a video of a manager berating a worker for apparently arranging shoes in the wrong order.

“If I see them f—ing messed up again,” the manager yells, “I’ll beat you right here.” Another worker was left with blood dripping from his head after a manager hit him with the sharp end of a high heeled shoe, according to three eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP.

The Huajian Group, which runs the factory in Ganzhou, denied all the allegations as “completely not true to the facts, taken out of context, exaggerated.” In April, China Labor Watch laid out its initial findings in a letter to Ivanka Trump at the White House.

She did not respond.

Over the years, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Gap Inc., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other companies took China Labor Watch seriously enough to respond to criticisms or meet Li in person, according to emails and meeting notes reviewed by AP. Walt Disney Co. severed its relationship with at least one supplier after China Labor Watch exposed poor working conditions.

“We did an investigation on Apple because Apple is a big American company,” Li said. “If Apple changes, the other companies will follow. Now Ivanka is the most famous person among all these companies. If she can change, the other companies will too.”

But that plan backfired.

At the end of May, three China Labor Watch investigators were arrested, accused of illegally using secret cameras and listening devices.

One of them was investigator Hua Haifeng. Police had warned Hua to drop the Huajian investigation, but he pushed ahead anyway, Li said.

A wiry man not easily moved to alarm, Hua seemed to accept fear as the cost of his decision to live his life as an expression of his values.

In more than a decade working on labor rights in China, Hua had helped thousands of workers get back money they were owed, all the while half-wondering when he’d be forced to stop.

Now that he had, Hua, 36, was cut off from his wife and two young children.

Inside the Ganzhou City Detention Center, Hua shared a toothbrush with strangers. Locked in a cell so crowded there weren’t enough wooden boards to sleep on, Hua stretched out at night on a concrete floor next to a bucket that served as the toilet for around 20 men. The men added water and soap, hoping the bubbles might somehow take the stench out of human waste. It didn’t work.

It was the first time in China Labor Watch’s 17-year history that its investigators had been arrested. Police raided the group’s Shenzhen office and carried away computers and documents, Li said.

From his office in New York, Li worked frantically to get the men out of jail. He was convinced the shift in fortune was due to the target of their inquiry: a brand owned by the daughter of the U.S. president. But he had no proof.

Ivanka Trump – and her brand – said nothing about the arrests.

Where is Kalen?

Days after the arrest, Yu Chunyan took a new job at a design company in Shanghai, but something lingered from her experience at the Green Point factory. “I’d prefer work that can help more people,” she said.

She got a friend request from China Labor Watch’s Li Qiang. She messaged Kalen to check Li out.

Kalen never replied. She wondered what had happened to him.

On June 5, the U.S. State Department called for the immediate release of the three China Labor Watch investigators.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that other nations “have no right to interfere with our judicial sovereignty.” State-owned media reported that the trio had tried to steal trade secrets and sell them overseas.

Li Qiang wrote to Ivanka Trump at the White House on June 6, describing what he called “extreme working conditions” in her supply chain. “Your words and deeds can make a difference in these workers’ lives,” he wrote.

He got no reply.

Her brand has called its supply chain integrity “a top priority,” but also maintains that its suppliers are overseen by licensees – companies it contracts with to make tons of Ivanka Trump handbags, shoes and clothes.

The brand said its shoes had not been produced at the Huajian factory since March, though China Labor Watch obtained an April production schedule for nearly 1,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes due in May.

In late June, after 30 days in jail, the three China Labor Watch investigators were released on bail. Hua carried his son in his arms as he walked out of a police station in Ganzhou.

Hua declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer said police ordered him not to speak with the media. His bail conditions dictated that he must check in weekly with police and cannot travel without permission. That, plus the cloud of criminal suspicion that clung to him in his small hometown, made it hard to get a job.

In July, Hua asked police for permission to take a family vacation in the Wudang mountains, three hours away. After articles came out in the foreign press quoting Hua, half a dozen plainclothes policemen appeared at a restaurant where Hua was having dinner with his family and tapped him on the shoulder. The next morning they escorted him home, leaving his wife, Deng Guilian, to wander through Taoist temples alone with the kids.

With her husband out of work, Deng got a job selling drinks and snacks at a local karaoke parlor from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. After her shift, she heads to a nearby dormitory where she and a female co-worker share a bed with a Snoopy headboard.

She gets three days off a month to see her four-year-old son, Bo Bo, and seven-year-old daughter, Chen Chen.

“They seem accustomed to not having their mom,” Deng said, flashing an uneasy smile.

Each Monday morning after dropping his kids at school, Hua makes the short drive past weedy lots and a factory spewing thick white smoke to check in with the local police in Nanzhang County.

At first they lectured him: Change careers. Don’t speak out. Live a normal life. Now, he usually just signs his name, his wife said, but it is clear that missteps can quickly draw the wrath of local authorities.

Police in Nanzhang County, Ganzhou city and Jiangxi province did not respond to requests for comment.

In October, Li Qiang again wrote to Ivanka Trump and her brand.

He said he got no response.

Ivanka Trump’s actions show “that she does not care about these workers who are making her products, and is only concerned with making profits,” Li said in an email. “As a public figure, she has the ability and resources to not only work on labor conditions at her own brand’s factories, but also to help improve labor conditions of the global supply chain as a whole. However, she did not use her influence to do these things.”

An ordinary person

Shortly after 6 p.m. on an October evening, Yu Chunyan left her office and walked through Shanghai’s former French Concession, the wealthy heart of China’s most prosperous city. She passed rows of thick plane trees, black against a darkening sky, and stepped into a discreet tea house.

Yu slid open the wooden door of a private room and peeked inside with a wide, nervous smile at the AP journalists she had agreed to meet. A chunky, colorless sweater hung off her body and her stocking feet poked out of white sandals despite the cold.

Yu slipped off her shoes and took a seat at the sunken table, doing her best to avoid the list of fancy teas glowing from a scrollable iPad menu. She began to talk about Kalen, and pulled out her phone to flip to their exchanges on WeChat.

There, in his tiny profile photo, was a familiar face.

“Do you know him?” she asked, surprised.

AP had been writing about him for months.

Kalen was Hua Haifeng.

Yu had no idea that her Kalen was the same Hua Haifeng who had been arrested while investigating Ivanka Trump suppliers. She listened, still and silent, to news of interrogations and surveillance, his son’s sudden nightmares, the jail and the bucket of urine.

Her eyes welled. Elegant cakes lay untouched in front of her.

An hour later, she sent a WeChat message to Kalen.

“Do you have to take risks to work in your industry?” she asked.

Risks depend on politics, he wrote her, and the conditions of the country you live in. “From the beginning, I expected something like this could happen,” he told her. “So it’s not about bad luck. It was going to happen sooner or later.”

“If you had another chance, would you do the same thing?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered. Hua told Yu that he had to live a life that embodied his values. He tried to be encouraging. “I am not saying that everyone has to pay that high a price.”

But Yu had a sense that Hua had run up against forces neither of them could fully grasp, much less defeat. In her mind, she was recalibrating the risks of idealism.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Yu said.

In late November, she left Shanghai to go back and live with her parents.

“I want to be an ordinary person,” she said. “I don’t want to get involved with controversial things.”

 

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NAACP Sues Homeland Security Over Haitian TPS

The civil rights group NAACP is suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over its decision to end nearly 60,000 Haitian migrants’ participation in a provisional U.S. residency program that shields them from deportation.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, as the Miami Herald first reported Wednesday. It said the group – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – contends the decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti in July 2019 is “irrational and discriminatory.”

The suit was filed on behalf of the NAACP and its Haitian members. It alleges that Homeland Security did not follow its “normal decision making process in regards to whether or not Haitians should still receive the humanitarian protection,” thus blocking Haitians from exercising their constitutional right to due process and equal protection, the Herald reported.

The department’s acting secretary, Elaine Duke, announced her termination decision in November. The department, Duke and new DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen all are named defendants.   

The NAACP suit also cited what it called President Donald Trump’s “public hostility toward immigrants of color,” the Herald reported.

DHS acting press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton told the Herald the department does not comment on pending litigation.

In discussing immigration with a small group of lawmakers earlier this month, the president reportedly questioned including Haitians in a proposed deal. “Why do we want people from Haiti here?” he reportedly asked.   

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who was in that meeting, also reported Trump as describing Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “s—hole” countries.

In a subsequent Twitter post, the president denied using the profanity, saying he used language that “was tough, but this was not the language used.”

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Trump Willing to Answer Special Counsel’s Questions

U.S. President Donald Trump says he is willing to answer any questions under oath as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“I am looking forward to it,” Trump told reporters Wednesday at the White House before leaving for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  “I would love to do it, and I would like to do it as soon as possible.  I would do it under oath, absolutely.”

Trump reiterated that there was “no collusion” with Russia to help him win the election and suggested he is being investigated for obstruction of justice as part of the Russia probe because he was “fighting back” against the probe.

“Oh, well, Did he fight back?” Trump said, “You fight back, Oh, it’s obstruction.”

Trump’s interview with Mueller’s investigators has not been scheduled, but the president suggested it could occur within the next two or three weeks. Terms of the interview have also not been set, with Trump saying it would be “subject to my lawyers.”

Months ago, Trump said he would “100 percent” agree to meet with Mueller’s investigators, but more recently questioned why any interview would be needed since there was “no collusion.”

Mueller is looking to interview Trump about his firing last year of former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, when he was heading the Russia investigation, before Mueller, over Trump’s objections, was appointed to take over the probe.

In addition, Mueller is looking at Trump’s dismissal of onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn and Comey’s claim that Trump then urged him to drop his probe of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington in the weeks before Trump assumed power a year ago.

U.S. law makes it a crime to obstruct justice or hinder an “official proceeding.”

Legal experts say that while a sitting president can’t be prosecuted for obstruction of justice or any other crime, the charge of obstruction can be used by Congress to impeach a president, if it decides to pursue such a case.

Former President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, in part for obstruction of justice, while one of three articles of impeachment brought against Richard Nixon in 1974 alleged obstruction of justice.  Clinton was acquitted in a Senate trial, while Nixon resigned as the corruption case mounted against him.

Russia probe

Mueller’s investigation into the Russian election interference has reached into Trump’s Cabinet, with the interview last week of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while he was a U.S. senator and a Trump campaign advocate, and later played a role in Comey’s firing.  Comey was interviewed weeks ago.

Trump has contended the Mueller investigation and congressional probes into the Russian election meddling are a hoax perpetrated by Democrats looking to explain his upset victory over his opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump and Republican colleagues in Congress increasingly have accused the FBI of bias in pursuing the Trump investigation and their dropping without charges of a 2016 probe into Clinton’s handling of classified material on a private email server while she was the country’s top diplomat from 2009 to 2013.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that shortly after Trump ousted Comey, the president had a get-to-know-you meeting with Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s acting director.

The Post said Trump “vented his anger” at McCabe, a longtime FBI official, for the fact that his wife had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations for her unsuccessful 2015 state Senate race in Virginia from a political action committee controlled by a close friend of Clinton, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Trump has complained in Twitter comments about McCabe and his wife’s Democratic Party fundraising.

 

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